To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
Sermon based on James 3:1-12
The late Winston Churchill, the great Prime Minister of England usually exemplified integrity and respect in the face of opposition throughout his service to England. However there were times that he was rather sharp and abrasive in his speech. During his last year in office, he attended an official ceremony. Several rows behind him two gentlemen began whispering. “That’s Winston Churchill.” “They say he is getting senile.” “They say he should step aside and leave the running of the nation to more dynamic and capable men.” When the ceremony was over, Churchill turned to the men and said, “Gentlemen, they also say he is deaf!” (Barbara Hatcher, Vital Speeches, March 1, 1987) That story reminds us that whoever invented the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” never had a parent scold them, a broken heart or been given an unpleasant medical diagnosis in my opinion. Words can have a powerful effect upon us. The Bible has a lot to say about our speech. Within many verses in Scripture we can find helpful insights related to our speech.
Among the most helpful are found in our lesson from James this morning. James was helping his audience to view their trials from God’s perspective and to resist the temptation (as we all struggle with from time to time) of lashing out at others by controlling anger. The church was showing favoritism towards others, people were fighting not physically but verbally as they went about slandering and lying about one another. They were using their tongues to destroy each other. In thinking of the power of our words, the great philosopher Socrates once said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. The church that James was writing to was full of small-minded people who gossiped about each other and tore one another apart with their speech. As Christians we’re quick to avoid things like murder, stealing, and other forms of bad behavior. However, we often hurt others and leave destruction in our wake by the way we speak. People over the years have stabbed each other with words that are as sharp as daggers and lashed out with speech that can cut and pierce. James considered our speech to be an instrument of words that had the ability to behave like a tyrant if it was not managed by a greater power, the human heart. It is true that the words we say reflect a lot about who we are as people and as followers of Christ. This morning we are going to look at some of the insights James shared about learning how to tame our tongues.
Insight # 1: The tongue is so little, yet so powerful. It’s truly amazing how powerful our tongue really is in comparison to the rest of our bodies. Think for a moment about the size of our body in comparison to our tongue. Research indicates that the average weight of the tongue in a male is 70 grams while the average weight for a tongue in a female is 60 grams. Obviously our tongues are a small fraction of our body weight but they have such an enormous capacity for expression. James offered three comparisons of the tongue.
First he compared the tongue with the bridle that a horse wears, or to the bit that is in the mouth of the horse. For those of you who have experience with horses, it’s my understanding that if you jump upon a horse bareback with just a halter, there is no way someone can know whether or not the horse is under your control. However when the bit is placed into the mouth of a horse that is fastened to the bridle, a rider is aware that there is a pressure point that can steer the horse, resulting in the horse turning one way or another and causing the horse to stop.
Secondly, James also compared the tongue to the rudder of a ship James’ comparison is very striking and obvious. Most ships are large objects. It would seem that ships might seem to be unmanageable by their size when faced with an impending storm. Yet a small rudder easily manages the ship; and that rudder has control concerning which direction the ship travels. So is the same concept with the tongue. It is a small member as compared with our entire body. Yet the proper control of the tongue in respect to its influence on our actions and behavior is not unlike the control of the rudder in its power over the ship. Even though it’s comparatively so small, that rudder can turn the ship wherever it wants it to go. James says that the tongue is just like that too. Our tongues while small, still serve as the major vehicle of expression for all us.
James also gave a third comparison to describe the power of the tongue. He says it is like a fire that sweeps across the hills. Over the years we learn how forest fires can destroy acres and acres of land. We must realize that the power of our speech can have destructive tendencies if not controlled, which leads us to the second insight.
Insight #2: The tongue has capacity for both good and bad. The tongue can utter words of criticism, comfort and inspiration. As I think back to our elections last year, perhaps one of the most negative in our history, I think our candidates could have remembered these words of President John Kennedy who once said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” While the tongue can inspire us, it also has the capacity for evil and destruction.
Insight #3: The tongue must be tamed. James makes it clear something must be done to address this problem. While James implies that no one can completely control his or her tongues, we should nevertheless attempt to try. The apostle Paul writes for us the following in Ephesians:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)
Too often we can use words to destroy our brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that gossip is among the greatest destroyers in the Church and in our personal relationships. In this world of social media we live in, a simple post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter or photo on Instagram can possibly destroy a reputation. Many a celebrity and professional athlete have learned this truth in recent years. Even those outside the spotlight of the media are not immune to the dangers of social media. I recall a few years ago the story of a minister whose marriage had ended in divorce. This minister posted on Social Media that he was happy to have another woman living in his house after a few years of being alone. One of the members of their congregation saw this post, started sharing this with congregational leaders and even approached denominational leaders about their pastor and their new “lady friend” that had moved in. Had this person read further along in previous posts, they would have seen that the pastor had just welcomed his sister, who had recently graduated from college into his home as she started looking for employment in town. Sometimes it isn’t the things that go in one ear and out the other that hurt as much as the things that go in one ear get all mixed up, then slip out of the mouth. It’s important for us to catch rumors and gossip before they can hurt someone. Simply stated we need to do what we can to help right the wrong.
There are some practical ways we can help to tame the tongue; we simply need to THINK more. THINK is an acronym that represents the following:
T Is it true?
H Is it helpful?
I Is it inspiring?
N Is it necessary?
K Is it kind?
Before we say something about someone else, before we help to spread a rumor, ask the questions of whether it is it true or helpful. We may know what we are getting ready to say is not truthful or helpful although it may have an element of truth. Perhaps what we are getting ready to say is just a rumor or gossip. If we are not willing to stake our reputation on what we are about to say, perhaps it is not worth repeating. We should also ask ourselves whether what we are about to say is inspiring or necessary. We should always ask ourselves some questions before we speak. Some of those questions might be the following: Is this something that really needs to be repeated? What are the reasons for saying this? Will what I say be helpful to the person I am talking about or will it inspire the person I’m speaking to at the time?
Finally in asking ourselves whether or not what we are about to say is kind we should remember these words from Romans:
Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. (Romans 15:2)
It is important that we ask ourselves whether something we are about to say is something that will help someone else or will cut down or hurt someone. Mother Theresa in The Joy In Loving, A Daily Guide To Living once offered these words of wisdom that says: “These are the few ways we can practice humility: To speak as little as possible of one’s self. To mind one’s own business. Not to want to manage other people’s affairs. To avoid curiosity. To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully. To pass over the mistakes of others. To accept insults and injuries. To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked. To be kind and gentle even under provocation…
It’s important for us to remember that written or spoken, words are continuously propelling us through life. They lift us up, drag us down, wound us deeply or heal our hearts. Words have the power to break confidences, build lifelong alliances or start wars. Words can make or break us, both as individuals and as a society. James recognized that the real challenge in the art of conversation was not only to say the right thing at the right time, but also to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. In the week ahead, may these words from the Psalmist ring true in our hearts as these words serve as our closing prayer this morning.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer. Psalm 19:4
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
June 11, 2017 sermon