Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 17) *

Text: James 1:26
Do any of you think you are religious? If you do not control your tongue, your religion is worthless and you deceive yourself.

Show me your tongue

It was his first day on the job. He was a new assistant in the fruit and vegie department of a supermarket. A woman came up to him and said she wanted to buy half of a head of lettuce.
"Half a head? God grows these in whole heads and thatís how we sell them!"

The woman persisted and finally he said, "I'll have to go back and talk to the manager."

He went to the rear of the store and said to the manager, "There's some stupid old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?"

Unbeknown to him the woman had followed him and as he spoke, he turned and saw her standing right behind him. Quickly he added, "And this nice lady wants to buy the other half of the lettuce. Will it be all right?"
Later in the day the manager caught up with the young man and said, "That was the finest example of quick thinking Iíve ever seen! Where are you from?"

The boy said, "I'm from Melbourne, the home of great football players and Australiaís stupidest people."
The manager looked at him and said, "I grew up in Melbourne."
The boy said, "Oh, what footie team do you barrack for?"

Have there been times when your mouth has gotten you into trouble? At various times all of us suffer from what is commonly known as foot in mouth disease. Our tongues get us into so much trouble.

Generally, we donít take too much notice of our tongues. Have you ever considered your tongue to be beautiful? I bet you don't even look at it very often. You don't go on shopping trips for it. You don't buy cosmetics for your tongue? You don't go on a diet or do exercises to get your tongue back in shape. Nobody admires a good-looking tongue, nor do they write poems and songs about it. It doesn't appear on the cover of TIME magazine.

And yet, it is your tongue more than your figure, your face, or the clothes that you wear, or even the size of your income, that determines whether or not you are a beautiful person.

The tongue can make a plain person someone extraordinary.
The tongue can soothe the agitated temper.
The tongue can give hope to the despondent.
The tongue can draw your children close to you in affection and love, or send them away feeling hurt, criticised, unwanted, unloved.
It can poison a child's confidence and imagination by its negative comments or gives encouragement and helpful advice.
It can make and keep friends, or it can lose them.
It can defend a good cause, or it can allow evil to run wild, even encourage that evil to do further damage.
It can attract people to Jesus, or it can turn people away from him.

The tongue can do so much damage to the reputation of other people.
It's easy to blurt out all kinds of things about other people, no matter whether they are true or not. But once spoken, words are almost impossible to recall. You can't retrieve a word after itís been spoken. The damage is done and you can't undo the damage very easily, if at all.

The tongue is a small part of the body but it can do so much damage. James likens it to a small flame. Like a small flame, the tongue that can set a whole forest of lives and relationships on fire, consuming and destroying all that lies in its path. We also know too well how an uncontrolled tongue is able to wreak so much damage in the lives of people around us.

And then there are the profanities spoken by the tongue. Unfortunately, the film industry believes that for a movie to be acceptable, profanity must be scripted in. This way of speaking is being adopted into our everyday language. There seems to be a culture that says that unless a person uses profanities, uses "Jesus" "Christ" or "God" as a way of emphasizing what is being said, or uses sexually degrading language, you are clearly a boring and uninteresting person.  In fact, it is used so much, that many people don't even recognise it as profanity anymore.  No matter how much we try to say that it's part of our culture, or that we have to talk that way to be accepted, or that it is done without even thinking about what those words really mean, or whatever other excuses we might give for using profanity. A profanity is always a profanity.

James says that if a person can't control his tongue, his religion is worthless and he deceives himself.

Jesus said something similar, "The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these are the things that make a person unclean." Just as a doctor diagnoses a disease by what comes from the patient, so the spiritual and moral condition of a person can be diagnosed by what comes from the mouth. What you hear a person say is a window into the condition of that person's spiritual life. Through our language we communicate a lot about ourselves.

Paul isn't saying that Christians are to be dull and boring. He isnít talking about wittiness, or about having a joke, or using words in an amusing way. These things make speech interesting and lively and some people are really gifted at their use of language. Paul is referring to irreverent talk that destroys rather than builds up. He is talking about using tongues and speech in a way that God had intended them to be used, namely to express love, kindness, helpfulness, understanding and sympathy.

We are all too aware of just how unruly our tongues can be. In fact, it gets out of control even when we are determined to not let fly with harmful language. Often itís only in reflection or when someone points it out to us that we suddenly become ashamed of the hurt our tongues have caused.

A mother once asked me why her 2 sons were so insecure and timid, so unlike the other boys she knew. She didnít realise, until it was pointed out to her, that she was far too judgemental and critical and was always shouting at her sons. You might say she whipped her boys into submission with her tongue. We too have used our tongues to get at people, to get our own way, to make ourselves feel more important, to put others down.

How can we tame our tongues? Of course, the answer that comes to mind based on our own experience of a tongue that so easily gets out of control is, "We canít". Our tongues express the sin that is in our lives and so often controls our lives. As much as we try by ourselves to control what comes out of our mouths, we find that our tongues continue to run wild. Before we realise it our mouths have let out a volley of words that we had determined not to let happen. You can no more tame your tongue by yourself than a wild horse can tame itself. Wild horses are tamed by experienced trainers. The Holy Spirit is our trainer. Only he can break our unruly, wild tongues!

The Spirit reminds us about the special relationship that we have been called into by our loving heavenly Father. At our baptism he adopted us as his own, he has claimed us as his children, and declared himself to be our loving God. We have become one with Christ through his death and resurrection. We have been joined together in the one faith, one baptism, one Lord and Saviour and the one church. Paul says to us, "I urge you, then, live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you" Eph 4:1).

Through the Bible the Spirit reminds us what kind of lives we ought to be living as Godís people. He tells us through the apostle Paul,
Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words" (Eph 4:29).
"No more shouting or insults" (Eph 4:31).
"No more lying!" (Eph 4:25)
"Do not let your anger (which leads you to say hurtful things) lead you into sin" (Eph 4:26 (brackets mine)).
"It isnít fitting for you to use language which is obscene, profane, or vulgar" (Eph 5:4).
"Your speech should always be pleasant and interesting" (Col 4:6).
"Speak the truth in the spirit of love" (Eph 4:15).

You can see that the apostle Paul has a lot to say about language and use of our tongues and the more he says the more we realise how often we have not spoken to others with in love. We have to agree with James that even though we regard ourselves as religious that doesnít mean we have our tongues in control. James says, "No one has ever been able to tame the tongue. It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison". One minute we use our tongues to praise God and then the next to abuse someone.

The Spirit of God leads us to repentance Ė to acknowledge how sorry we are for the way our speech has hurt others, to turn away from the sins of our tongue and with his help to use our tongues for the purpose they were intended Ė to help and encourage others.

The Spirit tells us that even though the sins of our tongue would be enough to condemn us by themselves, we have a God who forgives us because of the death of his Son on the cross in our place. We are told that even though Jesus was insulted and mocked, he didn't retaliate and throw insults and threats back at them, nevertheless, as innocent as he was, he suffered and died because of the way we use our tongues as well as our many other sins.

The Spirit of God helps us everyday as we talk and communicate with our families, friends, fellow workers, and neighbours. He helps us speak with love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.

The challenge is no less today than it was in the apostleís time. I wonder whether it is even greater. Today we have so many other trend setters when it comes to what is acceptable TV and movie producers and influential people in our community are setting trends that are unacceptable for us Christians. Jus because everyone else says it doesnít make it acceptable for a Christian to speak that way.

You and I are going to find ourselves failing again and again often quite unintentionally and often deliberately.
Thank God that Jesus died for the multitude of sins that we commit with our tongues.
Thank God that we have a Saviour who freed us from our sin and made us clean in the sight of God.


* This sermon is also suitable for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19).  The second reading on that day is James 3:1-12 where he speaks about taming the tongue.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
30th August 2009

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