I love Smith’s images of words as the hardware which fastens
the scaffold of relationships together. Good words -- welcome, encouragement,
and blessing -- build sturdy and secure relationships within community;
and bad words -- criticism, gossip, and cursing -- make that structure
unstable and even hazardous. Most of us are smart enough to spot
the difference between good words and bad words, even though good
words are not always sincere, and bad words may be unintentional.
As I told my daughter years ago when they were dating: a man who
is nice to you and nasty to the waiter is not a nice person. Being
encouraging and sharing blessing with the folks who are already
on our side or whom we’re trying to impress, is fine, but
it’s a pretty low bar to clear. James is inviting us to aim
The first 12 verse of James 3 paint some vivid word pictures of
how small things can have a big impact: a bit in a horse’s
mouth, a rudder on a sailboat, a spark which starts a forest fire.
Of course, a bit and rudder steer horses and boats, while a forest
fire is out of control. The spark starts a fire which can become
unmanageable. James writes, “The tongue is a fire. The tongue
is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the
whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set
on fire by hell.” Whoa. This author has observed or had first-hand
experience with words which were out of control and tearing up whatever
was in their path. And remember, this was before speech had the
ability to go viral through videos, instagrams, or tweets. If James
were living in the 21st century, he could certainly have thrown
some pandemic metaphors into the description of how words can go
James is certainly trying to get our attention with this forceful
language. Remember, he is rooted -- as all of us in 21st Western
society are -- in some deep convictions about the power of words.
In Jewish tradition, it is the words of God -- God’s speech
-- which bring Creation into being. God’s speech bring order
from chaos , light from darkness, and life from a formless void.
The world’s three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and
Islam are all People of the Book: God’s Word in the law and
history and revelation of holy writings. James was also part of
the Greek philosophical tradition which the gospel of John references
when John calls Jesus the Logos: the Word. In the beginning was
the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God. Jesus Christ
as the perfect embodiment of God’s thoughts and desires did
not only represent God, Jesus was one with God from the very beginning.
Such authority and even divine power embedded in words and speech
ought to give us pause. What if the things we said actually happened?
OK, that wouldn’t be so bad when someone sneezes and I automatically
say, “Bless you!” But how about when that driver cuts
me off in traffic and I say . . . I am not going to say it, but
it’s an eternal destination that I have no business wishing
on anyone, even if they are a terrible driver. Some of you have
heard me repeat a Jewish proverb which speaks to this passage for
me: “Words are so powerful they should only be used to bless,
to heal, to prosper.” What kind of scaffolding would we be
constructing for our communities if the only hardware we used were
words of blessing, healing, and prosperity?
In a better world, words of blessing would carry more weight than
words of cursing -- blessing would build up more than cursing destroys.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the world I live in, and I’m
guessing you don’t, either. I know that I am blessed beyond
what I deserve in my family and especially with you folks at Creekside,
but just one crabby conversation with my husband or negative interaction
with someone from church can affect my entire day -- sometimes even
an entire week. I know, because I’ve seen it happen to other
people, that those who put themselves out there in leadership and
service can become easy targets for criticism or other hurtful words.
It takes a heap of blessing to make up for even just one curse.
If you are someone who has experienced being cursed, you know what
I’m talking about.
And that is where the rubber really hits the road in this passage
from James. James is picking up on idea from someone who said “Love
your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse
you, pray for those who abuse you.” Do you know who said that?
Jesus Christ; it’s recorded in Luke 27-28. I believe this
is the middle road between works righteousness and cheap grace.
It is not enough to simply say nice things to people who are nice
to us; it is not OK to treat other people however we want, and let
Jesus sort it out because we’re covered by grace. Christian
living demands that we hold ourselves to a higher standard: the
standard which was set by the example of Jesus. Jesus didn’t
just talk about blessing those who cursed him; he actually did it--under
the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Jesus asked for forgiveness
for the people who were causing his death. He could have cursed
them; he could have called down the wrath of God; he could have
damned them to hell. The grace which Jesus offered to his persecutors
is the same grace which Christ offers to us. We weren’t present
at the crucifixion, but I’m sure you have said and done things
which you aren’t proud of; which you would rather people didn’t
know about, or wish they would forget. If we get into the cursing
game for anyone who has fallen short of the glory of God and the
example of Jesus, and frankly, has retribution coming . . . we are
all cursed. We cannot hold other people to a different standard
than we would want to be held to ourselves.
Since Christ has blessed us, we ought to bless one another. Not
a complicated concept; very difficult to live up to. James knew
this, of course -- that’s why he used all the inflammatory
language about the tongue being set on fire by hell. God knows,
people are annoying. The only way which we can consistently bless
others is through the grace of Christ. But here are three words
to keep in mind: practice, practice, practice. In my experience,
if I’m looking for a reason to curse someone, I can probably
find it. But the reverse is true, as well. What opportunities do
I have to bless someone today; even if I have to work pretty hard
at it. It gets easier with practice, believe me. You don’t
have to wait for “that person” to sneeze in order to
say “God bless you.” Here’s another suggestion
from my experience: if you are not able bring yourself to bless
other people, begin with giving thanks for what God has done for
you. The more we look for blessing, the more we will find it. May
God bless you, and may you bless God. Amen.