Summary: A sermon on the power of the tongue.
Sermon for 14 Pent Yr B, 14/09/2003
Based on James 3:1-12
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
One day a woman went to Francis of Assisi and confessed that she had been guilty of malicious gossip. She asked him what she could do to be forgiven. Francis told her to pluck a goose and lay one feather on the doorstep of each person about whom she had said malicious things.
The woman went away hurriedly and did as she was instructed. She returned to Francis to ask the next step. He sent her back to gather each feather she had placed on the doorsteps. But she discovered that the feathers had blown all over town.
When she returned the second time, Francis said, "you may wish to repent, and that is good. But you can never recall the words that you have spoken. They have gone on their way doing harm. 1
Today in our second lesson from James, we learn of the power of one of the smallest muscles of the human body, the tongue. James begins by addressing the teachers of the church--warning them that they "will be judged with greater strictness." This is the case because they have a great influence over so many people who are their students. They are very public people and therefore their words need to match their actions if they are to influence others in a healthy, uplifting way. They are given positions of tremendous trust, and along with their work, they have many opportunities to teach their students many good things that will prepare them for life and make a difference in their lives. On the other hand, they can also abuse their trust, by teaching or doing very terrible things, which have the potential to ruin students lives or prejudice them and poison them with hatred, which can lead to abuse, evil and destruction.
Then James goes on to give us a couple of very graphic comparisons of the tongue with a horse’s bridle and a very small rudder of a ship. He says bridles with their bits in the mouths of horses have a lot of power--they can turn the whole body of the horse in the proper direction. The same is true of a ship’s rudder. This small part of the ship’s equipment is able to turn the huge ship in whatever direction the pilot steers it. James says that the tongue also has the same power over our whole life as humans. It is only a small muscle, but it can do a tremendous amount of evil or good.
The tongue helps us to taste, chew our food and direct it down into our throats. If we didn’t have our tongues we’d have to eat lying on our backs to get the food into the throat, and think of all those wonderful tastes we would miss out on! The tongue also makes some of the most beautiful sounds in the world--think of all the music we would not be able to enjoy if we didn’t have a tongue. The tongue also is capable of speaking some of the most wonderful words that inspire us and are indeed life-giving. However, the same tongue is also capable of much evil and destruction.
James goes on to give us more warnings about the power of the tongue. He compares it with a forest fire. A forest fire is often started as we know today by a very small fire from things like: a match, a few hot coals of an unattended camp fire, a cigarette butt, a spark or two from a vehicle, or a strike of lightening. Such a small thing can grow into uncontrollable fires and destroy huge forests, as we see from the news coverage on the fires especially in B.C. this summer; which are still burning and continue to threaten the property and lives of thousands of people.
James goes on to then compare the tongue with every species of beast, bird, reptile and sea creature--all of which can be tamed by humans--but unlike these, says James, the human tongue cannot be tamed. Because it cannot be tamed, James describes it as "a restless evil, full of deadly poison. Unfortunately, James’ wisdom is very true to real life, is it not?
For in real life, most of us realise that there are at least three different kinds of people who abuse speech. First of all, there are some who are always "putting people in their place" as if they were ordained by some high power or constitution to "tell off" everybody for what they call "their own good." It seems that this is done to display THEIR superiority and authority over others. It also seems to assume that THEY are never “out of place,” THEY never need to be “told off.”