Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 13, 2009

2009.09.13 “Tongue Tamers Wanted: Lessons in Practical Christianity”

Central United Methodist Church

“Tongue Tamers Wanted: Lessons in Practical Christianity”

James 3: 1–12

Pastor David L. Haley

September 13th, 2009



It’s a funny thing: every time I preach this text – “Tongue Tamers Wanted” – some public person the week before always provides me with a perfect example, of what not to do.


Three years ago, it was Pope Benedict XVI, who inflamed Muslims with a careless statement, for which he had to apologize. This week, that person was South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson.  As everyone knows, Wilson vocally called the President a liar during President Obama’s address to Congress, setting a new low for public discourse. Under pressure from both Republicans and Democrats, Wilson called the White House to apologize afterwards, saying he let his emotions get the best of him. 


In some ways, Wilson’s behavior is the culmination of a series of raucous town hall meetings across the country this summer, full of people shouting and acting rudely.  John McCain, for example, had a woman removed from a town hall meeting, because she wouldn’t stop yelling.  Personally, I’m praying such rude behavior doesn’t spread to churches.


But it also reflects an escalation in rude behavior that all of us have noticed, in both public and private discourse, and perhaps, even in ourselves. The tendency to speak rashly, rudely, and without respect to others seems to be the new standard. But when we behave in an uncivil, rude way, even for what we believe is right, what really do we accomplish?  And when we act that way, are we more Christian or less Christian? The verdict of the Letter of James this morning is less, warning us with near certainty that we will come to regret it.


This is our second reading and sermon from the New Testament Letter of James, under the theme, “Lessons in Practical Christianity.” The Letter of James, traditionally associated with James, the brother of Jesus, was written late in the 1st Christian century, not to argue heavy theological doctrines, but to address serious practical issues that were damaging congregations and Christians.  Last week, in chapter two, those issues were favoritism and indifference; this week, in chapter three, James addresses Christian communication, specifically what we say and how we speak to and about one another.

Even without rudeness and incivility, most of us already know that communication is difficult enough. So if it seems that today’s reading and sermon might have been written by Ann Landers rather than the Apostle James, that’s because the passage contains much that is known, much that is common sense.


Because the problem with communication at its best is that the message I intend may not be what I say, what you hear, or finally, what you receive.  (Diagram)  As Robert McCloskey, a State Department spokesman, once said, ”I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” 


Furthermore, to make matters worse, communication experts tell us that 93 – 94 % of communication is nonverbal. Not all of what you say on the phone may get through, and with less direct methods, like emails or text messages, even less.  Who has ever had an email misunderstood, because it contains no inflection, no emotion? No wonder some people resort to those little emoticons.


Communication is difficult, even with people we love. Husbands and wives, for example.  Who was it who said that sometimes the difference between a good marriage and a bad marriage is two or three things a day left unsaid?

A friend recently sent me an email entitled, “how the fight started, illustrating the trouble you can get in when you speak without thinking.  For example, ”When I got home last night, my wife demanded that I take her someplace expensive …. so, I took her to a gas station.  And that’s when the fight started….  Or, “My wife was hinting about what she wanted for our upcoming 20th anniversary.  She said, “I want something shiny that goes from 0 to 200 in about 3 seconds.” So I bought her bathroom a scale.  And that’s when the fight started….

In reality, all of us – whether President Obama, Pope Benedict, Joe Wilson, or David Haley, must confess that at one time or another, we say something we wish we had not said, particularly in the way we said it.


But if in marriages, relationships, and generally, in civil discourse, the integrity of our communication is important, in the church it is even more so.  Because as Christians, with careless communication we run the risk of undermining with our mouths what we believe in our hearts.


And so for one Christian congregation — for the benefit of all Christian congregations — James, brother of Jesus, raises the roof and gives us (in this case, not a peek but a listen inside), and he — and we — don’t like what we hear.  


No one tells us what had happened. Was it a meeting of the Men’s Breakfast that dissolved into gossip? Did someone in the Youth Group make a cutting remark, or send a vicious text message, about someone else?  Did someone at Women’s Circle start a rumor?  Did the Pastor say something ridiculously stupid from the pulpit?


Yes, I’m aware of that possibility.  If you think I’m only preaching to you, I’m not, I’m preaching this sermon to myself as well. Because, as James points out, pastors, leaders, and teachers in the church, says James, have a special responsibility due to our privileged position, to be careful what we say and how we say it:


“Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.”


All of us who serve as teachers or mentors, to adults, youth, or children, are aware of this, even as I, as you Pastor, am aware of it.  Being not infallible, but human, we will occasionally slip up and say things both alienating and embarrassing. I regret to admit, that over the years there have been people who left church because of things they claimed I said from the pulpit. My consolation is, however, that just as there are people who say, “Pastor, were you talking to me?”, there are also those who say, “Pastor, you were talking to me, and I thank you.”  As we have seen in our readings from the Gospel, they did it even to Jesus.  It goes with the territory.


But whoever it was, and whatever they said, they sure set James off, with metaphors flying:


“A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything — or destroy it!”


It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.


My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?”


I don’t think James was talking here about what we call “cursing,” which for some people, including family and friends, is a language in itself. 


As we all have likely learned from experience, how we talk – like how we dress — is part of the message given about us, and, for most people, except maybe longshoremen, firemen and the military, it’s not very attractive. 


        And, as we also have likely learned, once you start, it only tends to deteriorate. As a preacher mentor once told me, “Counselors told me to deal with my stresses, I needed to learn how to curse.  Now I’ve got rid of the stresses, I can’t get rid of the cure.”   Parents, especially if you have young children, be careful what you say, because you are going to hear it back, at the worst possible time and place.  Examples could be shared.


        No, I don’t think James wasn’t talking about that language as much as he was talking about the ordinary language we use to and about each other.  Because, while we may say,


“Sticks and stones may break my bones,

but words can never hurt me.”


In reality, if they didn’t, would we even say this?  Words do have great power: words wound and cripple; words, once spoken, cannot be retrieved; words withheld from others cause them to ache to hear them; words are even imputed to others in the imagination.  Words can hurt and words can heal. 


The language — the curses or blessings — we use in regard to our children and spouses and friends, can become self-fulfilling prophecies:  smart, stupid, attractive, ugly, loved, damned.


        How alarming, then, that cutting words might ever be used by Christians, or worse, in a Christian congregation, by people who in their hearts believe one thing, but then, through their words or actions, do another.  To use the same gift of speech that enables us human beings to praise God, but then use it to curse our fellow human beings, also made in the image of God. 


So, brothers and sisters, on James’ advice, we should always work to improve our personal communication, not to settle for the lowest common denominator and thereby make it worse.


I’d be the first to confess that even in the church, with all the means of communication we have available, sometimes they fail. Our ideal goal is to communicate things “three times in three ways”: through announcements, bulletins, newsletters, letters, and emails.  We’re also going to initiate a new communications tree, both by email and by phone, so that hopefully, when there is news to communicate, such as the news of someone’s death, few people will get left out.


        And, with the outside world under legal constraint, we in the church also need to be more careful about confidentiality. Some people really do not want their private information shared publicly; I’ve gotten to where I won’t even pray publicly for a person by name unless they’ve given me permission to do so.  In the church as outside the church, there is a fine line between talking about someone as a subject of concern and talking about them as a form of gossip. 


Which brings us to that form of church communication which is most pathological, triangulation: talking to a third person about someone else.   Rumors, gossip, lies, as James pointed out, are like sparks setting off wildfires in a congregation. Even well-intended remarks can have the same effect if they are distorted and spread.  Beware every conversation that leaves the first person (I/we), or the second person (You), into 3rd person language.   (He/She/They) 


Here are some of the rules I try to abide by as a Pastor:


Never say anything to anyone about anything spoken in confidence.


Never say anything about anyone you don’t have permission from them to repeat.


Never say anything about anybody to anyone, in lieu of saying it to that person themselves.


        Have we solved the problem? Of course not, as James warned us, it’s not the kind of problem that’s going to be solved with three points and a poem.  I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but that’s the way James ended:


“This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue — it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!”


By the grace of God, let’s commit ourselves, as far as possible, to overcome bad communication with good.  I like the way James put it, in chapter 1, verse 19, leading into this passage.  Hear it from the Message:


“Post this at all the intersections, dear friends:


“Lead with your ears,

follow up with your tongue,

and let anger straggle along in the rear.

God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger.”


In the current climate, good advice for all of us to hear, heed, and practice. 



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