Lectionary Passage: James 3: 1-12
To read this passage online, go to http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=James+3:1-12&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
I love words. I like them alone or strung together into some semblance of a sentence or just a random thought. I like learning new words. And I am well on my way to becoming addicted to online Scrabble. Words are powerful things. They can soothe. They can heal. They can encourage. They can show love. They can also hurt feelings, belittle, incite violence, or cause irreparable pain. Words can destroy life and they can give life. That’s really pretty incredible, when you think about it.
This passage from the epistle James is the longest in the Bible about the role of speech in our lives. In a nutshell, it is telling us to “bridle our tongues”. (Which, I suppose is a little odd that there is this much talking about it!) (Oh, forget the semantics. Yeah, it’s telling us to shut up!) But lest we get offended by the writer’s somewhat austere and offputting choice of words, it’s also about something deeper. It’s asking us to look at the base or the foundation from which our words come. It’s about how we relate to others and how we depict who we really are in the deepest core of our being. “Taming our tongue” is more than just shutting up; it is more than merely being tactful or knowing the right thing to say at the right time. Rather, our words point to who and what we really are.
This an interesting passage to read in light of what goes on in our world today. We read of bullying by children toward their classmates. We know that there is bullying in the workplace, when one who has power inflicts that power in force rather than wielding power as a creative and life-giving force. And in the midst of this campaign year, we know that the rhetoric that we hear is anything but conducive to good human relations. There are often times when our speech and our words in this world and society are indeed toxic.
So, in light of this passage, what does it mean to exercise “freedom of speech”? Does it mean that we are allowed to say whatever we want to whomever we want whenever we want and for whatever reason we choose? Well, that’s sort of the way our society lives. Is that OK? Is it alright for a random real estate developer to make a movie depicting Islam as a hateful religion? Well, I suppose in the words of our law, it is. But what does that say about us as a people, as a country, as Christians? Just because a word can be uttered does not mean that it should be. With great freedom comes great responsibility. Perhaps freedom of speech is not about saying everything that comes to mind. The writer of James would probably say that it is more the freedom to say yourself into being. Because, when you think about it, that was done once, way back there, before you spoke your first word. God spoke you into being, bringing life. And God gave each of us the freedom of speech to say ourselves into being again.
Words are indeed powerful. They are an expression of who we are. They depict our character, our knowledge, and our command of the language with which we have been gifted. Who do your words say that you are? What part of the Godself in you do your words depict? Shhhhhhhhh! Listen…You know, that’s as powerful a word as any you might hope to utter. Perhaps the wisdom of words is about knowing when to use your tongue and knowing when to use your ears, or your brain, or your heart. Words are deeper than we usually let them be. They have power. And in between them, in the listening and the silence, comes the voice of God saying you into being once again. Shhhhhhhh!
Last evening, I received a gift. I visited two people who know each other, who have helped and supported each other. And while visiting the first, he gave me the gift of words–words of affirmation, words of thanks, words of respect, words of love. They were not for me. Rather, I was gifted with the opportunity to carry those words to the other person. I did. There were tears when they were uttered and tears when they were heard. They were life-giving words. That is what they should be. What words do you utter? What words do you hear? And what words do you carry from one heart to another? Do this in remembrance of me. What we say and what we don’t say are part of who we are and who we are called to be. The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Grace and Peace,