Vicar's Sermon - 13th September 2015
How does he manage it? The apostle James...why have we not read this before? Two weeks ago, he woke us up with the reminder that ‘true religion is this – to care for the widow and the orphan’. He is blunt and to the point:’ Get your head into the right space and start to make a difference in the world as the ‘first fruits of God’s Kingdom’. Last week’s was a hard message too: he held a mirror up to us and pointed out how easy it is to overlook those who (precisely because they have nothing) bring Christ to the community. James strips from us our carefully constructed religious ‘self image’, he peels through the layers of religiosity we have laid down and invites us into a more real relationship with God.
And this week is no exception. Behind his words lie James’ continued attempt to describe a healthy, Christian community. Already we know that this will be a place that is ‘counter cultural’: a place where all are honoured, where barriers between rich and poor have been removed and where people meet as equals - each person a child of the same heavenly father. We know from James that the church is called to live differently, to challenge existing patterns of living in the world in which it is set. It is to be gloriously multi-cultural: finding its unity in Jesus. It is to be welcoming to all. It is to value the contribution of each person. It is to protect the weak. All those things that God had looked for in the people of Israel in the Old Testament, are now sought in those who follow the way of Christ.
But beware. Community life is hard, Building community is a great challenge. There is much that can throw us off course – says James. And what lies behind so many disasters in seeking to build up Christian community (let alone any other community): ‘the things we say and the way that we say them’. Today’s passage is about the power of speech. It is framed in James’ words about the tongue: such a small part f the human body but what a great influence it wields.
James’ words suggest that the tongue –driven presumably by what we think – can be almost wholly destructive. It is a ‘fire’, it ‘stains’ the whole body, it is itself ‘set on fire by hell’, it is ‘full of deadly poison’. ‘No one’ says James ‘can tame the tongue’. It is almost as if ‘all is lost’ if we can’t master what we say in community.
James has a high opinion of words and speech. How could he not, coming from a Jewish background that declares that the world was created by God ‘speaking’. The word of God, is central to James’ understanding of the world. ‘God’s word’ has a life of its own: it is creative. It brings the world into being. The word of the prophets was similarly felt to bring into being the things of which they spoke. In some measure we understand this: a story teller creates a whole world within a novel. A poet can transform us to a different place through their words. Words carry weight, some words hold their power long after they have been spoken: think of Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream...’: words that even now are creating a new thing, even now can transform lives.
Words can create. They can also destroy. ‘He said’: ‘she said’. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will ever hurt me’. This is not true. Words can cut deep into people. They can destroy lives. Some words take root inside us and eat away at us: they undermine our sense of self – the child who is told by a teacher or their parents that ‘they are stupid’. The school girl whose friends’ ‘banter’ drives them to despair. The family that is divided against itself because the wrong words were used. The person who will never cross the threshold of a church again because of what the vicar said 20 years ago.
James knows that what we say is important, he knows that it can be life giving and creative but first we have to learn to ‘hold our tongue’, to master it. Perhaps there are enough people in church who can remember the Disney Film ‘Bambi’. In the film Thumper the rabbit is told off by his mother for some unkind words and reminded that ‘if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all’. If the advice is good enough for a cartoon rabbit then perhaps it can be good enough for us. Control what you say: master your tongue.
But this is hard because we live in a talkative world. Everyone is pushing words out left right and centre: texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, 24 hrs rolling news, news feeds on our mobiles and tablets inviting us to comment, to speak, to pile in to the latest argument. At times it seems as if everyone is perpetually angry, that we are constantly furious, outraged, offended. ‘Hold your tongue’ says James. Step back. Don’t pour petrol on an already raging fire. Stop spreading poison.
What should the church be like? it should be a place where words are few and they are constructive. It can be a place where listening is more important than speaking – sometimes great hurt is caused by a clumsy choice of words, where no hurt was intended: listening well can take us beyond what was said to what was meant. If we are all children of the same heavenly father, if we all have an honoured place at Christ’s table then where does pulling one another down fit in? Where is the place for gossip? Whetre is the place for speaking unkindly of another? Bishop John Pritchard used to remind us of the ABC of our common life: Appreciate Before you Criticise. There is a way of living that insists on looking for the positive even in the most difficult of circumstances. There is a way of being that decides to seek the image of Christ in the other person rather than focus on how un-Christ-like they are. Words can be destructive and dangerous but they can also bring new life, they can transform people: a word of encouragement, a ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’. This is a harder way: I fall short of it, we fall short of it: James knows this, for he says we all ‘make mistakes’. But isn’t seeking a better way of speaking, a more ‘grace filled’ way of speaking infinitely more preferable to the vicious, spiteful, violent and corrosive ways of speaking that have infected so many areas of modern speech and communication. We can be different in the church: hold your tongue, learn to listen, build up and encourage and may our words be like a spring of fresh, living water to those who hear them.