“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s the classic little phrase that kids say to each other when someone tries to hurt someone else with words. Of course, we can argue about how true it is. Some argue that the phrase is true, because words can’t physically hurt us (which is the claim it’s making). Others claim that it isn’t true – of course words hurt, and they can hurt a lot more than sticks and stones, because bruises to the body heal, but our mental and emotional wounds can hurt a long time – some even forever.
Words have power. They have a power to help someone out of a tough time, they have the power to hurt someone. They can be just as powerful in the absence as their presence, and they can be the thing that pushes us one way or another on an important decision. Words make people cry, they make people laugh, and they are how we connect with other people. It’s hard to think of anything more influential in the world.
That’s why James talks so much about the tongue. Of course there are other ways to communicate with words – we can write or use sign language, for example. But speech is still probably the most common way we communicate with one another. The tongue, then, could be said to be the most powerful muscle in the human body, because it has the strongest ability to move people.
So James advocates good use of our tongues. Of course, he is using the word “tongue” as a metaphor for “words.” We must realize that words in other contexts are powerful, too, like in writing; so I’m not just talking about speech. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in the last few years about students getting bullied online and committing suicide. That’s obviously not a tongue per se, but it is using the power of words to destroy someone.
As we have somehow entered a presidential election season (even though that’s still 14 months away), we will hear
people try to destroy one another with their tongues – people who will outright lie to us, and we’ll sort of hope that they’re not lying, even though we know they probably are.
I think many times, we forget how powerful our tongues are. But I’m guessing every person here has a story sometime in their life about words that have healed you or helped you or hurt you.
So why does James get after the tongue so much? I mean, it’s obvious that it’s important, but why make it the focus of this passage? Why spend so much time on it?
Perhaps you’ll recall from the last few weeks the theme from the book of James. James, brother of Jesus, wrote this letter about what it means to be a Christian. And in his estimation, it’s all about living out our faith. Not just having faith, but showing what we believe with our lives.
Two weeks ago, at the end of my sermon, I asked us to examine our lives – to see what kind of a message we’re sending. I said how important it is that we first figure out what our lives are saying to people about what we believe. Last week, I talked about how we can begin to focus that idea down into concrete actions. Specifically, I asked us to look at how we treat others. That passage was very much about playing favorites. So I asked us to look at our lives, and to see if we treat everyone fairly and equally.
This week, the challenge gets even more specific. It’s not just how we act around others – it’s about what we say. For some of us, watching our tongues is hard. Some of us have a tendency to just say what we’re thinking, without first figuring out if it’s something worth saying. Some of us rarely say anything, because we’re afraid of the power that our words might have. Neither response – thoughtless talk or fearful silence – is what James is aiming us at.
What James most wants is helpful words. He spends the first half of the passage just talking about the sheer power of the tongue. How it’s like a small flame that can grow and burn down a forest, or how even a large ship is directed by a small rudder. He talks about how human beings have figured out how to tame all sorts of animals, but we’ve never been able to tame our own tongues, which he calls “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” It’s not the most flattering imagery he could use for the tongue.
But then, he gets to the center of what our tongues do, and how it relates to this whole idea of living out our faith. “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 to be so” (9-10).
James is saying that the same tongue we use to say our prayers in here on Sunday, the same tongue that helps us form the words to hymns and words of devotion, is the same tongue we use to speak ill of other people. We use that same tongue to say negative things about other people, “who are made in the likeness of God.” In other words, we say how great God is sometimes, and then insult God’s creations (who are in God’s image) with the same instrument.
“This ought not be so,” says James. We’re not supposed to live a divided life; we’re supposed to let our faith and love of Christ be with us all the time. When we invite God to inhabit our lives, we are taking on the responsibility of living in a godly way all the time. That includes not just what we believe with our minds, but what we do in our actions, as well as what we say to one another.
The point of the Christian life is not to be a “normal” person outside of church who becomes a pious person once we set foot inside. Instead, the lessons and beliefs we carry in here are supposed to carry us through all that we say and do, no matter where we are. Our relationship with Jesus is supposed to be present with us always.
We must remember that our tongues – our words – have power. It is our Christian duty to use that power for good, rather than for ill. We don’t have the choice to just stop using our words altogether, or to be neutral. The fact is that we will use this power that has been given to us. James wants us to use it in ways that help build up others, and most importantly, in ways that are glorifying to God.
In a few minutes, we’ll be receiving the Sacrament of Communion. As we receive this Sacrament today, let us consider how we metaphorically, through the Sacrament, take Christ into our bodies, and carry him out into the world. And let us also remember that the same tongue with which we taste of the body and blood of Christ, we should also honor him in all our speech, to God and to neighbor, always and everywhere. Amen.