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

16th Sunday after Trinity

St Barbara’s 16.09.18

Rev Tulo Raistrick

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I asked you to complete a number of proverbs.

Well here’s one more:

“Sticks and stones may… (break my bones) but words… (will never hurt me).”

Is that true? I wonder who here has never been hurt by what someone has said to them or about them? Unkind or thoughtless words hurt us, don’t they. Sometimes, while physical hurts may heal and recover, the wounds caused by words, though less visible, take much longer to heal. They can even fester and cause infection in other parts of our body. Despite that playground saying, words matter immensely.

James, this most practical of writers in the New Testament, certainly believed so. (As an aside, it has been great chatting with some of you over the last couple of weeks and hearing how much you are enjoying reading the letter of James. Some of you have taken to trying to memorise some of his sayings; others of you have told me that you have printed out some of his words and stuck them on your desk at work. And people have mentioned how amazed they are by how relevant it is – it feels like something that could have been written two weeks ago rather than two thousand years ago!)

And for James, as he wrote to Christians in churches all over Europe, a critical concern was how we speak, how we use words. And to get his point across, he uses a number of memorable images.

Firstly, he talks about a horse. Horses can be incredibly powerful, strong-willed animals. Imagine an untamed stallion pawing at the air. And yet, with just the smallest thing, a bit in their mouth, they can be directed one way or another.

Or take a ship. A large sailing ship in James’ day, but it still applies to a cruise liner or a huge oil tanker today. They can be enormous vessels; they can be tossed about by the wind and waves of a mighty ocean; but what determines their direction, what determines their course, is something that is tiny in comparison, the rudder at the back of the boat.

The tongue, James is saying, is just like that. At times we can trivialise the importance of words, like that old playground rhyme, but in fact they matter hugely. Words can galvanise, can inspire, can set in motion a whole new direction. Think about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech or some of Winston Churchill’ speeches. Immensely powerful. I’ve been watching a series on Manchester City football club, and there what makes the manager and the captain stand out from others is their ability with words to inspire, to enthuse, to envision, to encourage, to build up. At a personal level, we may have experienced how words have changed the direction of our lives too – words of love and affirmation; words of encouragement; words of helpful insight and challenge. When we communicate with others, whether through the spoken word or through text or email, we are doing something powerful and significant, something that far outweighs “mere words”.

But James leaves us in no doubt. All too often our words can end up being harmful, destructive.  He uses another image, that of a spark that causes a huge forest fire. In July Greece was affected by terrible forest fires, one fire alone killing near on 100 people and devastating a whole town. It started from a small spark. James is saying, that is what our words can be like. They may appear small and insignificant but they can cause horrific damage.

When I take funerals and meet with the bereaved family, it is not uncommon for them to say: “They did have a son/ daughter or brother/sister but they hadn’t spoken to them for years, because they fell out over something that was said.” Decades of hurt and pain caused by just a few words. 

James uses another analogy. He talks of a “world of evil among the parts of the body”. The image is that of an area of the country that refuses to become peaceful and ordered, but is always in revolt, fermenting violence. Even when we think the rest of our lives are in order, the tongue has a way of running away with itself, of causing hurt and pain, through gossip, an unkind or thoughtless word, crude humour, or a put-down. I wonder how often do we speak without thinking, or fire off an email, or send a text, without fully thinking through what we are doing.

James has already spoken of the need to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”. So how do we do that? Here are some practical suggestions, but I’m sure you will have many more:

Make it your intention to fully understand the other person, especially when in a tense or awkward conversation. That involves lots of listening. It also involves asking them, “this is what I understand you to be saying – is that right?” That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean valuing them as a person.

Before you speak in a difficult conversation or in a conversation where there may be a tendency to gossip, remind yourself that God is right there with you. Allow that realisation to shape what you say. At one time I used to keep a pebble in my pocket as a reminder.

Ask yourself before you speak about someone to someone else: could I say this with them present? will what I say build them up and build up the person I am speaking to, or am I taking pleasure in colluding with someone at another’s expense?

If you are feeling angry and unsure you’ll be able to control what you say, acknowledge that and walk away: “Look I’m angry. I don’t want to say anything now because I may regret it later. I’ll come back to you.” Far better that, than causing untold damage to others and to you.

James was saved the challenges of email and social media, but slow to speak and slow to anger apply in this world too.

So maybe best not to send an email or text, even the most seemingly innocuous ones, until you’ve re-read it.

Put a cooling off period between your send button and it actually being sent.

Ask someone you trust to check something which you believe could be critical of others.

If this is a difficult conversation can it be done face to face or phone rather than by text or email? The tone of emails is always difficult to read, and sometimes we can totally misconstrue things. Its also much easier to be aggressive when we don’t see the immediate impact of such behaviour in front of us. Build a relationship.

Avoid the “Copy All” button. I remember at school when fights broke out in the playground everyone would gather round shouting “Fight, fight”. When a teacher appeared, the first thing they would do was disperse the crowd, send us away. A conflict is far harder to resolve with a partisan audience looking on. Why would we think it is any different in the workplace?

Those are just a few suggestions. At the end of the service, talk with each other over tea and coffee. What advice could you give?

James is not pretending that any of this is easy. He says: “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man”. We are a long way from that.

But he is calling us to integrity. In his final image, he speaks of how a spring cannot give rise to both fresh water and salt water. Its one or the other. With our words, we cannot praise God some of the time, and then curse others, speak badly of others, use words to hurt and destroy others, at other times. As he has said earlier in his letter: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” How we use our words matter. So may God help us to live with integrity, to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.