Sunday, September 13, 2015

Use Your Words!

1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 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. 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.

This month we’re focusing on the book of James in the Bible. It’s a short book in the New Testament that describes ways of living out the Christian message. The rules of the game, so to speak. He gives us the things that we should practice as Christians--some things we might want to change about ourselves or how we do church.

The writer of the book of James is like the referee who calls fouls when we don’t practice what Jesus preached. While this book was written almost 2,000 years ago, it is still relevant today. We make many of the same mistakes as people and as a church.

Last week, James reminded us that Jesus has a no-cut team. He—and the church—welcome all who are willing to walk through the doors to come to him.  Everyone who enters the sanctuary hears the same message—Welcome! You are loved. You matter. You are home.

This week James writes about the power of language. He understood that the words we choose help to create the reality we live in. He also knows we can get lazy. So, like any athlete needing to practice her sport, we have to practice using the right words.

You know that saying, sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me?  It’s what we say to bullies on the school playground when they call us names or try to hurt us with their words. It’s almost an automatic response when we are young, but I wonder if it’s true? Do we say it because the names don’t hurt us? Or do we say it because they actually do?
I suspect it’s because they do. We say it because whoever was calling us names had the power to hurt us and we want to take that power away. We use these words to fight back against the other words that were hurting us.

The reading from James shows us words are powerful. He uses the tongue as a symbol for language. And he compares it to three things:

First, the tongue is like the bit in a horse’s mouth. With it we guide the horse by showing it where we want it to go rather than letting it run wherever it would like.

The horse has a will of its own and is big enough to go where it wants. When we first moved into our house, we kept my sister-in-law's horse in our barn. Now I know some of you like horses and know how to handle them. I'm not one of those people. 

Anyway, when it was time to feed the horse, I'd open the barn door and this huge animal would come charging for me. The first time I was terrified. Don't worry, my husband says, she likes to play chicken. Just don't move and she will run around you. So in fear and terror I would stand still with my eyes closed expecting to be trampled by a runaway horse. 

Yes, indeed, horses have their own will and are big enough to do their own thing. But, put a bit in some horses' mouths and they will submit their will to the rider. Our words are similar. We can use them to guide ourselves and others in the right way when the will inside of us wants to go a different way.

We do this with our kids all the time. We take these willful little creatures and spend the first 18 years of their lives trying educate them with our words. We try to give them a good life by teaching them the word of God, words of thanks, words of love.  

Next, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a boat. Now a boat doesn’t have a will of it’s own, like a horse. It can be pushed by outside forces like wind, waves or a motor. The boat stays on course with its rudder. The wind and the waves can push a boat off course, but the pilot can use the rudder to stay on course.

The right words that can guide us when things seem to be falling apart around us, when things outside push us off course, when things like illness or job loss or divorce take us by storm. Words in the form of prayer and forgiveness can begin to heal us. They can guide us to safe places when when life is swirling out of control around us.

Finally, James compares the tongue to fire. Our tongue—our words—have the power to let things loose in the world. How we speak to and about one another influences our families, our churches and our community.

I was a Title IX baseball player. In the early seventies it became law that a community couldn't discriminate on the basis of gender for its sports programs. There had to be equal opportunities for girls and boys. Since my town didn't offer girls' softball, I was one of three girls who signed up for minor league baseball--with the boys. 

That first year, each time I'd come up to bat, the catcher would trash talk me. Come on, what are you doing here? Girls can't hit! What's your problem, anyway? Yeah, I knew you'd swing and miss!

Out in the field the players would do the chant, Come on, let's go, SHE can't hit. They'd bend over laughing because saying she instead of he was somehow hilarious. Back in 1970-something to do anything "like a girl" was an insult. Thank God that's changed. 

When I think back to that first coach, he probably took a big step at the minor league draft. He said, yes, I'll take a girl on my team. He spoke to me and treated me with respect. He created a culture with his words that allowed me to feel confident enough to keep showing up, even though I struck out a lot that first year. 

The way we talk to and about each other shows respect or disrespect, love or disdain, forgiveness or judgment. Each of us has the power to start a fire of blessings or curses with our tongues. We have the power to build up and tear down.

Because our tongues have power, we need to use them for good in the world. James says we should not use our tongues to bless God and curse our neighbor. We shouldn’t use our words to exalt God and condemn people who are made in the very image of God.

When we curse others, when we insult others, when we trash talk others we are not following the rules of God’s game, according to James. James says when we use our words the wrong way, we create a restless evil. Our tongues can be full of deadly poison. It can feed the fires of hell for us and for the people around us.

But when we use our tongues the right way, we bless God and the people around us. The Quakers have a tradition of asking three questions to help guide their tongues. A good guide for any of us if we want to bless others with our speech.

#1 Is it true? Do your words reveal something true about God’s world? Many weeks we pray Psalm 19: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight my rock and my redeemer. Don’t say anything in your life that you would not say to or in front of God. 

We also shouldn’t mistake being true for being nice and avoiding conflict. Sometimes the true words are the hardest to speak. But we still need to do it.

#2 Is it kind? We are to speak the truth in love. Paul writes: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Name calling is out. We need to get rid of all bitterness, anger, and slander, along with every form of malice.  We need to learn to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave us.  Sometimes we have to make sure our own hearts are in the right place before we open our mouths.

#3 Is it necessary? Sometimes we set out talking when we should be listening. Proverbs says: A fool's lips bring strife, And his mouth calls for blows. A fool's mouth is his ruin, And his lips are the snare of his soul.  Sometimes we get so excited about by our own thought or ideas, we forget to listen to others. We end up hijacking a conversation with our own personal agenda. 

These three questions are a good guide for speech, but I would add one more to this list:

Is it grateful? Over and over again we are told to praise God, to bless God or to tell of the good things God has done for us. Are we words we choose each day creating a life of gratitude for all that God has given us? Or are we creating a life of emptiness by only talking about the things we don't have or the things that go wrong? 

I was thinking about the importance of words when I watched a video of the 9/11 Remembrance for Flight 93. The memorial in Shanksville has added the audio messages of the people who were on the flight that went down, people who sacrificed their own lives to stop the plane from crashing and killing others.

The words at the end of life are not words of hate.  The people on Flight 93 said the most important words the could when faced with terror…

The words we choose when it really matters are words of love and reconciliation. What if we were to choose our words so carefully each day? Would that make us different people? What kind of world would we create if our words always reflected the love and forgiveness of Christ?

The book of James calls us to start a new season, one where we play by God’s rules. One where we heed Jesus’ call to love both God and our neighbor. In Christ, God shows us what happens when the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. We see what happens when God's Word is embodied. People change. Communities change. Eternity changes.

The Word of God is a living breathing thing and can be alive in you. It can be what you live out each hour of your life. Words of love can tame our wills and soothe our souls. In the end it's love that matters. It's love that binds us together in a world filled with chaos. Let’s all watch our words and live a life in gratitude for the love that God has shown us.

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