James 3:1-12New International Version (NIV)
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 525,600 minutes (sing it!). One year ago my alma mater lost their first-ever game against a local football team, which shall remain anonymous. I waited over a year for the rematch, which took place last Monday evening. And aside from about a 15-minute span, the outcome of the game was never in question.
So today I am prepared to talk a little smack; I am prepared to give all Hokie fans a verbal beat down. Unfortunately, I actually read today’s scripture. What does our scripture for this morning teach? Control your tongue. So this morning, rather than the verbal beat down that I am prepared to give you all, I instead offer a blessing. Because as James shows us, the same little piece of pink muscle covered with bumps and saliva can be used not only for cursing, but also for building up.
Therefore, I offer all of you Hokie fans a blessing this morning. Remember that last year’s game did not go well for my Buckeyes, but the season ended on a positive note for us. And though your situation may seem dire at this time, my hope and prayer for you is that this season will end well for you, too. Not as good as our season did last year, but still pretty good.
We are continuing our series in the book of James this week, but rather than finding teachings from Paul that we can compare and contrast with those of James, we today come to a pretty standard teaching across all Christian teaching. We are called to watch our tongues.
You have probably heard the old saying that was common on the playground in the days of my youth, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I’m going to tell you something that you already know. That teaching is wrong. Flat-out wrong.
I’ve broken my fair share of bones, and for the most part those bones have healed just fine. I can predict the weather based on how my foot feels, but I am not limited in my use of that foot. My physical body has healed, but there are times when I think back on my coming-up years and I realize that some of the insecurities that I have today may be a result of the teasing that I endured in Junior High and High School. And I wonder sometimes how I might be different today if rather than hearing ridicule and mocking I had heard blessings and encouragement.
But I want us to notice right away that James is not focusing at first on just saying nice things and playing well with each other. He is specifically addressing teachers. James writes in verse 1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Hey James, where were you 10 years ago when I got into this preaching thing? This is an important concept not only in Christian preaching, but in any kind of teaching. Whether you stand up before a congregation on a Sunday or in front of students in a classroom Monday through Friday, all of us teachers need to recognize that we have a responsibility to teach well. We are all molding hearts and minds. And perhaps this has changed some over the last number of decades, but by virtue of our office as teacher, we are given a certain amount of respect and authority. Fifty years ago you would never have questioned the teaching of a pastor or even your math teacher. They are the authority on the matter. The pastor is the mouthpiece of God, chosen by God to preach his word!
I think that it is good that over the last 50 years or so that this has changed a bit, at least in the church. If I stood up on a Sunday and told you that I received a message from God that we are to all burn down our neighbors’ houses, I hope that you would choose to not listen to me! But imagine being a leader in the church back before the average person in the pew knew how to read or even owned a Bible. There was no way or reason for a person to question the teachings that they heard on a Sunday morning. Take for instance the abuses of the church around the time of Martin Luther. I tend to question why the people would go along with some of the extreme teachings that were presented as the gospel truth. You’re telling me that if I pay a little more money to the church that my loved one will get out of purgatory? Here’s my last dime! The people didn’t know any better and they couldn’t read the Bible for themselves. So if the pastor told them that it was true, they were going to believe it.
In James’ day it would have been even more extreme because most people were just hearing about Jesus for the first time. So for a teacher to have that kind of power and authority was necessary, but it also could be dangerous. Because if that teacher said something misleading, people automatically accepted it. So teachers and preachers, watch your tongue! Even though we live in a different era than James did, we still have the responsibility to not mislead God’s people.
After this warning to teachers, James goes on to develop a few metaphors to help us understand the power of something as small as the tongue. He compares the tongue to a horse’s bit, to the rudder of a ship, and to a fire. Each metaphor develops a different aspect of the power of the tongue.
The horse’s bit is interesting. If you have not been around horses much you may not understand this reference. But you know that horses are big, powerful animals. They can be used for transportation, for hauling wagons, and even for doing heavy field work.
Horses are also known for their big, powerful teeth. If you ever feed a horse something like an apple, you better watch out for those chompers! But horses don’t have teeth all of the way to the back of their mouth. A bit is placed in the mouth of a horse where it has no teeth and is held in place by the bridle, which is attached to the reins. Because this part of the horse’s mouth is sensitive, when pressure is applied to one side of the bit, the horse responds by turning into the pressure.
When James uses the metaphor of a bit to explain the power of the human tongue, he is noting that a simple little piece of metal can control the big, powerful horse. And in this metaphor James doesn’t even consider any outside forces or beings. The idea is that what you say can have a power over your entire being.
We’ve probably all encountered people who have allowed their own tongue to really just poison their personality: grumpy old men, crotchety women, and even mean kids in school. You know not to ask them how their day is going because they are just going to say something negative. Even on a bright, sunny day, they complain about the heat. Temps drop and they let you know how cold it is.
Let me just say that cranky people are not fun to be around.
But James doesn’t stop with the individual person and the effects of the tongue. He changes the metaphor to a ship rudder. Even though the ship itself is large it is controlled by a little rudder. The rudder is the thing that directs the ship one way or another. Now James introduces an outside force, the wind.
I’ve not spent a lot of time on the sea, but I assume that being out in the middle of a large body of water during a storm can be pretty intimidating. There are stories in the Bible of the disciples getting caught out in the middle of the sea in a storm and fearing for their lives. You can’t control the wind, but you can control how you react to it.
When James compares the tongue to a rudder, he is recognizing that there are going to be outside forces that will push us around in this world. We may be beaten back and forth, we may even wonder if we will live through it all. And I think that James is using this metaphor of the rudder to remind us that we are not completely without power during these storms. That little rudder, our tongue, can guide us through.
There are some really bad things happening in the world around us. An estimated 11 million Syrians have been displaced because of the current civil war in that country, with around 4 million officially applying for refugee status. Last week, on September 10, President Obama made arrangements for the United States to accept 10,000 of those refugees into the United States. The following day I heard someone complaining that it was not the President’s job to be letting more Muslims into the country, especially on the 14th anniversary of September 11. The President’s job, according to this individual, was to eliminate terrorism.
During this storm of refugees seeking help, our tongues can be used to divide and cause pain, or they can be used to bless and build up. And maybe I’m being a bit optimistic, but I feel as if helping others when they are in need is a good way to develop better relationships with foreign nations, which could do more to eliminate the threat of terrorism than dropping bombs ever would.
I think Jesus had a few things to say about this to; you’ve heard of the Good Samaritan? But I’m getting off the point. Our tongues affect us and they affect not only how we react to the winds that blow, but they can even redirect us in those storms.
Finally, James uses the metaphor of fire to describe the power of the tongue. Fire can be a good thing when it is contained. It can heat your home in the winter and cook your food when you get hungry. But as we all know, it can be dangerous. It can consume homes, neighborhoods, and even entire forests. Keeping a check on this powerful organ is important, because if we don’t it can leave destruction in its path.
On a recent Thursday I was sitting in the church working while Hadley was playing in the nursery. We were expecting her grandmother to come by soon to pick her up, so I was not surprised when I heard the door open. Hadley also knew to expect her grandmother, and I heard her run out of the nursery to meet who she thought was her grandmother. But it was not her grandmother.
Hadley said something to the visitor, who responded nicely and ducked into the restroom. I came out to see who it was only to see the door of the women’s restroom being closed behind our visitor.
I asked Hadley if she knew who our visitor was. It isn’t uncommon for people from church to stop by for something and head straight for the restroom. But Hadley said that she did not know who the woman was. So I went back to my little office space and waited for our visitor to come out of the restroom. And I waited some more. And a little more.
I decided to go out to the parking lot to see if I recognized the car that the visitor had driven, but there was no car to be found. Whoever was in the bathroom arrived that day on foot.
It isn’t unheard of for neighbors to stop by and ask to use the restroom. Maybe they are walking by and feel the urge to go and don’t want to try to make it all of the way back home. But the person had now been in the restroom for over 10 minutes and I was pretty sure that I didn’t know the person who was in there.
So now I’m getting a little bit nervous. I know that I can’t just keep working in my office space while she is in the restroom because I don’t want some stranger to come out of the restroom and grab my three-year-old daughter. And of course I get every far-out idea possible in my mind. I’m thinking that some druggie has come in off the street and is bleeding out in our bathroom. Great!
After about 30 minutes I knock on the door and ask, “Ma’am, are you alright in there?” She responds, “I’m fine. I’m just washing my face.”
How dirty was her face?
My mother-in-law finally shows up to pick up Hadley, and I realize that this is my opportunity to engage the visitor again. I am thankful for the extra set of eyes to make sure things go as planned. So I knock on the door again and say, “Ma’am, it’s after noon and I’m just getting ready to head home for lunch. Is there anything we can do for you?” She says, “No, I’m just done.”
Of course I’m just waiting to see what comes out of that restroom. The door opens and it is a woman in her mid-thirties. She says, “Thanks for letting me use your bathroom” as she heads for the door. And I respond by saying a very pastoral thing. I ask, “Are you okay?”
The woman replied, “Yes, I’ve just been out all night and I needed to get freshened up” and walks out the door.
Remember that just a few minutes earlier I had been worried that some druggie off the street was bleeding out in our bathroom. And now someone my age was walking out the door because she had been out all night partying on a Wednesday night and didn’t get up until after 11:00 am. I can get a little bit sarcastic, so when she told me that she had been out all night, the first thing that ran through my mind was, “Yeah, when I’m out all night the first thing that I do when I get up is ask myself, ‘Where’s the nearest Mennonite church. I need to freshen up a bit.’”
What do you think, would that have sounded a little bit judgmental? Sure it would! But I was worried for my daughter, worried about what I might find in that bathroom, and worried about a possible confrontation. I was a little frustrated, and when I found out that what was going on was someone my own age acting in a way that seems kind of irresponsible to me, I felt the need to make a snide comment! I had the right to do just that.
But I didn’t, and I’m glad I was able to hold my tongue.
Let’s try to hold our judgment for a minute and consider what this woman might have been going through that morning when she woke up. Obviously things did not go as she had planned the night before. You don’t wake up in a safe, comfortable bed and rush off to the nearest church. Evidently she felt that she needed to get out of wherever she spent the night before and she needed to get out quickly. Maybe she didn’t feel safe. Maybe she didn’t feel wanted. Regardless of her reason, there was something that made her feel like she had to get out of that place and she went to a church at 11:30 in the morning to get freshened up. The fact that she went to a church even though she knew that she would probably be judged speaks volumes to me about what she was trying to move away from. In hindsight, I am very glad that she felt she could come into our church to find a bit of hospitality in the form of running water and an endless supply of paper towels. And you better believe that I am glad that I held my tongue that day because if I had said something judgmental to her that Thursday morning trip to the church may have been her last.
My friends, we live in a country where we have been given freedom of speech. But being free to say whatever you want does not mean you should say whatever you want. The tongue is small, but it is mighty. Like the bit in a horse’s mouth, it can turn us one way or another. Like the rudder on a ship, it can direct us through a storm. And like a fire, it can be used for good or for destruction.
Out of the same mouth can come blessings or curses, but not at the same time. May we use this small, pink, bumpy appendage to bless people in the name of Christ.