"Brothers and Sisters: This Ought Not be So"

Date Sunday September 16, 2018
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "All this Talk about Bread is Making Me Hungry - #4"

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38


     Each Monday the NEOS Bishop, Abraham Allende, sends an e-mail “Monday Musings” to churches. He usually reflects on the scripture passages for the coming Sunday, as well as noting events on his calendar that week. This past Monday Bishop Allende reflected on the reading from James, and noted that years ago, when he began his professional career as a Spanish and French teacher in the Akron Public Schools, he would write a poem on the chalkboard each Monday for the students to reflect on during the week. Some of those poems have stayed with him, and he shared this one in conjunction with the reading from James 3.

              Words, like eggs, are tender things;

             they should be handled with care.

             Because words, once spoken,

              like eggs, once broken,

              are difficult to repair.

     After I read that, I decided that it certainly was the 1960’s when Bishop Allende was teaching for two reasons. First, no 21st century youth would take such a poem seriously. And, second, does anyone even try to repair the damage their words do in 2018?

     It seems that in this day and age there is a lack of awareness that words matter, that, as Bishop Allende wrote, they have the power to build as well as destroy. Words can corrupt both the subject and object of speech.

     Today’s reading from James 3 is, as commentator Sandra Hack Polaski notes, nearly a tirade on how the human tongue is dangerous and does more harm than good. She writes that our only hope is to some extent keep it under control. (1)

     You may have noted that the writer of James signals out teachers as being judged with greater strictness when it comes to what comes out of their mouths, but that reference is to anyone in authority (pastors, parents and grandparents, CEO’s, managers, mayors, governors and presidents); for that person careful guarding of the tongue is required. The more authority what is said has, the greater is the damage it does.

     In today’s reading three metaphors are used to make the point; each one focuses on the tongue, which is a metaphor for human speech. The first describes guiding a horse with a bridle, which is done with a bit in the horse’s mouth which presses against the animal’s tongue. The point being that the one who is able to control the horse’s tongue controls its whole, huge body and keeps it from being out of control and going its own way.

     The second metaphor is of the rudder, a device used to steer a ship; the captain who is able to keep control of the rudder is like the person able to keep control of one’s tongue; he or she can weather difficult circumstances and remain on course.

     Finally, the third metaphor compares the tongue to an igniting spark, something small with large effect. The spark can create a flame that is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and destructive.

     Uncontrolled speech is destructive. This is not new news to us; we all have experienced the negative impact of angry, sarcastic and hurtful words, or what we have said has caused harm. The difference I’ve noted recently, that I alluded to earlier, is that negative speech seems to be more and more “the norm”, and the need to refrain from it or repair it occurs less and less.

     And, yet, for followers of Jesus, doing so is expected, even required. Listen again to verses 9 and 10, referring to the tongue, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”

     As Commentator Polaski noted, if we are able to bless God with our tongues, it should follow that we are not the kind of people whose tongues lead them astray. James calls on us to examine the words that come out of our mouths, and to control an unruly tongue, with constant attention to who God has made us to be. (2) To do so is a sign of Christian maturity.

     And, it’s important to remember that what we do and say day in and day out is the primary means by which we witness to Jesus. At this point I want to quote Daniel B. Clendenin’s 2012 blog on this text:

     “What we say can reveal more about us than about the recipient of our speech. The scary part about toxic talk is that it reveals the character of our inner identity…. With our words we name the world and each other, and in some sense our naming creates a genuine reality. Once our speech and narratives take hold, they have a tremendous power for good or evil. They can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down.” (3)

     This week Pastor Sandy Selby was telling me about the project she participated in for the “Day of Service” after the one that was to take place outdoors was rained out. The group she was a part of heard about an elementary school in North Hill where a large percentage of the students are immigrants, many of whom are in the process of learning English. So, they created cards with encouraging messages for every student of a particular grade-level.

     Well, you might say, that’s not particularly exciting. Perhaps not to us, but if you were one of those students who struggled every day to be accepted and learn, having something to hold in your hand with a positive message for you might be a very big deal. Words have the power to build, and to destroy.

     I witnessed this personally, unfortunately, at the grocery store. It was a Friday evening and the cashier at the register I chose was a young man, I’d say in his late teens, a person who fit the stereotype of a gay man. There was absolutely nothing obnoxious or offensive about his behavior; in other words, he was just doing his job.

     I could tell that the middle-aged couple ahead of me were agitated, for whatever reason, and when they finished their transaction and the cashier wished them a good evening, one of them made a comment that I did not hear, but I heard the tone, and it was sneering in nature.

   The young man seemed shocked, and then upset, so I quietly asked him if he was OK, could I help. He began to cry, which I’m sure mortified him. I invited him to take a break, to just duck into the restroom which was nearby, and I’d wait, to take his time. Evidently, he didn’t want to break the rules, so he put on his light and asked for someone to take over for him momentarily, which I affirmed to his supervisor was a good idea.

     He came back as I finished paying, attempting to shrug off what had occurred. “That’s what happens when you work retail,” he said. But, my friends, it’s not and it if is, is shouldn’t be. Who knows what damage was done with those few words?

         Words have the ability to destroy or build up, whether they are spoken, e-mailed or tweeted; we live in a world where the pain and destruction caused is often ignored, or, worse, promoted. Brothers and sisters, this ought not be so. AMEN


(1)   “Commentary on James 3:1-12” by Sandra Hack Polaski, www.workingpreacher.org

(2)   Same as #2

(3)   “Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak”: Toxic Talk and the Virtue of Silence by Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, September 16, 2012, www.journeywithjesus.org