Verbal Nonviolence

by susan on September 14, 2015

gun sculptureWe continue to move through the challenging New Testament book of James. Here is the message that was shared during yesterday’s worship gathering. Some of the best wisdom is shared around the table during and afterward. You can also see one of our Well participant’s response by visiting his personal blog.

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  
(NRSV translation)

While I do need to re-hear much of the wisdom shared in today’s reading, I don’t really need James to tell me about the weighty responsiblity that comes with teaching. I have learned this lesson firsthand. One of my first sermons was preached among the congregation of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Chuch. I was nervous and excited and hopeful that my words would not fall flat. In case you don’t know, preachers do not spend hours studying and preparing messages to show off what they know. They want to connect God’s story with those hungering for some connection – we want the story to come alive – to comfort, to challenge, to inspire change.

So, I was excited about the opportunity. After worship, a line of people began to form to speak with me. Several well-meaning friends congratulated me with hugs and handshakes, saying “good job.” I wondered if they sensed my nervousness and thought I needed the affirmation.

The last in line though was a middle age couple who were unfamiliar to me. They had been attending the church for a year or so. They were all smiles. They grabbed my hand and thanked me.
“This was just what we needed to hear,” they exclaimed. Great, I thought.
“We have been trying to make a huge decision and now we know what to do. We are moving back to New Hampshire.”
“Wow, that’s wonderful”, I said, while inside I was thinking … Oh my gosh. Please Lord, let this be a good thing!

I realize that these people are either blessing or cursing me to this day.

Maybe this is why James recommends that any who are considering becoming teachers rethink their decision. Teachers and preachers have a great responsibility as do we all…to choose their words wisely because words have incredible power. They can bless and they can curse.

Words can be a blessing.
Words like…
I love you.
I’m here for you.
It is so good to see you.
Thank you.
It’s going to be okay.

What are some other words of blessing that come to mind?
Maybe some that have been spoken to you recently?

Words can encourage, praise, inspire, counsel, teach, offer care or prayer.

The tongue, according to James may be incredibly small, but it has the power to turn the tide. Like a bit in the mouth of a horse or the rudder of a ship, one word can change the course of things. According to The Message translation, “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!”

Words can be incredible sources of blessing, yet we get the sense that James has also seen them used in a number of powerfully destructive ways.

He compares the destructive power of words to a tiny flame that can set an entire forest on fire. We’ve all heard about the occasional forest fire that begun unintentionally by a lit cigarette carelessly thrown out or a small campfire that got out of hand.

Once the fire begins, it’s nearly impossible to contain it.
The same is true of our words. You can’t unsay something.

According to New Testament scholar Eric Barreto, “Words are potent weapons in the hands of those who crave their power. In short, words are harmful whenever we wield them for our own gain and not the building up of others.”

Words: On the one hand, blessing. On the other hand, curse. And nearly impossible to control.

So, James suggests that these followers of the Way learn to control their tongues. Their mixed messages were doing damage to the movement that Jesus had begun. Some scholars believe this reference to poor teaching related back to the passage we explored last week. Assemblies of believers were welcoming the rich better than the poor and it’s possible they were being taught to do so.

A teacher’s misguided speech was causing followers of Jesus to misunderstand their calling.

And, James was pleading for this to stop.
Stop sending these mixed messages.
Stop contradicting yourselves and learn to control your tongues.

It’s a word for us today.
It’s a warning to think about what we are saying before we say it –
to think about what we are saying about God.
Don’t say God is love and then speak hate-filled words.
Don’t say God is mysterious and then simplify God to a few trite clichés.
Don’t say God is beyond our imaginations and then reduce following him to an easy 3 step road to success.

It’s a word for us today. A warning to think about what we are saying before we say it –
to think about what we are saying to one another.
Our tongues are weapons that must be subdued.
They must become agents of God’s peace and love.
In short, we must learn to practice verbal non-violence.

Look at the image on the front of your worship guide (see image above).
Without saying anything, take a minute to reflect on this image.

How have our mouths been like loaded guns?
What are some ways we hurt one another with our words?

Maybe we speak too quickly or too much
or make passive aggressive comments
or call people names
or slander their names
or talk about them behind their backs.

Maybe we tell lies (or embellish the truth)
or make things sound better or worse than they really are.

Maybe we talk too much about our problems,
never pausing to hear a word from another,
or say words that degrade, pry, panic or constantly criticize.

What would change if we vowed to do no harm with our words?
What would change if we forced our tongues to be less curse and more blessing?

James, the brother of Jesus was not telling us to shut up and never speak. He was telling us to learn the way of Jesus and Jesus was a master of words. He used them sparingly. He used them to ask questions rather than to accuse. He used them to shed light on the kingdom of God that was already being revealed through him. The words he spoke were connected to the life he lived.

How do we need to re-visit this challenging message today? How do we need to practice verbal nonviolence in the places and spaces we talk, tweet, post and live?

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