The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The epistle of James has within it the longest passage in the Bible about the role of speech in the life of a Christian. It’s a challenging reading, filled with caution. As it should be. Words are powerful. In the book of Genesis, God creates the world through words: “Let there be light.” And finally, after the seventh day, the Lord God looks at all that has been made and says pronounces it “good.”
Words create worlds. That makes words the most powerful force available to humanity. (Dr. Hyder Zahed “The Power of Spoken Words” Huff Post). Just try to imagine the challenges of World War II without the words of Winston Churchill to buoy the hearts of the British people: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” “Never surrender!”
From the panorama of the world stage to smaller, more personal venues, it is true: “Words create worlds.” The words we speak and write hold within themselves a tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. They can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down. How many of us have internalized self-hatred that resulted from repeated criticisms from a person we love? How many can still remember a compliment made by a teacher, even though it was decades in the past? Words can shape and form, and they can break down and destroy.
Consider this scene from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. In this book, a young girl, Waverly, has the remarkable ability “to see the secrets of a chessboard.” This gift enables her to become a national chess champion when she is eight years old. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it. But this young girl also has a parent who is both envious of her child and selfishly determined to use her for wealth and power. In one scene the young girl, Waverly, stands up to resist her mother’s pressure for perfection and the mother responds with icy silence and then these chilling words: “You are nothing. You are nothing at all.”
Waverly describes what happened next: “This power I had, this belief in what I’d been given, I could actually feel draining away. I could feel myself becoming ordinary… and the best part of me disappeared.”
Contrast this story with that of Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. He tells this story from his early days as a cartoonist:
“When I was trying to become a syndicated cartoonist, I sent my portfolio to one cartoon editor after another and received one rejection slip after another. One cartoon editor (even) called me and suggested I take art classes. Then Sarah Gillespie, an editor at United Media, called to offer me a contract. At first I didn’t believe her. I asked if I would have to change my style or get a partner or learn how to draw… and she said she believed I was already good enough to be a nationally syndicated cartoonist. Her confidence in me completely changed my frame of reference and how I thought about even my own abilities…This may sound bizarre but the minute I got off the phone with her, I could draw better and there was a marked improvement in my work.” (James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner, Encouraging the Heart, Josey-Bass, 1999)
Words create worlds.
In the epistle lesson this morning St. James speaks of the human tongue and writes: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more than salt water yield fresh.”
What James is advocating is a life of consistency. He’s telling his listeners that he believes it is important that they conduct themselves in steadfastly Christian ways in a difficult and deceptive world. Our words and our actions are to be absolutely in line with what we believe. In other words, “walk the talk”. If you say you believe the Good News of God—speak it, and live it. If you say you believe the Gospel, but your words are filled with anger, judgement and hatred, you make a mockery of the faith you profess. That’s heavy stuff. It should make us slower to speak, and kinder in tone.
Words can alter our moods, change our way of thinking, and ultimately affect how we act. The Book of Proverbs includes several verses about the contrast between the speech of the wise and that of the unwise. Here are a few of them: “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” (Prove 10:11); and “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.” (Prov 15:28).
This talk about the importance of words is critical in the era in which we live. Words come at us from all directions: from the pulpit, from people we love, television, the internet and printed material. One of the cautions that we’re faced with is to choose carefully not only the words we speak, but also the words to which we listen and from which we derive our greatest truths. Is the person speaking them trustworthy? Does that individual, in fact, have our best intentions at heart? Or are they speaking from a darker, more manipulative place? Are they seeking to build up or tear down? Do their words ring true, or are they raising caution flags? So many words, and so many voices speaking.
In the end, our greatest hope is to listen carefully to that one voice that cannot fail us. And that voice comes from our Savior, Jesus. The Gospel of John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” One of the names by which our Savior is known is the Logos. The Word of God. The life-giving and redemptive word of Truth. By listening to our Savior, by speaking words of grace and hope and by living a life that models these same words, we can become co-creators with the Divine, helping to make a world which truly embodies the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.