Watch Your Mouth

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

September 17, 2000

James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our salvation. Amen.


The great Rabbi Abraham Heschel has said, "Speech has power. Words do not fade." The words we use have power. They have power to heal or to hurt. They have power to deform or transform the spirit of others. They have power to soothe or disturb those who receive them. Of "apt words," John Milton writes in Samson Agonistes:

Apt words have power to suage

The tumors of a troubled mind,

And are as balms to festered wounds.

He's gone, and who knows how he may report

Thy words by adding fuel to the flame?

Having worked through the ways in which the body can serve, or not serve, Jesus Christ in chapters one and two of his epistle, James comes to chapter three and addresses the tongue. Acknowledging that the tongue is a small part of the body, James develops a handful of powerful images and metaphors for the tongue. He is deeply concerned about the integrity of speech and particularly the evil power of an unbridled tongue. James 3:1-12 is nothing less than a lament for the tongue. In 3:2 he acknowledges that we all make many mistakes and the person who makes no mistakes in speech is perfect. A person who does not err or sin in speech is truly a person of integrity. And furthermore, by failing to control one's speech, the integrity of a person is undermined. The same tongue which blesses and praises God also curses fellow humans who are made in the image of God (3:9-10) and thus curses God. When such is the course of people's tongues, they demonstrate that they lack value for God's creation, and they do not treat God's creatures with the respect they are due.

But, the real evil of the tongue, James points out, is the evil of duplicity (3:6). How is it that a tongue can damage, disrespect, and devalue God and God's creation and also be used to speak words of love and respect? In James' mind we either speak with the heart of God or the heart of the world. We cannot serve two masters in speech or action. The duplicity of the tongue is when it is torn between friendship with God or friendship with the world. Integrity of faith demands of us that pay attention to our speech and our use of words, for we cannot serve two masters.

Perhaps we would do well to hear and live into the words of admonition from Jewish writer, Jesus ben Sirach, the writer of Ecclesiasticus:

Honor and shame is in talk; and the tongue of man is his fall. Be not called a whisperer, and lie not in wait with the tongue; for a foul shame is upon the thief, and an evil condemnation upon the double tongue . . . Instead of a friend become not an enemy; for thereby thou shalt inherit an ill name, shame and reproach . . . Blessed is the one who has not slipped with his (or her) mouth (Ecclesiasticus, 5:13-6, 1; 14:1, cited in William Barclay's The Letters of James and Peter, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1977, pp. 82-83).

If you think these words are hard to hear, they are even harder to deliver. How I wish they would go away, so I did not have to confront my own sinfulness about the words I have used to harm others. How long do you have this day to hear my confession on my misuse of words and thus my unleashing of evil upon the recipients of my condemnation? (Believe me, I am not talking about the poor grammar I use or the misprints in the First Church News!)

I stand before you ashamed of the way I have used words to hurt, to wound, to disrespect, devalue, and degrade God's creation and thus to degrade God. I am ashamed of words I have chosen to describe others and their behaviors, often demeaning them in the process. And the words of James 3:1 weigh heaviest upon me as a teacher of the Gospel. He writes, "Not many of you should become teachers, brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

"Watch your mouth" the title of this sermon reads. Yet, I have not watched mine closely enough. I can only ask God to forgive me and others to forgive me for the ways I have hurt them with words and I would add with the tone of words. For tone and inflection tell as much or more about meaning as the words themselves. I pray that God's amazing grace forgives me as I go on.

How about your mouth? How about your tongue? Do you need to watch your mouth?

I'd like to reflect on three nuggets of wisdom given as a gift from James to all of us today. Although James frames them in the negative, I would like to turn them to the positive. James says in 3:3-5a that although the tongue is small it is powerful. If we put bits in the mouths of horses, we can control their entire body. And as for the ship, although it is huge, it is controlled by the small rudder. So it is with the body. The tongue is small but powerful.

First lesson, although the tongue is small, it can be a powerful, purposeful tool for good. With the permission of his daughter, I'd like to share with you the story of a man of few words who used his tongue for purposeful, powerful good. Mr. Grady Jack Robinson was a construction worker from Oberlin, Ohio. Although he loved learning and education and desired to be a lawyer, he had to leave school in the 8th grade to find work to support his brothers, sisters, and mother - and later his wife and four children. His daughter, Dr. Barbara Nicholson, Executive Director of the King Arts Center, remembers how her father would pick up and pour over law books in the evenings. In fact, she says her two brothers, her sister and she would use the thick books for booster seats at the dinner table. Perhaps her brothers are both attorneys today because they were raised on the law! Anyway, Barbara referred to her father as "The Supreme Court." Although her mom was the court of appeals, her father's word was final. He was man of few words, but when he spoke that was it!

She recalled to me a story of her childhood. In the small town of Oberlin was a man named Mr. Joe West. Joe was known by all to be the town drunk. The children would tease him and make fun of him. One day her father caught her doing this. He said, "No one knows the trouble Mr. West has seen. He doesn't need our troubles, too. He needs our respect and love. When you see Mr. West, you will always refer to him as "Mr. West." If he has fallen, lend him a hand. Help him home. If he is drunk, offer to assist him. But, you will never laugh at him or be disrespectful to him again." The Supreme Court had issued its final opinion.

Today, the children of Mr. Grady Jack Robinson are leaders in their community and in this nation. Two outstanding attorneys (who followed their father's dreams!) And two teachers/professors - who followed their mother's vocation. We are blessed in our lives by parents and teachers who raise us in this way. Although the tongue is small, it can be a purposeful, powerful tool for good!

Second, words can set the soul on fire! James 3:5b,6 speaks of words, when out of control, setting the forest ablaze. A small spark and ignite a vast fire, James says. But, I would like to re-frame (and re-flame!) This as well. Yes, words can hurt and destroy vast territories, but words can also heal and mend huge numbers of broken hearts.

Yesterday, I sat in a room witnessing the power of words to heal vast numbers of people. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, of the Diocese of Detroit acknowledged his sin and the sin of the Roman Catholic Church to hurt through word and deed persons who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered. As he spoke of his own gay brother Dan, Bishop Gumbleton revealed his soul to us and his own failings to be present to those who are created by God as beautiful, but different. In simple, but eloquent words he spoke of his mother, his siblings, his brother and himself. He shared letters from parents of gay children, gay priests and lay people. An obviously reluctant advocate, over 400 people sat in silence as he shared how he had grown and steps he had taken to help his fellow bishops grow in welcoming and accepting gay persons in the fellowship of Christian faith.

For generations, words have used in the church and by the church to wound and divide people. I have used such words. You have used such words. We divide people by theological categories, by racial commentaries, by socioeconomic categories, by stereotyping, by sexual orientations, by any number of ways that exclude. Yesterday, I witnessed a careful, almost surgical use of language suturing the wounded body of Christ back together. Through gentle, kind, confessional words, Bishop Gumbleton spoke with the words of God - asking forgiveness, offering mercy and love for others, quietly, gently, courteously mending what the church had severely torn asunder.

I believe our words need to be added to the balm in Gilead to heal the wounds of those too long cast out and ill-treated by the church because speech has power, words do not fade. I speak for myself and hopefully others. I am so sorry for the ways that words have mortally wounded you. During my first nine months, I can't tell you how many times I have simply wanted to hold you as you have told me stories of pain, hurt, abandonment, estrangement in times of your lives when you needed grace and healing and love. And I have witnessed among you the silent embraces of a people being knit back together by the power of the Holy Spirit. For me, it has been like watching the sparks of the Holy Spirit touch the kindling, and the fire kindled therein touching the sticks and the logs to create a powerful, healing light. Over 90 adults and children have stood before us in the past six months and been received into our fellowship, because they have felt the power of the Holy Spirit as well! They have joined trusting that healing for them has and will happen here in this Cathedral of Grace! May the spark of God's Holy fire be on our lips and in our lives.

Finally, God only knows - our tongues can be used to bless or to curse - us and others. In one of his lesser known books, The Living Bread, published in 1956, Contemplative Trappist Hermit and Monk, Thomas Merton has written words that are as poignant and fresh in our time as they were in his:

The whole problem of our time is the problem of love: how are we going to recover the love ourselves and to love one another? The reason why we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly, or openly hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God. (Quoted in Through the Year with Thomas Merton, Image Books, Garden City, NY, 1985, "April 14," "The Problem of Love," p. 66).

We cannot be a blessing to ourselves or others until we find peace with God. Does that sound like a tall order? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I would encourage each of you to find peace with God in the way that most soothes and calms your soul. Recently, a close friend shared with me his deepest yearnings and desire for peace with God. He did so courageously, for he knew the God he seeks and desires doesn't fit my experience and understanding of God. But, he spoke honestly about his feelings, and as I reflected on their power and meaning for his life, I found myself growing in acceptance and finding peace with God as I understood God. Since that time of honest sharing, I have found myself also seeking greater peace with God. He chose words that were true to his soul. Because he shared them as they were blessing his soul, they in turn blessed my soul. Coming clean about our differences, has been not only a daily blessing, but also has opened my heart to a deeper relationship with God!

This may be hard for you to understand. But, simply stated, my friend has blessed my life through his honesty and the integrity of his faith filled words to me.

So how will it be for us? Do we need to watch our mouths? Or will engage the words of James to be a blessing, not a curse upon our days? I implore you to use your tongue to be a purposeful and powerful instrument of blessing and good. I implore you to allow God's spirit to set your words on fire for healing not hurting. I ask you to allow God to your tongue and your speech as a blessing, not a curse upon you, your loved ones, the stranger you meet, and God! Amen.

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