James 3: 1-12   September 16, 2018

We all probably grew up reciting this – so say it if you know it…”Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but”….

Did that saying ever work for you?   It never did for me.   Oh, I’d say it – out there in the school yard – when someone was throwing down the gauntlet. Looking back I realize that the sticks and stones recital was a defense strategy – hoping to drown out the other person, and sometimes it worked. But I also remember that reciting it worked progressively less, the more hurtful words kept coming at me.  There were some that I could brush off – but when the perpetrator found just the right words that cut deep that’s when the defense strategy came crashing down.

The truth is, words hurt. Part of what’s wrong with the sticks and stones proverb is that it suggests that what we say and how we say it doesn’t matter. But the truth is, words are powerful.   Words can be mightier than the sword. What we say to each other can make and break relationships.  How we communicate can bring clarity or chaos.  Our words can inspire love and justice and faith or they can move people to hate and oppress. 

Our more recent culture has a produced a couple of problems with how we use our words. The way twitter is being used, is a great example of the power words have to help or harm people,  to inform or misinform, to enflame or encourage. Our culture tells us, “ We’ve got the right to say whatever we want,” and we do have that right. But we also know how murky the debate can get about free speech.  When are the words we say or write or post on the internet so inappropriate that they transgress the right to say them?”  That’s a hard question to answer.

We live in a culture that tells us that it’s better to “let it out – to vent – to say whatever we think or feel so that we aren’t festering inside. Truth is, there’s some validity to that message too.   

But at this point we have to remember that James is writing this letter to the Church – and he’s addressing what he saw happening in his churches. He saw that people had a problem with what they said to each other, and how they said it – and given the way James described it – it must have been a serious, destructive problem. 

Why is what we say and how we say it such a serious problem in the church?

 One reason comes from the fact that we know that we’re called to a higher standard of conduct as followers of Jesus.  Sure, we don’t like it when we experience a slight or an insult from someone out there in the world, but when we experience it here – we feel the sting many times more intensely and distinctly. It hurts more when it happens here because this is the place where we believe we ought to expect better from each other. We call our churches sanctuaries for good reasons – because this is the place where we are supposed to be comforted, strengthened, renewed, and blessed to live the life and do the work of Christ’s disciples. We call our churches sanctuaries because they are supposed to be a refuge from the world.

Another reason it isn’t easy is that the problem has something to do with who we are underneath the surface. When James talked about fresh and brackish water coming from the same spring, he was saying that watching our language has something to do with the state of the heart.

In the first reading Linda read, Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” which was His way of pointing to the state of the heart when it comes to how we use our words.  Jesus went on to say  “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.

James was writing all this to help us pay serious attention to what we say and how we say it. He was telling us to listen to ourselves and to realize what our words tell us about our hearts – and then do something about it. But before we go any further, we have to know that neither James nor Jesus is saying that every time we miss the mark regarding our language we are evil and in danger of judgment. Both Jesus and James are teaching us that we have to learn how to do it, that’s what James meant when he spoke of taming the tongue. It’s what Jesus meant when He spoke of the treasure of our hearts. A good or evil treasure has to be acquired and collected over time.

So here’s the deal. As challenging as it is – we in the Church are called to choose our words responsibly. That’s what he was talking about when he spoke about putting bits in a horse’s mouth or guiding a ship with its’ rudder. We can choose how we say what’s on our minds, even when we’re disagreeing or angry or upset. It isn’t easy to do that, but it is every bit as essential a part of our spiritual lives as confession and forgiveness, love and justice, hearing and doing God’s word. It isn’t easy but it is every bit a part of the journey into a new and different life, where God continuously shapes the kind of people we are, and the kinds of communities we from.

The good news In all this – is the truth that we can turn our ships around. We can do it one word, one conversation, one crisis at a time.  This is another instance when changing what we do on the outside, will start changing who we are on the inside.

This is the premise behind the proposal that our Council made about a congregational covenant. What is that all about? Briefly, a covenant is simply a collection of specific goals that a congregation sets, and then agrees to support one another in implementing. Here’s a brief example from a Presbyterian Church in rural N.J that shows what they agree to in their communication with each other.

1.As fellow members of Christ’s community, we will positively invest in each other’s lives by supporting each other in love, and holding each other accountable in love.

We accept that conflict is a normal and natural part of life in community. In this regard:

1.We will deal constructively with conflicts or disagreements by practicing Matthew 18: 15-17 and 5: 23-24.

2..We promise to be self- reflective confessing our wrongs to those we have offended. As forgiven people, we seek to be forgiving thus, seeking genuine peace and reconciliation.

3,We promise to walk together in Christian love, to remember each other in prayer, and to aid each other in pursuing these goals.

This is just a brief portion of the document – but it shows the gist of what a covenant can be. The strength of it is how it gives a congregation specific ways to be constructive and intentional and supportive for their life together as Christians.

It is very instructive that Jesus closed His teaching about our speech with the parable of the foundation we build our lives upon. In fact in every place where Jesus brought this up He aligned it with how essential it is to the vitality of our spiritual lives. Here it’s part of building our lives on a solid foundation. In Mark, it’s identified with the kinds of commandments God really cares about as opposed to those God doesn’t. In Matthew, it also talks about the foundation but before that He aligns it with being doer’s of the will of God.

Today is our opportunity to begin making this an intentional constructive part of our life today and into the future. May God strengthen and bless us as we do… Let us pray…