I was rather surprised that the verses from James were the ones that the lectionary used for the Sunday that is the kick-off for the Sunday School year for the majority of mainline denominations. What? Are they trying to scare off the few people we have who still want to teach? Here we are celebrating our teachers and James is giving them a stern lecture, warning them how careful they must be about what comes out of their mouths.
But the more I thought about it, the more it does seem appropriate. After all, Jesus has told us that it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out. There are all kinds of sayings about watching your mouth so it won’t get you in trouble. And because our teachers are leaders to whom we look for example, surely they must be particularly cautious. James had obviously been having some trouble with the leaders in the congregation to whom he is writing. He is well aware that those people in positions of authority must watch what they say, because others are looking to them and trusting them as leaders.
See, words have incredible power. Pastors more than most have a deep and difficult understanding of this, I think. Yet we all face it, any time we open our mouths and let words spill out. And it’s not just the words we say, but how we say them—inflection, timing, and so on. Admittedly, that’s one reason I’m not much of a texter. Not only do you lose inflection, you even lose the vowels! Without the modulation of voice, I would worry that jests might come across as serious or sympathy as sarcastic or any number of other misunderstandings. And yet it is a powerful way of communicating for an entire generation. One teen I asked about it said that they prefer it because you can hold conversations with many people at once and that there are no awkward silences. I argue that it takes away the personal aspect, though for some I suppose that might be a draw. James knew the tongue was a dangerous body part; I wonder what he would say today about the thumbs?
In this information age, words bombard us constantly—texting, voice mail, email, advertising, radio, podcasts... But we’ve come to expect everyone to have an agenda. We expect misinformation and deceit, even from respectable and reputable sources. In fact, we only consider a source reputable and reliable if we agree with it. That is why teachers especially have to be careful in their words. We have to keep our reputation for wisdom in our words, for truth in our speech. As Paul reminds us, we are to “let no evil talk come out of [our] mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” It is the job of teachers then, to teach others how to think for themselves and discern what is evil and what is useful, what is truth and what is deceitful. It’s not simply a relaying of information to be spat back at the appropriate time. This is a foundational belief of Presbyterianism, and one that has not always been popular with the general public. There are many people who do not want to have to think about their faith. They want it in black and white, rote answers that they can indeed spit at people who do not agree with them. Their tongues become weapons, using proof-texting and verse-citing to provide evidence that they are in the right (and of course, in converse, that others are wrong.)
When we speak aloud, as James so adeptly points out, our tongues, so small in size, can create large-scale disasters. It’s a daunting thought. I can feel the sweat on my brow bead up as I go on. The tongue, so small in size, can be like the tiny spark that sets off huge forest fires in the
In the recent movie ‘Doubt,’ starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Streep’s character, the principal of a Catholic parochial school, goes on a crusade to expel the popular parish priest played by Hoffman, based only on the rumors of a young idealistic fellow nun that the priest has taken a special interest in a young boy student. She takes that to mean something more than it perhaps should. Rumors are spread, lives are destroyed and words do irreparable damage. There is a scene at the end, where one of the characters is seen taking a pillowcase of feathers to a rooftop and releasing them into the wind. They represent the words that were spoken and can now never be retrieved, no matter how sorry the speaker is for saying them. At the end of the movie is Streep’s character, dour as ever saying, “I have doubts.”
How often does it seem like our tongues have minds of their own, speaking even if our minds have doubts? I remember, as an impulsive child, being reminded often to think before I spoke. We all have times when we wish we could chase down the feathers that have floated off, out of our control. Growing up in the deep south, I learned quickly that words were never to be taken at face value. So often, what might sound like a compliment, was meant to be the opposite, yet said with a syrupy sweetness that belied the gall underneath. How many of you have ever used the duplicitous phrase, “Well, bless her sweet little heart?” Yeah, you know what it means, what it really means.
James knew well that no matter how much praise you offer a person, the one harsh word spoken, even in a heated moment, will be the one remembered. He knows full well that none of us can control our speech at all times, otherwise, he says, we’d be perfect. But that is why he warns us to constantly be careful of letting our tongues wag, lest we wish we could take back the words spoken. It can both bless and curse, he says. But he also says that this is not the way it should be. Should a spring yield both fresh and brackish water? Of course not! Our language says so much about who we are inside that what comes out of us represents what is in our souls. The same is true of the church. What people hear us say, and even the way we say it, represents who we are when we are inside these walls.
Even today, the most frequent reason cited by those who steer clear of churches is the duplicity of Christians. Hypocrites is the word used most often. “If God’s word does not show up in the flesh of a congregation—if those who hear the word do not also incarnate the word—then the tongue has worked a wicked spell on them.” But we also must be careful not to indulge in glib speech in the church, making what is difficult sound easy, or what is mysterious sound plain.
Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with our speech. Describing a world we see, we often mistake it for the whole world. Like the three blind men describing an elephant. It is hard and cool and smooth, said the one feeling the tusk. No, it is warm and wrinkled and tough said the one feeling the leg. No, no, it is rough and hairy and keeps moving, said the one feeling the twitchy tail. Yet we still make meaning of what we see and proceed to conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according to this world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.
For teachers and others in authority, the danger lies in the perilous combination of authority on the one hand and misused, damaging speech or erroneous claims on the other. The reason James aims this cautionary text at teachers is because teachers and other leaders will be held liable not only for their own follies but also for the errors that their students assimilate and pass on. The more authority the person speaking has, the more likely that people will take their words for truth and also pass them on to others as such. If we as teachers and leaders are not careful in what we say, can we expect that those of whom we teach and lead will be any better?
Our words let people know how we feel, what we think, what we believe—well, at least sometimes. Presbyterians do fairly well at living in a Christian way most of the time, but much less frequently do we do as well talking about our faith and beliefs. We love to tell people that we’re different due to our government or our worship style or how welcoming we are, but rarely do we love to tell them what our confessions say and what our doctrine declares. That’s the hard part about being a teacher, for as powerful as words are, sometimes finding the right ones to articulate the mysteries of God and our faith prove immensely difficult.
We say that we’d rather live our faith than speak of it; we say that actions speak louder than words, but truthfully, not much when it comes to our faith. It is James who says several times that faith divorced from works is useless. But works without faith is just philanthropy. And this isn’t just an internal faith, this is a shared faith, a faith that uses words to communicate with others what we believe and how our lives have been affected by our faith in Christ. See, the tongue, for as much trouble as it can get us in, can also be useful for building up. As far back as the garden of Eden, the tongue was meant for praising God. And as people made in the image of God, I’d go so far as to say it was meant for praising each other as well. But as James points out, in the same breath, we can sing praise to God and demean those made in God’s likeness.
It is easy to see why James has such strong words of warning against the tongue. Forget karate chops and judo kicks, the tongue is the body part that can do more damage more quickly than any other. Yet, “if we dedicate our tongues to the language of God, our actions will follow. Our tongues, which bless and curse, can also ask for forgiveness. Teachers are not perfect, but must choose words carefully, because God has given us authority to build up for the body of Christ.”[i] And make no mistake, we are all teachers in the priesthood of all believers. So let us choose words that are useful for building up, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4, p. 66