“Taming the Tongue”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
July 19, 2015
First Congregational Church
University Baptist Church
Throughout this month, we are looking at the book of James. We’ll finish our traverse of the book next week.
James was written to a small, persecuted, exhausted and fragile congregation in Jerusalem. James, the founder of the church, wrote this letter in order to help the people to keep the faith in a world that told them their faith was foolishness and that their Way was folly. A good book for us to read when the going gets tough and our loyalties are questionable. It is also a moralistic book that gives us practical advice and even a proverbial kick in the pants when we step out of line. Let me take you through a quick synopsis of the book so far:
James is interested not so much in theology, but in practice. In the first chapter of his book, James called the people to be doers of the word, not hearers only. He told them to practice what they preached. Figure out your purpose and lead your life by that purpose says James. We need to hear those words today, too. James 1:26-27 says that true wisdom will look like this: taking care of how we speak, giving care to those in distress, and being careful about what we let into our lives.
In the second chapter, James told the people that faith without works is dead. It takes work to be a Christian. It takes work to not be conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. It takes work to live and love in Christian community. Remember that God shows no partiality.
All of us can be purpose-filled, faith-working Christians.
Martin Luther dismissed James as an epistle of straw, largely because it conflicted with Paul’s theology of sanctification by grace alone. James declares that faith without works is dead. James is the only piece of wisdom literature in the NT.
The fourth chapter will tell about how judging one another can destroy a community. More on that next week.
The third chapter is an interlude. James moves away from the rich and poor, believers and doers duality and tells us that the way we speak is important. In fact, it determines how we act. You have heard it said, don’t do as I say, do as I do. But James knows that words can be toxic to a community. James 3 can be seen as a meditation on the power and dangers of language.
As the endless campaign seasons heats up, maybe we need to return to the Epistle of James and do our own “straw” poll of the candidates.
In the third chapter, James says that we need to watch out for the way we treat each other. Our harsh words toward each other can act like poison, or worse fire.
James tells us to tame our tongues, because they can be toxic and our words can wreak havoc. We know how an insult, a barb, a judgment can feel like searing heat. It’s as old as time.
The intertestamental book Sirach (5:13-6:1) says “Honor and dishonor come from speaking, and the tongue of mortals may be their downfall. Do not be called double-tongued and do not lay traps with your tongue; for shame comes to the thief, and severe condemnation to the double-tongued. In great and small matters cause no harm, and do not become an enemy instead of a friend; for a bad name incurs shame and reproach; so it is with the double-tongued sinner.”
Proverbs 21:23-24 says, “To watch over the mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble. The proud, haughty person, named “Scoffer” acts with arrogant pride.”
The Gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus in saying, "Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."
Amidst all of the faith verses works, rich verses poor, truth verses lies rhetoric of James comes this passionate discourse on hate-speech. He’s saying tame your tongue. This interlude encourages us to always take the high ground. Don’t be what you hate. Be the change you want to be.
As James said in chapter 3, a misplaced word can start a forest fire. But even as a small rudder can change the course of a huge ship, so can our work of justice and righteousness change the world. Margaret Mead once said, “Don’t think that a small group of committed people cannot change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
If the people of God truly acted on their faith, then this world might be different indeed. But more importantly, to James and to us, we would be different indeed, too.
How are we doing with our words? Do they follow our desires? James compares our tongues to wild beasts—able to do good and evil, blessings and curses. How do we tame this beast? Can you ever fully take back what you say? This is especially hard for those of us (like me) who tend to think out loud. Those of us who have kids know how important it is to count to 10 before we say something we will regret. Sometimes we count faster that we should if we remember to count at all. You see, choosing our language is very important and it tells the world what we truly believe.
Jesus said, It’s not what you put in your mouth that defiles you, but it’s what comes out. Our words defile us more than eating shrimp or mixing milk and meat. Of course, if we were all vegan then we would not have to worry about kosher or Halal laws at all, but that’s another sermon.
How have we defiled ourselves? What words have we used to poison our relationships. There’s an old adage that you can’t take back words; it’s like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube.
It takes 10 good things to be said to offset one bad thing said. It’s like a fire. It spreads, creating despair, confusion. Our words can bless or curse. And if a curse causes a fire, then we need a flood of blessings to quench it. How many of us have had a performance review that is filled with compliments and good things, but we focus on the few things that are said to challenge us.
James spends most of his letter encouraging us to be doers of the word, not just believers. I think saying and doing have a lot to do with each other.
Tame the tongue when it might be toxic. Loosen the tongue when we give sincere compliments. Remember the power of our words. Our tongues are to be used for good, not evil. James 1:19 says, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak”
Our political candidates love to get into toxic tongued battles with each other. And it spreads like fire, causing damage. Does this mean we are never to tell the truth when someone is doing wrong, far from it. But we are to hold our belief system on the nature of a person’s character. We can attack their actions, but not their character. This is one of the hard teachings of nonviolence. Questioning the dignity or sincerity of someone is an act of violence. So, focus on their words, but not their character.
One of the main reasons people stay away from churches is the impression that they are tempests for toxic tongues. No one needs that.
James is not telling us to sugar-coat the truth as much as he is saying that we need to be attentive to the way our words will be heard. This is all counter-cultural, especially in this endless campaign season. But that is what we are called to be. The Way of Jesus and the early church was defined by a different kind of law.
What if we didn’t focus so much on the negative? What if the words of our mouths could quench the destructive fires in our hearts and in our lives? What if we are so moved by the words that we create beauty with it? Maybe that’s what poets are after as they pen their verses.
Think about how we bless when we use our tongues: When we read scripture, when we sing God’s praises, when we speak our children’s names, when we give out honest compliments, when we tell the truth in love, when we take a step toward courage by telling the truth, etc.
But we can curse with our tongues as well. The curses come out in insults, in racist epithets, homophobic pronouncements, sexist cat calling. We can curse by giving a pat answer when a more sophisticated one is required, Sometimes is comes when we are distracted and we let loose with something that comes from deep inside us and is wrapped up in stinking prejudice that we can’t help but get from the playground, the locker room, or the board room, maybe even the radio or the pew. Maybe we are so busy preaching that we don’t listen to others. Maybe we speak only with like-minded people.
Maybe we ignore those on the margins.
Our tongues, which bless and curse, can ask for forgiveness. And we should tame the tongue until we hear what another has to say.
We often tell people whom we don’t understand to be quiet. Tame your tongue. Your words make me uncomfortable. And sure, words that are meant to be mean can seem like a fire. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit inspired people at Pentecost and their words leapt like flames. Luke even said that the spirit worked like tongues of flame. But James recognizes the difficulty with the flaming tongues surrounding his community. Especially when he said pesky words about the rich and poor. Pesky words about what we need to do, not just what we need to believe. Faith without works, after all, is dead according to James. Words can be empty if they are not backed by deeds. But mean words are destructive to the community and they can leave carnage in their wake.
Flaming tongues. They can be dangerous. And yet sometimes they need to be heard. There’s something about pain that demands to be felt. Something like anger that demands to be said, even heard.
When someone in a power position tells us to pipe down, restrain your tongue, you’re making us uncomfortable—it’s a form of domination, even oppression. People like us use this all the time. Sometimes we do it by just ignoring the more toxic-sounding words.
But if you are living in a toxic environment, sometimes it demands a flaming tongue response. Maybe James was turning this on its head and saying to those in power, tame your tongue. Maybe he was also implying that another’s voice needs to be heard. That voice may set us free.
Sometimes we need to control a raging fire by setting a backfire. This is often more effective than trying to douse it with water. A backfire removed fuel for the fire so it doesn’t spread, creating a space within which the original fire can burn out safely.
At the Baptist Peace Conference last week, our preachers encouraged us in so many words to tame our tongues, the tongues of criticism of the African American community who are outraged by police violence, which is only a symptom of systemic economic, social and cultural violence that we have received with our mothers’ milk. It’s part of our culture. And we need to hear the flaming tongues of those who are speaking the truth, sometimes in a messy way. And we need to listen to them and find a way to address the larger problems of privilege and inequity. That’s where our tongues are needed.
So tame your tongues when they are quick to judge.
Tame your tongues when you are quick to blame.
Tame your tongue when you are tempted to make an easy insult on someone.
Tame your tongue when you are goaded to be taller on the backs of someone else.
Tame your tongue when you are tempted to speak evil.
Instead, utter blessings.
Utter words of hope.
Reflect words and actions of life, not death.
Speak words of comfort and mercy and love.
And if you are tempted to speak words of hate, but don’t have words of love, then tame your tongue until you do.
I was asked to write a message for the on-line publication Believe Out Loud back in March. They asked me to reflect on the coming decision of the Supreme Court. Here’s part of what I wrote back then:
“It would seem that this battle in the culture war is cruising to a victory. But we must not let up our pressure. For in the void following our victories across the country, extremists can regroup and change their message. What we need to remember is that our message is a better one. It is a Gospel message of love, inclusion, justice and freedom. It is a message that sets people free and models the best of our churches.
So, if a victory comes from the Supreme Court, enjoy it for a while. Make sure your words to our opponents are gracious and compassionate. Don’t take the hate bait.
Embody instead a sense of gratitude and humility, knowing that we have helped to save some lives.
And model the Gospel message of peace, love, mercy and compassion. That’s how we will be known.”
Had I been writing with James in mind, I might have added, “tame your tongue.” Make sure your words reflect your faith and your hope for a redeemed world in which we can all live and thrive. That’s the core of our gospel faith. It’s why we’re here and it’s what we do. May it be so for our lives.