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Pentecost 16B, September 12, 2021
New Covenant, James 3:1-12
“This Should Not Be”
On a snowy Sunday morning, the pastor arrived at the church, to find that only one gentleman had been able to make it in through the snow. As it happens, the text and sermon for the day came from the third chapter of James and focused on the damage that can be done by the words we use. It also turned out, that of all the people in the congregation, this gentleman needed to hear this sermon most of all. He had caused quite a bit of damage within his family and the faith community with his words over the years. So, the pastor proceeded as if there was a full house. For 20 minutes, the pastor preached; about the dangers of not controlling one’s tongue, about listening more and speaking less, about not stretching the truth or outright lying, about not gossiping, not insulting others and controlling one’s temper, about not complaining so much or being negative all the time, about not saying hateful things and using racially insensitive words, about not casting judgments and condemning others. Then, when the service concluded, the gentleman said to the pastor as he departed, “Marvelous sermon, it’s just a shame that those who needed to hear it weren’t here.”
James warns us this morning of the dangers of not controlling our speech, all of us, not just the person you’re thinking of right now, who you think needs to hear this sermon, but all of us, you and me. He is warning all of us of the dangers of not being in control of the words we use.
He begins by citing the destructive power of the tongue and adds that blessings and cursings should not come from the same mouth. James uses vivid images to make his point; a small bit controls a wild horse, a small rudder guides a very large ship, a small spark can ignite a very large fire, a spring flowing with both fresh and salt water, a fig tree that produces olives and a grapevine that produces figs. He uses these vivid illustrations of oddities in nature, as well as small things that control large things to make his point.
His teaching isn’t new. Similar words are found in the wisdom literature, in Proverbs and Psalms. Jesus told us, “It’s not what goes in, but what comes out of our mouths that make our mouths dirty.” So, this isn’t anything new that James is teaching us, but it is a call to closely examine ourselves, to focus on the things we are saying and to be careful how we are expressing ourselves.
In James’ day, there was no such thing as facebook and twitter. The majority of the population was illiterate. Writing materials weren’t easily accessible. The primary form of communication was the spoken word. Thus, controlling our speech is what James focusses on in his letter. But, of course, had he been writing in the 21st century, I’m sure his warning would extend to all forms of communication; the things we write, the things we type, as well as what we say. It’s no longer just the words we speak but also the words we post that can set fires. We must control all forms of our speech. Blessings and cursings coming from the same mouth, James writes, “This should not be!”
None of us are perfect, myself included. We all make mistakes. That’s why we have to be so careful with the words we say and write. Words have power, as James points out; they can start fires or put them out. They can be salty, abrasive, poisonous or soothing. They can be divisive or unifying. They can be hurtful or healing. They can exclude or invite. They can humiliate or dignify. They can push away and tear down or embrace and lift up.
James reminds us this morning, to think about all of our communications. What kind of fruit are we producing? Is it sweet or bitter? What is springing forth from our mouths? Is it salty or refreshing? How are we communicating with one another? In our homes? In our faith community? On social media outlets? In our places of employment or where we spend our leisure time? Are we speaking to and about one another in the same manner that we speak to and about God? “How can it be,” James asks “That we bless God and curse those created by God, in the image of God, with the same mouth?” “How can this be?” James asks. And answering his own question he emphatically declares, “This should not be!”
Faithful discipleship, according to James, not only includes our worship of God and our service in Jesus’ name, but also our communications with one another. The gentleman in the story was right; this is a sermon we all need to hear. We all, pastors included, need to do our best to control the words we use, so that it is blessings, not cursings that flow from both our mouths and our keyboards. Amen.
Rev. Bradley A. Walmer,
a 2008 graduate of Lancaster Theological Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity degree and was awarded the 2008 Rev. Delores Berry prize for preaching. He was ordained into Christian ministry by the Lebanon Association of the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ on June 1, 2008. Prior to beginning his pastorate here at New Covenant on August 1, 2015, he served as the pastor of St. Paul’s Summer Hill UCC in Auburn, Pa (located southeast of Pottsville, PA).
Pastor Brad and his wife Michelle were born and raised in Lebanon County and now reside in the area with their dog, Barkley.