What Would Jesus Undo? Toxic Talk
Sunday, September 13, 2015
St. Timothy’s UMC
Rev. Mark M. Norman Vickers
James 3: 1-12
James 3:1-12 New International Version (NIV)
Taming the Tongue
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
There is probably not a better text that is more applicable to today’s society and culture than this text taken from James. Here we are in the throes of political competition, which is, as it always has been, verbal and word based in nature. However, with the dawn of social media, enhanced TV and radio coverage, blogging, and what I would say is “better and more comprehensive journalism,” words are at the forefront of the work at hand.
Words have always made an impact on our lives! From the very beginning, it is somewhat ironic. Our parents spend countless hours waiting for the first intelligible word to spring forth from our mouths. Then we, who are parents, sit on the edge of the seats, waiting for that “word.” Then irony sets in, more words are spoken and conversation becomes long and heavy and sometime around the 13-year mark our children won’t be quiet! We have intended them to speak and then we want them to stay silent! What does that say about the power of the word?
It says to me, in light of the scripture this morning, that the journey of the spoken word is “precious!” Precious in the sense that the words we speak need to be carefully considered before we speak them from our lips!
James, in this text, is NOT speaking just about the words that are spoken in the Holy (church) environment, but what we speak in our everyday conversations.
John Wesley made it clear in some of his writings, that James is referring to our “utmost and innermost daily commitments” and how we speak and what we speak in those daily activities and commitments. Wesley refers to those as “tempers,” those words that we speak in our day-to-day practices with our friends and neighbors. Speech is one of those areas that expresses our attitudes and commitments to all of those around us.
Whether we are preachers, teachers, politicians or just the “average Joe,” it applies to all of us. Our speech, the spoken word, is by consent part of our relationships with other people, thus how we see people, how we describe them and how we accept them. The spoken word is often the first impression that we give to someone when we first meet them and open our mouths.
There is a famous story about our Methodism founder, John Wesley, that illustrates this very point. John Wesley, the great preacher of the 1700’s was considered what we would call a “spiffy” dresser. One Sunday morning he wore a bow tie, probably an Oxford preaching tie that had the long ribbons hanging down. After the sermon was over a lady walked up to him and said, “Brother Wesley, are you open to some criticism?” He replied, “I guess so; what would you like to criticize?” She said, “The ribbons on your tie are entirely too long and inappropriate for a man of God.” And she proceeded to take a pair of scissors from her handbag and cut them off! A hush fell over the crowd standing near Wesley. Wesley looked at the woman and calmly asked, “Now may I borrow the scissors for a moment?” As she handed them to him, he said, “Ma’am, are you open to some criticism?” She answered, “Well, I suppose I am.” He said, “All right then, stick out your tongue.”
You see, we can tell by the use of our words where our hearts truly lie. John Wesley asks the question, when speaking, “Where do our friendships exist?” With the world or with God? We see this in James’ discourse this morning especially in verse 6, “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it strains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Implying here that the use of the tongue is contagious once it begins the downfall. Later James reminds us that “no one can tame the tongue of another or their own, without the help of God! Hence, the point of our sermon this morning. God through Jesus wants to “undo” the misuse of the tongue!
James, as a wisdom writer, wants to make sure that the journey and action of the Church (Christians) involves only its actions but its speech as well. We see that the implementation of our words dictates the way in which we act, think, behave, and react. James makes this extremely clear at the beginning of the text when lays out the caution, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” As I said before, we are held in strict accountability as those live the faith, as we ALL are teachers, not just the preacher and the Sunday school teacher, we are all held accountable!
I fear, oftentimes we take this text as a hard core judgment text that often works to “scare” the teachers and the preachers, when in fact James is acting on behalf of a faith community that desires to work on the problem rather than condemn the problem. Not that he doesn’t acknowledge the problem of the tongue, but desires strongly to work on controlling the problem.
As we look at this text with open eyes, I believe there are six (6) what I call “works” that we as the Christian community need to focus on in conjunction with Jesus to work on our tongue and the spoken word. Allow me to address them briefly.
1. Rethink the nature of freedom of speech. Take into consideration that not EVERYTHING that enters your brain that is connected with your mouth, needs to be spoken. This is difficult in the fact that as God’s creatures, with “free will”, we believe we have a great deal of “free reign”. I believe that Jesus wants us to temper that “free reign” and say what is right in the context of that “free will and free reign”.
2. Lead with your ears and follow with your tongue. Such goes the old connotation, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.” The more I live in this world, the more I believe there is some strong truth in that fact! We, as a people of faith, need to learn to listen in a Holy fashion. By that I mean we need to focus upon what we hear before we “shoot off from the mouth” in a quick fashion.
3. Bite your tongue more often. Going “hand in hand” with number 2 is number 3: Bite your tongue more often. In other words, make that last minute “verbal check” before the word comes from your lips! So often we take the pride that we can answer as quickly as possible, in this case my friends, quickness is not always better. Ponder your response! Ponder what is about to affect that relationship that is on the other side of the tongue. Ponder how that other person is going to react when they hear what is going to come out of your mouth.
4. Refuse to tear others down! Be intentional about lifting someone up! Yes, there are those times on a daily basis that we just have nothing good to say. My suggestion? Keep silent! I have torn many people down in my life and I’m deeply sorry for that, but it is often something you can’t undo! Words linger, words are remembered, words are associated with those who said them! Just look at our political scene. We can remember without the blink of an eye, what Mr. Trump said, what Mrs. Clinton said, and so forth and so on. Refuse to tear others down, be intentional about it. A wise old farmer in the Mid-West told me one time, Mark, “The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail more than his tongue.” Simple lessons to be learned by other creatures of God!
5. Practice “Speech Therapy!”A friend of mine once told me, there are five quick things you can do before you speak. You need to ask yourself 5 quick questions; 1. Is it true? 2. Is it necessary? 3. Are your motives pure? 4. Do you have permission to say it? 5. Will it further the Kingdom of God? If any of these is doubtful, hold up and rethink! If necessary, remove yourself from the situation and rethink your response. Now this takes an incredible amount of discipline, but I believe it is a discipline that God requires of us.
6. Surrender your tongue to God. As James reminds us this morning, we cannot do this speech thing alone!! We need God’s help in taming our tongue.
That is how Jesus will undo toxic talk! It won’t be a magical formula, or a special one-time prayer; it will take the discipline of believers, of us, to work day in and day out on this daily discipline of making our tongue a Holy instrument of God.
My friends, this is not an easy task. It is one that requires daily work, daily prayer, and daily commitment. It is my prayer, as we leave this place today, that we take this discipline into a world that is heavily “wordy” above and beyond action, and help to create a world that is gently and Holy converted to a world of spoken holiness prior to our actions!!
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
AMEN and AMEN.