The tongue as fire setter…a lesson from James. A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 15th Sunday after Trinity, 2021
James 3: 1 – 12; Mark 8: 27 – end
On January 6th this year, America reeled at the sight of its own citizens storming the Capitol building – seat and symbol of American democracy – and attacking police officers. By the next day, even some of the attackers seemed shaken at what they’d done. It was a graphic illustration of what the writer of today’s reading was talking about – the destructive power of language, of speech…especially in the mouths of those with authority.
Whatever his intention, President Trump’s words that day turned a rally into a mob. Of course, he didn’t specifically tell anyone to storm the building – but that’s what they heard. And once the movement had started – it was impossible to stop.
The letter of James is unusual in the New Testament, as it’s what’s called ‘Wisdom literature’…like the book of Proverbs. It’s not a letter addressing a particular people or situation – but rather, general advice using metaphors from the natural world.
And one of the metaphors James uses in this passage seems particularly vivid today…the tongue as a setter of fire.
We’re only too familiar, in this era of droughts and extreme heat, of the damage caused by one tiny spark in the wrong place. The disposable BBQ left burning on a parched moor; the sun on a discarded bottle in a bone-dry forest; the fire set deliberately – just to see what happens…
Suddenly, wonderful, life-giving fire becomes a destructive inferno that can’t be stopped. That’s the image James wants us to have in mind – each time we speak.
And he’s so right…we see it in the simplest of communications. I’m always reluctant to share funeral dates until they’re confirmed. However much you stress it’s only provisional…the information escapes…and confusion reigns. Once a word has been spoken, it’s loose…it spreads…and it’s impossible to know where it’s reached.
Jonathan Swift wrote in the 18th century…“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late;…the tale hath had its effect: like a physician, who found an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”
‘Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after’. If that was true when letters were carried on horseback – how much more so in the age of instant communication. And if it’s true of something like a provisional funeral date, how much more so when it’s accusation or gossip, spoken by someone too upset or lazy to check their facts.
In August, wild fires swept Algeria, killing at least 90 people. The authorities suggested it may have been arson – and someone was falsely accused. Before the truth of his innocence could catch up – he was killed by a mob.
We might almost think silence is the best option. But there’s the problem – language isn’t evil – like fire, it’s both wild, dangerous and destructive and beautiful, creative and life-giving.
As we hear each Christmas – ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was from God’; Christ comes to us as person and as word. Language is a gift from God, and often the means by which we come to know Christ’s saving love. It can be used to build up, teach, comfort, create.
Silence is not an option…instead, James challenges us to learn to control our speech.
He gives his starkest warning to ‘teachers’, those in authority…and rightly so. Politicians, celebrities, teachers, even clergy…who spread malicious words about individuals, groups, nations make it easier for their supporters and hearers to do the same.
But even the worst fires burn out if they have no fuel. We all have a responsibility to reduce the spread of malicious words or falsehoods. We can think before we share, retweet, join in the conversation on a WhatsApp group. We can check the truth of a story before we pass it on.
But on this day of all days, when we remember the horrific events of 9/11; we’re reminded also of the particular responsibility of sharing the gospel. Religion concerns our deepest understanding of ourselves and our place in the world; people will give their lives for religion – so religious ideas are especially powerful and potentially dangerous.
The 9/11 attacks were carried out in the name of God; because of a grossly distorted understanding of Islam. A false message outstripped the truth, and couldn’t be quenched. In the same way – the life-giving message of Christ’s love and power to save can become twisted and destructive.
There are those who say we should abandon all religious talk. But we who’ve known, or even glimpsed God’s love, and Christ’s healing power, can’t take the easy way out and keep it to ourselves. Both because it’s the most important message we’ll ever share, and because if we fall silent, those who distort and corrupt the good news will not.
In the gospel we heard Peter realise and announce to Christ, ‘You are the Messiah’, and Jesus’ surprising response…’tell no one’. But Peter’s next words – show his complete misunderstanding. He couldn’t accept that a Messiah would be abandoned and killed. Presumably his vision was for one coming in might – and bringing in his kingdom by force. Hearing this today – I wonder if Jesus said ‘tell no one’, because it would be a false message they were spreading. Wait – he was saying – until you grasp the truth.
My sermons are full of perhaps, and maybe, because God is always beyond our understanding and language. But one thing I know – God is love. In sharing Christ’s message, we may be called to challenge, to make people uncomfortable; we may even lose friends. But the good news can never be a message of hatred, a message that says, ‘those people cannot be loved by God, those people are wrong, the world/our nation would be better without them.’ We need to be ready to share the love of God, and quench the fires of misinformation and hatred.
The truth may spread more steadily than falsehood, but the truth that is Jesus Christ brings with it love, joy and hope.