Topic: Biblical Verse: James 3:1–3:12
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
How did it get to be so bad? It didn’t seem like this was something that had to have happened, but it did. The words just came out. You didn’t mean for what you said to sound the way it did – right? It’s not like you meant to hurt anyone by saying exactly the right thing to make them feel hurt; the words just kind of erupted out of nowhere – even though it was a thought that you’d been holding in for some time. For whatever reason, they just weren’t giving you respect (that you knew you’d deserved) or didn’t agree with your position (which you knew to be the right one), so you said it. And now you’re left with the aftermath: there might not be tears, but the relationship has been broken. The damage has been done. And it’s pretty bad. It’s like the air has been poisoned.
How did it get to be so bad? We’re seeing this type of situation play out all around us as our country heads into elections at both the regional and national levels. I can tell you that while my lovely bride and I were out of the country on our honeymoon, we definitely did not miss seeing the political ads that seem to have saturated the airwaves here in the States. The campaigns are increasingly aware of the wired times: even online videos and services now push political ads onto their viewers. The airwaves – and our larger culture – are being poisoned by speech that is, as we have heard, “us versus them” with no room for alternatives. But this development isn’t limited to the upcoming elections. Instead of the civility and degree of respect which Americans afforded each other in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, people expressing their positions seem to be less interested in genuine dialogue than they are in just asserting that their stance is the right one. Through social media tools and websites, you can try make your point in a pithy and pointed way – and if someone’s feelings get hurt, what does it matter? It’s not like you know them or they know you. How much damage can you do with a 140-character tweet, anyway? Quite a lot. Alongside the rise in politicization, there’s been a counter-reaction which asserts that you can’t just say anything. You have to respect people, especially those who are different than you. Tolerance is good, according to that way of thinking, and bullying is bad. And yet, with increasing frequency the counter-reaction is not all that different in its speech and approach than the hostility to which it asserts opposition. The phrase “hate speech” is used more and more often to refer to any disagreement with cultural trends. One party vilifies another while positioning themselves as champions of a cause, as people who are in the right. We’ve seen even this week how people use speech as an excuse for violence and murder in the broken world in which we live. How did it get to be so bad?
The problem isn’t simply “out there.” What was the last time that your tongue got you in trouble? Was it an offhand remark that you just put out there unthinkingly? Or did you take the time to choose your words in a way that you hoped would make a significant impact? To be clear, we’re not just considering the spoken word here: your tongue can speak through your fingers, too, as you write or type messages onto paper and into your phone, or broadcast them across the Internet for a much larger audience to read. Your words might just be words, but those words – small things in and of themselves – can have great effect. It doesn’t ultimately matter if you are just trying to prove your point or if you’re really looking to tear another person down: speech that doesn’t care for others can damage your relationships and alienate you from others. What works of the tongue, spoken or written, have you wished you could take back after seeing and experiencing their consequences? Sometimes you might try to repair the damage that’s been done by using more words, but the poison’s still out there – and still in you, hurting you alike. How did it get to be so bad?
Poison is a wicked thing, isn’t it? It gets in to an environment and messes it up, keeping things from working the way that they should. It’s an assassin’s tool, one that seeks to keep distance between the killer and the killed. And each of us has a ready supply of it, available at a moment’s notice, in a flash of anger or impulsiveness. As James writes in today’s epistle text, we human beings have been able to harness forces of nature to accomplish great things – even landing robots on another planet – yet no human being can tame the tongue. How did it get to be so bad? Our tongues are full of poison because we are poisoned. The tongue is a restless evil (or literally in the original Greek, an “uncontrollable” one) because it often serves the restless evil of the devil and selfish sin. Words reflect character, and since you or I can and do stumble in what we say, our words show that we are not perfect. James calls us out on it: you can’t praise God and curse your neighbor whom God has created – that’s folly. That’s hypocrisy. “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” (James 3:11-12 ESV) Any time we use our words to boost ourselves up in pride without caring for others, that’s hate speech. It shows our stumbling and failing to love God and love our neighbor. It’s a poison that we’re born with because it comes from our sin. It’s a poison that is killing us. That’s how it got to be so bad – in our lives and in our world. How can it be good?
God has an antidote for the poison that’s in you and me. He’s got something that will cleanse the venomous toxin from our tongues and transform it into a spring of fresh water. The same God who healed the demon-oppressed now comes to cast out the devil from our speech and from our lives by working another miracle, one that we celebrate this weekend in Baptism. Over the past several months, it has been a joy to see so many parents of little children bring their sons and daughters to receive the gift that God gives through water and His Word. Every human being, no matter how young or old, needs this washing, for the baptismal font is where God drowns the poison of sin. It is in that water that you are connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In your baptism, God the Son put His living water into your heart and mind to counteract and overcome the poison of sin. That’s happening again this Sunday as another soul is adopted as God’s own child. And it can happen for you each day.
How can it be good? This is one of the amazing aspects of Baptism: every day, God’s adopted children can remember the drowning of poison of sin in those waters. God does and will give grace for the living out of every day. No human being can tame the tongue, but God can. And we are His through Jesus.
How can it be good? Each day that you live will present opportunities to practice baptized speech. Unlike the hate speech that pops up throughout our broken culture, baptized speech isn’t based in pride or a desire to hurt or prove someone else wrong. You will need to think about what you say, write, tweet, and post; life as a follower of Jesus isn’t the same as the life lived by the rest of the world. You and I need to diligently guard our communication in all things. That’s part of living out the 8th Commandment, building up others by speaking the truth in love, forgiving as we have been forgiven. Even though it is washed, your tongue will still be restless. James recognizes this, too, noting that if anyone could finally tame the tongue, they’d be perfect. You and I aren’t perfect, but we are baptized into Christ. We stumble, yet he lifts us up. And through Baptism, the Holy Spirit can use our tongues to praise instead of poison, to help instead of hate. You – and your tongue – can be instruments of healing in our broken world.
How can it be good? Our God who washes us clean makes it so.