Have you ever said something you wish you had not said? Maybe it was said in anger or jest, but the other person misinterpreted what you were trying to say. Perhaps it was written in a text message or an email. Virtual communication is difficult as one cannot accurately see the other person’s body language to determine the message. Whatever happened, James warns us today to be watchful of what we say, whom we say it to, and who we say it about.
James is particularly hard on teachers; however, he does not define who teachers are. We often have an image of the teacher as the one leading the class. We have several teachers in this community. It seems like another lifetime ago now, but I was a middle school teacher. I remember that very first day of school, I had come into teaching in a very non-traditional way, so I had no actual classroom experience, but hey, how hard can it be.
I recall standing there, all those eyes looking at you, sizing you up, looking for your weak spot, ready to pounce. I cannot remember a time that I had been as nervous. It was my job to teach to mold these young minds, and if I failed, they failed. The pressure was tremendous. I quickly learned that I had to choose every word I said and remember what I said. Kids are like tape recorders; they remember everything.
James is taking his definition of teacher deeper than we might imagine at first glance. In my role as your pastor, I am also a teacher. I am Minister of Word and Sacrament. I have a teaching ministry. Standing here right now, I am teaching. I need to choose my words carefully and intentionally. Someone would say your salvation hangs on the words I say.
But what of the rest of us? Are we not teachers as well? Some have raised children, and parents are the first, and dare I say, most important teachers of their children. What if I said that all of us, who call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus, are teachers by our actions as well as our words. This is what James is getting at here; we are all teachers.
The human tongue is a fantastic thing. It is a considered a muscle, although it is made up of eight different muscles. The human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds. The human tongue is only three inches long but has caused the most damage in history. The human tongue can bless, and the human tongue can curse.
The human tongue is a blessing when we praise God. We praise God when we remember each other in prayer, when we sing, and when we affirm each other. We bless God when we read the words of scripture. Calling our children by name, welcoming the stranger, and speaking the truth in love are other ways our tongue blesses God. The tongue is a blessing to God when used to build up the community here at church, at home, and in all your other human interactions.
But the tongue can also be used to curse. We do not always use the tongue for blessings. Sometimes we gossip, slander others, or disrespect those around us. Perhaps we are arrogant in our answers or too set in our ways, and we leave little room for discussion. Sometimes we are so busy talking about what we believe that we take little or no time to listen to another, listen not for a chance to counter but to learn.
Let me pause here for just a minute. Yes, we seem to have lost the art of listening. In my work as a Hospice Chaplain, I spend most of my day listening. In the grief work that I do, I spend my days listening to others. Active listening is an art that has to be learned and nurtured. We listen attentively for clues as to what the person is feeling. Active listening is not waiting for an opening for us to jump in with our thoughts. Sometimes I say nothing.
Although we should listen to each other, not all viewpoints are equal. One of the most ridiculous things I hear is, “well, we agree to disagree.” Sure, sometimes that works, but there are sometimes when it is impossible to agree. For example, I’m afraid I can’t agree with any viewpoint that treats another as less than. Racist, nationalistic, misogynistic, or any of the other views floating around are not valid viewpoints especially coming from one who considers themselves a Christian.
Just last week, we heard in this same book of scripture that we should treat others equally and without partiality. We are to love and care for everyone, including our enemies. So how can we call ourselves followers of the one who commanded these things while at the same time advocating laws and positions that take rights away just because we disagree? Simply put, we cannot.
Now with that said, let me offer a word of caution. Yes, we will disagree, but it is how we disagree that matters.
The first church I was in was a faction of people that wanted to start trouble. It did not matter what the issue was; if they did not like it, they caused trouble. So at the church conference, they would all sit together and vote as a block. If there was an issue that would be divisive, they were at the center of it, usually stirring the pot. I know this is hard to imagine, but it is true.
I was asked how to deal with folks like this, the ones that thrive on conflict. My response was to charm and disarm. People like that want you to argue, they want you to get flustered, and they will wait in the tall grass until just the right moment. Unfortunately, our current political situation is not unlike this. A conversation on a topic cannot be had with some folks because it will turn into a shouting match, and no one wins.
I saw a bumper sticker not long ago that read, being told not to talk about politics and religion has led to a society that does not know how to talk about politics and religion. Charm and disarm. The argument is lost when one side starts shouting, calling the speaker names, lying, and bringing up issues outside of the main topic.
You know what, charm and disarm works. It worked with the folks in that first church and will work in almost any situation. Jesus sent his disciples out in twos into the countryside to preach. He told them to present their message, and if those there did not want to listen, wipe the dust off of their sandals and walk away. Sometimes, we have just to walk away.
We will not win every argument, but we will walk away with dignity.
What James is advocating is control, self-control. Do not get caught up in anger, for if we lose control, we say things. I will not say we say things we don’t mean because that is not true; if we say it, even in anger, we mean it. We have had the thought, and now we are putting words to that thought. Self-control is being able to discuss with someone who makes your blood boil, but we remain calm, and we use logic rather than passion.
If we dedicate our tongues to the praise of God, our actions will follow. Our tongues, which can bless and curse, can also ask for forgiveness. No one is perfect, we are going to make mistakes, but we must choose our words carefully because God has given us authority to build up the body of Christ.