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The Power of Speech

Old Mystic, September 13, 2009
James 3:1-12

Summary

The way we speak, the manner in which we talk to one another, our speech, when led by the Spirit of God, has the potential of transforming lives and building God’s kingdom.

Sermon

How many times have you realized that you wanted to take your words back? Not so much because a particular statement made was inaccurate, or some facts were distorted, or because it was plainly wrong. In fact, many of us have a hard time to recognize that sometimes we are completely mistaken. But when our words involve consequences—which most of the time do—and by speaking them someone may be misguided, confused, or hurt, we may get that feeling of uneasiness; a deep sense that we want to take those words back.

Our speech is very important. It has to do with how we communicate with one another by means of our language—sometimes more than one—within a culture, a region, or a particular setting. Our choice of words is crucial to be understood. And when we have certain degree of authority because of our role, or the position we hold, or the trust granted to us, our speech bears a significant influence on our relationships. We are all influenced, shaped, changed, and transformed—both positively and negatively—by the way we talk to each other, and the messages we hear and pass along.

As I look at our lectionary passage I must confess I struggle with the use of strong metaphors to depict the reprehensible use of the tongue, a symbol of our speech. James puts it bluntly, “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! …The tongue is a fire… stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell… no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” These are very strong words themselves, yet they are spoken to illustrate the power of speech.

I have often heard messages preached about this passage focused mostly on gossip and how spreading rumors can affect our relationships in congregations. This is obviously very important, however, in the context of the passage, the misuse of speech and the weight of words, I believe, is primarily focused on authority. James is warning teachers—who boast authority—to be careful about the way they speak. Voices that are granted authority have great influence and we can witness to that both in the private realm and the public square. Words are very rarely “gone with the wind.” A child will be shaped by the words he or she hears from those who have “authority” at home. Young lives are constantly shaped at school by the language and speech of teachers and sometimes those who are “in charge” are not aware of what an influence they are in those lives.

The airwaves are filled with words that influence our lives beyond our schooling years. We hear the sound bites of political half-truths pounding our years, stirring our feelings, and very often leading us to deception. Not to mention, in this informational age how the internet has become such a medium of deception. We all cherish the first amendment and the beauty of our freedom of speech and we can and should use any means to communicate, get informed, and acquire knowledge. Let’s beware, however, not to use such a precious right as a weapon to destroy; let it be a tool to build!

Many can claim authority and allege to possess the truth and, those who believe them, will give a lot of weight to their words. Yet, in this postmodern century, having come to the realization of the limitations of our humanity, can’t we finally agree that we have just glimpses of the “truth” and only perceptions of reality? The world needs humble words; words that honestly acknowledge that we can’t see the whole picture; words that are carefully articulated and spoken to build a better world; to build the kingdom of God.

We need to employ a language that transforms and shapes a new world in the image of Jesus Christ. We need a different language than that we hear most of the time. First, this is a language of love. Paul, writing in the first letter to the Corinthians, as he addressed the abuses in the use of “spiritual language,” said: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Words may be powerful but will be empty or destructive without love. But when they express love they have the power to transform the world!

They ought to be honest, however. Love must be in our hearts and that may not come that easy though God sheds love in our hearts according to the scriptures. But when have love to give, let us not keep it just for ourselves and those who we find easy to love. Let us use words of love even for those who we believe don’t deserve them. It is obvious that evil can overwhelm us and hamper our ability to use constructive, loving speech. Yet, the worst evils can be denounced in contrast to God’s love with benevolent words.

Second, when we speak words of love our speech bears good news. That is what the gospel is all about. Good news about God being active in the world; good news about the reality and the possibility of a kingdom of love, peace, and justice; good news of hope for the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, and the downtrodden. In God’s world even the bad news have their flip side, so let us bring the good news even in the midst of a catastrophe.

The gospel has been so often preached using many words to let people know what is wrong with them; why they need Jesus Christ and how heavy their sins are. Sins are heavy, yet it is the language of the good news of God’s love and of God’s redemption in Christ that will speak to the needs of the person. Good news spoken with love will make the difference more than a thousand words addressing what is wrong. Critical thinking and social analysis are great tools to asses the crude reality of a world plagued by oppression, war, and poverty. There is also a flip side to this harsh reality: God’s salvation, God’s liberation, and God’s kingdom are already here and yet they will fully realize in the future. We can use words of good news to paint the wonderful picture of this promise.

Third, words of love bring good news, and these are good news of peace. Words are such a huge part in dealing with conflict. They can deter violence but they also have the potential of increasing hostilities. In fact, words and their powerful influence can indeed initiate the most bitter and deadly conflicts between human beings. As we face clashes of all kinds day in and day out, let us be reminded that the good news of Christ are good news of peace. In the letter to the Ephesians, the writer, when speaking about the Christian wearing the whole armor of God—significantly, a language of war—admonishes the audience that “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

Peace is the best word to describe the future, the hope, and the promise of God for humankind in Jesus Christ. We can perhaps argue that sometimes we have to fight for peace. Many have resorted to the argument that war is inevitable and sided with Saint Augustine to articulate the possibility and reality of a just war. Others have maintained that when following the teachings of Jesus they find no justification for war. Either way, our daily language can make a difference. We possess the ability to choose our words and therefore we can carefully select words that sow seeds of peace in our homes, our neighborhoods, our congregations, and in the public square.

The way we talk to each other can be a powerful influence. Let us be truthful but careful; honest but measured; passionate but peaceful; denouncing but soothing. Above all, may our speech be a message of love and peace that bears the good news of Jesus Christ.

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