Scripture: Isaiah 50:4-9 & James 3:2-12
It’s the little things in life that matter most. Take for example the lowly comma. It’s a tiny little curve half hidden at the bottom of a string of letters and words, and yet, it’s vital. Skpetical? Well, check out these pictures and see if you change your mind.
This first one admittedly could benefit from the use of the word “or.” But as is, I don’t think anyone in the world would qualify to use that toilet, as it’s hard enough to be elderly and a child at the same time, let alone a disabled elderly pregnant child.
This second one is something I’m sure you’ve all seen. And honestly it kind of drives me crazy and kind of cracks me up every time. As it stands, it tells us that slow children are playing. If you add in the comma that we’re supposed to realize is needed, it’s a warning. Small comma, big difference.
And if that hasn’t pulled you over to the grammar nerd side yet, check out picture number three. Commas save lives people. No matter how small they are, they’re important.
Both of our scripture readings this morning focus on something that is also small, and also important, even more so than the not-so-lowly-anymore comma. They focus on the tongue, a very small part of the body, and yet one that they assert is vitally important. To be more specific, they both assert that what we do with our tongues is of vital importance. What we heard from Isaiah and James points out for us two very different possibilities for our use of our tongues.
I promise I’m not a pyro here, but let’s jump right in and start with the option that has flames. James is the most clear about how the little tongue can lead to big problems. “ided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature. . . is. . .restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
You may remember from last week that the book of James was written as practical advice to Christians who had been struggling with what it meant to actually live out their faith. From James’ diatribe on the evils of the tongue, it’s safe to say that one of the things they were struggling with was nasty words to one another. And while this may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, James points out that it is not, in fact so small.
Like a small fire can set a whole forest blazing- and we’ve seen a lot of these fires this year- destroying millions of dollars of property, polluting the air, causing death even- like the little fire that starts it all, so can the wrong words can turn any situation into one flaming with problems.
Walter Brueggemann illustrates for us just how this can look in our time. Destructive flames spread when we speak words of gossip that destroy trust. They spread through words of false promise, generating a desire for things that are neither needed nor wanted and ensuring the disappointment and hurt of the one receiving them. Those flames spread through words of propaganda, using false “facts” to generate fear that has no basis in reality, but then serves to justify brutality or brutalizing policies. Flames spread through words of false ideology .
Or perhaps burns are inflicted onto others through unkind words- a tutor calling a student stupid when they are truly hard-working and just struggling. A parent calling a child lazy when they are still learning how to complete tasks. These verbal burns hurt, and often leave impacts that last a life-time. I bet every one of us in this room can recall a time in which we have been called a name, and have been burned by it.
Thankfully, though, there is an alternative to the fiery destructive tongue. This is what Isaiah describes for us- “having the tongue of a teacher.” While the fiery tongue spreads destruction inside and out, the tongue of a teacher does the opposite. It “sustain(s) the weary with a word.” Rather than tearing down, it builds up, supports, sustains.
And, not to sound like an infomercial, but that’s not all. The tongue of a teacher comes with a companion. The listening ear. “Morning by morning,” Isaiah says, “God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” It’s a strange translation choice, because the word for teacher and “those who are taught” is the same. You can’t teach with your tongue if you have no words on it. And to teach wisely, Isaiah tells us, you need to listen and be filled with God’s wisdom and love.
These words of God’s instruction- words like “You are forgiven,” and the peace and freedom they grant. Words like “I love you,” “you are important to me,” or simply “I’m listening,” or “I care about your experience,” even “help me understand.” Those are the kinds of words that come from the tongue of a teacher as Isaiah describes them.
Just like the tongue of fire, this tongue of a teacher has wide ranging effect. When we speak fiery words of resentment, division, and anger, we become more resentful, more divided, more angry. When we speak God’s wisdom with the tongue of a teacher, words to sustain and uplift, we are sustained and uplifted. And not only that, but they can enhance community, give courage, advance just causes, and assure.
Isiah points out that we may well need to be sustained and uplifted, encouraged bound together more strongly in community and because the fiery powers in the world will not like what we have to say. We may be reviled, maligned, even assaulted simply for speaking words that sustain the weary.
But nonetheless that’s our calling. We don’t just get to refrain from fiery words. James uses the metaphor of a bridled horse. The bit and bridle in a horse’s mouth don’t stop it from running, just direct and control it toward a particular end. And that’s what we are to do with our tongues. We can’t stay silent because there are in fact words that need to be said and weary people who need to be sustained. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, if we stay silent “God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” In terms closer to James, it is to allow fire to spread unquenched.
So the challenge for all of us is to bridle up our tongues so we can speak words that sustain rather than ones that burn. Words to uphold one another, support one another, and grow community. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are important. Your experience matters. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, this week is to use those sustaining words. Bridle your tongue, and keep away from words that burn. And instead use the tongue of the teacher God has given you.
Commas, however small yet important they are, change sentences. But your words, small yet important, can change the world. Use them wisely. Amen.
 “Free Speech: A License to Destroy or a Responsibility to Build Up (James 3:1-12), Walter Bruegemann: http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/free-speech-a-license-to-destroy-or-a-responsibility-to-build-up-james-31-12/