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Words Unwise and Wise -- James 1:29, 3:1-13 (17th Sunday After Pentecost)

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

This morning, I’m going to start with the bad news:

Our words – the words we say every day, day in, day out – our words can and do crush, deceive, distort, demean, and destroy. On the regular, our words hurt, harm, and wound folks, sometimes even those we love, sometimes deeply.

I start with the bad news this morning, because the writer of James fairly clobbers us over the head with it.[1] They don’t mince words: The tongue, the writer says – the source of all our speaking – the tongue is “a world of evil... it corrupts our whole body, and is itself set on fire by hell.” And then, two verses later, the writer says: “The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

And in case we don’t get the point, the writer of James offers up vivid imagery:

o The tongue is like a bridle on a wild horse in need of taming. If we don’t rein it in ---- well, watch out for the horse’s kick.

o The tongue is like the tiny rudder on a big ship, with the power to run the whole ship onto rocky shoals in the midst of a storm. Think Titanic – only bigger.

o The tongue is like a spark that can “set on fire the entire cycle of nature.” In our brittle and drought-ridden world, we don’t need to say more to understand the enormity of that image.

We could say that all this is hyperbole. And technically it is. But I think we get what the writer of James is saying. If you aren’t already thinking of this, take a moment and think of something, sometime – something that you said, that you now regret. A careless word. A word that, well, glossed the truth. A word that hurt.

For me, I can almost see it in slow-motion – that word that goes out of my mouth, and almost immediately, I know... I know what I’ve said,... and as the word is passing across my lips on the way out, I desperately want to just pull it back in. And then I see how it lands on the person to whom I’ve spoken – I can see it in their face, the impact I should’ve known and considered.... before I spoke.

Wisdom takes the words we say very seriously. Wisdom is finding ways of life that lead to more life – wisdom knows that in our words lie the potential for great harm – life-giving words, or death-dealing words. Wisdom thinks about our words, all the time – whether we look to the wisdom in Proverbs and the Hebrew Scriptures, or the wisdom in James, and the New Testament – or the wisdom in almost any other tradition.

We can’t find ways of living that lead to more life, if we don’t consider the power of the words we say, and the impact of our speech on those around us, on ourselves, and on the whole world.

James picks up on that and warns us of what we already know. There are words that hurt. When the worship team talked about this Scripture this week, Martha Spears said, “You know that saying, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,’ well that’s a bunch of nonsense. We all know words can hurt.”

There are words that are not true that cause great harm. Think about the vaccine. Countless numbers of people have died because they believed false words – untruths – the lie about the vaccine – believed the lie until it was too late.

There are words that don’t match up with the lives we live – hypocrisy – we touched on that last week – don’t be hearers of the word only, but be do-ers too. In another part of James, the writer says: “If you come upon someone who is without clothes and daily food, and you say: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and stay fed,’ but don’t DO anything that matches your words – what good is that?” What harm is that?

There are words that discriminate and oppress. The writer of James focuses on the poor who are spoken out to the margins of their community. Words that support systems of poverty, and racism, and xenophobia... all manner of injustice.

And, the writer of James also talks about empty boasting – what I might call it “big talking” – “Oh, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do that” – when you don’t really know. Know that you don’t know. And say, God willing, I hope to do this. Stick to what you know, or name what you don’t. Speak plainly. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”

Our words can and do crush, deceive, distort, demean, and destroy. That’s the bad news.

So what’s the good news? Well, oddly enough – the good news starts in the same place the bad news does. We are created this way: We are created with the power of words. We are created to ourselves create new realities, with the words we say. It’s been that way from the beginning.

When Proverbs speaks of creation, it places Wisdom there from the very beginning – Woman Wisdom the first of God’s works – from before the world began.[2] Wisdom, present with God, before the mountains, before the sea. She is there, with God, as God sets the heavens in place, sets the boundaries of the earth and of the seas. Wisdom present in creation, Proverbs says, filled with delight day after day, rejoicing in the whole world and delighting in humankind.

The creation stories in Genesis tell us that God speaks, and a world comes into being. Let there be. Light. Dark. The stars, the sun, the moon. The earth and every living thing. The seas. The land. Plants. Birds. Fish. The animals that crawl the earth. And us. God creates us in the image of God.[3] And then, as God walks with humanity in creation, God gives us the power to name what God has created – the gift of continuing God’s creative work – in the words we say.[4]

And there’s the creation story at the beginning of the gospel – the Gospel of John.[5] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In Christ, the Word became flesh, and dwelt in us – full of grace and truth. God’s Word pulsing in the fullness of humanity. Or, as James says, God’s word planted in us. Remember last week? When we look in that mirror, what we see is Christ – the life of Christ – the word of Christ – alive in us.

We are created in the image of a God who speaks worlds into being. Our words have the power to speak realities into being. That sounds like a bold claim. But think back to the beginning of this year. As I was working on this sermon, I remembered that we spent all of January talking about “The Words We Say” – that was our worship theme. We talked about “Together We Serve” – words that this community spoke together to describe your experience of your life in Christ – words that continue to create reality as we say them to ourselves – Together We Serve – and as congregations sing the hymn of the same name that’s in the hymnbook. Those words have informed the words we have claimed these past 18 months – Moving Forward Together. We know the reality that has flowed from those words.

We’ve taken to saying “This is the Day that God has made let us rejoice and be glad in it” – ancient words of Scripture made new each morning in our speaking – speaking into the day the hope that we might notice God’s presence in the whole of life, and be a part of what God is doing.

Grace abounds.” Over the past 18 months, how have those words shaped reality for you? When have you spoken them? How has your world changed?

So here are some true things:

o Our words can and do crush, deceive, distort, demean, and destroy.

o AND, We are created in the image of a God who speaks worlds into being; we are given the possibility and the power to speak realities into being.

This morning’s Scripture says it like this: Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing – blessings, words that create good in the world – and cursing – words that harm and destroy. That describes our reality, and it’s problematic – “that should not be so” -- as the writer explains: We are created in the image of the God who speaks worlds into being, AND, far too often, we curse – speak harm towards – those who are also created in the image of God.[6]

With this awesome power in our words – to create and destroy – to build up and to tear down – how do we navigate between the two? How do we navigate the shoals, control the wildfire, bridle the wild horse? How do we find our way to wiser words? How do we find words of life that bring more life?

We may want to start at the beginning of wisdom, and just say it: We know not. The writer of James suggests something similar, but maybe even a bit more practical – it’s a bit of last Sunday’s scripture that we read again today: “Beloved, be quick to listen, but slow to speech.” Or, as the refrain from Hamilton goes, “Talk less. Smile more.” (Aaron Burr says that to Hamilton again and again – with some irony – Aaron Burr’s problem is he doesn’t speak up when he should. Alexander Hamilton’s problem is he never shuts up, and his words cause a world of hurt.).

Be quick to listen, but slow to speech. The beginning of finding our way to speech may be silence. The Quakers have put this at the center of their life.[7] Beginning in silence, and waiting for speech. Quaker meetings – their parallel of our worship – are filled with silence. They gather in silence, and wait together – each person waiting, listening for the stirring of the Spirit, and then speaking, if at all, only when there is a sense that a word is ready and fitting to emerge from the silence. Robert Lawrence Smith says it like this: “For Quakers, wisdom begins in silence... Only by listening in stillness for [that still, small voice of the Spirit] and letting it guide our actions can we truly let our lives speak.”[8]

Be quick to listen, but slow to speak. Be do-ers of the word. Let our lives speak.

I’ve experienced that in a Quaker discernment practice called “Clearness Committee.”

Within the Quaker tradition, it’s a way that a member of the community can call the community together and seek support in working through some tough problem. The person invites folks to become this “Clearness Committee.” They gather – in silence. When the person is ready, they present the problem – what they are struggling with. And then, they sit together in silence. The members of the Committee are invited to offer a question, or an observation – but only, only after they have sat with this question: Is the word that is emerging in me apt, and timely, and needed? They sit with their question – before asking it – and consider:

o Is my question apt – Is this pertinent to the problem my friend is bringing? Or is it beside the point?

o Is it timely? Is this the right time to speak these words?

o Is what I am about to say needed? Does my friend need this question? Or is this about something else – maybe my needs – my baggage – my impulse?

And they wait together – testing their words – and speaking only after mulling their words in silence. Can you imagine how much more silence there would be in the world – how fewer careless words – if, for every word, we listened with the Spirit to see if the word was apt, and timely, and needed? If as those created in the image of the God who speaks worlds into being, we considered – in silence – the impact of our words on those who also bear the image of God?

Back a few weeks ago, we considered the wisdom of the generations – and I asked what wisdom do you bring into the world from your life – a word of life from your life. I invited, and a few of you shared – in the days that followed – your wisdom. Someone said to me: “You know, I think wisdom doesn’t come to us only in words, sometimes there is profound wisdom in silence with no words needed at all.” Someone else said to me: “You know, even when you have wisdom, I don’t think you always need to share it. Sometimes it’s better to keep it to yourself; sometimes it’s not what someone else needs to hear right then – maybe they need some space to get to that wisdom on their own.” This week, Jessica sent me this great quote from Yeats:

“[In our silence,] We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather around us to see their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even fiercer life because of our silence.”

So, that’s the invitation this week. Be aware of the power of words, Think some about the words that need to be said, and the words that might not. Is the word apt, and timely, and needed?

Be quick to listen, and slow to speak.

Talk less; smile more.

Remember that mirror last week? When we look in that mirror, we see the life of Christ, embodied in us. May we in our reflection create moments of stillness – so that others might be able to gather around and see their own image – the image of Christ – and because of our silence so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even fiercer life.”

© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on James and insight into its themes, see Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Epistle of James,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998); Margaret Aymer, James: Diaspora Rhetoric of a Friend of God (London: Bloomsbury Press); Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, Commentary on Working Preacher, [2] See Proverbs 8. [3] See Genesis 1. [4] See Genesis 2. [5] See John 1. [6] Margaret Aymer, Commentary on Working Preacher, (pointing to this as a main point of the passage: “Rather, in James 3 the focus is on how faithful Christians speak about other human beings made in God’s own image (James 3:9).”) [7] Robert Lawrence Smith, A Quaker Book of Wisdom (New York: Eagle Brook Press, 1988). [8] Id. p.3.

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