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Words of Life and Death
a sermon based on James 3:1-12
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

An ancient philosopher once tried to describe the difference between human beings and animals. His conclusion was that human beings were "two-legged animals without feathers." Another said that human beings are "chickens plucked bare" and yet another that a human being is "an animal that cooks its food." Moderns now distinguish between humans and other living beings by language. Human beings stand among in commanding the power of words to communicate ideas, express personality, and to enter into dialogue. That means, that we're the only ones on God's globe that suffer from hoof and mouth disease.

Recently, you may have read about the devastating power that words can have on a political campaign. Following a debate, two candidates got into name-calling; in a moment of anger and goaded by his opponent, one of the candidates lashed out at his rival. He said, "If I had a gun on me, I'd shoot you." He certainly didn't mean it; and he had hoped that those those ten words would fall to the ground unnoticed. But pundits scooped it up; and by mid-week the remark had flared up into a brouhaha on the editorial page. And so, the Democratic candidate for state representative in the county announced that he was dropping out of the race. Commenting on this event, his opponent said, "It's his inability to control himself...that ultimately caused him to drop from the race." The inability to control his words.

We're all experienced in hoof in mouth disease, aren’t we? I remember when I once congratulated a lady on becoming a mother and asked when her due date was only to hear a terse "I'm not pregnant" in reply. On another occasion I and my brother were the guests of a Polish family and they served us a special dish of honor: At the first level the cuisine was raw-red meat; the second level was raw fish, and the third level was a raw egg. Well, when overseas I am so intent to show gratitude our hosts that I sometimes overdo it. I relished the dish I told them. I had never tasted such fine food in my life. What recipe did they use, I queried. Unfortunately, I had exaggerated my love of this raw food dish. And when back in the states and visiting my parents, my brother remembered my words and was determined that I would eat them; so he concocted a raw meat, raw fish, and raw egg dish for me. I nearly gagged and instead ate crow, so to speak.

We've all been there; we've all said the wrong things at the wrong times. Or in the words of James, we've all made plenty of mistakes, but whoever makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the entire person in check. But our passage is not so concerned with social blunders, but much more with the damaging effect of speech.

Lewis Farrakan, musical rock groups like Eminen, and Suicidal Tendencies, and that guy who claims that he's "talent on loan from God" demonstrate each day the truth of our epistle lesson; words can be used to incite anger and stir up strife. Hate-filled words can destroy reputations, demean other human beings, batter men and women; abuse children; turn human beings into play objects; undermine authority, encourage drug abuse, and most recently can lead to the killing of cops--as one rap rock lyric suggests. So concerned were citizens in Florida about the destructive power of words that they were willing to pass legislation that banned such lyrics--that led to a review of the freedom of speech amendment.

So destructive are words uttered when out of control that New Jersey has now revised their laws concerning domestic violence to include not only physical abuse, but verbal abuse. We are aware of that many women have been seriously damaged by words; but they're not alone; I discovered this week that a hotline has also been established for men who are abused. Most male callers are not physically abused, of course, but humiliated and demeaned in a relationship--much like many females are in their relationships.

The proper use of speech is one of the major concerns of the Bible. In Psalm 39 we see the psalmist going through a bit of what our politician went through. "I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue;" he says, "I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence. So I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoken with my tongue."

Can't you just see this guy, determined not to blow it by blowing off steam. He imagines that he will keep his mouth muzzled--especially when the guys that egg him on are hanging around. So he gives them the silent treatment; doesn't say a thing. But he begins to feel heartburn on the inside--starts smoldering from inside his guts. Feels like a fire and finally it erupts--he pours out his complaint before God. At least he tried.

James splashes a series of vignettes on the screen to make a point. The first visual is a horse controlled by a bite; the entire animal is steered from a little piece of metal held by leather straps inside the horse's mouth. "There, you see," he seems to say. "Control of such a small thing as what you say can bring your entire being into line." But not to let us miss the point; he moves the second common appearance on the land and seascape of Palestine-ships. Ancient ships could hold as many as 1,000 people plus cargo. What amazed this writer was the power of a small unseen rudder that actually controlled the course of the entire ship. "See, our speech organ is so tiny in comparison to the entire human body, yet its effects are way out of proportion its size. For the third vignette, James brings us to the lumber yard; a small match that lit a cigarette has sent thousands of board feet up in smoke. Took only a small spark to do it. "Watch what you say" he muses. "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires."

Finally, James takes us into church where the service is in progress. We're singing along with the guitars and organ . . . as the deer panteth for the water . . . Nice, soft melody. Catchy words. Church finishes and we head for the car. We're still singing that chorus-so my soul longeth after thee-when a driver darts in front of us without so much as flagging us or requesting entry. . . . you alone are the joy of living . . . "Hey, you jerk, what’s the big idea; I was before you." The driver eventually pulls out onto main street and so do we. Now where were we? Oh yeah. . . . and I long to worship you. James has seen this scenario and so have we. To which he adds, "My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so." If we find ourselves able to flip flop between praise and curse we need of 'fess up to the truth before us this morning.

This passage is especially for ministers, professors and aspiring students. James begins by saying "not many of you Christians should seek to become teachers." I ran across a musty old book that dates back to the year 1494 called The Ship of Fools. The book is a poetic compendium of behaviors that are incongruous with Christian calling. Let me recite what the author says concerning teachers of the gospel:


A teacher’s bound to fare the worse

If all his fellows rate his curse;

If his own ways should be pernicious,

The people soon become suspicious.

But in a point let him be versed:

‘Best heal thyself, physician, first!

So many like to give advice

When they themselves aren’t overnice. [1]


James is especially concerned with those of us who teach. Wants us to evaluate, to carefully review our calling; the ministry can be the most fulfilling vocation to be in; but if we can't control our words, if they slip out in anger, if they misrepresent God to the congregation-well, then the ministry can be a nightmare. That's what made Martin Luther tremble when he served his first eucharist as a tonsured Augustinian monk; he trembled at the thought of representing God to the people. Our text challenges usto be honest about this thing we glibly label, "the call." Has God truly called you? Do you know what you're getting into? Are you in control of your tongue?

But this passage is also addressed to Christians regula. That's the rest of us! As an individual how do you use language? What kind of heart do our words come from? Deep inside do we allow our personality to be shaped by the Spirit so that what comes out of our mouths can heal and comfort? What kind of words do we use with our children? With our spouses? With our families? Do our words too often abuse someone else? Belittle them? Mock them?

If you've scoured the passage like me for the Good News of the Gospel in James 3, you've probably come up empty-handed. The problem is stated, but not much is given on solutions. Yet, the whole of scripture and experience tells us what can happen when we share faith-shaped, hope-shaped words. Our words can be fresh springs, not bitter when we go to the sources of our speech.

There are three things that you can do to begin speaking healing words. First, fill your soul with great thoughts. Along with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Time Magazine which keep us up-to-date on events, also include in your reading inspirational material that has kept Christians inspired and challenged over the centuries. Personally, I like biographies and stories. So, I use a variety of reading material on which to feed my mind. Some books that are favorites of mine are Pilgrim's Progress, journals of Wesley, poems by John Donne or Robert Frost, or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One of my all-time favorites is called The Growing Tree by Shell Silverstein; it's written in children's format but appreciated by adults. Second, imbibe deeply from the Bible, God's Word; read the stories and jump into the drama, see God entering our history and lives. Watch for exemplary responses to tough situations.

Read the Scriptures as if you've never heard the stories before, as if you don't know where the storyteller is taking you; read the psalms; they are prayers uttered by people like us--sometimes calm and reflective, other times cries of abandonment as the one praying goes under for the third time.

Each morning at our house just before we fly in four directions, we block out enough time to read a chapter from Proverbs-it reminds us of how we can behave and how we can speak when we ask God to help us. Our short time together starts us out in the right direction-we hear again and again how we can shape words that heal; what happens when we refuse instruction, how wise people will love instruction.

Third, begin each day by silently giving yourself--your thoughts and words back to God. Surrendering ourselves to God daily will enable us to draw upon God's inner strength for the challenges that lie ahead in the day.

And finally, don't give up. Being in control of your life is measured by how much you are in control of your words. Measured words, the ancients tell us, is a spiritual discipline; a process. Let us begin today by deciding to read great things, reading God's word, and practicing surrender of our lives daily to God. Amen.


[1] Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenshiff “The Ship of Fools,” (London: London Folio Society, rpt. 1971), p. 57.