Adapted from Pastor Edward F. Markquart’s sermon: “James, The Tongue”
I can remember quite clearly the first time I told a blatant lie to a friend that I knew would result in much pain and hurt feelings. My brain and my heart knew that what I was doing was terribly wrong – but my mouth continued to form and spin words into a terrific lie that grew and grew over a couple of weeks until everything came to an epic crashing halt when the truth of the matter was discovered. Unable to bear the stress of the lie, I told another friend that I had lied, and that news made its way to the victim of my lies. The confrontation was deservedly ugly.
I can remember many times throughout my life where my mouth and my tongue have gotten me out of trouble and gotten me into it. One of my sisters has a nickname for me in my childhood: The Little Manipulator. Apparently, I was rather good at convincing my younger brother to do things that would get us into trouble and pointing to him as the instigator, escaping punishment that an older sister believed that I was due. I remember learning the lesson of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I remember my mother and grandfather both talking about how when they were growing up children were seen, never heard. I remember learning a lesson about how insignificant and empty the words “I’m sorry” can be when they are the only words that ever seem to come out of your mouth.
The human tongue is small, and yet terribly significant. It is a comparatively small muscle, but, oh… what a mouthful of muscle. And it is amazing that such a little muscle has so much power: the power to build up, the power to tear down, the power to encourage, guide, cheer, deride, and even destroy. This 1-pound muscle in our body has the power to create and control the very direction of our individuality and personality.
Professional life-helpers and counsellors understand this. It was once said to me that if you can promote proper change in the language of a person, you might actually affect change in the very same person. If you can change the words that a person uses, you might change the feelings inside of that person.
In our reading from James, it is said that the tongue is like fire. We read that the tongue is like a spark that sets off a whole fire. This very thing happens all the time in a number of places I have lived and with a number of people I have lived with. For example, when I was living with college roommates, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to mutter a response to a statement only to have someone sharply demand: “What did you say?!” And a heated argument may have arisen. I can remember many times when a warning came from one of my parents in the form of the words: “I don’t like your tone of voice.” I find it fascinating that with one small sentence, entirely terrible and destructive fights would ignite and cause emotional damage as often as physical. We are all capable of being that spark. We could say anything, really, in a sharp enough tone, and it is like throwing a spark into a puddle of gas and the whole thing flames up instantly. The tongue is like a spark that instantaneously ignites a huge fire in any social setting.
It amazes me, then, that this very same part of our selves is capable of honeyed invitation, murmured caress, adoration, uplifting sentiment, love, blessing, praise, and such thanksgiving. This tongue can start destructive fires, but it can also spark passion and spread love in a number of ways.
Humanity has an interesting relationship with praise and thanksgiving. James talks about how we bless God with our tongues. Peter excitedly proclaims the truth of Christ’s being in our Gospel. The Bible is full of praise and thanksgiving for God and all that God does, and it is also full of humans praising and giving thanks for other humans. All throughout the Bible, God wants and asks for blessing and praise and thanksgiving. The psalms are filled with blessing and praise and thanksgiving. These psalms are filled with it, as if God wants it. As if God needs it. As if God absolutely enjoys it.
And perhaps in this way humans aren’t all that different. With the right words, I can soar high above the ground, proud and full of delight. My husband really likes to hear praise and thanksgiving. So do our friends. So do our parents. So do our brothers and sisters. So do our neighbours. In fact, it seems that all the people that I know enjoy praise and thanksgiving. I suspect that even the ones, like me, who proclaim that they can’t handle compliments very well, enjoy a little praise and thanks every now and again.
This is one of those weird things where I say that the reason why all human beings enjoy praise and thanksgiving is because we are made in the image of God. I wonder if other people think about it this way. If God likes praise and thanksgiving, if God expects it, and God desires it, and God absolutely exults in it, are we to be so different as beings created in the image of God? Are we not called to love God and to love our neighbours?
And conversely, God does not like to be judged, ridiculed, ignored, belittled, or put down. God does not like that. We don’t either. Why should we when God put a tongue in our mouth to do that, to give thanks and praise?
I’m going to add a little fire on this topic. I don’t think that enjoying praise and thanksgiving is a sign of weakness or some form of narcissism. I do think that there are people who seek praise in unhealthy and sinful ways, and for unhealthy and sinful reasons. Which is perhaps why these people never seem satisfied. I do think that there are people who avoid praise and thanksgiving for a number of reasons. I know it can make me uncomfortable and embarrassed, but I also know that when I feel that way, it’s because I am most likely turning inward and distorting those words unhealthily and sinfully in my own inner dialogue. But, I think that when we are at our healthiest, emotionally and mentally, true praise and thanksgiving have an incredible effect of growing through us and out again from us. Embracing praise and thanksgiving is a sign of health, not of weakness. Not of insecurity. Not of sin.
So, here’s the rub about that loving God and neighbour and self – thing. This love is not passive or exclusively internal.
God did not just give us a brain to think praise and thanksgiving and love. Okay, to make my point, I am going to think it. Get ready, folks, here I go.
Didn’t that feel good? All that praise and thanksgiving and love, I just gave to you. You’re welcome.
God did not just give us a heart to merely feel praise and thanksgiving and love. Here I go again, I am really going to feel it right now.
Isn’t that great? Didn’t that feel amazing, when I just had those feelings of praise and thanksgiving and love just for you?
Okay, so we all know that it doesn’t work that way. The same is true of our actions towards God. We aren’t meant to only think our thanks to God, or feel our praise for God. God gave us a tongue so we could express praise and thanksgiving to God and to one another. As our writer of James says, that is the purpose of the tongue: to express praise and thanksgiving to God and to one another. To go a little further, all those great things are active. They require action. It comes in to each of us and goes out into the world to spread and share around all of creation.
As much as a garden needs rain in order to grow, so we need praise and thanksgiving to be healthy human beings. A language of love from the tongue can help a person feel the love intended from person to person. That is the way we are wired.
The human tongue is small, and yet terribly significant. It is a comparatively small muscle, but, oh… what a mouthful of muscle. And I have no easy fix or solution for the tendency for the human tongue to both bless and curse. But what the writer of James brings up is food for thought: when we are aware of our ability to build up and tear down we can make better choices, knowing full well that as created beings in the image of God, we are called again and again to choose a path of love, thanks, and praise. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.
Much gratitude to the Rev. Edward F. Markquart for the work he does in publishing his sermons.
It moved me and made me want to say a little more in my own way.
Today’s image is borrowed and adapted from PBase.com The image can be found here.