By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 3: 1-12
Many of us, I imagine, grew up hearing the expression “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve observed through my years in ministry that words can easily carry as much – or even more – power than a fist. Words can inflict pain that results in long-term suffering; especially when those words come from individuals who have some authority over us: like parents or teachers or coaches or pastors. I’m confident all of us can remember occasions when people’s words blessed us and encouraged us AND that we can also remember occasions when people’s words wounded and discouraged us. They’re the words that come up when we’re sitting in the therapist’s office.
One of my favorite John Wesley quotes is this one: “Of the dead and absent, nothing but good.” I interpret that as meaning that the only reason for criticism of others is to help them learn or grow. So, if you’re not willing to invest in direct and difficult conversation, then it’s best to just keep your mouth shut.
Back when I was in youth ministry, I would do a game with the youth. I would purchase a cow tongue and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and put it in a brown paper bag. Then the youth would be blind-folded and invited to feel what was inside the bag to identify what they thought it was. They got only one clue: the bag contained the world’s most powerful weapon of mass destruction. There is power in our tongues. No doubt our tongues can be WMD’s.
Throughout this month, your pastors are preaching a short sermon series on wisdom from the biblical book of James. It might be helpful to say a few words about what wisdom is. The Greek word, sophia, can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be defined as intelligence or cleverness. Those who had particularly valuable skills or abilities could be labeled as wise. Jesus was considered, by his contemporaries, to be a wisdom teacher. And, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching, perhaps the best definition of wisdom is this: the knowledge and practice of what is necessary for godly or upright living. Among the skills wisdom teaching promotes are: honesty, diligence and self-control, particularly in regards to one’s speech.
And that is, in fact, the focus in the portion of James we’re looking at this morning; we’re looking at wisdom in relation to our speech. In discussing the power of our words, the author warns that our tongues have great power and the ability to take over our lives and wreck havoc around us. Such a tiny part of our body; and yet our tongues can co-opt our best intentions as they spark and flare in a moment of anger or envy or fear. James compares the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth or the rudder of a ship. Those were actually common metaphors in the ancient world. Philo commented that God made humankind to be the charioteer or helmsman of the whole creation. The ability to control one’s tongue was considered a highly valued virtue in the ancient world. Yet James deviates from common cultural interpretation of this skill. You see, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, wise speaking was important because it brought the speaker honor and accolades. In other words, in the 1st century world as a whole, wise speech allowed someone to acquire what was of greatest cultural value: honor. Honor was like currency in the ancient eastern world.
But James goes a different direction in his teaching about wisdom and the tongue. James isn’t concerned with wise speech as a means of gaining honor for oneself. He isn’t giving pointers in rhetoric and how to earn praise. James encourages wise speaking for the purpose of building right relationships; in order that we might honor God and those around us. Remember that definition of wisdom I gave just a moment ago: wisdom is the knowledge and practice of what is necessary for godly or upright living. So wisdom is revealed through words or speech that promote right-ness in our relationship with God and others.
So, how do we acquire this kind of wisdom? Where does it come from? Well, James reveals that wisdom – or wise control of the tongue – originates in the heart. James uses organic metaphors. He views our hearts as fertile soil that produces or yields a harvest of words, actions and attitudes. Our hearts can be planted, watered and cultivated by selfish, worldly desires OR God’s word can be planted in our hearts, thereby yielding a harvest of righteousness.
In other words, controlling the tongue doesn’t start with the tongue for our tongue merely reflects what’s going on in our hearts. That means that, if you have ever tried to simply change the way you talk to someone – perhaps someone with whom you are prone to get into arguments or someone whose poor life choices inspire hyper-criticism. If you’ve ever tried to control what you say simply by focusing on your tongue and your tone, you’re not likely to make much progress. Changing our words begins with changing our hearts. More specifically, changing our words begins with God’s Word being planted in our hearts.
As I’ve already mentioned, Jesus was viewed as a wisdom teacher and Jesus also uses this organic image with regard to our hearts. In Matthew, chapter 12, Jesus tells us a tree is known by its fruit: good or healthy trees produce good fruit; bad or diseased trees produce bad fruit. Jesus elaborates on his metaphor saying, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.” Jesus also tells a parable about a farmer sowing seed. When he interprets that parable, he says that the seed is God’s Word and that, when one’s heart is fertile soil, it grows and produces abundant fruit. James says the same thing in chapter 2 of his letter when he writes, “welcome with gentleness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” James admonishes that the Word [of God] is not simply something we hear; it becomes who we are and what we do. He writes, “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
Now, I know I’ve thrown a lot of scripture at you, but the bottom line is this: if we want to speak in ways that honor the image of God in people, rather than hurting them and tearing them down, God’s Word planted in our hearts is HOW that happens.
So, how does THAT happen? Well, we need to read and study and meditate on God’s Word. Being here this morning is a great way to start; as we hear and interpret God’s Word.
Now, I know that this pandemic has made everything a little harder. We don’t have as many in-person bible studies now as we did pre-pandemic. But, beginning Sept. 23, Pastor Monica will be offering a bible study on Thursday evenings. You can learn more about that in the newsletter or on our website.
And here are two very simple ways that you can take God’s Word to heart that you can do on your own and on your own time. First, if you turn over the Connection Card, you can notice on the back that there’s a place there to indicate that you will continue to engage with the morning scripture throughout the week. So you can commit to continue to read this morning’s scripture this week at home. This is a short passage that you could read every day. And, after you read, just sit quietly for a few moments and invite God to speak to your heart about that scripture.
Here’s another way you might take to heart and put into practice this scripture from James. Each day after you read, take a moment to think about someone with whom you’ve recently struggled to be in good communication. Maybe you’ve had an argument. Maybe your words have reflected that you are losing patience with them. Maybe your words have been overly critical. So, close your eyes and imagine that person as a child. If you didn’t know them as a child, this might take a little imagination, but you can do it. And, when you imagine them as a child, you’re not only going to see them differently, you’re going to think about them differently because it’s natural to have more empathy and compassion toward children, right? So, you can imagine that person as a five year old and consider what you would say to them AS a 5-year old. How might your words and your tone be different? And, if you can imagine and envision a different interaction with them that can change the way you engage with them in the future. With this kind of imaginative prayer, God’s Word reshapes and transforms our hearts.
Another way you can experience God’s Word being planted in your heart is by viewing 20 at Twilight on our church’s website or Facebook page each week. 20 at Twilight is a weekly video post that provides a 20 minute guided meditation in which we pray with scripture and allow it to sink deep into our hearts. 20 at Twilight is a way to really have God’s Word planted in your heart because it focuses on God’s Word not merely informing us, but forming and shaping us. It posts every Wednesday evening at 8:40. But you don’t have to view it Wednesday evening. You can view it anytime throughout the week at your convenience. You could even put a reminder on your phone or your calendar before you leave worship this morning to view it this week.
Finally, we can change how we engage with others by praying a blessing from scripture over them. If you get up in the morning dreading an interaction with someone who always seems to bring out the worst in you, start the day by praying the blessing from the Book of Numbers that I use as our benediction every week. Pray it for yourself and for them… by name. For example, if Bill is a difficult co-worker whose behaviors cause you to say things you later regret, you would pray: “May the Lord bless Bill and keep Bill. May the Lord make his face to shine upon Bill and be gracious to Bill…” And so on. Don’t forget to pray it for yourself as well. As you enter the day, your heart will carry the remembrance that you and Bill have both been lifted, together, into the light of God.
Friends, there are far too many people whose lives have been filled with destructive, hurtful words. They have not been blessed by the Word of God: words that are life-affirming; words that establish and build up right relationships. But we can change that. Our words can become wonderful words of life to them. Our words can be a blessing to others when the words we speak come from God’s Word implanted and cultivated deep within our hearts.
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