Summary: Ordinary Proper 19: We face an uphill battle as we consider the challenge of getting our tongue - our speech - under control. But that is precisely what St. James exhorts us to do!
Words matter - they matter a lot. In order to uncover the processes that destroy unions, marital researchers studied couples over the course of years, and even decades, and retraced the star-crossed steps of those who had split up back to their wedding day. What they discovered is unsettling. None of the factors one would guess might predict a couple’s durability actually does: not how in love a newlywed couple says they are; how much affection they exchange; how much they fight or what they fight about. In fact, couples who will endure and those who won’t look remarkably similar in the early days.
Yet when psychologists Cliff Notarius of Catholic University and Howard Markman of the University of Denver studied newlyweds over the first decade of marriage, they found a very subtle but telling difference at the beginning of the relationships. Among couples who would ultimately stay together, 5 out of every 100 comments made about each other were putdowns. Among couples who would later split, 10 of every 100 comments were insults. That gap magnified over the following decade, until couples heading downhill were flinging five times as many cruel and invalidating comments at each other as happy couples. "Hostile putdowns act as cancerous cells that, if unchecked, erode the relationship over time," says Notarius, who with Markman co-authored the new book We Can Work It Out. "In the end, relentless unremitting negativity takes control and the couple can’t get through a week without major blowups." (Adapted from U.S. News & World Report, February 21, 1994, Page 67.) Words matter - they matter a lot.
They matter to the preacher and religious teacher and to the Christian too! If we read the scriptures carefully, we find that it is clearly taught that the standard of judgment for church leaders is higher – and rightly so because the reality is that souls are at stake! We see it in Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his time. You see it as Paul rebukes and exhorts teachers – even Saint Peter! And we see it expressed clearly in today’s Epistle Lesson in James. Let’s read together:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (James 3.1-2, NIV)
What we say - how we speak - what words we use with others matter. That is why Saint James cautions people who desire to exercise leadership in the Church. Words can encourage, words can destroy. If we use words wrongly as we exercise care of souls, the consequences can be enormous! That is what St. James is writing about.
It surprises me at the confidence with which some folks approach the task of leadership in a congregation. Souls are at stake. Scriptural integrity is absolutely critical when we speak in the church. And so St. James urges care when teaching. Part of the problem to which this speaks is that we tend to be pretty well convinced that we know what is best and often push our thoughts on others. When we think about it, doesn’t that convey an attitude that is arrogant? Often this manifests itself as a propensity to speak often and self assuredly – and without a clue that by doing so, we place ourselves under stricter judgment.
This leads St. James into a series of exhortations about “the tongue” – that is, our tendency to speak in a way that isn’t helpful to the task of caring about the souls of others. The sort of speech that James is condemning is gossip, arrogant pronouncements, words that hurt others and words that are simply untrue or spoken as if they had the authority of Scripture, when in fact, these are only opinions.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3.3-6, NIV)
In 1987 James Gleick wrote a book about chaos – yes, chaos! In his book, Gleick explained Chaos Theory. Basically, Chaos Theory attempts to explain what appears to be randomness by modeling chaos mathematically. (If you like science or math, get this book!) One of the concepts that has come out of Chaos Theory is something called “The Butterfly Effect”. Here’s the quick and simple explanation of that: A butterfly flapping its wings in China will affect the air currents around it. Then, those tiny air currents will affect the air currents around them, which affect larger air currents around them. Little by little, the small air currents created by the butterfly will grow to affect the weather for us! (same principle applies in pneumatic and electronic instrumentation).