Words of Wisdom
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: James 3:3-10
In the book Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, author Susan Phillips tells the story of a woman for whom she provided spiritual direction; a young woman named Leah. When she first arrived, Leah exclaimed: "I don't believe that God exists. I've never experienced God, but the God I've heard about is hateful. All I've known is the brutality of so-called Christians.”
Over time, in conversation, Phillips discovered that Leah had been raised in a stern home; she had been crushed with chores and responsibilities and never been allowed to have a life or a voice of her own. Her parents belonged to a church that preached hellfire and brimstone. There was no joy in her life.
But, sometimes after her chores, she would lie on her back in the pasture. It was the place where she felt accepted as she was.
Leah said, “It was as though in the pasture it was okay to be who I am. Everywhere else I didn't fit in, I was wrong. Everything at church told me I wasn't okay as I am. Being female was especially wrong in that church. Women had no voice and were either insignificant or dangerous in that male world… I couldn't see why anyone would seek out the God preached from [that] pulpit."
Again, over time and through conversation, Leah dove more deeply into her feelings in that pasture. She felt loved there; she felt as if someone was loving her when she was there.
When Leah completed her Master’s degree, no one from her family came to see her graduate. Shortly after, she returned home to the farm for her younger brother’s graduation from high school. Proudly, she took her thesis with her. But it was a disappointing visit.
“My mother really hates who I am,” Leah said. “She asked to read my thesis, and after reading two pages said it made her tired. She gave it back to me. All she ever asks about my life is how I'm going to support myself now. I could feel the joy of graduation and the confidence my work had inspired all slipping away and being replaced by anxiety and self-doubt."
Leah started sobbing... [Then] suddenly she smiled... "I did go into the pasture. I remembered myself as a girl there. I loved that girl... I cried for her. I also experienced again what it was like to be in the pasture and to be loved. God really was there for me when I was a girl. I just didn't have the right language... I didn't have any words to apply to the One who loved me in the pasture. But it was the same Jesus who commissioned me for my work. He was there with me in the pasture."
“I didn’t have any words to apply to the One who loved me in the pasture.”[i]
All of us know that words are important. Our words carry power. One of my favorite John Wesley quotes is this one: Of the dead and absent, nothing but good.” It reminds us of the destructive power of gossip and careless speech.
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.
I want to invite you to take just a moment to reflect, to remember, to travel back in time to an occasion when someone’s words impacted you powerfully – for good or ill; encouragement or discouragement. Just take a moment to journey back with that memory; to remember what it felt like when you first received those life-changing words.
Throughout this month of January I’m preaching a short sermon series on wisdom from the biblical wisdom book of James. This week, we’re looking at words of wisdom. James warns us that our tongues can take over our lives. 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. 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.[ii] The ability to control one’s tongue was considered a highly valued virtue in the ancient world. Yet James deviates from common cultural interpretation. You see, in the Greco-Roman world, wise speaking was important because it brought the wise speaker honor and accolades.
But that isn’t the concern of James. James encourages wise speaking for the purpose of building right relationships; in order to honor God and others.
An examination of the entire book of James reveals that wisdom – or wise control of the tongue – originates in the heart.[iii] 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 our own selfish desires OR God’s word can be planted in our hearts, thereby yielding or producing the fruits of righteousness.
So, controlling the tongue doesn’t start with the tongue for our tongue discloses our hearts. 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:[iv] 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”[v]
Now, all throughout scripture, God’s Word functions in two ways. First, God’s Word gives life. At the beginning of our bible, in the first creation story, God speaks all of creation into existence.[vi] God said and it happened. The opening to John’s gospel is reminiscent of Genesis when the author writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him... What has come into being in him was life…”[vii] In chapter 6 of John’s gospel, some of Jesus’ followers drift away because they find his teaching, his words, too challenging. Jesus asks his inner circle of twelve if any of them want to leave and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”[viii] God’s Word creates, renews and sustains life. So, if it is God’s Word planted in our hearts then our words, also, should be life-renewing and life-affirming; never life-denying or destructive.
Second, in scripture, God’s Word is designed to bring us into right relationship with God and with one another. That’s really what the Old Testament laws were about. As I mentioned in my sermon last week, Jesus redefines the Old Testament law in Matthew’s gospel when he gives the Sermon on the Mount.[ix] It is a sermon built around the theme of righteousness; right-ness in our relationships with God and with others. Jesus says that the righteousness of those who seek to follow him should exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders of his day… for they were focused on rules and pretense. They were hypocrites.[x] But righteousness isn’t about obeying rules; righteousness is about right relationships.
So James teaches that God’s Word in our hearts will grow from our hearts to become visible through our words when our words are life-affirming and restorative and when our words bring right-ness to our relationships. That’s how we’ll know that God’s Word has been planted and has begun to grow in our hearts and lives.
Friends, right now in our nation, a lot of hateful, hurtful, destructive words are being used. There are people seeking to destroy one another with their words. But no one who claims to follow Jesus can ever use their words in that way because, when that happens, not only do we hurt others; we also disrespect God for all of us – scripture affirms – have been created in the image or likeness of God. Again, that goes back to the Genesis creation story.[xi] James reminds us that we cannot have a forked tongue; speaking in a duplicitous manner: blessing God and cursing our brothers and sisters. When we hurl insults at one another, we are really insulting God: the God who is revealed in the other. When we use our words to damage someone else, it is as if we are crucifying Jesus all over again for, when we look into the face of another, we look into the face of God; God’s image or likeness is revealed in us.
A couple weeks back, Oprah Winfrey interviewed some female celebrities about the “Times Up” movement. Among them was Natalie Portman. Hearing just a portion of the interview, she sounded like a broken record. She said, “We’re all humans. And I think it’s treating people as fellow humans and – and it’s not because you have a daughter that you respect a woman, it’s not because you have a wife or a sister. It’s because we’re human beings, whether we’re related to a man or not. We deserve the same respect.”[xii] Repeatedly Portman said, “We’re all humans.” And she’s right. But we are even more glorious than that: for we are humans created in the image or likeness of God.
Friends, like Leah in our opening story, there are far too many people in our world – in our community – 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. Our words can be a blessing to others when the words we speak come from God’s Word implanted[xiii] and cultivated deep within our hearts.
[i] Candle: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction by Susan S. Phillips; Church Publishing Inc.; Kindle Ed.; location 113-114.
[ii]Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; vol. First and Second Peter, James and Jude by Pheme Perkins; John Knox Press; 1995; pp. 117-118.
[iii] See, for example, James 1:13-16 (which speaks of one’s own sinful desire giving birth to sin) and James 1:18 (which speaks of the birth of the word of truth resulting in fruit). Also, James 3:17-18 which continues the fruit and harvest metaphor.
[iv] Matthew 12:33b
[v] Matthew 12:33-34. NRSV
[vi] See Genesis 1:1-26. (Some scholars feel this first creation account may have been used in a worship setting. Recurring phrases such as “And God said” or “There was evening and there was morning, the ___ day” would have been congregational responses in much the same way as today’s traditional Call to Worship format (leader, people, leader, people).
[vii] John 1:1-4
[viii] John 6:68 (passage begins at verse 60)
[ix] The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew chapters 5-7. See, especially 5:17-48.
[x] See Matthew 5:17-20 and Matthew 6:1-7.
[xi] See Genesis 1:26-27.
[xii]http://variety.com/2018/tv/news/oprah-winfrey-shonda-rhimes-reese-witherspoon-times-up-cbs-sunday-morning-1202662801/ “Variety” magazine; January 12; Oprah Interviews Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes, Others about Times Up: ‘We Deserve the Same Respect’ by Debra Birnbaum[xiii] See James 1:21b
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