Sticks, Stones, and Words

Passage: James 3:1-13
Date: September 16, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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It happens so quickly. In anger, you text and push send. Immediately, you wonder if you should have waited. Now, you can’t take it back. Or, the words tumbled from your tongue. And you wish you’d had the patience to count to ten before speaking.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire!”

We’ve seen the images of fires in California and Oregon, spreading through great forests with unbelievable speed. That is what this passage evokes, and the power of a few destructive words to bring about disaster. It’s sobering to realize that these words were written in an ancient time, long before Twitter, Facebook, texting, and e-mails.

I have a favorite cartoon hanging on my office door. It is entitled “The Emergence of Language.” The picture is of a cave man and cave woman. The woman says: “We need to talk.” The man says: “Uh-oh.” Human language is a gift. Words are wonderful, inspiring, fun, delicious, connecting … and dangerous. The scripture wisely notes we have a special problem with words, because with lack of self-control, we react quickly. Left uncontrolled, words become a source of evil that gains energy as it spreads. Boasting, cursing, lying—sent in those directions, words can destroy! A particular danger with words that we face now, that was not true in the ancient world, is the power we have to communicate via social media, anonymously. And often anonymity brings out the bad stuff. And, we are also now well aware that there is blatant lying at times. Yes, sticks and stones break bones. But words can destroy as quickly as a flash flood or a raging fire.

It’s easier, isn’t it, to think of other people who should bridle their tongue (or stop their fingers from rash tweeting). It’s harder to examine our own words, and how we bless or hurt others. From James3:9 “… With our tongue we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God …”

Maybe that is where we need to focus in order to grasp this message. Because like it or not, each one of us is made in the image of God. It’s so easy to forget that. Want to know how we are doing in our spiritual life? Well, every day, what comes out of the mouth is the clue.

I was once at a third-grader’s soccer game, standing by the coach. We overheard the quietest and shyest of the boys yelling something at the opposing team. The coach said, laughing, to me, “Who would have thought that cute little boy would be the trash-talker on the team?” It made me remember the times I’ve cursed while hearing national news or yelled at other drivers from behind closed car windows. My curses, this child’s yelling at his opponent—our speech dehumanizes others. Behind our curses is a failure to see them—God’s image. With our words, we curse and we bless.

We are a priesthood of all believers. These words from scripture are a message to the church, generally. Yes, we preachers get the honor of standing before you and crafting words to convey a message. Sometimes the message is comforting. And sometimes it is more prophetic. We are aware of the power of words, and at our best, we choose carefully, and with as much honesty as we can dig out. But, it’s for all of us to realize the power of the words we use with others.

The spiritual practice of “taming the tongue” is about clarity, truth, and sacrifice. Another passage designated for today comes from Mark 8: 34-35.

34 (Jesus) called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,will save it.

To follow Jesus is to know that we belong to God. To follow Jesus is to compel us, in compassion, to live for others. Reformer John Calvin used these words to explain:

“We are not our own. . . We are God’s. Towards God, therefore as our only legitimate end, let every part of our lives be directed.” And so, we get the opportunity to practice loving others every day with the words that we say and the words we don’t say.

Have you heard this saying? “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

How do we lay down our lives for the other in the daily routine of ordinary life?

There is a clerk in the grocery store whom I’ve seen at checkout occasionally for several years. It’s a busy store and people can be demanding. I could choose the self-checkout option, but I never do. The line in front of me was slow. There were two women in front of me. I noticed as I was waiting to take my items out of the grocery cart that he was engaged in a lively conversation with the first woman. They laughed, hugged, and she left. I assumed that they were coworkers. Then, as he rang up the items for the second woman, they also chatted and hugged! (What were the chances that he was helping two coworkers in a row?) When it was my turn to check out, he recognized me, noted that my haircut was shorter, and encouraged by his kind words and attentive listening, I found myself telling him how grateful I’ve been this busy summer with the support of such a good community and my sons. And still it surprised me when before I left, he hugged me and wished me well! He blessed me with those words. This is the power that we all have. To bless and not curse.

Now that election primaries are done, we are officially in election season.

How can we use our words in such a way that honors each person in the image of God, no matter how we disagree? For a start, I’d like to offer this wisdom by Kim Stafford, Oregon Poet Laureate:

Practicing the Complex Yes

When you disagree with a friend,
a stranger, or a foe, how do you
reply but not say simply No?
for No can stop the conversation
or turn it into argument or worse—
the conversation that must go on, as a river
must, a friendship, a troubled nation.
So may we practice the repertoire
of complex yes:
Yes, and in what you say I see…
Yes, and at the same time…
Yes, and what if…?
Yes, I hear you and how…?
Yes, and there’s an old story…
Yes, and as the old song goes…
Yes, and as a child told me once…
Yes.Tell me more.I want to understand…
and then I want to tell you how it is for me…

Reprinted by permission of the author from The Flavor of Unity:Post-Election Poems, by Kim Stafford (Portland, Oregon:Little Infinities, 2017)