The Power of Words
Our call to worship earlier was based on the 19th Psalm, which says that “the heavens are telling the glory of God. The firmament declares God’s handiwork, and day to day pours forth speech. Their voice goes out throughout all the earth.”
Who knew that God’s creation was so loud? So vocal? So eager to be heard?!
We all have something that’s worth either shouting or whispering. Something we just can’t wait to spill at the right moment. The questions is, what kind of news do we most like to share? We know that some information has the power to lift us and those around us up from the mundane tedium of day-to-day living: words that inspire and remind us that we can be better, achieve more, and live lives out-loud that give glory to God as the Psalmist said. And we know that words can do the opposite as well. Words can beat us up, pull us down, and cause us to believe that we are not worthy of attention and love. We have the power to speak all of those words to others.
The Apostle and letter-writer James knew all about that. He does a remarkable job telling us what we already know but probably need to hear again: that the little part of our bodies that delivers speech – the tongue – can get us into a lot of trouble.
During a recent winter, a ten year old boy in Hammond, Indiana did what all of us know better than to do. It was about ten degrees Fahreneheit on a Wednesday morning as he walked to school with friends and was triple-dog-dared to lick a metallic light pole. You know what happened. The ambulance was called, but before it arrived the boy managed to rip his tongue from the pole. The medics provided necessary emergency treatment and advised him to keep his tongue away from such trouble in the future.
James does the same. One Bible translation says “The tongue runs wild. It is a wanton killer.” The Buddha is credited with nearly the same words, saying “The tongue is like a sharp knife. It kills without drawing blood.”
Have we not seen examples of people who got in all kinds of trouble because they said something they should not have said?
At the height of the Cold War in 1984, President Ronald Reagan was about to appear on a radio interview and, as a sound check, said "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." The comment, while not actually broadcast, did eventually spread via rumor around the world. It was not appreciated when it reached Moscow. On Friday of this week, the Prime Minister of England and the Minister of Immigration for Australia each made remarks on live microphones that they assumed were turned off. In Australia, the comments were a joke about how rising water may swamp Papua New Guinea, and were made just days after the island nation had pleaded with minimal success for Australia to do more to stop climate change.. Now people are calling for the politician’s removal from office. Even words that we think are not heard by others can cause us trouble, can’t they?
Here’s an old story from Scotland:
A man living in a highland village passed around a rumor that he thought was true about another man he didn’t like. By the time the story got through the whole village, the other man’s life was essentially destroyed. His family, his job, and his integrity were all devastated by the rumor mill. He finally left town, a defeated man.
The man who passed this story along to others eventually discovered that the rumor was false. He had been instrumental in destroying an innocent man with his tongue. He went to his pastor, who is usually referred to as “Dominie” in the Church of Scotland, and said (and this is where I wish I could do a Scottish accent) “Dominie, I have destroyed a man with my words.” He told the whole story. “Please, Dominie, I am sorry. What can I do to make this right?”
The pastor told the man that this wasn’t so simple but instructed him to take a bag of feathers and place one feather in the front yard of every house in the village. Although the man thought this was a strange request, he really wanted to fix things, so he followed the instructions to the letter. At last he came back to the pastor and said, “Dominie, I have done what you asked. Is that all that is required?” The answer was, “No. Now you must retrace your steps and bring back to me every feather you placed in the village.” “But Dominie, I could never do that, the wind has carried all the feather away.” “Yes,” said the pastor, “And in the same way, your careless words destroyed an innocent man.”
We know that words can destroy.
Fire also destroys. Fire is one of the many images that James uses in the span of twelve short verses in chapter 3. Others are a horse’s bridle, a ship’s rudder, a spring of water, and a fig tree, as well as the tongue. It can be a little confusing to sort through all the metaphors, but ultimately it’s all about our words. Fire is perhaps the most powerful and also negative of the images. We know how devastating forest fires can be. All we have to do is drive up Four Mile Canyon or Sunshine Canyon to see the results of uncontrolled fire. Fires in California and other west coast states continue to burn, and we see the far-reaching effect of those fires here in Colorado when our view of the mountains is obscured by smoke. Those who lived in Jerusalem were used to the smoke from the continuous burning of the trash heap outside the city wall in the valley of Gehenna, which is the word translated as “hell” here in James 3. That ugly, smelly, acrid place is compared to the source of our hurtful words and what motivates the tongue to speak them.
While I understand where James is coming from and cannot deny the reality of speech that demeans and diminishes others, I would like to believe that human beings created in the image of God are not quite as hopeless as depicted in James 3.
We know that words can destroy. We also know that words have great power for good. Consider a speech with only 272 words that began like this:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
“I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Two speeches by men living a century apart that advanced the cause of justice and equality in our nation. Both men had a profound influence for good through their actions and their carefully chosen words. Our words matter.
I don’t think evil is found in the tongue itself or that those who possess a tongue will inevitably be trapped by its potential for harm. We only speak words that are formed by what is inside of us. Words reveal the character of a person. That is why we listen so carefully to presidential candidates and are appalled by words that seem careless and hurtful and are appalled when others don’t see them for what they are: indicators of character.
James wasn’t just talking about others, though, or criticizing the words of people out there somewhere. He started with himself. He wrote, “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The Apostles needed to watch their words. Those who attempt to represent the message of Jesus today need to do the same. That’s probably why I write out a manuscript each week rather than trusting myself to just “wing it.” Words are too important to leave to chance.
Where do words matter in your life? What words do you speak to those who are closest to you? Your partner, your children, your parents, your friends? Yesterday, one of our members who grew up in this church, Rose Keith, was married in this sanctuary. As Rose and Maggie stood here, preparing to make vows to one another, we reflected on the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to clothe ourselves with such qualities as kindness, gentleness, patience, humility, and love. In marriage and in every other relationship, actions speak louder than words, but words are often the vehicle for kindness and gentleness. They matter. We know that we can love without saying the words “I love you” to another, but why would we not want withhold them? Words are remembered, and they are treasured when they express the worth of those around us.
What words will you choose today? What will that little member of your body – the tongue – deliver for the consideration of those around you? Will you use words to put down or lift up? To destroy or create? To hurt or to heal? Will you encourage those around you toward their greatest potential? Words have power… and you have power. May we all use the power of our speech for the good of all. Amen.