Our tongue is a fire, James says, that sets a forest ablaze. I think we know what he’s talking about. Our lives are literally filled up with an onslaught of words, many of them harmful and vitriolic. We are besieged by explosive rhetoric every day from our computers and our TV sets.
As our reading from James says, all of us make many mistakes. Because we all have this remarkable little tool in our mouths called the tongue. James says that this tiny little organ has more power than any of the other organs. He compares the tongue to the small rudder of a very large ship. The tiny rudder can guide gigantic ships through wind and rain upon the vast ocean. James says that small and powerful tools like the tongue can also be shaped into weapons. The tongue is like a match. The entire forest can be set on fire by a tiny flame.
Well, beloved, the forest is on fire. Rhetoric alone can burn down the whole republic if we let it. Our words can be used to deny the God-given inherent worth and dignity of every person. To destroy.
All you have to do is read a comments section on the internet, where humanity goes to die, to know this. All you have to do is turn on Fox News or Samantha Bee. Even our world leaders incessantly tweet out insults in 280 characters or fewer. We live in an increasingly connected and yet disconnected, digital world in which we can so easily dehumanize those we cannot see and touch.
When we observe and participate in this world of weaponized words, we feel hopeless, depleted, and exhausted. Too often, we respond with cynicism, apathy and despair.
That’s why we need real, face to face community like this one. This is why we need to COME TOGETHER with other real flesh and blood people who do not need to think alike to love alike. That’s why we need children filling our church building every Sunday. Our children can still close their eyes and see a million dreams for the world we are going to make.
Not everyone should be teachers, our scripture says. Because teachers will be judged with greater strictness. But you and I…everyone in this room…we are all called to be the teachers. We aren’t called to be perfect, but as a church community that spans multiple generations, we are called to be teachers. The children are watching.
And teachers dream a world with their students. So, on this first day of Sunday school and high school youth fellowship, on this week when we welcomed the parents of almost 30 middle schoolers from the community into our “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality program into our church…
Close your eyes for a moment and dream a world where the reign of God has become real. A world in which heaven has touched down to earth. A world in which all are fed. A world in which our children are safe from harm. A world where all are free to be exactly who they are. A world in which all are loved. A world in which we walk before the Lord in the land of the Living, as our psalmist says.
We come to church to dream this world together. Your dreams should be darn near impossible on your own power. Otherwise, they aren’t dreams…they are just reasonable goals. We don’t exist to think up reasonable goals here in the house of Love, we exist to dream impossible dreams for the world we’re gonna make.
Because we worship a God who makes the impossible possible. Who makes a way out of no way. Who takes human imperfection and makes it Holy.
Because we worship a God who created us and called us “good”, who promises extravagant love for us and everyone else, we need to treat ourselves and one another as though that were true. As if our goodness and lovableness is inherent and inerrant.
Here’s perhaps the greatest lie we were all told in grade school: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Those of us who have suffered the wounds of bullying or emotional abuse know that words can sometimes hurt far more than fists. Those of us who cannot shut up the inner critic inside of us telling ourselves that we are not good enough; that we are worthless…We know how much harm words can do. Those of us who have spent the past few years watching the unity of our republic be ripped to shreds…we know that words can bring down empires.
We know that it matters what we say, and how we say it.
And we are all hypocrites. As James writes in our scriptures, we all bless the name of God who’s other name is love, and with the same tongue we curse those made in the likeness of God, which is every single person we encounter.
We see evidence of this hypocrisy every day.
We all know Christians who denigrate gay folks and undocumented immigrants and people who kneel for the national anthem before NFL games and Christians who express disdain for food stamps recipients and Christians who protest transgendered folks just trying to use the bathroom in peace. We all know those who condemn others made in the likeness of God, by those who proclaim to be speaking for God.
But you and I—we are just as prone to condemn those who are made in the likeness of God with the same tongues we use to bless.
Maybe you curse those who don’t put the shopping cart back or the kid at school who relentlessly teases your son, or the telemarketer just doing her job, or the neighbor with the wrong political sign.
I literally bless people for a living. I say blessings over babies and marriages and intern ministers and lay leaders and Sunday School teachers and the ill and the dying. And then I get behind the wheel of my car during rush hour on route 2 just like the rest of you. Just saying.
Luckily, we have an example of perfection in Jesus. We know what a blessing is because of Jesus. We know what a good word sounds like. The whole of the Gospel, or “Good News of God” can be summed up in Jesus’ first ever sermon in the synagogue, which he reads directly from the Hebrew Scriptures, drops the mic, and sits down:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
James says our tongues are untamable. I say we can challenge each other to use the Gospel test.
We can ask ourselves:
Is the spirit of Love reflected in the words I am about to say, type, think?
Does what I am about to say lift up the poor (myself, the impoverished, or the spiritually impoverished, the immigrant, the widowed, the grieving, the losers, the maligned, the outcast)?
Is what I’m about to say enlightened and enlightening to others?
Is it a word of freedom for all who are held captive by oppression and greed and what the Jones’ think?
Is what I’m about to say reflective of the million dreams I have for the world?
Or, in simpler language, before I speak, am I applying the “THINK” acronym principles?
Is it True?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspired?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?
We are called to be teachers. We will never be perfect, but we can think before we speak. Though it may sound naïve and out of style and hard sometimes, we’re not giving up on the Gospel.
Today I’m going to ask us to practice using our words to bless someone else who needs a blessing. Our Becky Conway, our Judy and Jim Conway’s daughter, our Emily and James and Laura’s sister, our Charlotte’s mother, needs a blessing. She has accompanied her 18 month old daughter, Charlotte, from Boston Children’s—where she lived for the past two months near her loving family,—to Baltimore where Charlotte is receiving treatment for a rare disease called Acute Transverse Myelitis that has left her paralyzed from the neck down. Becky feels lonely and depleted without her family and friends and partner and parents by her side. She is strong, but she’s so often alone and falling into despair.
Becky says: “I have never experienced a pain like this. a feeling I can’t even begin to describe. As (Charlotte’s) mom I feel as though I should be stronger and doing more. That’s where it gets emotional because there’s nothing more I can do. I give her all my time and all my love and I know it makes a difference i just wish it was more.
i’m going back to being in that “angry phase”. Why do things like this happen? Why are we given such hard battles? I know most will say “God gives his toughest battles to those who can handle them” but that’s just hard to hear now. Why do I now question God? all my life I grew up with my own beliefs, I didn’t ever change them. Now, I don’t know what i think anymore.”
Becky needs our words of blessing; an assurance from us of God’s favor and protection. She doesn’t need to be told that God gives his toughest battles to those who can handle them,” but that in the words of the Psalmist, when we are brought low, we are saved by Love. Let’s show up for Becky with our words. Let’s help deliver Becky’s soul from death, her eyes from tears, her feet from stumbling. Let’s do this by writing cards, found in your bulletins with prayers of grace for her and for Charlotte. It doesn’t matter if you know this family or not, they are part of your family. We are calling this a First Church grace bomb. We will collect your cards, and put them in a box Paula Fogerty kept all of her cards of support in when she was going to chemotherapy. It says “With God all things are possible.” We will send along a prayer shawl, as well. You can place your prayer for Becky and Charlotte in the offering plate during the offertory, or in a basket on your way out of church. Let’s use our tongues to bless.
Beloved, we can become our dreams for the world. We can be worthy teachers for our children. Love is the weapon we have in our arsenal to fight the devil threatening to win our hearts and to control our tongues afire. We can transform from people who succumb to the worst of who we are, to people who live in to the best of who we can be. The moral revolution this country needs is here. Right here in this room. It foments inside of each of us. It starts with being kinder to ourselves. Make haste to be kind.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.