This past week, as I was contemplating my sermon and asking the Lord what I should preach about, I came across a little poster posted by one of my Facebook friends. Perhaps it was God’s message to me about what I was supposed to preach–at least I took it that way. It seemed to fit very well with the second lesson from the book of James. What exactly was the saying? This:
"I told my relatives to think before they speak, and I haven’t heard a word from them since."
Of course, I laughed heartily when I read that. Then I thought about it. I wondered whether or not the relatives stopped speaking because they couldn’t think or because when they did think, they considered talking a waste of time? Things that make you go, hmmm.
Now, most of us would agree that talking is something we do a lot of. It’s the main way we communicate with one another. Most of us would also probably agree that we won’t stop talking any time in the near future. We have to, just to get by. But interestingly enough, in this day and age–particularly in a political election year, a good chunk of us might say that there are a few folks who are talking too much. I mean, take a look at what James says in our second lesson and then think about all the political talk you hear these days:
3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Was James foretelling politics? Perhaps. But perhaps James is actually delving much deeper. Perhaps James is not just confronting politicians. Perhaps James is confronting all of us because he doesn’t just stop with these words. There are a few more which are of note.
9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
James is getting into good Lutheran territory here as he describes how the tongue is used. We use it to bless and curse. We use it to bless the Lord and curse those who are made in the likeness of God. With our tongues, with our speaking, we talk of beauty, of love, of affection, and kindness, and we also gossip, slander, lie, complain and whine. James isn’t exactly too thrilled with this, and he urges Christians to control their tongues.
But I have a question regarding this: how? How does one control one’s tongue? How does one stop cursing or swearing or gossiping or lying? How does one perpetually offer up blessings and praises without backsliding? For the reality is, we are all saints and sinners. At the same time we can bless and curse. At the same time we can praise and lie. It’s in our very nature to do such things. How can we stop? This isn’t just about politicians: it’s about confronting our very nature. The tongue is a symptom of a much greater problem–the problem of sin.
Now, I guess I could stand up here and tell you, "Stop sinning." and be done. Some of you might appreciate the brevity of such a sermon. Some of you might even leave here determined to stop sinning. Yet, I would bet a large sum of money that you couldn’t do it. One of my colleagues used to offer a challenge to his confirmation classes. He’d tell them, "Go home and stop sinning for five minutes." They’d head home and lock themselves into their closets. They’d try. Oh, they’d try. But they all reported back and were honest enough to say the following, "We tried. We almost made it, but just as time was almost up, a thought came into our heads, and we knew that one thought was wrong."
You see, no matter how hard we might try, we are going to sin. We are going to miss the mark. This is one of the reasons we have public confession of our sins week after week after week. We know we have fallen short of the glory of God. We know we will fall short of the glory of God. We know we will not do the things we are supposed to do or say the things we are supposed to say. We know that we will sin in thought word and deed by the things we have done and the things we have left undone. We know we can’t just turn things off. Oh, and I wish I could say that the more one grows in a relationship with Jesus, the less one sins, but I cannot be truthful with such a statement. Even the greatest saints realized their need for forgiveness as they progressed along the Christian path. Mother Teresa daily went to confession even though most of us might wonder what she had to confess. She knew she didn’t measure up. So should we.
So, does that mean we should just stop trying? Should we just throw up our hands and let it rip? Should we say, "I can’t stop sinning. I can’t control my tongue. I can’t think before I speak, so I’ll cuss, lie, curse, gossip, or what have you. God will forgive me. It doesn’t matter!" Should we say this? Should we believe it’s o.k. to stretch the truth even just a little bit?
Well, what if you knew that doing so disappointed the One who forgives you? What if you knew He expected more out of you? What if you knew He thought you could do better and was trying to give you the tools to be a better person, to speak more thoughtfully, more compassionately, and more graciously? What if you knew the hurt it caused Him when you slipped up and blasted someone with your mouth and said things that you knew were wrong? What if you knew the great love He had for you and the hope He held for your striving to do His work? Would that change your perspective? Would that give you courage to work toward curbing your tongue? Would that motivate you to strive to love as He first loved you?
Ah, that is a word I haven’t spoken as of yet. Love. Perhaps it is a word that needs to be introduced at this time. For as we reflect upon how we speak to one another, how often do we speak with the motivation of love? St. Paul wrote some brilliant words in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. He said, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." Think about that.
Think about how your words come across. Think about the words of others that you hear and how they come across. Think about how you receive them. How often do those words come across to you as noisy gongs or clanging cymbals? And how would they come across if they were spoken in love?
As you listen to political rhetoric, how much do you suppose is spoken in love and how much is spoken in an attempt to get elected? As people of faith enter into the public arena, how many do you suppose speak in love, and how many speak because they are upset about the way the world is working? As you connect with others, do they hear you because you speak in love, or do they tune you out because you are trying to force your opinion or beliefs upon them? And what would happen if our motivations changed? What would happen if the underlying motivation we had in speaking was the same motivation our Heavenly Father had with us? Do you think love could tame our tongues? Amen.