I want to thank all the folks who have dropped a note or said a kind word about the sermon I preached last weekend. Some of you asked for a copy of the sermon, but I don’t write a manuscript. I share here a synopsis of the sermon.
My mother used to tell me, “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” Your mom probably said the same thing. Our mothers lied to us. Words inflict some of the most lasting wounds. Sometimes they never heal. I think they knew it was a lie, but what is a mother to do and say when a child is hurt by the bullying and mean spirit of others?
Our world minimizes the power of words. If someone is upset by our words we can easily say, “I didn’t mean it that way.” In truth however, we did – or we would have spoken more carefully. We think words are “just words” never understanding that words reflect our true selves. They are formed in the core of our thought and imagination. The words we say have the power to guide and direct our identity. Say harsh and judgmental things all the time, and you will become more and more harsh and judgmental.
That is what the third chapter of James is telling us when he writes:
3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. (James 3:3-5)
A bit, a rudder, a tongue – all small things. Yet, they direct and guide much bigger things. We live in a world where lots of words are spoken, shared in social media, uttered by everyone, it seems, because we all have something to say. It is often speech that is filled with hate, vitriol, threats, misinformation, lies. I have too often seen folks who claim to follow Jesus spewing such vile language I shudder – and it takes a lot to make me shudder. James is saying that tongues that spew such garbage are leading the owner of the tongue deeper into the evil they speak.
James warns that “a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (v 5-6) Note how the misinformation, lies, conspiracy theories of our age run like wildfire drawing people into doubt, fear, and spreading confusion. Think of how gossip based in nothing but innuendo and suspicion can ruin lives.
Perhaps James’ most challenging critique is of the way we can be so contradictory. 9With 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 to be so. (vv. 9-10) Every church says “all are welcome” but will also condemn anyone who does not conform to our standards regarding race, sexuality, class, proper dress, tattoos, or loud children.
Living in this noisy, chatter-filled world where everyone has something to say but no desire to listen, James speaks a word of truth and calls us as followers of Jesus to do better; to be different. Changing our lives and the life of the world starts with the words we speak because they will shape us from the inside out, and then we can shape the community around us toward a more civil and loving standard.
We need to:
Sticks can break a leg, or they can be used as a splint to bind that leg. Stones can be thrown to injure or gathered to build. Words can hurt forever, or they can speak love.
Timothy Olson – Lead Pastor