Last Sunday’s lectionary epistle reading came from the book of James, chapter 3. It is the most explicit part of scripture as pertaining to what our patterns of communion have to do with our faith. After preaching a sermon on this passage, folks came up to me afterwards and asked if I had changed the text to fit the events of the week. No, it had been the plan for many months.
The more I think about my experience last week of preaching about this as I continue to read the news and hear all of the accounts of famous folks with little regard for keeping their explosive thoughts in tact, the more I realize how much we need the wisdom of James.
Washington Plaza is now posting an audio file of the sermons on our website each week. But, we had technical difficulties last Sunday, so I thought I’d post the manuscript version of it here. Enjoy!
The Power in Your Words
Sunday, September 13th, Washington Plaza Baptist Church
At the very essence of our incarnation are words. How you and I and all the generations that came before us created meaning out of life came with a word, with words spoken from language.
With a word from our caregivers, we all entered the world “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy.” With a word, you and I were given a name that would identify us the rest our lives, “We will call her Elizabeth.” With a word, some of us would choose to marry and create lifetime partnership, “I do.” With a word, you and I would make friends, settle into homes and make decisions about where we will work, “Yes, I will” or “No, I won’t.”
Without a word, whether it is communicated in those parts of speech that make up a sentence or through the body language we use to respond to one another, you and I would cease to have life. Words narrate not only our stories but our very existence! There is power in your words and mine. There is power when we begin to exchange words with one another. They give being to who we are in all the ways that both build us up and tear us down.
Our worship service would break out into group therapy session this morning if I asked all of you to share with one another what the most encouraging thing anyone ever said to you and what was the worst thing anyone ever said. It would be an easy task to complete because all of us know these words by heart. They are at the tip of our memory. They stick with us even when we’d sometimes wish they’d go away. And, even if we go as far as to chart different paths than the words spoken over our life, they are still there!
Words like: “I will always love you.” Or, “You are the smartest student I’ve ever seen in this class.” Or, “You make a wonderful father.” Or, “You really have a gift at that.” Such words lift us to glorious heights showing us their power to make us better at something than we ever thought we could be.
Then there are words like: “I wish you weren’t ever born.” Or words like “I never loved you.” Or, “You’ll never be good at that.” Such words cripple us and show their power to beat us down.
No wonder, then, the apostle James, desires to devote a sizeable chunk of his letter of wisdom to the church on the topic of the power of words. We just can’t get around their power, even if we wanted to.
Even more so, James was writing most likely to the Christians in exile churches, he knew that it would be important for the followers of Jesus to distinguish themselves from those around themselves not only from those without any faith connection in their lives, but the popular wisdom teaching of the day that had no knowledge of Christ. According to James, those following in the way of Jesus needed to be grounded in the wisdom that faith had everything to do with action. And, in this portion of the letter, faith had everything to do with what came out of your mouth.
To describe the power of words, James gives us three very accessible metaphors. First, he, said, consider training a horse. Second, he says, in the same way, consider the rudder of a ship.
Lastly, he speaks of raging fire (makes me wonder if James envisioned the scene like we’ve observed over the last couple of weeks coming out of southern California).
And, James says, it is the same way with the tongue (the part of the body where the metaphor of all of our communication is directed) though our tongue may just be one small part of our body, it should not be under-estimated. It has explosive power to change the course of lives in ways that can never be changed.
Thus we could pre-suppose the message of this text is: Watch what you say. Be nice. Don’t be fool and put your foot in your mouth. Wash out your mouth with soap if you need too. And, your life will go much smoother.
And, while all of this might be true and really great advice for any human being anywhere in the world today (well maybe not the soap in the mouth part), remember that we are talking about what it means to be called a collective people of God from our Christian tradition. How might we be instructed to consider the power of words, in our efforts to be a Christ-centered community both in this place and out in the world?
I believe we begin to find out the significance of the exhortation when we closely look at 3:1, a verse that might seem out-of-place if not given a second look:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Why is James talking about guidelines for teachers? What does this have to do with godly speech?
A.K.M. Adam, Professor of New Testament and Church History at Western Theological Seminary puts it like this: our speech is dangerous because of the possibility not only of the hurtful things we say, but of the position of who says them. He writes: “Few should become teachers, and those who do become teachers should watch what they say, because teachers will not be held liable not solely for their own follies but also for the errors that their students assimilate and pass on.”
Adam goes to talk about the serious problem with the power in our words. He writes, “The more a mistake (or hurtful word) is repeated, and the more authority with which it is clothed, the greater are the damaging effects.”
Thus, beyond the fact that all words have power, the consequences of negative words spoken stem from the authority associated with the person communicating it. We might think here that James is just talking about teachers, and for those of us who are not teachers think that we are off the hook. Such is far from the case.
In the church intended to receive James’ letter, “teachers” were all those with leadership abilities. It was everyone who had a voice in the way the church business operated. It was everyone who had the opportunity to open their mouths and expect to be heard.
Now, fast forward to today, to us, sitting here in this building, in this organization called “Washington Plaza Baptist Church.”
The “Baptist” part of our name means something very important about how it is that we have decided together to be God’s people gathered in this place. One of the historical principals associated with what it means to be Baptist is the celebration of the priesthood of all of the believers. We believe that no pastor or elder or leader in this place has authority that is greater than any other member. In fact, it was this book of the Bible, James that inspired Martin Luther’s call for reform in the Catholic Church which led to the Protestant Reformation.
And in following in our Protestant roots, our church constitution says that it is not me, your pastor who makes decisions for the church life, but you and I working together. This is why we make such a big deal about our bi-yearly congregational meetings and do everything we can to keep everyone informed about all the big decisions facing the church. The authority of this body of people trying to live in Christ way is spread out among all of you who would make your permanent home here.
And, I have to say that, this is something that all of you are good at. I’ve never been to a Bible Study or a committee meeting or even a Church Council meeting where our problem has been lack of verbal contributions.
I mean this in the nicest way when I say that this church has the gifts of gab. It is rare that I do not know what you are thinking or feeling about a subject, because this is a church that takes the priesthood of all believers seriously. Even for the more quiet among us, these folks usually get at least one word into any conversation we have. You truly live into your authority as teachers, as companions, as leaders to one another along this journey of being a church together.
But, my question for all of us this morning is, are we mindful of the power of what we are saying, when we choose to speak?
Let’s face it most of us enjoy talking about other people. The phrase our mommas might have told us growing up time and time again: “If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all” doesn’t quite cut it these days in an era when gossip TV has its own channel. Even in our God-centered community like this, it is easier to do the alternative. To quote the great theologian Oscar Wilde, “If you can’t say something good about someone, come over here and sit next to me.”
Yet, before we begin speaking out of our own impulse to fill the void of space with our voice, or we begin to spew out the latest piece of gossip “Have you heard about so and so?” or even we feel compelled to speak with any thought to our commentary, in the way of Jesus Christ there is a different way. A different way of being God-centered people where blessings on others reign and cursing fall away before they ever get to the tip of our tongue!
James exhorts us in verse 10 of our text, “From the same mouth come blessings and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”
Like it or not, intentional or not, your words in this church and in this community have power. And though we might not always find ourselves at the end of the day saying exactly what we would have liked to have said, the important part is that we are mindful of the great power we hold in our tongue. And, to use it, asking God for great wisdom as we do.
Why is such a calling important, needed and even worth all the effort, you may wonder?
I believe that such kind of speaking is the leadership that our culture needs from us, just as the leader’s in James’ community of faith needed from them. For in our world today, words are as cheap as they come and are often exchanged without regard for who and what might be abused in their path.
Through the “gift” of email, slander is as easy as it comes. Through the gift of online social sites like Facebook and Twitter, individuals can post words on a minute by minute basis without having to feel the immediate consequences of the hurtfulness of statement. And, even this week, we’ve seen what happens when an elected official thinks he can share his opinions without any concern for proper protocol or forum. How easy it is to just put words out into the world without acknowledging their power.
Just yesterday, I was downtown DC and found myself in the middle of a political rally. While I applaud our country’s gift to us of freedom in speech, some of the words on the signs I saw protesters carrying were quite disturbing. Signs carrying words of slander against non-Christians, signs carrying words of slander against our Presidents, signs carrying words of hate against the views of people who were different from them!
What was most disturbing about this experience was thinking about how the authority transmitted with these hateful signs, might have led innocent bystanders to think about all people of faith. It breaks my heart for even one person to think of Christian people of faith as judgmental haters. But, that was the only presence of words there.
My friends, our world needs us, now more than ever. We need to set a different tone in our culture allowing this local body to be light of words shinning in our dark, dark world. We in this place are to be an example of a different way.
If we are going to be a local body of people who are seeking to show through our lives the good story of Christ’s life, then we’ve got to step it up. No longer can we just speak to one another as if what we say doesn’t matter. No longer can words of emotional passion but without claim be the norm of our speech. No longer can we voice our personal opinions without thinking about how it helps the greater good as what we are about a community of faith. No longer . . . .
Let us commit this morning to use our words with great wisdom. And, let us use this time of commitment to ask God to help us seek the higher ways of discipleship that we are all being called to this morning as we sing, the hymn “Higher Ground.” AMEN