Grace Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2018, Pentecost 17C
Tongues of Fire (But Not in a Good Way)
Seldom will you ever see the kind of convergence we have today, when a lectionary reading full of warnings about the power of the tongue and its capacity to bring harm and damage – not just to the individual, but to the whole community – is sprung upon us at the outset of what promises to be a heated political campaign. With the race for governor in this state already having witnessed some pretty awful language before it was even twenty-four hours old, it looks and feels like language and words are going to be thoroughly weaponized this time around.
If anything can speak to the double-mindedness of speech, political discourse certainly fits the bill. Lofty, inspirational rhetoric somehow comes from the same mouth that utters point-blank slander (or, increasingly, outright racial slurs) against an opponent. As James says in verse 10, “my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
Still, if we are honest about ourselves, we can’t really push that kind of behavior off on bad politicians, not exclusively. We’ve been on the receiving end of words that damage, and if we’re really deep-down obvious, we’ve dished them out too. And James, with his epistle-full of exhortation that our faith show itself in works, clearly counts the words we let loose in the world as “works” in the broadest sense.
As he did in chapter two, James sneaks up on his subject juuuuust a little bit here, seeming to go in the direction of a warning against too many people seeking to be leaders. Leaders are, he says, judged with “greater strictness” than others. (Don’t think this passage doesn’t give pastors occasional nightmares.) As he works through the examples of a bit for a horse and a rudder for a ship as small-but-powerful controls on the direction of each, he finally arrives at the true subject of his concern here: the small, sometimes mighty, sometimes destructive tongue.
How destructive? Think massive wildfire – “how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” And the tongue, says James, is a fire. Now that metaphor might put in mind those “tongues, as of fire” that appeared above the apostles’ heads on the occasion of Pentecost. You could argue that those “tongues, as of fire” turned out to be powerful, sure. You could say they turned the world of the apostles upside down, sure. But it would be just wrong to suggest that those tongues were destructive. They were instruments of creation, really – the “birth of the church” as it is sometimes called.
James has no such thing in mind here. His warning is dire to the point of exaggeration: “a world of iniquity,” “set on fire itself by hell,” “no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” No one can tame it, James? Not even you?
In the end, though, James’s final point here is compelling; how can such destructiveness and curse come from the same mouth that professes Jesus as Lord? Should we find both fresh and brackish water coming from Ichetucknee Springs up the road? Should apples and oranges be found growing on the same tree? And the Gulf of Mexico is much more likely to yield toxic algae and red tide right now than anything like fresh water, but even at its best it’s still salt water, and you’re not going to find fresh water there.
It isn’t as though words have to be specifically hateful to create destruction. Simple dishonesty, even sweetly and endearingly uttered, is destructive, corroding trust and leading to broken relationships and worse. Words spoken in ignorance can still crush souls. Even what seems an innocent joke can become a piercing arrow, cutting through to the very soul and causing unspeakable pain. Then, when we, because we’re obviously good people who would never do such a thing on purpose, insist “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “don’t take it so seriously” or something that dismisses rather than listens, well, we’re only making things worse, aren’t we?
James would have absolutely no patience for such defensiveness. “The tongue is a fire,” he’d remind us, and rebuke you for not taming that thing before you set it loose.
So what does it mean to “bridle the tongue,” as preachers of my youth used to put it? What tames this untamable beast? What neutralizes the poison or extinguishes the flame?
It isn’t really any one thing. Rather, a cultivation of habits that slow down our speech and engage our minds with those around us seems the only really fruitful path. Remember the saying that goes something like “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”? Y’all know that one, right? Keeping silence, and even more so practicing active listening, are still the most effective ways to put a check on the tongue and its sins.
That doesn’t come easily for many of us, does it? But if we truly seek to show our faith in our works, even the works of our tongue, that’s going to need to be a starting place, to turn our attention towards the other.
Of course, the cultivation of wisdom – memorably depicted as the woman calling out in the street in our reading from Proverbs – is also a pretty effective “bridle” for the tongue. It’s not an accident, is it, that wisdom and quiet are often found in the same place? And the opposite – the utter garrulousness of the unwise – also seems to be pretty pervasively true. Seeking wisdom – not merely knowledge, but genuine wisdom – seems almost inseparable from a controlled tongue. James will have a little more to say about this in the verses following this reading, but that’s for next week.
When you get right down to it, though, living in love towards one another is going to be the indispensible thing for controlling that fire. If that’s not there among us, there’s very little to be done to rein in the destructiveness of the tongue. Our willingness to live in genuine, Christ-like love with and towards one another is indeed irreplaceable as the beginning of relationships marked by wise, thoughtful speech towards one another and towards the world around us.
The thing is, sometimes when all these things come together, the tongue – our words – can indeed produce incredible beauty, passion, and joy. The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner – practitioner of two vocations in which words are obviously important – had this to say about the power words can have for good:
Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.
Oh, yes, Buechner reminds us of one other thing about words: remember the beginning of the gospel of John? “In the beginning was the Word…”? Our very Savior is identified as the Word! Clearly our abusiveness and destructiveness of tongue cannot be reconciled with being worshipers of the one called the Word???
No, it really doesn’t work to be indifferent to the destructive power of words, nor especially to blame others for being too sensitive, particularly when we in our relative security and safety have no idea of the struggles and oppressiveness others may face. It doesn’t do, not at all. That is not the way of wisdom or love.
Control your tongue. Maybe that’s not the sweetest sermon ending possible, but what else is there to say?
For the wisdom of silence and the bridled tongue, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #451, Open My Eyes That I May See; #693, Though I May Speak; #722; Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak; #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song
*Buechner quote from the essay “The Speaking and Writing of Words,” originally published in the collection A Room Called Remember.