*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on Sunday, September 16, 2012
The tongue is a powerful thing. It represents the words we speak and the communication that comes forth from our mouths. Unlike those who say "Don't be concerned. It's just a bunch of words," James wants us to take seriously the impact of the tongue's power. Though a small organ in the body, don’t let its size fool you. The tongue has the power to effect things larger than itself. James gives us three illustrations of the power of the tongue.
First, the tongue is like the bit in a horse's mouth. A small bit of metal in a horse's mouth can turn the whole horse in whatever direction you wish it to go. One of the largest horses on record was a purebred Belgian stallion named Brooklyn Supreme. The horse weighed 3200 pounds and stood approximately 8 feet tall. And yet, this huge horse was controlled by a tiny bit in its mouth. If you can control a horse's mouth, you can control the entire horse. In like manner, James argues, to control one's own tongue will mean the control of one's whole body, or person.
Second, the tongue is like the rudder on a ship. This small moving part can change the direction of a large ship on the sea. Though unmoved by the strongest of winds a ship can be controlled by a tiny rudder. And we know of instances when the rudder of the ship was not guided in the right direction an oil tanker ended up creating a horrendous spill or an iceberg was not avoided bringing great disaster.
Third, the tongue is like a small fire. It only takes a spark to get a forest fire going. The destructive power of a small fire has been observed many times in places like the hills of Southern California during the dry seasons. Human lives, thousands of homes, and vast acreage of country have been destroyed by the tiny ember of a tossed cigarette.
As a nine year old one Summer day I thought I would start a tiny flame in the grass and brush in my backyard, which led into the lemon orchards. I imagined a small fire that I could quickly put out. The uncut brush was dry and yellow. I lit the tiny match and stuck the small flame to the brush. In seconds my backyard was in tall, uncontrolled flames and I was running in a panic. I imagined our house burning down. I told my mom and she called the fire department. A fire engine came to put out the flames, but my heart was still burning with guilt and fear of what my Dad would do to me when he got home. I spent all afternoon with a shovel trying to turn over the charred brush somehow hoping my father wouldn’t ever notice I had incinerated our back yard. A small flame can create a big fire!
Such is the power of the tongue, says James. Though the tongue has power for good or ill, James seems to focus on its destructive power. We are aware of the tongue's destructive power. Words thrown around carelessly can topple a person's reputation. A sharp tongue can tear the fabric of a friendship. Babbling speech can confuse and divide nations. Words can change the course of history. Adolph Hitler recorded his Nazi philosophy in the book Mein Kampf. Someone figured out that for every word in that book more than a hundred lives were lost in World War II. Words can enormously affect the course of our lives and our world. The tongue is a powerful thing.
That is why teachers have such an important responsibility. Their words are powerful. A teacher's role is to be held in high esteem. They have a lot of power and influence upon their pupils. Who of us does not have a special memory tucked away in the corner of our hearts of a beloved teacher whose encouraging words and enthusiasm for her task made a deep impression upon our lives? I remember a fourth grade teacher who had words of praise for my budding drawings of human organs in her Science class. Her gracious words were the initial cause of my wanting to become an artist.
I believe teachers play an extremely powerful and influential role in our society, but one that is most often not recognized or duly appreciated. In our culture, at least in recent decades, teachers have not been given the honor fitting the power and influence of their vocation. In Jewish culture the rabbi or teacher held a position of great honor and power. The young men were expected to count it their glory to carry the Rabbi's burdens, to bring his water, and to load his donkey. Many Israelites wanted to be rabbis. It’s not difficult to understand why in that environment a lot of people might want to be a teacher, often with less than noble motives. Teachers bear a great weight of responsibility for what they say and teach their students. So, James warns: "Not many of you should become teachers."
Not many of you should become teachers? This is not a message we like to hear proclaimed around the time we recruit Sunday School teachers. We'll take anyone who has the patience to sit down in a confined space with a group of tightly wound children, or who can read the lesson directly from the adult quarterly without stumbling over words like Mephibosheth. Not many of you should become teachers? The only time we might want to speak those words of James is after a teacher has driven most of the students away or has ended up giving children coloring pages from Mother Goose every week just to kill time.
One reason that James tells us that not many should be teachers is because he knows the power and influence of our words. A teacher's words can hurt or heal, lift up or tear down. I had an Old Testament teacher in Bible college, whom I greatly admired. I took his words to heart. One day in class while discussing ministry he told the class, in a rather blunt tone, that he would never lay his hands on a divorced person to ordain them. My world came caving in. You see, I had been married at a very young age. I had only lived with my first wife one year before I was drafted into the Army 43 years ago. We didn’t even live together the whole two years I was in the Army due to where I was located.
I didn’t want the divorce to happen. I believed in “until death do us part.” At the same time I came to believe that I was justified, even biblically speaking, in my divorce. Still, I was crushed, devastated, and felt like a failure knowing I had not lived up to my vows, even though much of the relationship was out of my control. Again I struggled with the fact that I had been divorced when several years later I sensed a call to enter Christian ministry, while Iris and I were dating. I read every biblical text and book I could find on divorce. Should I even be a Christian minister having been divorced? I knew my Bible well. A bishop shall be the husband of one wife. But, reassuring words of God’s forgiveness and a different viewpoint from fellow Christians and church leaders freed me to pursue ministry. I entered Bible school to prepare for ministry. Then, the words of my admired professor in the Bible school class that day fell on me like a huge rock. His harsh words cut to my heart, devastated. But, it was the kind and healing words of another pastor, teacher, and friend where I was a youth minister that restored my hope and the possibility of a future as a minister. I still treasure his kind and forgiving words, as if they were God’s words to me. Words have the power to wound or to heal.
Listen to the power in the words of the teacher in this story. Little Johnny was trying for a part in the school play. His mother knew he had his heart set on being part of the play, but she feared that he would not be chosen. On the day that the drama teacher gave out the parts after school Johnny rushed into his mother's arms, bursting with pride and excitement. "Mother," he shouted, "guess what! I've been chosen to clap and cheer!" Another teacher wrote on the child's report card, "Samuel participates very nicely in the group singing by helpful listening." These teachers know the power of their words. Their words can create or destroy, encourage or discourage. Teachers have a serious responsibility tied to their words.
There is a great responsibility that goes with teaching. That is why James says that many should not be teachers of the gospel. Teaching the gospel is a weighty responsibility. Teachers need to avoid using words that make God out to be a big, unforgiving Drill Sergeant in the Sky. They need to speak in language that doesn’t turn God into some glorified White American Male that diminishes a young Hispanic girl's self-esteem. Or they may need to restrain the tongue, which should have been practiced this past week by an unnamed teacher and televangelist (Pat Robertson) who didn‘t advice a Christian caller to divorce his “uncontrollable spouse,” which would be unChristian, but rather to become a Muslim so he could beat her! A teacher needs to be able to communicate God's love to those who feel unloved and unwanted or failures or wounded beyond healing. That’s just part of the awesome responsibility a teacher has with their words. How we teach God's character and redemptive story can affect the kind of Christianity a person practices or rejects.
Granted, as James says, we all make mistakes in speaking. I have taught some things that I do not now believe or that have diminished the personhood of someone. There is room for change, growth, and error in our teaching. And yet, the teacher's words in the church are like the rudder that steers the church's direction. In some ways teachers are the tongues of the body of Christ. That is why teachers have such a tremendous responsibility.
At the same time, we all can harness the wild power of our tongues. In many ways our tongues, our words and communication, are a power that needs to be controlled. By that I mean, used for uplifting, challenging, encouraging, healing, and saving purposes. James speaks of every kind species of wild animal being tamed by humans. Iris and I once had a cockatiel bird that we have taught to say "Hello" and could bark like our dog. To that extent, we had controlled his tongue. But, who can tame the human tongue? According to James, the untamed tongue is like the desert rattlesnake, full of poison. A bite from a poisonous tongue can do deadly damage. The poison of the tongue comes in many deadly forms--- cursing, lies, half-truths, slander, angry and bitter speech, destructive criticism, rumors, and gossip. The destructive power of the tongue, with lies, half-truths, and slander, has been on full display with the many political speeches during this campaign season. Having worked in many church settings and having heard the sad stories of many pastors and church members soured by a bitter tongue. I have seen how the poisonous talk of church members has choked the life out of a church.
I have seen how sharp words of disgruntled members can deeply wound persons, including their pastor, who become the object of gossip or criticism. I have observed how a forked tongue has caused divisions in churches and how wagging tongues have turned good people away from the church and Christianity altogether. Though we may have only spoken in a moment of anger or out of frustration with another member, a teacher, or the pastor; once we have spoken hurtful or rash words they are not easily retrieved. Once the arrows of our words are shot from the bows of our mouths at the heart of another person, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop their sharp, painful flight and inevitable wounds. Words can be deadly.
An old tale relates how a young boy who had spoken harshly of others and spread rumors in his village was being disciplined by his pastor. "Take this pillow and place a feather from it in front of each house in the village." The young boy did it and returned with a sense of accomplishment on his face. "Now go back and pick up each feather and put it back in the pillow," said the pastor. "But, they will all have blown away!" exclaimed the boy. "So it is with the words we say," chided the pastor. "Our words, once spoken, can never be retrieved again." Or as the Chinese proverb says, "A word rashly spoken cannot be brought back by a chariot and four horses."
Taming the tongue involves not only controlling the evil and hurtful things that we might say, but speaking words of hope and healing. How can the same tongue speak words of praise to God and curse those who are in the image of God? Can a spring bring forth both bitter and sweet water? Instead of bitter words upon our tongues, we can speak the sweet words of prayer and praise, kindness and compassion, encouragement and affirmation. I appreciate it when church members share words of affirmation for each other or send notes of encouragement and appreciation to one another. Most of us can't imagine how powerful those words are. I know that some who receive such gracious, affirming words have been lifted up out of the pits of despair. Such words give evidence of redeemed tongues, touched by the Spirit of Christ. We can harness the wild power of the tongue and tame it for speaking words of hope and healing and praise to God.
Our tongues were meant to praise God. That is the tongue's true power and glory. We can do without another sharp tongue, another wagging tongue, another critical tongue, or one more bitter tongue. We can use more tongues of prayer, praise, affirmation, healing, and hope. If we practice using our tongues in daily praise to God, hopefully, we can tame our tongues and use them for edifying others. How can a tongue that praises God, curse another human being? In the words of songwriter Charles Wesley our mouths can be filled with perpetual praise: O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise!