James 3.1-12

what the pet parrot repeats

Billy Graham is not well known for his funny sayings. But love this one: “A true Christian is one who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip.”  Okay. I know you are thinking the pastor doesn’t know a lot of jokes. Sad, but true. So here is one of the most painfully true things I’ve heard, “A true Christian is one who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip.”

If the whole epistle of James is a meditation on wisdom and a summons to be wise and righteous people, our reading today is a meditation on the power and peril of language. Teachers are especially called out to be utterly careful in their use of words. Why? Well, because “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, is simply not true. In fact, words are much more powerful than sticks and stones that break your bones.

Why do you think your mother said, “watch your tongue!”?

While a broken leg heals in months, the wounds rendered by words spoken carelessly can and often do last a life-time. A hurtful word can cripple a child and reduce an adult to tears. If the definition of domestic violence included words battering their targets against walls, the surgeon general might declare a national health crisis. More people walk away from relationships wounded by words than broken by hands. It’s true.

What is it about words that make them so powerful – for good or for ill – and therefore so perilous? James piles up metaphors describing the awesome effects of the tongue: it will burn down a forest, turn a ship liner, pollute a river, stain a body and wreck a community. One little organ from which flows the human language.  It would be easy to say James gets a bit carried away here, unless of course you are carrying the effects of ill spoken words.  Then you hear this cautionary tale differently. One has to wonder if James had a particular teacher in mind when he wrote this scathing critique directed particularly at teachers. Was he subject to a verbal shredding? Did a mean-spirited person attack him in church? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

I didn’t choose this text for the season when the church school starts up along with public school. It’s the lectionary passage for the day, but it does highlight the role that teachers, and preachers, play in our lives. They are on the frontlines shaping the hearts and minds of young people. They need our prayers and our support to fulfill the responsibility they have been given, to offer words that enhance wisdom and build up the community. My second grade teacher used a little cliche with her students that got embedded in my consciousness and still shapes me. “Can’t never did anything,” she would say whenever one of her students would complain about what they couldn’t do. I try to remember her especially whenever I remember other teachers who said things much less helpful that I won’t repeat here. But you’ve heard them all.

Then there was my teacher-preacher-mentor in college who spoke frequently from the pulpit that Christians are to practice “the disciplines of dual citizenship” always leaving sanctuary to engage the streets and returning again to the sanctuary.

Teachers are some of the most powerful people in the world and always have been. Sadly, they are also some of the most under appreciated and underpaid people when measured against their responsibilities to shape the minds and hearts of their students. I actually think this awareness is probably underneath James cautionary tale directed at teachers. He knows how much responsibility they carry and how much power they have to enhance or undermine wisdom. So add the teachers to your prayer list. (And while your at it, toss in the preachers too.)

James is so mindful of the delirious effects of the tongue that it’s wonder he didn’t urge upon his readers a vow of silence. And that might not be a bad thing!  Like the ancient desert fathers or the Benedictine monks with whom I spent a sabbatical, silence is the fertile soil from which the seed of humility grows into wisdom. We do well to be silent more often. It might enable us to be more wise with our words. James did say, “be quick to listen and slow to speak.” That’s worth remembering.

Presuming we are not going to all take a vow of silence, the pressing question is how shall we speak wisely, knowing that words can build a house of love in a lifetime or demolish it down in an instant. The poets help us use words to see a world of grace. One of my favorite, Gerhard Manley Hopkins, once wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

It will flame out

Like shining from shook foil …

I marvel that a few words spoken can shape the prayer of the heart and bring one’s desires into focus. I’m not naive enough to believe we are all going to consult the poets before heading off into the trenches of life – although that would not be a bad thing, at least once in a while – still perhaps it’s best stay close to the ground with the caution that is before us. Choose carefully the gift of words knowing their effects. Few things are more painful than the moment you realize the words that have just left your mouth can never return.

There is an old Hasidic story bears repeating. “A woman became disturbed that her gossip against others had caused serious damage. So she came to her Rabbi to ask what she could do to make amends. The Rabbi said to the woman take a feather and place it on the doorstep of every person who has been hurt by your words. Then go to sleep and return to me. She did as she was instructed and returned to the Rabbi. The Rabbi said now go to each of the homes to pick up the feather and bring them back to me. The woman returned empty handed, ‘all the feathers were blown away’. The Rabbi replied, so it is with words, once they have been spoken they can never be returned.”

You recall that when Dietrich Bonhoeffer set up his underground seminary in Germany during the reign of Hitler, he had only one rule for the community. It was that no one should speak about another student in his absence or if he did, he must tell the other what was said. Later, many of his students spoke about how often they broke that rule but learned each time from their mistakes. How wonderful, if always painful, it is to learn from one’s mistakes. I think just such learning is the way of holiness.

Just imagine a church where the pet parrot can be given to the town gossip.

Okay! Go ahead, imagine this congregation as that community of Jesus Christ where the pet parrot can be given to the town gossip.