Saturday, August 29, 2015

Words Have Consequences - James 1:17-27

Proclamation of the Word of God

Old Testament Lesson                                                                         Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament[a] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice[b] goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens[c] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

New Testament Lesson                                                                James 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.[a] 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved:[b] let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[c] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Words have consequences.
          Words have meaning. 
Words have power.  They can inspire or discourage.  They can hurt a person in the very core of one’s soul, or they can provide a healing when nothing else can help. 

There are times when I stand in this sanctuary, and two people will look at one another and say, “I take you to be my husband – or wife – in sickness or health, in joy or in sorrow, in plenty or in want, as long as we both shall live,” and with those words two people are bound together in a covenant promise of love and support. 

Words have consequences.

That same couple in a moment of a heated argument may find that one says to the other, “I hate you.”

Words have consequences.

Some words are wonderful.  And others are terrible.

Think back on the great moments in history, and there are great words that had great power to heal, to lead or to inspire.

“Ask not what your country can do for you…”

“Mr. Gorbochev, tear down this wall…”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

          In our daily lives we have words that we speak that have power and consequences.

          “I love you.”

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

“I believe in God the Father almighty…”

But some words are hard words, and hurtful words, and destructive words.

Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Hulk Hogan; they all have two things in common: They're celebrities and they've achieved notoriety for many things, but also for for inappropriate remarks. Their words caused them and others considerable grief, and are so offensive that we have to quote them by replacing words with letters, so that we find ourselves using euphemisms, such as the “n-word” or the “f-word,” when talking about their mistakes, so that we do not make the same mistake and thus compound the offense.

As Americans we treasure our freedom of speech, and, rightfully so.  It is a precious freedom.  And we bristle at the thought of censorship.

But, while we're free to voice our thoughts and opinions, that doesn't mean every word or thought is appropriate.

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel said: “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts as a sound ends in a deed.”

Indeed, words have consequences, and sometimes these consequences lead us down a road we did not intend to travel.  Words may lead to the loss of friendship. Brothers and sisters may not speak to one another for years, because of what one said to the other.  Marriages may dissolve because of an angry word.  And sometimes violent words may even nurture violent actions.

This is the point of a passage found in the New Testament book of James, which suggests that the tongue is untamable and like a fire that sets a forest ablaze. Having the power to both curse and bless, we're encouraged to keep careful watch over our tongues.

It is, in fact, a theme that James can’t keep from coming back to later in his letter.  Our New Testament lesson is from chapter one of James, but in chapter three James brings up the subject again, saying, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. “

Although our tongues don't have a “mind of their own,” it does take considerable discipline to tame our speech. It may seem trite, but the character in the old movie, Bambi, is right when Thumper's father's advice is worth considering: “If you can't say something nice ... don't say nothing at all.”

Or put it in the words of the Bible…  in the New Testament book of James, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:4-11)

          One of the vows that our elders and deacons take when they become officers in our church is to further the peace and unity of the church. 
How can we do that in our community, our family and in our nation?  How can we begin to bring back civility?

Step 1: Watch your own words!
Our Old Testament lesson has that wonderful passage:  “May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
As we think about how uncivil our nation has become, we need to start with ourselves and consider what are we saying that might be hurtful.
This is the first step – what your own words.
And this is not an easy task. It is easier to see the uncivil behavior in others than to see it in ourselves.
In political discussions, one side, right or left, Republican or Democrat, can more easily see the uncivil tone in those words spoken by the other side.
In a marriage, it is easy to understand how absolutely wrong your spouse was to say certain things in a hurtful way, but not easy to see your own errors in your choice of words.
Jesus, in Matthew 7 said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”
It is time for us to take the logs out of our own eyes.
This means we must lead the way to a more civil society by being civil ourselves.  Watch what you say.
Or as Psalm 141:3 said in a prayer, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.”
Or as Abraham Lincoln put it, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.”

So, step 1 is watch your own words.

Step 2:  Encourage others to speak with civility
2 Timothy 2:14 (NIV) says, “Warn others against quarrelling about words. It is of no value and only ruins those who listen."
People need to know that their words have consequences.
When someone at school says something hurtful to someone, other classmates need to hold one another accountable and step in to block bullying words.
When someone says something racist, we need to speak out against that.
When someone says something violent, we should not tolerate that, but we need to speak out.
When a spouse says something hurtful, we need to open up and share how those words made us feel.
We stand up against these hurtful words not with more bitter words, but with gentle and soft words.  If we are not careful, then we may simply add more fuel to the fire.  Our words can so easily become just another part of the vicious circle of anger and hate and uncivil tones. 
Someone says something that hurts us, so we point it out to them in a way that simply hurts that other person.
No – we need to have a humble and loving attitude when we correct another person.
The Bible teaches this about correcting others -
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” (Timothy 5:1-2, NIV)
Step 3:  Avoid Situations That Cause Arguments
Finally, sometimes we simply need to step out of those uncivil conversations and remove ourselves from those situations that are part of the cycle of anger.
The Bible says 2 Timothy 2:23-24 (NIV): "Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he or she must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful."
There are certain people or situations that perpetuate the continuing decline of uncivil behaviour in our country.
Do you ever find yourselves being sucked into someone else’s behaviour, so that you become part of the problem?  Maybe you listen too much to some of the talk radio hosts who spend an hour on the air bashing our country and bashing the other side – whatever the other side may be.  Then the radio host’s words and attitudes become your words, and you begin to talk uncivil to another person or about another person.  Maybe it is time to follow the words of Paul to Timothy – “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.”  It might be time to turn off the radio, or at least, listen to it less frequently.
Or did you ever find yourselves being sucked into a family argument, so that instead of one person saying angry and hurtful things, you join in and also say hurtful and angry things.  There are times when you have to have a time out – sometimes the first step in ending an argument is by being quiet for a while.  Let the tempers calm down.  Then talk about the issues when everyone is calm.

We toss words around as if they have little meaning – but they have tremendous weight.

Words have power. They have consequences.
The Old Testament book of Proverbs said it well in chapter 17: “A person of knowledge uses words with restraint.”

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.