Back to Basics with James: What Do We Sound Like?
We're continuing this week in James' letter, letting the wise pastor walk us through some of the basics of our faith. We began a couple weeks ago by thinking about who God is, and who we are as a result. Then last week we looked at what we are to look like, as God's peculiar people; what it looks like when we're bound up with God and letting that take shape in our lives. This week we're going to think about what we sound like, as God's people, strange in the world. And the beginning of this passage suggests that we should probably pray before we go any further.
Will you join me:
The first verse of James ch 3 always makes me a bit antsy. Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. I don't care for that. I mean, I had a math teacher in high school who I'd like to be judged harshly. But that doesn't seem to be what James is talking about, exactly. Not that math teachers aren't also held to a high standard, but James is obviously talking to communities of Christians and so he's talking about teaching in the church. Teachers in the Church will be judged with greater strictness and that just doesn't seem fair, from this side of the pulpit.
So, I'm going to do what a lot of the commentators who teach about this passage do, which is to move past it as quickly as possible... But one thing I do want to point out is something that the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says about it, which is that it's not clear whether the judgment that comes to teachers is now or at the final judgment; it's not clear whether it's divine or human judgment, God or our neighbors. Because it's in the Bible, we may default to the former--that when we stand before God to give an account, teachers will have a bit more to account for than the rest. But the second option--that the judgment is here and now--makes more sense in the context of the letter. The spotlight and the microphone make the judgment immediate. It becomes a question of authenticity and truthfulness. If you're going to teach something, it had better line up with the way you live. And if you're going to teach things like grace and forgiveness, self-giving love and faithfulness makes the whole project gets rather more risky. Perhaps if teachers in the Church memorized this verse and took it seriously we wouldn't end up in the news so often. That gracious little addition is sort of comforting, I guess: for we all make many mistakes. James' pastoral counterpart, St. Paul, puts it a little more strongly: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And somehow, when someone is given the authority to teach that fall seems more dramatic, the mistakes are magnified. Teachers beware!
Still, when it's all said and done, I think James' point is not just to isolate one group of people for special judgment, but to underline the power and influence we each have, on the tip of our tongues. James quickly moves us from individual teachers, to the whole community as a teacher. He's crafty, James is. All of a sudden it's not just teachers like him who have to watch what they say, be careful how they sound, but we're all caught up in the challenge. For James, the Church (the strange gathering of sinner-saints trying, clumsily, to live out God's dream for the world) is in fact a teacher for the world. Throughout Scripture, all those called as God's peculiar people are called specifically to be "a light to the nations." Israel and the Church are meant to be teachers, to point the rest of the world to the will and way of God, and to show what God is like by our example.
And James insists that how we speak, how we sound really matters in that witness. In fact, if you asked James to pick the three most important things a Christian community should do, and that we as individual followers of Jesus should do, he'd say: care for the poor and the vulnerable, keep yourself "unstained" by the world (our goal is to look like Jesus and nothing less), and bridle your tongue (James 1:26-27). How we speak makes the top three things that mark us as strange in the world, mark us as followers of Jesus!
It's worth asking why James is so concerned about words, words, words. Part of it is that his letter is closely related to what's called Hebrew wisdom literature. James is clearly a student of the wisdom writings in the Scriptures like the Psalms and Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes--writing that is concerned with what it means to live wisely, in the company of God. And biblically speaking, wise living means a kind of integration. It's not just craftiness, or intelligence; it's not being old enough to know better, or the ability to spout clever bits of advice. Wisdom, for those shaped by the Bible, means a kind of consistency in our whole lives, a whole life oriented and obedient to, and reflective of the will and way of God in this world, and for all things. James knows that our witness to how God is hangs on our willingness to conform our whole lives, including our speech, to that truth.
And doesn't it? Isn't that so? How many people have turned away from the church, or wouldn't ever go into in the first place because they say it's full of hypocrites? And it doesn't help if you tell them that's why they're welcome. People are paying attention. They're not just watching, they're listening. When people hear us praising God out of one side of our mouths, talking about grace and mercy, singing about God's concern for the world and God's serious love of all things, and then from the other side of our mouths comes gossip and hurt, disinterest and callousness, people know that those things don't line up. How, James asks, can we bless God with the same mouth that we curse our neighbors, who are made in God's image? How can we glorify and gossip at the same time; how can we praise and patronize, how can we sing hosannas and slander our neighbors? It's like a fig tree trying to grow olives.
But there's more than just how we're perceived that's at stake. James knows what modern science confirms, which is that how we speak can affect our actions. Whatever our intentions are, our language, our speech can derail them fairly quickly. Think about his image of a ship controlled by a small rudder. We don't need psychologists to tell us that there's truth in that. Our patterns of speech can actually dictate our behaviour. Think about how habitually some of us gossip--if we're gossips, we're always on the lookout for things to pick at and talk about. Or that person that we all know, who may or may not be us, whose response to everything, no matter what, is standoffish or dismissive or sarcastic? How does that way of speaking end up shaping our action?
Think about the way we talk in different social situations and how that changes the atmosphere and influences how we act. The way we speak to our peers is different than the way that we speak in a job interview. In our intimate relationships, whatever they happen to be, it's amazing what a different space is created with language that conveys love and affection, grace and tenderness, than when our mouths are full of pettiness or hostility. Is our default a word of love, or something else? If I walk in from work and start complaining to Kate that dinner isn't ready, rather than telling her how glad I am to see her, not only does my life expectancy go down but the whole environment changes. An entire evening can be ruined by an unkind word. An evening can turn into a lifetime without warning.
Our words matter. How we speak matters. And not just for our domestic bliss. James is convinced that what we say is somehow of cosmic significance! The tongue is a fire...it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell! Is this just a preacher getting a little excited? Or is James trying to get us to understand that, as Eugene Peterson puts it, every time we open our mouths as followers of Jesus, Christian truth and community is on the line? Jesus got into hot water for insisting that it wasn't keeping or violating religious food rules that confirms what is going on in a person's heart, whether we are clean or defiled, but what comes out of our mouths. When we open our mouths, we're either faithful to who God is or not. Speaking is serious business.
And of course, it's a beautiful gift. Our words are bound up with the God to whom speech is awfully important. Ours is the God who speaks creation into being, who blesses it by saying it's good. Ours is the God who calls us by name. God and God's Word are indistinct--The Word was with God and the Word was God, from beginning to end, St. John sings. One of the most profound claims of the Christian faith is that God's creative, sustaining Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, walked among us shaping a whole new world as he went. When the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Church at Pentecost they aren't spiritually enlightened--they start to speak, in every language under the sun! And that chorus of holy speech shapes their witness in word and deed. They can't preach God's new way in the world, they can't speak the resurrection, without being shaped by the proclamation.
Like God, whose image we bear, our language is creative. This is a huge responsibility. What we say, what we sing, what we pray influences the conditions in which we live and move. Our words can be a flame that warms, creates hospitality, protects and nurtures. Or they can they can set off a wildfire of destruction. This feels like both a threat and a promise. On the one hand, if we really hear James here, we might be inclined to just keep our mouths shut. It's too dangerous to speak up.
But on the other hand (and this is where I want to lean in) think about what a remarkable thing this is to say about us. We have this incredible power to join in God's work, to be part of God's creativity. And somehow, though we all make many mistakes, God seems pleased to have it that way. James would tell us to be slow to speak, not sounding off in all directions; but he wouldn't tell us not to speak. The tongue can boast of great exploits, but wonder of wonders those exploits can be perfectly bound up with the breathtaking work of God in the world. In cahoots with the Holy Spirit our breath is joined with God's and our words can deliver all the hope, peace, joy, and love of heaven.
Our words can heal. Our words can reconcile. Our words can turn tears into laughter. Our words can draw another close. Our words can remove blindfolds of ignorance, and undo bonds of sin. Our words can bubble over with good news. Our words can lead people from the cramped and noisy world of greed and violence, self-protection and self-concern, empty promises and manipulation, into the broad space of God's grace, into the self-giving love of Jesus for a broken and beloved universe, into life that is truly life.
Our words can be full of God's story, which begins in blessing and ends in blessing. Our words can make known right here and now the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations; they can be carried on the river that flows from heaven's throne, quelling the fires of sin and death, refreshing every dry, dusty, and dead heart. The tongue is capable of great exploits and we have a choice, James says. He lays it before us: death or life. We can use the power of our words to destroy, to lay low, to create conditions contrary to life. Or we can use the power of our words to proclaim resurrection, to draw attention to the One who is making all things new, to join our voices with heaven's song.
One of the beloved sayings of the mainline church, is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel at all times and use words when necessary." I understand the point of that. I also understand the pastor who I recently heard wish that he could wipe it from our collective memory. We actually need to get better at our speech, at speaking the gospel. It turns out that actions alone are insufficient to make clear the wide scope of God's love for the world. We have to use our words, too. That may mean actually sharing about our faith especially in a culture that has no idea what we're doing here. We need to practice articulating what difference Jesus makes in our lives "with gentleness and reverence," as St. Peter puts it (1 Peter 3:16). But it also means actually voicing things like forgiveness and grace. What would that sound like in your life? What does it sound like to speak unconditional love? What does it sound like in our homes and work, with friends or colleagues or strangers, to speak reconciliation, and justice, and mercy? What would it sound like if our worship in here matched our words out there? What would it sound like if the seeds planted in prayer and praise bore the Spirit's fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control, in every corner of our lives?
That's the integration, the living wisdom, that James wants for us and that the Holy Spirit makes possible, if we'll allow for it. Christians follow the One who is perfectly integrated. We follow the Word made flesh, the One brings God's kingdom to life in our midst in what he does, and what he says. That's why Paul encourages us to do everything in word and deed, in the name of Jesus, to the glory of God (Colossians 3:17). It's why what we say matters to James. The world is desperate for some good news, and we have been given permission and power to share the best news--all the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ--with every action, and every breath.