This is the fifth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/a-world-of-evil-october-22-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.
Sometimes people take things away from a sermon that aren’t necessarily what you intended them to take away. I remember when I was a pastor that once a member of the church came up to me and said something about trying not to pray too much, or something like that. I asked her what she meant, and she referred to a sermon I had preached a few weeks before. What she had taken away from that sermon was that if we truly have faith in God, we will pray about something once or twice, and then stop praying about it and trust God to take care of it.
I don’t remember any more what exactly it was that I had said, but whatever it was I am reasonably sure that it wasn’t that. Whatever it was I said, though, she had not received the message that I was trying to send. That’s pretty much on me. In general, it is up to the person communicating to make sure that they are communicating in a way that the audience will understand and to be as clear as possible about what they are trying to say. Obviously I missed the target someplace with that particular sermon.
James could have had that moment in mind when he wrote this morning’s passage. Words can get us into trouble. Words can define us. It is possible, although I hope it didn’t happen, but it is possible that among that church member’s friends I became known as the pastor who thinks you shouldn’t pray so much.
Think about presidents of the United States. Often a president speaks words that will come to define his presidency, for better or for worse. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” “Read my lips: no new taxes.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Don’t those words kind of sum up, to one degree or another, the presidency of the man who spoke them?
Words have power. Words have impact. Words make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others, whether we are speakers or hearers. We can’t always control what we hear, but we can control what we say.
Let me change that. We can control what we say, in theory. In practice? It’s hard. I know that I say things sometimes that I shouldn’t say and I write things (which is just speaking in written form) that I shouldn’t write. I know I do that; sometimes I just can’t help myself. I think we all deal with that.
But at the end of the day, what does it matter? Who really gets hurt? We can always apologize, we can always explain what we meant, right? I’m just one person. How much impact can my words have? What difference can my speech really make?
When I was growing up there were certain words and phrases that I was taught not to say. Some of them were just thought of as rude, like “shut up.” I was taught not to say that. Some were vulgar, some were considered wrong from a religious standpoint – cursing in God’s name, for instance, or saying “hell” in a context that wasn’t actually referring to hell.
I think the list is still pretty much like that in terms of what parents teach children. I once played as part of a sermon a clip from the BBC play “The Son of Man” in which Jesus tells the disciples to shut up. I heard later from a parent who had been working to stop her daughter from saying “shut up” and was now finding it very hard since the daughter heard Jesus say it in church.
Our passage from James is sometimes used to reinforce that kind of teaching. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it has to go farther than that. This passage has to mean more than that kind of thing. You can tell because James puts it in the context of authority. The passage starts off saying, “Not many of you should become teachers.” The entire discussion starts off with a warning about assuming authority, and proceeds from there to talking about how those in authority can use their words to abuse that authority.
I started the sermon with a story about when I misused my authority, even though it was unintentional, a time when the words I spoke carried extra weight because of who I was and did not convey what I wanted them to convey. We all have authority in different situations and different contexts.
You may think that the kind of authority you have isn’t the kind where words can make that kind of a difference. You’re wrong, though. The Post had a piece this week by Meg van Achterberg, a child psychiatrist. She was writing about the late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel’s annual Halloween prank.
In case you’re not familiar with it, Kimmel asks parents on the day after Halloween to tell their kids that they (the parents) have eaten all of the kids Halloween candy and to tape the children’s reactions. Those tapes are then sent in to the show and some of them are shared on the air.
van Achterberg writes, “(Children’s) bonds with their parents are built on trust — trust that Mom and Dad would never do anything to hurt them. And it can feel like a violation of that trust to hear that Mom and Dad have stolen and eaten all of their hard-won spoils, the stuff they went to bed dreaming about.”
“Small kids also have rigid moral codes. Stealing is wrong. People are either good or bad. When they hear that their parents have stolen from them, they may wonder: Does that make my parents bad? Does it make me bad?”
“Of course, this isn’t exactly child abuse. But many kids will feel this particular prank as an emotional gut-punch, a breach of their parents’ love. When we consider that the sole aim of this betrayal seems to be the amusement of other people, in this case millions of strangers watching on TV, we’ve got to question the values of all the adults involved.”
That seems reasonable to me. It is an example of what James calls setting on fire the cycle of nature. The cycle of nature is that parents protect their children, and children grow up learning to trust their parents. The Kimmel Halloween gag breaks the cycle – maybe not irreparably, but it still breaks it. And while time will likely mend that break, things that are mended after a rupture are often not as strong as they were to begin with.
In the New International Version verse 6 of our reading says in part that the tongue “is a world of evil.” It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Consider John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Here the term “word” is being used to refer to Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is God’s message to the world. Jesus is the expression of God’s thought, the communication of what is in God’s heart. The world is saved through Jesus, the Word of God.
Words can hurt, but words can heal. Words can wound, and words can save. James wrote about the tongue and the spoken word, but he could also have been writing about the written word, about the Facebook post, about the YouTube video, about the tweet, about anything that expresses an idea or a thought or a message.
Our words especially can hurt or heal. Not just as parents, or as supervisors at work, or as teachers, or as anyone with authority as the world counts authority. Our words can hurt or heal as Christians.
We carry with us the authority of Christ. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a pastor or not – if you’re a Christian, you’re a minister. That’s called the priesthood of all believers, and it’s something that the Brethren have believed since their very beginning. All of us have the authority of Christ with us, whether we have been to seminary or not, whether we call ourselves Reverend or not, whether we ever stand up here behind this lectern and preach on Sunday morning or not.
We speak for Christ in the lives of anyone who knows that we are Christians. We speak for Christ in the lives of our friends and families, our colleagues, our Facebook followers. We speak for Christ in the lives of people who we may not know, but who know of us somehow. We speak for Christ in the lives of anyone we interact with, either actively or passively.
The tongue can be and can create a world of evil. The tongue can also speak the word of God. We are the ones who decide which it will do. Amen.