HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Proverbs 1:20-33
EPISTLE LESSON James 3:1-12
MESSAGE: “Words with Friends”
Is there anyone here this morning who has played “Words with Friends?” How many of you know what it is? I probably wouldn’t have even heard of it if Alec Baldwin hadn’t made the news a few months back being kicked off an American Airlines flight because he refused to stop playing the game on his iPad when instructed to do so by the flight attendant.
I understand it is a game based on the familiar Scrabble board game. Players start out with 7 letter tiles and take turns building words with an opponent, scoring points according to the words and letters used. Apparently, it can be played on iPhones and iPads, on Facebook and Kindle, and several other devices. Up to 20 games can be played simultaneously, and you can play with friends on Facebook or be randomly assigned an opponent. Words with Friends has now become a phrase that names a social media “app,” instead of a description of a conversation between people who know each other.
The irony of the Baldwin incident, however, is that while he was continuing to share collegial words with his friends on the phone, he was allegedly using quite different words with the flight attendants who were just trying to do their jobs. Baldwin later tweeted (on Twitter, another social network) that American Airlines is “where retired Catholic school gym teachers from the 1950s find jobs as flight attendants” and those attendants “walk the aisles of an airplane with a whistle around their neck and a clipboard in their hands and they have made flying a Greyhound bus experience.” Those may have been among the more cordial words he said. According to American Airlines, Baldwin was “extremely rude” to the flight crew, calling them “inappropriate names” and using “offensive” language -- not friendly words, a theme suggested by the very app he was enjoying. The flight was forced to go back to the gate to deplane Baldwin which made the rest of the passengers wait. No doubt they had a few choice words of their own.
The third chapter of the Letter of James begins with a few words about the tongue. James compares this relatively small body part to the bit used to steer a horse and to a rudder used to steer a boat. Small parts that have enormous influence.
James first warns those who aspire to become teachers because “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (v. 1). Any teacher, in church or in school, must know that his or her words carry great weight and can very easily harm or encourage a student. And while “all of us make many mistakes,” it’s important for teachers to strive for perfect word choice that becomes a “bridle” for controlling the kind of loose and destructive talk that can inevitably leak out and cause destruction (v. 2). Indeed, like a bit in the mouth of a horse, a controlled tongue can guide a person’s whole “body” in what he says and does (v. 3). Some will breathe a sigh of relief and say, “I’m not a teacher – in the schools or in the church.” I hate to disillusion you, but a) most of you here today have served at some point, either as a deacon or as an elder, which makes you a leader, and b) anyone who knows that you are a member of a church will judge the church and its mission by your words. No one is off the hook on James’ admonition for us to watch our words.
James acknowledges that what he is telling his readers is not easy. “7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue.” Have you been hurt by words? or have your words ever hurt another person? You are not alone. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Everyone says things they shouldn’t. “If we claim that we have no sin, the truth is not in us. . .” So should we declare controlling our tongues impossible and give up?
The Apostle Paul asks the rhetorical question in his letter to the Christians in Rome (chapter 6), “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” And he quickly answers his own question, “2 By no means! We are those
who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
God gives us instructions for living, not because God is mean or wants to take our fun away. God gives us instructions for living because God loves us all, and wants to protect us. James says the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” And this is not the first time God’s word has told us not to speak untruths. Look up Exodus 20. This one is right up there in the big Ten (Commandments!), right after don’t murder, commit adultery or steal stuff. God gives us these rules because God loves each and every one of us and wants to protect us from unnecessary pain.
Remember when we were children, and some bratty kid at school or on the playground called us a name, or said we were ugly or stupid? What did we learn to say in response? “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” That little ditty may have helped us feel better for a moment. It may have even slowed down the kid who said something hurtful, especially if we were able to say it without tears. The trouble is, it just isn’t true. Sticks and stones can break my bones, and you’re darn tootin’ names can hurt us. Telling lies, spreading gossip, throwing insults, making verbal threats
can hurt and can do incredible damage.
How carefully do you monitor what goes into your mouth? For example, do you follow a low-fat diet? Do you track the fat grams going into your body? Do you watch the number of calories that you consume? Do you avoid refined sugars? Do you limit your caffeine? Do you eat only dolphin-safe tuna? Do you eat only food grown locally? Are you a vegetarian or a vegan? Do you eat only free-range chicken? Do you shun high fructose corn syrup? Do you buy organic milk, fruits and vegetables? Do you use sea salt instead of table salt? Purchase only beef that’s produced without the use of growth hormones? Cook with olive oil instead of Crisco?
The bad news is that you can do all of those things, and you’ll still die – eventually. These practices may make you a little healthier, but their value is temporary. None of the foods that you are avoiding or limiting can defile you. They can’t soil you spiritually. They can’t make you any less pleasing to God.
Now, compared to the care you take in controlling what goes into your mouth, how careful are you to control what comes out of your mouth? Do you apply as much energy, and planning, and self-discipline to controlling your speech as you apply to controlling your calories, or your fat grams, or your carbohydrates? If not, then you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Because Jesus says that what it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles a person.
One final observation: Think for a moment about someone about whom you don’t really care whether you tell the truth or not. You hear some gossip, and this person isn’t your friend, so why not enjoy the feeling of importance of having something juicy to tell. We’ve read from James. I’ve sent you to Romans and Exodus. Now I’m going to send you to the gospel according to Matthew 25. Pick up the words of the Lord, say at the 42nd verse:
42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 ”They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 ”He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not
do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 ”Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the
righteous to eternal life.”
Do we think that Jesus was only talking about specific acts of giving food and clothing, visiting the sick and prisoners? No.
James points out 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
If we spread gossip, tell lies, or say unkind things to or about anyone, we are telling lies, spreading gossip and saying unkind things to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I took German for my foreign language in high school, and the class met in the exact same room every semester for the 4 years I was there. There was a plaque on the wall I saw every day I went to school. “Be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth into gear.”
Before you speak an unkindness ask the questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
Friends, be sure the heart of Jesus is engaged before putting mouth into gear.