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. In fulfilment 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.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.
“We, unaccustomed to courage…exiles from delight…live coiled in shells of loneliness…until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight to liberate us into life.
Love arrives and in its train come ecstasies…old memories of pleasure…ancient histories of pain. Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity. In the flush of love’s light we dare be brave. And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free.”
(“Touched by an Angel,” Maya Angelou)
On Wednesday the world lost one of its most powerful voices. Poet, writer, activist, teacher, mentor and role model for many, Maya Angelou was eighty-six years old.
As a preacher who has great passion for words, the way in which Maya Angelou used words and images was breathtaking. The poem I just read, entitled, “Touched by an Angel,” is but one example of her profound depth and her exquisite eloquence. I don’t remember too many things about Bill Clinton’s first inauguration as President in 1993. But when Maya Angelou stood up at that national ceremony to read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” I was so captivated by her words that I went out and purchased my own commemorative copy. It’s a poem I still pick up and read from time to time in my office more than twenty years later.
While you and I will no longer have the privilege of hearing Maya Angelou speak in her own voice, living, breathing, melodic, iconic, we will return to her words often. That’s the way it is with gifted writers. They continue to speak to us and in us and through us long past the time they can give voice to their words themselves.
So it was that Maya Angelou’s death inspired me to think about words in this morning’s sermon. Not so much the words in this sermon, but words in general. The words we say and the words we leave unsaid. And my thinking led me to the New Testament where the Letter of James makes reference to words in his very first chapter.
By way of background, you have to wonder about James and Peter and John sometimes. Their letters do make it into the New Testament but they wind up getting tucked in the back near the end. Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul, who never knew Jesus Christ in the flesh, takes center stage right after the Gospels are over. In fact, Paul’s First and Second Corinthians letters alone total the same number of words as the combined letters of James, Peter, and John.
But while Paul’s letter writing may take top billing in the New Testament, that doesn’t mean James had nothing to say. The opposite is true, actually. James comes across as a little “preachy” with a tone some might refer to as “scolding.” There’s a lot of “do this and do that” and a lot of “don’t do this and don’t do that” in the Letter to James. Still his contributions to our Biblical understanding and to our faith cannot be denied.
Which leads us to this morning’s Scripture lesson where James would freely admit there are all kinds of body parts that might serve as obstacles and impediments to the practicing of one’s Christian faith. But the body part liable to cause us the most problems is our tongue. James even goes so far as to say that if we do not bridle our tongues our religion is worthless…
Hardly a day goes by in the media when some noted person in the world isn’t caught using an “unbridled tongue.” Politicians are particularly good at making statements that manage to offend large groups of people. Sports personalities are also fairly adept, from players all the way up to team owners. Many celebrities have gotten in trouble in the court of public opinion for their inability to keep their unbridled thoughts and opinions to themselves.
In some ways, however, thank God for all those public figures. As long as people in the public eye keep talking and as long as various media outlets keep diligently recording what those people have to say, you and I can focus on their runaway tongues and not our own. You and I can keep abiding by the old theory that even though we may be falling short, there’s always somebody out there whose sins are worse than ours…
In the beginning of creation, God could have made human beings any kind of creatures God wanted. But God decided in God’s wisdom to make us creatures of speech. As a result, just like God spoke the worlds into being, we, who are created in God’s own image, also have the power to speak things into being. There’s only one problem with that scenario. Human beings turned out to be really good at speaking things into being.
Every day we use our speech to blame each other, curse each other and mislead one another. To be sure, we also use our daily speech to inspire each other and bless each other and express our love for one another. Nevertheless, words roll off our tongues so easily that sometimes we don’t really know what we’ve said until it’s too late. We can have second thoughts and apologize almost immediately with a disclaimer. “Oh wait, I didn’t mean it that way.” But once words come out of our mouths, we can’t pull the words back in.
Words are powerful. I imagine most of us grew up as children knowing a saying that was supposed to make us feel better. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Unfortunately, looking back those words rarely proved true. Sometimes the temporary pain inflicted by a stick or a stone paled in comparison to some of the mean and deeply hurtful things other kids could think up to say.
And looking back over our lives, sometimes just plain carelessness is as bad as anything intentional. I can look back over my own life…my personal life, my married life, my parenting life, my pastoral life and remember times when I have been too nonchalant with the things that came out of my mouth. I try hard to measure my words and think about the impact of what I’m saying, but like any other human being my tongue runs away occasionally before my mind truly engages.
It’s not helpful to say to someone whose heart and spirit has just been run over something like, “this too shall pass.” And I know I’ve done that before. Those words might be true in the long run, but they are usually premature in the moment. Moreover, they are a sure sign that I haven’t been listening carefully enough.
Likewise if I say to someone, “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” there may be validity in those words. But at any given moment for the person who is seeking some comfort and encouragement and support, they sound like a dismissal of what they are feeling right then and there.
Today’s Scripture lesson from the Letter of James serves as a reminder. Better yet, today’s lesson calls me up short where I need to be held accountable. James could have said, “Will you please just shut up!” Yet he chooses language that is a bit more poetic. “Be slow to speak and slow to anger.”
Take your time. As if you are building a house and doing carpentry work where you measure twice and cut once…think twice and speak once. Choose the words you say because once those words roll off your tongue it’s really hard to backpedal. It’s one of the main reasons why I loved Maya Angelou. Yes, she was a human being and I have no doubt she made her share of verbal mistakes…times when she wished she could have taken back something she said. Still, her poetry and her writing tells me about a legacy of taking her time and choosing her words well.
Bridle your tongue. Maybe it’s a timely and fitting analogy as we move toward next Saturday with all the hype surrounding a potential Triple Crown winner. Yet the main difference between our tongue and a horse’s tongue has to do with the fact that you and I actually have the capacity to bridle our own tongues. If you and I are indeed created in God’s own image, we have been given the power to embrace and to utilize God’s life-giving speech…which is far more creative than any speech we might use to tear each other down.
James writes in conclusion this morning, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.”
In the end, what’s at stake in today’s words from James are not just personal. They are also congregational. In a world where human words cause incalculable damage and result in too many hardened hearts, the word of God stands in stark contrast.
That word of God is worth holding onto and remains worth speaking with each of our tongues. Amen.
NOTE: This sermon was inspired by a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor. Dr. Taylor’s sermon, entitled, “Worthless Religion,” was preached at the Duke University Chapel on September 2, 2012.