The lectionary passages for this week are focused on two main themes: wisdom and the power of the tongue. Given that Free Community Church has the most highly educated congregation in all of Singapore, which was highlighted a couple of times in previous sermons, according to a survey which I have no recollection of taking part in, it is only logical that I am going to speak about the power of the tongue today because I cannot share much about wisdom which you all do not already know.
Today’s scripture reading is taken from James 3:1-12
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
5 Likewise, 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.
6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
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. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
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.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
This is quite a simple and straightforward passage, touching on the extra judgment placed on teachers, who use their tongues as their tool for teaching, on how the tongue, though small, can control the whole being (illustrated as the bit in the horse’s mouth, and the rudder that guides the ship). How the tongue is powerful in spreading words like a fire, and how the tongue can be inconsistent, saying both good and bad things.
The truth is I had a lot of difficulty wrapping my mind around this passage, because I am not sure whether there will be anything new I can bring to you. The lessons to be learnt from this passage are clearly written, and yet I wonder, how many of us actually practiced these lessons in our lives? So what I am saying in the next ten minutes or so, may sound like a broken record to some of you here, but bear with me as I feel that this is an opportunity to remind us once again about these lessons.
The passage begins with James talking about teachers, so the non teachers among us can heave a sigh of relief. In the church context, these would refer to mainly to those who teach the word of god, pastors, preachers, Sunday school and bible study teachers, and cell group leaders. This verse speaks strongly to me because I get to preach a few times in FCC, and I feel like a fraud whenever it is my turn to be standing here. I worry that whatever I say may not be the right interpretation of the word of god, or that I do not put enough preparation and hard work into my sermons as I always tend to only finish them in the nick of time. I think the biggest fear that I have, is that I will only be known by the words that I speak from here, especially to people who do not know me. And if my life does not reflect the words that I say up here, (which I admit, I fail to walk the talk many times), what does that reveal about me? Can I say that I am just an imperfect human, like everyone else, and justify away the mistakes and inconsistencies in my life. Maybe, but that would take away my responsibility that comes with the opportunity for me to share god’s word with all of you.
Maybe that is one reason why it is so difficult to get people to speak in FCC, even for the prayer segment. Who would want the extra work, which comes with the added pressure of extra scrutiny? It is natural for us to expect more out of our teachers, just like we expect more out of our leaders, parents, bosses, and sometimes our partners and friends. We give these people our respect, attention, time, money and even affection. Their words carry the power to build us up, or to tear us down. But I ask of each and every one of us here, do we not have for ourselves the same kind of expectations, as followers of Christ? If our answer is “No”, then we may have to reexamine our walk with god. Whether in church or in our daily lives, we may not all be in positions to teach, but we are all Christians, so do our words reflect god in us? Or do our words reveal us as the kind of Christians that only show up on Sunday to praise god, and god is absent in our lives for the rest of the week.
Words are not just important only when spoken from a platform, try to recall every word that came out from your mouth in the past week, or yesterday, or just before you stepped into church this morning. If there was a recording of all these words, what would they tell people about you? Could our words be telling others that there is nothing good in our lives, for we are always complaining, about our work, our friends, or how expensive everything is? Or would our words show us to be people who only care for the pleasures in life, when we are asking where are the nice places to eat, where should we go for holidays or when will our next hook up be? Or would we be known by our profanities, bitchy insults, thoughtless words, crude jokes, idle chatters or angry outbursts?
Or could we be known by our words of kindness, compassion, patience, wisdom, encouragement and love? But doesn’t action speak louder than words? Of course if it is only our words which are godly, but not our actions, we are but only paying lip service. But if we have difficulty controlling the words coming out from our mouth, how much more difficulty we would faced in controlling our actions? Perhaps, those who are careful with their words may think that this passage in James does not apply. Who here dares to say that they have never gossiped (even if it is under the guise of sharing a prayer request) or told a lie (by choosing to tell only partial truth)? How many of us are that perfect, to say that we have never uttered a word that hurt, that we wish we could have taken them back. So is it better for us to just take a vow of silence, so that the less we say, the fewer mistakes we make?
Do not choose to keep silent just because we have the fear of saying the wrong things, or making troubles for ourselves, or making people dislikes us. We have all been given a great gift by god, the ability to communicate with one another. And our words is one of the easiest form of communication that we use daily. Communication comes from the latin root word communicare, meaning to impart, share or make common. This is what we are doing when we communicate, we share our thoughts and feelings, we impart our knowledge and ideas. We communicate our doubts when we ask questions, we communicate our faith when we talk about our beliefs, we communicate our anguish and despair even if we are only able to scream out unintelligible words. Even our government has embarked on a national conversation so that they may know our concerns. Communication is a means for us to connect with one another, and it is through these connections that we establish relationships with each other, making us part of a community.
When we talk, we want people to listen. Whether we are shouting it out from the rooftop, or whispering into someone’s ear, we just want to be heard, and to be understood. And if our words tell people who we are, we have to be careful not to become parrots, repeating what we hear from others. Or just talk for the sake of liking the sound of our own voices. Let our words be a manifestation of our hearts, through thoughts that we formed which we actually spend some time mulling over.
Can you imagine if we speak to each other as if we are talking to god? After all, you and I are all made in the image of god. Would that be a good thing? I guess the question is: how do we actually speak to god? Do we speak to god in awe and with reverence, or maybe we complain just as much, or quarrel, or bargain, or even swear at god. Do we speak to god differently in public and in private? Do we have frivolous chats with god, allowing our words to ramble on with no filtering? Has god become our buddy, who we can rant and rave to, that we forget about god’s sovereignty and god’s holiness? When we talk to god, do we allow god to speak to us back, and do we actually listen?
When we say that we love god, do we show our love for god by following god’s teachings? When we say we want to do god’s will, do we do it only when it fits into our plans and time table? When we ask god to forgive us, do we conveniently forget that god also told us to forgive others?
How to speak?
What are some of the words that had and could hurt us? Is it the word gay? Whether it is used in the right context or used by others to associate with words like trashy and idiotic. Maybe in Free Community Church, the hurtful word could be conservative? Or you have been hurt by being called a prude, or on the other hand, promiscuous.
There is a quote that says: “Words and hearts should be handled with care for words when spoken and hearts when broken are the hardest things to repair.”
So how can we watch what we say? There are some questions which I find helpful when deciding whether to say something.
Is it true? Is what I am going to speak the truth? If not, stop, do not say it. Is it necessary? “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12: 36, 37. There are so many things that we say that are not necessary. Is it beneficial? Is what I’m going to say build someone up or tear them down? Sometimes we may have to say words that hurt, do not keep quiet by justifying that since we are all not perfect, so what gives us the right to speak up about other’s mistakes? Or do we actually keep quiet simply because we are apathetic and do not care enough.
Do I have permission to share it? This will probably eliminate a lot of our conversations in our lives.
Nails in the fence
I will end today’s sermon with a short story called “Nails in the fence”
There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.
Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper.
The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”
Replace the angry words in the story with a gossip, a boast, an innuendo, a lie, a flatter, or a complaint, how many nails would there be in our fences? And how many scars would we have left behind? As we leave this place, in what will probably be one of the quieter Sunday after service ever, let us remember that our words is a reflection of who we are, and who we want to be in god.