Taming the Tongue (Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Sermon Notes and More email.

Sermon and Children’s Message on YouTube:

As many people have noted, there’s been a dramatic decline in the level of civil discourse in our society over the last few years. Certainly, there have always been contentious debates and passionate arguments for as long as people have existed. And difficult discussions, even when they’re heated, are often good for all of us. But lately, difficult discussions have devolved into personal attacks. Debates about ideas and policy have become arguments about who’s the bigger liar. And name calling has become standard fare. Politicians of all stripes do this. And there’s even a school of thought now that the nastier your opponent is, the nastier you should become. And yet, as this has dragged on over the last few years, it’s really affecting all of us. We’re all a bit more inclined to tolerate nastiness than we used to be. And we particularly notice it when our kids start to mimic the behavior. 

Nastiness has just become part of the background of civil (or perhaps uncivil) life together! And it’s not just here in this country. My recent trip abroad disabused me of any notion that this is simply an American problem. And indeed, it isn’t unique to our time, even though it seems particularly bad right now. 

But this has always been a problem, so much so that in today’s second reading, James takes up an entire paragraph writing to early Christians about how much damage their incivility can do – “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” Just the tongue. What you say and how you say it can do a world of damage. It would have been easy for James to simply write about the damage you can do with your fists when you hit someone or even your heart when you ignore someone’s needs. But here he lifts up the tongue, and he’s not just writing for politicians or even teachers. He’s writing to everybody.

He writes, “no one can tame the tongue … with it we bless the Lord and Father and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” 

But it is. And sadly, James doesn’t have a great 12-Step process to “tame the tongue.” He just lifts up the problem, and calls us to struggle against it. It sort of sounds like what our mothers told us when we were kids.

But in today’s world, where we’re often told that we need to “fight fire with fire”, why should we try? Why should we even care? After all, incivility doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as warfare, terrorism or natural disasters. Why should we bother to try to live and speak differently?

Of course, our mothers would probably tell us it’s a good idea in order to be a nice and polite person. And certainly James, and others in the New Testament, wouldn’t argue with that. But for them, it’s much more. Taming the tongue, and engaging especially in difficult discussions with civility and compassion, is about more than “being nice people.”

Instead, “taming the tongue” is about:

  • Personal growth as a disciple of Jesus – everybody has to rely on God’s love and Jesus’ forgiveness as the basis of our relationship with God; as James points out, “we all make many mistakes”, and we should never stand before God and say, “look, I’m perfect now!”; but because of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, we get to practice living in new ways without keeping score, instead of simply giving in and saying, “Oh, it’s not worth trying”. And practice changes you … (not so that you finally become perfect, but so that you become more like the person God calls you to be…)
  • Building and sustaining community – Jesus called us to be individual disciples, but he also calls us to be a community, and to live in community with those who don’t share our faith; and you can live and work well with people you don’t agree with, but you can’t live and work well with people who you’ve simply dismissed as evil liars; and part of the problem we face today is that it’s easier to dismiss people who are “anonymous” to us, either because we’ll never see them again or because we have cyberspace between us… (and building and strengthening community means “taming the tongue” and even “taming the tweet” (as one writer in Living Lutheran put it this month) when we’re interacting with people we incorrectly think aren’t really part of the “community” …)
  • Bearing witness to God’s love in our lives – James was probably writing to an early Jewish Christian community, which would have been familiar with the Old Testament concept of “holiness” – that is, God is “holy” and calls his people to be “holy”; and “holy” in this case, doesn’t mean “holier than thou”; instead, it means “special” or “distinct”. That is, God’s people have the distinct and special opportunity to show the world who God is by their words, deeds and attitudes. And that, James writes, is also what “taming the tongue” is about; it’s about being people who show the world a different way to live and a different set of values… (it may not “change the world”, but it will show the world something different – and in the early church, it was being “different” that got people to take a closer look at the Jesus movement…)

And so even though we often focus as Christians on things like feeding the hungry and advocating for justice, sometimes the most important things we do every day are showing who God is in our lives by striving to do things like taming our tongues. 

Taming our tongues may not seem like that big a deal. But James reminds us today that when we tame our tongues, we train ourselves to be better disciples of Jesus. When we tame our tongues, we build the kind of community that’s able to engage in real and even difficult conversations. And when we tame our tongues, our words will end up being less about us, and more about the God who empowers us. Amen.