Scripture: James 3:1-12
Once, said Jesus, there was a man with two sons.
The man went to the first son and said, “Go work in the vineyard today.” The son said, “I’m actually pretty busy, I don’t think I’m going to make it out there today.” But later he had a change of heart and went. The father went to the second son and said, again, “Go work in the vineyard.” And the second son said, “Oh, sure, definitely.” But he never did actually go.
Then Jesus asked, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?”
Faith, Jesus told us, is about more than just the words you say. It’s about what you do to live them out.
This is not a bad paraphrase of the letter of James, which we’ve been talking about for the month of October. Last week, in chapter 2, James asked us to imagine that we come across someone who was hungry and cold. “Have a good night,” we tell them. “Stay warm and have a nice dinner.” But we don’t do anything to feed them or get them an extra blanket for the night. Clearly, our actions speak louder than our words. James tells us that faith without works is kind of like that. It doesn’t much matter what we believe in theory if we’re not living that out in our daily lives.
But we find out today that James actually has a lot to say about words: about the power they have, and the intentionality with which we should choose them, and the difficulty we face in doing so.
James’s task is to provide us some wisdom for how we should be living out our faith in our daily lives, and back in chapter 1, James said that true religion is made up of three things. I didn’t preach on this section, so any guesses what makes it on to this list? What would you put on this list – the Top Three Rules for Living as a Christian? Those things are 1) care for widows and orphans – who represent the most vulnerable people in our society; 2) keeping ourselves “unstained” by the world, or always choosing God over things that are not of God (admittedly fairly broad); and 3) “bridling” the tongue, or exercising control and intentionality in our speech. I made that one #3 here for the buildup, but actually, James puts it first. “If any think they are religious,” he writes in 1:26, “and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
Just as last week James told us that faith without works is dead, so it seems that faith without right speech is worthless.
I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that words have power. Our words have the power to make or break our relationships. They can express love or break hearts. The wounds they cause can take a lifetime to heal. Our words can change minds. Well-chosen slogans or offhand comments can win or lose elections. An ill-advised Tweet can get us fired. When our words are empty, like in the parable Jesus told, that can reveal a lot about who we are.
The power of words is a pretty big theme throughout the Bible, starting in the beginning when God spoke creation into being. “Let there be light” – that’s a powerful statement, coming from the right person, of course. Proverbs tells us, among many other verses about our speech, that “Rash words are like the thrust of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18). And Revelation includes liars among others like murderers and sorcerers who will end up getting thrown in the lake of fire (21:8).
And it’s the power of words, the power of the tongue, that James comes back to in chapter 3, in the passage we heard today. The passage begins with a word for teachers: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This is another one of those verses that gives me pause. But it would be a mistake for any of us to think this passage isn’t addressed to us simply because we don’t formally carry the title of teacher. James wants us to know that the more authority our words carry, the higher the stakes, and we all have some place, some area of our lives, where our words carry authority.
He uses some images that were common in proverbs about speech in the ancient Greco-Roman world of his time. Think of a bit in the mouth of a horse, he says. It’s just this little thing in the horse’s mouth but with it, you can make the horse move one way or another. Or think of the rudder of a ship, which is so small compared to the ship itself but allows you to steer the whole giant ship. The tongue is like that – it’s such a small part of the body, but it has such tremendous power to influence things for better or for worse.
These are also all images of things we have some control over. The small rudder may steer the giant ship, but someone’s got to move the rudder. Part of living out our faith is recognizing the power of our words, and also recognizing that we can choose them wisely, and with intention.
He says later that the tongue can be used to both bless God or to curse someone. But, you know, I’m going to guess that most of us don’t just go around cursing people. Or maybe we do. Maybe we curse the customer service representative who is not providing good customer service or the politicians who are taking the whole country in the wrong direction or the people who buy into what they are saying or the people who decided this morning was a great time to do construction on 395. Just for a hypothetical example. But what other ways might we use the power of our words for bad instead of good?
-Being mean to someone
-Saying something you don’t mean
-Complaining (we all need to vent sometimes but there’s such thing as unnecessary negativity)
-Spreading fake news
-We can talk a bit about our use of social media and how easy it is to pass on memes that reduce complicated issues to a quip and dismiss or demonize people who disagree with us. We get “likes” from the people on our side and feel good, while we miss out on a chance for actual dialogue with people on the “other side.”
And on the other hand, what are some of the ways we can use the power of our speech for good? Maybe:
-Praying for someone
-Witnessing to our faith or how we’ve seen God at work
-Telling the truth when it takes courage
This is the easy part of the sermon. These are things we all know. And yet as we know them, they can be hard. I know I’ve said the wrong thing more often than I’d like to think about, something meant to be a joke or just completely unfiltered that ended up giving offense. I know I’ve fallen into the trap of laughing at someone to establish myself as part of an “in” group. And God knows I complain enough; Jon can probably vouch for that.
It’s worth noting, though, that James sees the whole thing as a little more complicated than just a reminder to exercise some self-control when you open your mouth, as common sense would dictate. This isn’t just about how to be a decent person in polite society. It’s a real theological issue. It’s more than just a matter of controlling our tongues when so often our tongues seem to control us.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire,” James says. “And the tongue is a fire.”
All of a sudden the image moves from something you can intentionally move one way or the other – a bridle, or a rudder – to something that quickly takes on a life of its own.
We’ve figured out how to tame all the animals we find in nature, James says, but no one yet has figured out how to tame the tongue.
I really think that there’s something to this idea of our tongues and our speech having control over us instead of just the other way around. I’m not just talking about obvious lies that ensnare us in the web of our own deceit or blatantly offensive statements that win or lose elections. I also mean that the language we use shapes the way we and the people others around us view reality. I saw a TED talk about a tribe of people who don’t have the concept of left and right, but instead speak everything in cardinal directions, including things like “There’s a bug on your southwest leg.” Meanwhile my GPS tells me to head north and I’m like, “What, that doesn’t even mean anything!” That’s a morally neutral example of how our language, our speech, has the power to shape our world.
That’s why the real danger in how we speak may not be the expletives we hurl at the driver who cut us off on a bad morning, but how we thinkingly or unthinkingly use language in way that shapes the world around us.
When we casually talk about food, and dieting, and bodies in a way that implies that certain kinds of bodies are not as good as other kinds of bodies, we are helping shape our world through our speech.
When we buy into stereotypes and assumptions about people of color, or women (or men), or LGBT people and repeat them without further reflection, we are helping shape our world through our speech.
We choose these words, but they create something bigger than we ever even intended, something we don’t even realize because we are so mixed up in it ourselves.
And that even gets into how we talk about God.
You may have noticed that I try to avoid referring to God as “he,” that I may at times refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” that I try to incorporate some feminine images of God from time to time. And that’s because, again, I think how we talk about things shapes our worldview around those things, and the language we use to talk about God can say a lot about who we believe God is and thus what we think is good and true. Of course Jesus called God Father, and there is something powerful in that language of relationship between a parent and a child. I don’t want to throw that out. But there are also lots of images in Scripture that talk about God as a laboring or nursing mother, for instance – those are the ones we tend to forget.
I didn’t use to think any of this mattered. It seemed clunky to me to avoid pronouns for God and to use words like “Godself” instead of “himself,” and when I started finding myself around people who did these things, in seminary, I was like, oh, come on. These are just pronouns; no one really thinks God is a man.
And then I met some people who really thought God was a man. What they really said was “God is both male and female, but God is more male than female.” And I had this moment of, oh. All this talking about God as if God is a man actually matters. Because if God is more male than female, then what does that have to say about those of us who are female, or those of even who don’t fit neatly into categories of male and female, being equally created in the image of God? What does that say about our relative worth?
Somehow, even through years of seminary and being steeped in inclusive language, when I hear the word “God,” the first image that pops into my head is that of an old, white man. And that doesn’t even make any sense! But the language and images I grew up with had an enormous amount of power to shape both my world and my relationship with God.
Of course, language is imperfect. We can’t obsess over speaking perfectly. We all make mistakes, and even James says that. And because in the end, the words we have at our disposal can be limited in their capacity to convey truth.
And yet James thinks that one of the worst things we can do, as we seek to live our lives as people of faith, is to bless God and curse one of God’s children in the same breath, to use our words unreflectively both to build up and to tear down – without seeing anything wrong with that.
Our words do have power, more power than we know, and we do need to choose them wisely.
In the end, while we may fall down and fail at taming this untameable creature, the tongue, God’s grace is there to help us as we seek to grow.
So, as God gives us grace, may we seek to use our words for encouragement, and truth, and telling our story of a God who offers us new life and second chances, and invites us to respond in our speech and in our actions.
 Matthew 21:28-32