September 23, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



James 3:1-12

There was a preacher who was selling his horse.  He explained to the buyer that he had trained this horse in a unique way.  The only way you could get this horse to move was to say “Praise the Lord”, and the only way to get this horse to stop was to say “Amen”.  So the buyer mounted the horse, said “Praise the Lord”, and the horse started walking.  He couldn’t quite remember what to say to get the horse to stop, so he tried “Praise the Lord”.  The horse started to trot.  Then he yelled “Praise the Lord”.  The horse started to gallop.  The faster the horse went, the harder it was for this man to remember what to say to get him to stop.  They were approaching a cliff.  It was now or never.  Suddenly he remembered.  He screamed, “Amen!” and the horse came to a screeching stop, inches from the edge of the cliff.  He was so relieved he put his hand to his forehead and said, “Praise the Lord!”

There is power in words.  And it’s important to say the right words.  Has anyone here ever had the experience of saying something and then wishing you hadn’t said it?  I know Mitt Romney wishes he never said, “I don’t worry about the 47% who pay no income tax.”  I know Barack Obama wishes he never said, “You didn’t build that.”  Words are powerful!  They can win or lose elections.  They can start or stop wars.  Adolf Hitler wrote words that became a book called Mein Kampf.  For every word he wrote, 125 lives were lost in World War II.

But there is more than negative power in our words.  Words can be terribly destructive, but words can also be wonderfully constructive.  The Bible is words on pages.  But these words are words of life and hope and salvation.  For every word written in the Bible, how many lives have been rescued?  How many women and men have been introduced to Jesus Christ and have discovered the purpose for which they were created?

Today our series from the book of James continues with another topic that applies directly to our lives.  The power of words.  The power of that little muscle in our mouths called the tongue.  We’ve said James is the Bible’s “how to” book.  It tells us how to live a Christian life.  We have one more “how to” to add to our list today, the shortest and the simplest but probably also the hardest to do.  5.)  Control your tongue.

Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”.  Proverbs by the way is the Old Testament book of practical wisdom.  James is often called the Proverbs of the New Testament.  Both Proverbs and James are filled with memorable sayings about the power of our words.  Here are just a few.

In Proverbs:  “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (10:19).  In James:  “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19).  In Proverbs:  “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are his delight” (12:22).  In James:  “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (1:26).  In Proverbs:  “Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin” (13:3).  In James:  “So speak and do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12).  In Proverbs: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1).  And in James:  “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters, whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law” (4:11).

It was true when the Old Testament was written.  It was true when the New Testament was written.  It’s just as true today.  Words are powerful, for good or for ill, and therefore it is really important that we figure out how to control our tongues.

James begins, “Let not many of you become teachers” (3:1).  He’s not giving vocational advice, though I’m sad to say I’ve heard that advice given these days.  It’s not an easy time to be a teacher.  But that’s not what James is talking about.  When he says “teachers” he includes preachers and any other calling where you are in front of a group of people speaking words that will have an impact, for better or for worse, on many lives.  He’s giving a warning.  Be careful what you say.  Don’t take the responsibility you’ve been given lightly.  Words that you speak without even thinking much about what you are saying can have an impact on lives far greater that you can imagine.

Tom Lyden was an eighth grade teacher at Joseph Lane Junior High in Portland, Oregon.  One of his students was Gary Gilmore.  The same Gary Gilmore who was convicted of murder and executed by a firing squad in Utah in 1977.  Gary was a troubled kid in eighth grade.  He was a handful for Mr. Lyden.  But this teacher did his best.  He remembered Gary over the years.  And he was very sad when Gary’s life turned out the way it did and ended as it did.

After the execution a writer tracked him down, looking for people associated with Gary’s past.  He got his name from Gary.  Gary had said that of all his teachers, Mr. Lyden was the one he most respected.  He said he had reached out to Mr. Lyden for help, but realized he hadn’t made it easy to be helped.

This news broke Tom Lyden’s heart.  He had no idea Gary Gilmore would even have remembered him.  Here’s what Tom Lyden said:

At that time in 1977 I was principal at Rose City Park School, in Portland, and we had a kid there who was a real problem to us and to himself and to his school.  I had wanted the two teachers involved to reach out more for this boy, but they’d had it up to here with him and just wanted to get rough with him and turn him over to the authorities.  The day after I got the call, we had a staff meeting about this kid and I told those teachers the story.  I said, “Yesterday I got a telephone call about Gary Gilmore.  Gary told somebody that he once had an eighth grade teacher whom he’d held out his hand to, and that the teacher didn’t quite reach for it.  He said he thought that perhaps that teacher could have made the difference in his life.  That teacher was me.  Now what are you going to do about this youngster?”  (Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore.)

James says, “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness”.  We have an extra heavy responsibility.  But that doesn’t let those who don’t teach off the hook.  Because who doesn’t teach?  Every one of us speaks words every day that impact lives in ways greater than we know.  “We all make many mistakes” (3:2).  How well we know that.  No matter how hard we try, we will speak words that hurt more than help.  But maybe if we realize the power of our words, we will be more careful, we will think before we speak, we will do more good than harm.

James is great with illustrations.  It makes my job easier.  I just use his illustrations and don’t have to come up with my own.  He gives three to help us understand the power of the tongue.

First, he says the tongue is like a bridle.  You can use a bridle to stop a horse, even one trained to stop on the word, “Amen.”  You can use a bridle to steer a horse.  You can control a massive animal with a bridle that weighs practically nothing.  Our tongues have similar power way out of proportion to their size.

Then he says the tongue is like the rudder on a ship.  Huge ship.  Small rudder.  But without that rudder the ship drifts aimlessly.

Finally, the tongue is like a small fire.  It’s like a match.  It’s nothing.  And yet small though it is, it can start something huge.  It can set an entire forest on fire.  And we’re left breathing the smoke hundreds of miles away.  Using words carelessly is a little like lighting Advent candles under your Christmas tree that has been sitting in your living room for a month.  A little mistake.  A horrific result.

And of course fire does not have to be a negative concept.  Tongues of fire were part of the beginning of the Christian church, as people were set on fire for the Lord, a fire that burns to this very day.

Fire can be very good or very bad.  Our tongues are like that.  James says blessings and cursings come from the same tongue.  That shouldn’t  be.  You wouldn’t expect the same spring to give pure water one minute and polluted water the next.  You wouldn’t expect your apple tree to grow peaches.   You shouldn’t expect Christians to bless one minute and curse the next.  Christians of all people should be speaking words consistent with who we are as followers of Jesus.  We shouldn’t be saying one thing in one setting and something very different in another setting.  We shouldn’t be duplicitous.

The late Stephen Covey wrote about this in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (page 196).  He called it “being loyal to those who are not present”.  We often do just the opposite.  We talk about people behind their backs.  We say things we wouldn’t dream of saying to that person face to face.  And everyone present therefore knows one thing for sure.  These people who feel so free to bad-mouth that one who’s not here will feel just as free to bad-mouth me as soon as I leave the room.  This is one of the biggest killers of trust in group dynamics.

And here’s what James would say Christians do to combat this.  When everyone else is saying something bad about the person not present, you say something good.  Or when you agree with the bad things being said, you insist that a couple of you go to that person as it says in Matthew 18 and “speak the truth in love”.  When you have the courage to do this, to control your tongue, to stand up for the person not present, you communicate in a powerful way that you can also be counted on to stand up for the others, even after they leave the room.  And trust is built.

I want to be more specific on this general topic of duplicity in our speech.  There are two common ways we use our tongues destructively.  One is gossip.  Gossip is saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to that person’s face.  The other is flattery.  Flattery is saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind that person’s back.

James describes the tongue as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8).  That is certainly a good description of gossip.  Gossip is poison.  You can ruin the reputation of another person and you can ruin your own soul in the process.

I have quotes from two Roosevelts that fit here.  First from Alice, the daughter of Teddy:  “If you can’t say something nice, come sit next to me.”  And then from Eleanor, the wife of Franklin:  “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”  Which when you thing about it is an interesting commentary on our presidential campaign.  We’ve heard a lot about people, a lot of personal attacks, less about current events, and less still about ideas.

Dave Ramsey says when his employees gossip at work, they get one warning.  The second time they’re fired.  He feels that strongly about the destructive power of gossip.

There was a woman who spread rumors about another woman, rumors that turned out to be false.  She went to her pastor and told her what she had done and how deeply she had hurt this woman with her gossip.  What could she do to make things right?  The pastor told her to take a pillow filled with feathers, to scatter the feathers all over town, and then to come back and see her the next day.  This was strange advice, but she did it.  She came back the next day and the pastor said the next step was for her to go around town and pick up every feather.  She said, “That’s impossible.  The wind has carried those feathers everywhere.”  The pastor said, “Neither can you take back the gossip you have spoken”.

Then there’s flattery.  Dale Carnegie says flattery is telling the other person exactly what he thinks of himself.  We like to hear flattery.  Flattery can win friends and influence people.  But flattery is not honest.  It is duplicitous.  As surely as gossip, it breaks the ninth commandment.  “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20:16).  And remember last week?  James says you break one commandment and you’ve broken them all (2:10).

I want to close with another of the many illustrations James uses in this passage.  He says we’ve tamed the wildest of beasts.  Animals that would tear you to pieces if given the chance can be trained to do tricks at the circus.  Animals trainers even put their heads in the mouth of a lion.  You can tame the wildest beast.  But James says, “No human being can tame the tongue” (3:8).

I don’t want to end today by telling you to try harder and do better.  Because I believe James is right.  “No human being can tame the tongue.”  There are certain things we can’t do for ourselves.  There are certain habits that are so deeply ingrained, certain sins that have become such a part of us, certain words that just come out without thinking and once they’re out, they’re out.

We said at the beginning, of all the “how to’s” in this book of James, to control our tongues is the shortest and the hardest to do.  James says we can’t do it.  Not on our own.  Only with God’s help.

Even with God’s help we will slip now and then.  “We all make many mistakes” (3:2).  When we do, we need to say we’re sorry and move on.  There is forgiveness for ill-chosen words.  If not from the one offended, then from God.

But here’s how we make progress in this area of controlling our tongues.  Don’t focus on the words that come out of your mouth.  Focus on the thoughts that are the source of those words.  Focus on your heart.  What comes out of our mouths is a pretty good indication of what’s going on in our hearts.  So make sure your heart is right.  Allow God’s love to fill your heart with good thoughts.  Then the words that come out of your mouth will be good words.

The Psalmist said, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).  If the meditations of our hearts are acceptable to God, chances are the words of our mouths will be, too.

Lord God, come into our hearts, change our hearts, melt them, mold them, fill them with your love.  And then, when we do speak, it will not be our words.  It will be your words.  And the tremendous power in that little tongue will be power for good.  In Jesus’ name,   Amen.