Gallagher was this comedian that liked to smash stuff with his “Sledge-o-matic”. I am sure that you all remember him but there is one stand up act he did that has stuck with me through the years and it is a commentary on the absurdity of the English language. As he said “why should I be serious about the language if the language isn’t serious enough to make sense?” Then he went on to quote a whole bunch of words that don’t make sense. BOMB = Bomb, TOMB = Tom? No Tomb, COMB = Cume? No Comb, POMB = Poem? NO POEM. HOEM = Home? No HOME, SOME = Sum? No Some. NUME = Numb? No, NUMB. I agree with Gallagher, the English language doesn’t make sense. If the rule is that you add an “s” or an “es” on the end of a word to make it plural then it should always be that way. That way we can say geeses and mooses instead of geese and moose. It would also make sense that the plural of ox would be oxes not oxen because we don’t say foxen, boxen, or socken. Opps, never mind fox, box and sock are not all spelled the same. If the English language made sense we would park on a parkway and drive on a driveway, apartments would be exactly that, apart instead of together and we wouldn’t call them buildings because they are finished, we would call them builts. Spell check had a fit with this paragraph.
Language can be fun and we are having some fun this morning. James is definitely having some fun in these 12 verses using language. When you are reading it this week try to break it down a little. He uses great metaphors of little things changing the course of big things, like a bridle on a horse or a rudder on a ship. He uses it to describe impossible acts of nature like fresh water coming from salt water, or a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs. There is also a great alliteration in verse 5, “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.” James it driving his point about language, words and how we need to be careful about how we use them by using them. He understands that language, words, are creative, fun, and humorous but they can also be inspiring, dramatic, and persuasive.
For our God language is extremely important because it is the vessel of her creativity. God spoke and light was formed out of darkness. God said water and water appeared. For God her words are the paintbrushes for which the world was created, it was her medium, which she used to form something out of nothing. It is the words of God’s son that have stuck with us and started a movement, a way of life, which has and continues to transform this world. When we listen and read the Bible we call this the Word of God. The beginning of John’s gospel says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Some of you didn’t really hear what I just said about God and words because you were hung up on the fact that I used the pronouns “her and she” to reference God instead of “him and he”. But God is neither male nor female and in the English language we only have those two choices so when do we always pick the male version to reference God? Words, even the smallest of them, can be transformative in either a positive or negative way.
We are moved when we hear quotes like, “I have a dream” or “The only thing we have to fear is…” or “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But James knows that humans are capable of much more than that. He says, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” Yet we can also be mad at words because of the destructive power they have. We only watch certain news channels because they promote with their words the words we want to hear. Some of the most cherished and important books were banned at one time, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Of Mice and Men, The Canterbury Tales, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A couple of years ago at the direction of local churches in Charleston, SC, a book burning happened to rid the world of Harry Potter. Words can be scary.
James understood this phenomenon and words have the same effect. Go to any election and you will find people trying to undermine the opposing candidate by using the words they said against them. In our sound-bite society, words can have a dramatic effect. David Letterman had a whole segment to make fun of George Bush’s speeches. Barrack Obama got in hot water when he compared his bowling skills to the Special Olympics on The Tonight Show. Political careers have been won, lost, defined and ended because of words. And some of their words are always etched into our memories, like “Read my lips,” and “I did not have sexual relations with that girl.”
But they are only words right? Nothing can happen because someone put some letters together to form a word, words together to form a sentence, and sentences together to form a paragraph? I didn’t think twice about using this common phrase in my sermon. I was bringing it home one Sunday from behind the pulpit and I had carefully mapped out and molded a sentence to hammer my main point home. I was quoting God’s use of messed up people in the Bible to continue God’s work. I didn’t think twice when I said it but only 20 minutes after I got home I had a call from the Chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, who told me how inappropriate it was to use those two words from behind the pulpit and that children were present and some parents were a little upset. The point I was attempting to make was lost and now I had to listen to the tongue lashing from my boss because of my own slip of the tongue.
As I read the third chapter of James I realized that James is talking directly to me. He tells people to not be teachers because being a teacher comes with great responsibility. We will be judged more harshly. This will happen because teachers and preachers use words to pass on wisdom and wisdom is what James’ book is all about. I will always remember my 8th grade chemistry teacher, I have no clue what his name was, but I do remember something he taught us. As he taught us about the Periodic Table and how elements are bonded together by the sharing of electrons he explained that those elements are on the left, the alkaline metals, will bond with anything and will happily give up their electrons. On the other end the noble gases won’t bond with anything because they never give up their electrons. They way he told us to remember this is that those on the left of the table are prostitutes who would give it to anyone and those on the right of the table are nuns who don’t give it to anyone. This teacher understood how to connect with 8th graders. He passed on his wisdom and I’ve never forgotten it.
Wisdom is what James’ book is all about. In the first chapter James gives us three keys to what true wisdom looks like; taking care in how we speak (which is what he is talking about today), caring for the distressed and being careful about what we let into our lives. He tells us that wisdom is different from knowledge because wisdom is lived out. That is why we get the passage last week about faith is dead without good deeds. This week, in chapter 3, he is making sure that we know that the words that come out of our mouths are important because the words we use as Christians represent God. That is a huge responsibility and it needs to be handled with great care.
James understands the power of language. He understands that little words can have a big effect. They can build up or tear down. That is why James uses a brilliant metaphor of a fire. On October 8th 1871 a spark ignited one of the worst fires of our history. The rumor was that the O’Leary cow kicked over a lantern which started a two day fire which killed hundreds and burned four square miles of the city of Chicago. Whether it was a cow kicking over a lantern or a candle falling over on a table it doesn’t matter, the truth is that a small fire in a shed in or around 137 DeKoven Street turned into one of the worst disasters in US history. Currently in California, the Station Fire has burned over 160,000 acres since August 26th and is only 62% contained. But that is still nothing to the fires last year which burned over 1.5 million acres. Lighting strikes started some of it but for the fire that burned near Yosemite it was started by target shooters. Just a little thing, a small spark, can set a fire to over a million acres. Our words, even the smallest can be devastating.
James would agree that some of the best sermons are the ones never spoken, but to proclaim our God’s love to others we are forced to use words from time to time. We have to use words to convey our message. That is what our time is about here on Sundays, the words of prayers, hymns, sermons, and even announcements, all point to the God we worship and his love for us. Words are what has been used to pass this on to us. Since the beginning of time it has been the oral tradition that has let us know our own history and has given us purpose. Words were used to create us and now we have the responsibility to use them wisely.
We are the only creatures on earth that use words to tear each other down. We don’t hear monkeys or cats talking badly about other monkeys or cats. They may be thinking it but we never hear them. James puts it this way, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” It is our duty as followers of Christ to make sure we realize the power of our words and the danger of just throwing them around. The words we choose to use in our daily lives give others around us a window into the true nature of our hearts. If our hearts are to be Christ like than the words that are tossed out by our tongues need to be also.
And all God’s people said…Amen.