Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A friend of mine back in Oxbow has been a volunteer firefighter for pretty much forever. In the small towns they rely on volunteers to step up to the plate and sacrifice their time and talents to protect, rescue and save other people and their possessions. One thing that those volunteers don’t get is access to counselling services and resources like they have in full time city departments. If a firefighter witnesses some grizzly traumatic stuff - and they do - these volunteers often suffer in silence with PTSD and other challenges from their experiences. Seeing this need, my friend joined the Critical Incident Stress Management or (CISM) team. It’s a group of volunteers who are deployed to places where there have been such traumatic events for rural firefighter volunteers. Think things like the Humboldt Broncos crash. Or house fires where young children have died. Very traumatic and jarring experiences. The CISM teams meet with these volunteers and help them walk through the stress and grief and whatever else they may be struggling with. One thing that stands out in my mind about their counselling technique is the acronym W.A.I.T. It stands for “Why Am I Talking”? It’s a call for counsellors to be listeners. And all of us can learn from this. We have 2 ears and only 1 mouth. Twice as much to hear as we have to say.
We have a similar theme running through our reading again from James’ letter this week. Last Sunday we honed in on the harmony of faith and works in the Christian life. We talked about how nobody is saved by good works or earns brownie points with God through them. Instead Good Works flow from a dynamic and active faith in Jesus Christ. This week again we visit St. James’ letter and take his heavy words to heart. St. James is a pretty blunt guy. Hand grenade in a bucket of oatmeal kind of thing. He doesn’t mince words: Tame the tongue, sinner! That’s the name of the game.
He goes on at length about the importance of keeping watch over our words. There is pretty much no higher order in all the Christian life than this. Nothing can cause us more grief in life faster than an ill spoken word. It crushes the careers of politicians in one foul swoop! It starts wars that last for years. It makes conflict brew between husbands and wives. Hurt feelings. Trashed reputations. Gossip at the coffee shop. The list of sins and iniquities from this tiny body part is nearly endless! Like dynamite, the tongue though small has the enormous potential for explosive effects.
Many years ago we went to a parishioner’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was a grand celebration and the big extended family showed up, horse trailers in tow. The whole family loved horses, specifically Belgian horses. For you city slickers, Belgians are heavy horses used for hauling. And until you see them up close for yourself, you can’t fathom how huge they are. They are really, really big. Large. Burly. Strapping. Big Boned. Size 9! And yet these enormous, powerful animals can be totally controlled by a small piece of metal in their mouths and a chunk of rope. St. James uses this picture for us too. If the tongue is controlled, the body follows suit. It’s the same idea behind his sailing ship analogy. He says “though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” The tongue is small compared to the rest of the body, but it has the potential to make the most trouble for us of anything!
A woman had a problem with her voice and her doctor said that her vocal cords had become strained and needed total rest. She was forbidden to talk for 6 months! With a husband and 4 kids, this seemed impossible, but she did what she was told. When she needed the kids, she blew a whistle and she typed out everything she wanted to say on an iPad. Six months later, her voice came back. When asked about what it was like to only communicate in typing for so long, she said “You’d be surprised at how many messages I deleted before I gave them to anyone. Seeing my words before anyone heard them had an effect that I don’t think I will ever forget!”
Wouldn’t that be fun to try for a day or a week?? It would be a tremendous spiritual discipline! Maybe we should add it into our Lenten activities along with fasting and prayer? Just think of how fewer problems we would have, how much hot water we wouldn’t have to get out of if our words were carefully chosen and seasoned with sweetness? But, as St. James says “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”
Fire is another interesting way to paint this picture for us. Just think of all the wildfires that have taken place this year, not only in Canada and the US but around the globe. It’s like 150 zillion square acres in a raging inferno. Massive swaths of forest and huge trees that took years and lifetimes to grow, all gone in the blink of an eye. And every single one of these fires was started by a tiny spark, whether it be a cigarette butt or lightning or whatever. Tiny little spark. Massive consequences.
So what do we do with St. James’ teaching to us in his letter? The abundant lesson is to pay close attention to what we say and how we say it. Gossip. Slander. Bearing false witness. Lying. Running down a reputation. Using bad language. This is the “world of unrighteousness” that St. James talks about. They all run contrary to God’s will for us. Yet we often revel in them. For many of us, talking about other people in a negative, sinful way, doesn’t even phase us anymore. We think nothing of it. But remember what St. James writes: the tongue “is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” So, as God’s people we realize that these sins from the tongue are what nailed Jesus to the cross. He suffered and died for these sins. So our faith in Him leads us to tame the tongue as much as possible. For when we don’t we allow the tongue to run wild with iniquity. This truly gives a horrible witness to the people around us.
And, this can be applied to our digital life as well. Social media like Facebook and Twitter and everything else really has become an open sewer of “Keyboard Tuffguys.” People are so rude behind the security of a screen. They type things that they would never say in real life. It’s an appalling state of affairs. So don’t contribute to that sinful inferno. It’s a cesspool of iniquity. Nobody really cares what you think anyway on any given topic. Use instead the W.A.I.T. acronym but instead curtail it to the digital life. Why Am I … Typing?
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (3:10-11). As we learned last week, that from faith come good works, so also should come good speech. So also should come love spoken to each other, not gossip, not slander, not lying, not insults. Christ Jesus our Lord who gave His life for us on the cross and rose again has changed us and called us to the living water of His kingdom by His word and our Baptism. And, He forgives us for the times where our tongue is not tamed and is allowed to run loose like a wild pony.
“Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (3:12). In all of nature, there is reliability and certainty. And St. James says, it should be the same among us too. Faith and works, they go together. The mouth that confesses that Christ Jesus is Lord and blesses God should be the same one that speaks well of our neighbour and puts the best construction on things. On our own power, we will fail at this. But with the help of God, all things are possible. Thanks be to God now and forever more. Amen!