Sermon Given September 12, 2021
A number of years ago, when I worked as a school social worker one of my favorite resources was a paperback book called I am Lovable and Capable. It was the story of one day in life of a young boy. It begins with him being reprimanded by his mother for not wanting to get up in the morning and ends with his father telling him that he really wasted the day and tomorrow had better be a different story “or else.” Needless to say, the rest of the boy’s day wasn’t a whole lot better.
This was a book about self esteem that consisted of handing each student a sheet of paper with the letters IALAC—I am Loveable and Capable—and then reading the story to them. When the boy’s mother calls him “lazy” because he hasn’t gotten out of bed on time, the listeners are instructed to tear a corner off the sheet of paper. When he trips getting on the school bus and one of the kids calls him a clumsy four-eyes, the listeners are told to tear off another section of the paper.
Do you see where this is going? By the end of the day, when the boy’s father’s “goodnight” is a threat “to straighten up or else” instead of something positive like, “I love you,” the listeners are asked to tear off another piece of paper—that is, if they have anything left to tear off. The boy has not been physically abused in any way, but the words that have been thrown at him during the day might as well be daggers.
In today’s Epistle reading we hear “…the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire…no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Well, we can say that James doesn’t mince words. But to whom is he speaking? It is thought that his writing is a letter, but instead of being addressed to a specific community, it is a letter written to a wider audience—indeed, to any group that calls themselves “followers of Christ.” And it leaves us with plenty to think about.
This is the third week that our Epistle lesson is taken from James. Two weeks ago, we were told to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Last week, we were told not to be taken in by outward appearance—by giving preference to those wearing gold rings and fine clothes and disregarding the poor; not to substitute fine words for actions. And today: “From the same mouth come blessing and curse. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?”
Now if you have an occasional case of “potty mouth,” it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that James is talking about that type of brackish water, the kind that may be cured or at least curtailed by penalizing ourselves by throwing a coin into a jar every time something inappropriate comes out of our mouth—a favorite Lenten activity perhaps? Wouldn’t that be an easy fix? But I don’t think that this is where James is taking us.
One of the things little children learn from an early age is that words have power. When a baby’s only method of communication is crying, it takes parents some time to figure out what the baby wants: are they hungry, cold, wet, in pain? The baby is totally dependent on the parent’s ability to be a good “guesser.” When the baby begins to develop intelligible language, they can express their needs for food, a clean diaper, a toy or a cuddle. Their chances of being offered the needed solution to the problem rise dramatically.
But in the same way that words have the power to express a need or to seek or offer comfort, words also have the power to inflict harm. We have all heard and probably have said the following: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” If that were true, however, we wouldn’t need to rely on this familiar line to feel better. Words can wound as we saw with the boy in the I am Lovable and Capable book; words withheld from others who ache to hear them can be equally painful; and words that are spoken in anger or hatred can never be retrieved.
Perhaps this is the “curse” that comes from our mouth to which James is referring. What we say to or about someone can have a tremendous power for good or evil; words can embrace people or exclude them, heal them or humiliate them, lift them up or tear them down. On a broader level, many political agendas are advanced by appeals to the electorate’s most primitive fears of people who are in some way “different” and in these distorted worlds of meaning, the word of truth is suppressed.
We can hear only too well what James is saying to us as individuals, but we also need to hear what he is saying to us as members of a Christian community living in the larger society, for we do not live in isolation. From the moment that we are old enough to understand words, we begin to get a sense of what and whom the world defines as desirable. We learn that success is defined by what we possess, how we look, where we live, who are our friends and sometimes, even where we worship. If we take our cues from the messages that we receive from society, then we find it all too easy to dismiss others as being somehow less than acceptable, less than human, and we treat them accordingly.
For centuries, American society justified slavery by declaring that individuals of African descent were property, not fully human persons. They could be bought and sold and did not have any Constitutional rights. Instead of protesting this unjust treatment by society, many churches supported it and quoted scripture to justify their position. Even after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, unfair treatment of African Americans continued in practice and the churches were, for the most part, silent at best or spoke in support of discrimination at worst. And although some individuals like Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels worked and died for the cause of racial equality, many churches supported continued segregation. When James speaks of the tongue as an instrument of “restless evil, full of deadly poison” with which “we bless the Lord and Father, and…curse those who are made in the likeness of God” perhaps this is one of the all too real problems he is describing in what we call the Christian community.
One of the most excessive uses of slippery half-truths and dehumanizing language can be found in the language of many politicians. Messages are crafted in such a way as to demonize the opposition candidates by lying about them and slandering them and appealing to the greatest fears of voters. And these great fears are oftentimes fear of the “other”—those people who don’t look like us, speak like us or worship like us. Immigrants have been characterized as rapists and murderers, because these are terms that engender fear in many people and it becomes much easier to call for the deportation of an entire group of people when they are seen as a threat to our society rather than as human beings, children of God—made in God’s image and likeness. Instead of spending billions of dollars on a wall along the border, maybe we should have spent the money on building bridges.
And although we are moved every time we see the lifeless body of a small child who has died as their family flees war and violence, choosing to risk their lives for the slightest opportunity to find the chance of a better life in another country, too frequently a country that wants nothing to do with them, we feel helpless. But soon, the image fades and the child ceases to be viewed as a human being whose life has been tragically wasted; we are told by our politicians that this is some other country’s problem and we go back to planning our walls instead of building our bridges.
In 1938, British writer Dorothy Sayers wrote a short essay that posed the following question: Are women human? This is her response: “a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.” She goes on to say that this is how Jesus treated not only women but also every person he met—as human beings. Should this not be the way that we treat people? What happens if we ask Dorothy Sayers’ question substituting the following words for women: Muslims, illegal aliens, the poor, the homeless? Do we regard them as fully and truly human or do we define them in ways that insure our superiority?
I am sure that not one of you who is old enough to remember what happened on September 11th, 2001 will ever forget what they saw. Many of us stayed glued to our television sets, watching in horror as the “twin towers” of the World Trade Center were hit by highjacked airplanes, as the Pentagon was hit by a highjacked airplane and as Flight 93, another highjacked airplane headed for Washington D.C. but was overtaken by a group of passengers and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our first reaction might have been to pray for the individuals who died that day, but our second reaction was probably to demand to know who was responsible for what happened. The answer came relatively quickly: the 19 men who were the hijackers were natives of four countries—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Egypt and they were said to be affiliated with the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda. They arrived in the U.S. beginning in January of 2000 and began their preparation for what would transpire on September 11th.
After the attacks, there were few people who could remember the names of the hijackers, but they did remember that they were Muslim and it took little time before their religion, Islam and the word “enemy” became synonymous. Many people will say that the United States was more unified after 911 than we had been before the attacks, but one group that was excluded from this unity were Muslim Americans. A few days after 911 Shahana Hanif, a 10-year-old Bangladeshi American girl born in Brooklyn wrote a letter to President Bush. She was concerned about the negative reaction to Muslims as a group. She said that the president was the most powerful person who could send his message to the American people that this attack should not reflect how we think about Muslims across America. Mr. Bush did not write back. In the following decade, few persons spoke out against the New York police department’s stop-and-frisk policy which enabled profiling and discrimination, or the wave of deportations enacted by the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.
It did not take long for many people to assume that anyone who was brown was the enemy, just as many have assumed and continue to assume that anyone who is black is the enemy. It did not take long for many people to assume that everyone who is brown is a Muslim and that all Muslims are evil. We have seen many instances where this way of thinking and speaking becomes justification for killing these “enemies”. The killings were almost always preceded by words of hate, usually posted on social media—words that were then used to justify violent actions.
James might have written this letter over two thousand years ago, but his message rings true today. Words have power: the power to build up and the power to tear down; the power to create and the power to destroy. Humans have the power to lift up those individuals like the young Muslim girl who asked the most powerful leader in the world to let Americans know that the 911 hijackers did not represent all Muslims, but he did not respond. He missed an opportunity to use his words to let this girl know that she mattered.
How will we choose to use our words?