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The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2012
The Epistle: James 3:1-12
Sermon: "Blessing or Blasting?"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Blessing or Blasting?
You probably heard about this. Last December, actor Alec Baldwin was booted off an American Airlines flight out of LAX. He had transgressed airline regulations by failing to turn off his cell phone after the cabin doors were closed. Now, you'd think that someone as worldly and well-traveled as Baldwin would know this rule. He did. And you’d think that such a violation of that rule would have had to involve some kind of urgent phone call that had to be handled right then. It didn't. What caused Baldwin's ouster, the flight attendants' ire, and the passengers' angst, you may well remember, was all over a game called Words With Friends.
Words With Friends is a social media app. It connects networks of online friends for the purpose of playing a word game while chatting with each other. The game is kind of like Scrabble, only on steroids. The premise is a lot like those old-school games of playing chess by mail, except this is instant. You play for word scores, but you also have a chance to chat on the side. It's supposed to be a friendly game that uses words as a kind of social lubrication to bring people together. Words With Friends has become wildly popular and is considered one of the most addicting apps you can have on your phone.
The irony of this incident is that while Baldwin was continuing to share collegial words with his friends on the phone, he was using quite different words on the flight attendants. Baldwin later tweeted that American Airlines is "where retired Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950s find jobs as flight attendants" and those attendants "walk the aisles of an airplane with a whistle around their neck and a clipboard in their hands and they have made flying a Greyhound bus experience." Those were among the more cordial words he said. In return, American Airlines charged that Baldwin was "extremely rude" to the flight crew, using "inappropriate names" and "offensive" language; not collegial words, a theme suggested by the very app he was enjoying. The flight was forced to go back to the gate to deplane Baldwin. This made the rest of the passengers wait. No doubt they had a few choice words of their own.
This story seems to be kind of a metaphor for the trap that many of us fall into in this age of technology and instant gratification. We tend to use words one way for some people and situations and then haul out a whole different vocabulary and attitude for others. We pay more attention to the words we text on our phones than the words we speak to the people right in front of us.
Words, when well thought out, and carefully applied, can connect us to others and give blessings. When carelessly or caustically applied and reactively generated as blasts, they can become weapons that leave both the speaker and the recipient feeling like losers.
Our Epistle lesson this morning, from the letter of James, identifies this very problem with words. In this famous passage about the tongue, James becomes a sort of original writer on the rules of using words with friends and everyone else. For James, how we speak to all others, is a reflection of the condition of our souls. Words, he tells us, have power to heal or destroy, to bless or blast. Words can even save.
A little over a year ago, an Australian resident, Georgie Fletcher, met American Beth Legler from Blue Springs, Missouri. They met, if you can call it that, over a random Words With Friends game. Georgie's husband Simon, sitting nearby, was experiencing some health problems, and Georgie mentioned it in passing as she and Beth played the game. Beth, in turn, described these symptoms to her husband Larry who was sitting nearby her. Larry is a cardiologist.
Larry recognized the symptoms at once, and messaged Simon to get to a hospital immediately. It turned out to be a close-run thing, as Simon had a 99% blockage near his heart. "Had Larry not sent that message I don't think Simon would have gone to the doctor that day," Georgie later reported. Nearly a year later now, Simon is alive and well and very thankful for that Words With Friends game. "I owe Larry everything ... I'm really lucky to be here," admits Simon.
Words, James tells us, have power. The tongue, which speaks them all he says, must be controlled if we are to guide our lives well. Right at the outset of our passage he uses several metaphors to describe how we are to do that.
The first metaphor is the bridle. Striving for perfect word choice becomes a "bridle" for controlling the kind of loose and destructive talk that can inevitably leak out (v. 2). Indeed, like a bit in the mouth of a horse, a controlled tongue can guide our whole being in what we do as well as say (v. 3).
The next metaphor is the rudder. Here James equates a controlled tongue with a rudder for a ship. The relatively tiny rudder of a very large ship has as much to do with where the ship goes according to the "will" of the pilot, as does the engine that drives the propellers (v. 4). Like the small rudder on a large ship, the words we use have the ability to steer us toward safety or disaster. We have to be diligent in taking the wheel to control the rudder(v. 5).
Then James uses the metaphor of a fiery spark. By comparing the loose tongue to a spark that sets a whole forest ablaze, he is saying that even a small word, ill-spoken and timed, can set a whole forest fire’s worth of disaster in motion; a "world of iniquity" that corrupts the whole person and those around him or her (v. 6).
We've all been in situations where a simple yes or no, or the mere compliance with a request, would have prevented a whole string of disasters. Speaking sparingly when we are hard-pressed to keep our cool is nearly always a good rule. This reminds me of something that supposedly really happened with President Calvin Coolidge. “Cool Cal,” as he was famously known, was uncharacteristic for a politician; he would never speak more than the bare minimum of words that would suffice. Quite a contrast with what we hear today! One day, in a public restaurant, a man came up to the President and said, “I’ve just bet my friends over at our table that I can get you to say more than two words to me.” “Cool Cal” looked at the man and replied, “You lose!”
Whether we're trying to assert our "rights" or trying to impress others, we get into trouble when our words aren't friendly and our speech isn't tightly controlled. Not that that's easy to do, either. James makes it clear that the tongue isn't like an animal that can be tamed by the human species. Instead, it's untamable; a "restless evil filled with deadly poison" (vv. 7-8).
Such a statement would seem to provide us with an excuse for the dumb things we say. Whether we're in an airplane seat, at the water cooler at work, or at home, we know that there are times when things just come out of us in the form of words that we regret. But James won't let us get away with that as an excuse. Indeed, the only way to control the tongue is to monitor what's happening inside us on a deeper level.
There's an old adage that says if you really want to know about a person's character, watch how that person treats the waiter at a restaurant. Does he treat the waiter as a person, or merely as a servant? Kind words aren't meant only for friends. We're to offer them to everyone because they, like us, are made in God's image. We can't bless God and blast his image at the same time. When we blast others with our words, it reflects on our own inner character. Then too, such blasts can get deflected back upon us as well.
The famous nineteenth-century preacher and pastor, Henry Ward Beecher was greatly beloved; but even he was not without his critics. He frequently received anonymous poison-pen letters. One Sunday as he ascended the massive and high pulpit of Boston's Plymouth Congregational Church, he found such a note waiting for him. Beecher glanced at the note, and then announced, "I have received a letter from one of you this morning. It states quite simply, 'Fool.'" Beecher paused, then smiled. "I often receive letters from people who forget to sign their names," he said, "but this is the first time someone has signed their name and forgotten to write the letter." Sometimes our blasts at others, come back to stick to us.
If we're going to be the kind of people who use words wisely, then first, we are to cultivate an inner life that sees everyone as created in God's image. We are to invest in a vision of life that doesn't put ourselves at the center of the universe; but instead centers on God and God's purposes. The God who spoke the word of creation and sent the Word to become flesh in his own Son, calls us to speak words that reflect his character, his life, and his love.
In a world where we use our phones for everything it seems but talking to one another, may we capture the art of using words that bless, and reflect the character of the God who dwells in us. Maybe then, "words with friends" will have an even richer meaning.