By David Baumann
Reading from James, 3:1-13
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided 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, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
When I was a young, new rector and presiding at a parish meeting, an angry parishioner shouted, “You are a lousy priest!” and strode out of the room. Immediately after that, another man came to me and said quietly, “That’s not true. You are a fine priest, and we are blessed to have you.” I have never forgotten either exclamation, but it was the second one that had the greater power, and I was comforted.
The Australian actor Tim Minchin is reputed to have said, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can break your heart.” This wise, insightful, captivating statement is a takeoff on the old children’s chant, “…but words can never hurt me.” As we all know, the old adage is simply not true. Over the years of my long ministry I have learned that one cannot ever really underestimate the power of words for good or for harm; surely every reader of this devotion can say the same. James tells us in no uncertain terms that the tongue is a fire — and he’s not describing Pentecost here. Fire warms, cooks, and comforts; and also gives the greatest pain that can be felt. Words that we write or speak express the cultivated, godly depths of our minds, hearts, and souls. They also expose our hidden abysses of rage, spite, anguish, self-centeredness, and accusation.
Jesus is the Word of God, who reveals the divine nature. Satan is a title that means “the Accuser,” the one who speaks accusations. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing… this ought not to be so.” But it is so in our daily lives — in what we say to others, what we write on Facebook, what we say to those closest to us. Let us never underestimate the power of our words, their power to serve the Lord or the Accuser. James didn’t!
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 45 years, 39 of them in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He now serves as part-time priest in southern Illinois. He has published devotions, articles, and essays, as well as science fiction novels and short stories.
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