“On Taming the Tongue” Colchester Federated Church, September 12, 2021, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (James 3:1-12)
When my father was beginning his educational career, he coached Middle School Boys Basketball. The Black River Local Schools in beautiful Sullivan, Ohio are still known for excellent football and wrestling. Basketball not so much. So, the mighty Black River Pirates were playing in their Conference Tournament and none of the calls were going their way. In exasperation with the referees, my dad kicked the bench several times with his heel. Now this was not as egregious as say Bobby Knight throwing a chair in the middle of a college basketball game. Yet it still wasn’t great behavior. Eventually, my dad pulled out one of his star players Alan Young. Wouldn’t you know it, but being annoyed with the way the game was going—Alan kicked the bench and the referees issued a Technical Foul.
My mother didn’t always attend games, but with this being a Conference Tournament, she was there to be supportive. When they got back home to Wadsworth, my dad said that he couldn’t believe Alan kicked the bench and got a Technical—he needs to be a better sport! My mother was all over that, saying Alan kicked the bench because he observed you, his teacher and coach, kicking the bench. This was quite a learning experience for a new teacher and first year basketball coach. My father didn’t repeat this mistake again. The funny thing is that my dad’s former player—Al Young—recently retired as the Varsity Football Coach at Black River High School and has more wins in high school football history (198 wins) than any other football coach in Medina County. And sports are serious stuff in Medina County, Ohio.
There’s always a learning curve when we begin new endeavors. Whether folks are new coaches, teachers, parents, in a new relationship, at a new school, moving to a new community, starting a new job, entering a new phase in one’s life—we don’t always get it right immediately. Sometimes these transitions are downright painful, embarrassing, and overwhelming. In my family, we laugh about the kicking the bench incident from my dad’s first season coaching basketball because it was such a significant learning experience of how one’s actions can be impactful for another.
Now as we are continuing on in James’ Letter we heard the rather harsh statement, “My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity.” The implication is that teachers are judged by the consistency between one’s words and actions. Good teachers can have a lasting influence on students.
Think about some of the best teachers you’ve encountered. What made them wonderful? Maybe they took extra time to explain a problem that you just didn’t understand. Maybe they were patient when your class got a little rowdy and called you back together with a smile and not harsh words. Maybe their passion was contagious and they helped you fall in love with the subject at hand. Maybe you just knew instinctively that they cared about you and wanted you to succeed.
Some people are teachers by profession. Yet most of us will find ourselves teaching at some point whether we have an Education Degree or not. When a child hears something difficult in the news or there’s hardship in one’s family and asks their loved one, “Why did this happen?” One’s response as a parent or guardian comes in the form of teaching. You teach your children the ways of the world by the way you respond. Maybe we say that sometimes bad things happen to good people. There’s ways we can help people who are hurting. Teaching our Christian faith happens in many forms, and the most important religious voice in the lives of children and youth is their parents. If church is a priority for your family, kids notice and learn how much better life can be when you’re part of a faith community.
Just as we can remember wonderful teachers whose words and actions were consistent; we also may remember teachers we didn’t particularly care for even if that is unpleasant. The Letter of James has something to say about this too when the author speaks about the power of words. With our tongues we can bless God and curse those made in God’s likeness. James writes, “Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way.” A preacher who doesn’t practice what they preach, a teacher who doesn’t practice what they teach—people see right through that after a while. A Christian who says they love God but then goes around hating on God’s people—there’s a disconnect there, right? All of us make mistakes. But our words do have power. Our words express our will and direct our actions.
The Letter of James relates, “No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Harsh. But you know that terrible phrase that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? That is just not true. Because the tongue can be full of deadly poison. Words can heal and words can wound.
Years ago by now, I heard Brene Brown give a keynote address at the Boston Convention Center. She’s amazing—teaching at The University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and writing and speaking about vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness. Brene Brown clarifies that there’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am bad. Shame isn’t a good way to teach someone a lesson. When she once yelled at the family dog by saying, “You’re a bad dog!” It was her son that corrected her with, “She’s not a bad dog, mom. She just did something bad.”
Kids pick up on the lessons we teach. We’ll make mistakes. We’ll kick the bench at the big game. We’ll do things and say things that will eventually cause us to feel guilty, and that’s okay. Sometimes we mess up, and that’s why we may even need to confess our sins to God and focus on repentance and reconciliation. Guilt (feeling like I did something bad) can be used in positive ways to affect changes in our behavior. But shame (feeling like I am bad) begins a downward spiral into feelings of worthlessness. We can use our words to build each other up or tear each other down. Each of us has a whole lot of power.
In the end, our Christian faith calls us to question the culture in which we live. Our faith compels us to question mean-spirited political campaigns, bullying in person or online, anonymous feedback meant to hurt, using the Bible as a weapon, saying words that curse God’s children. We’re called to challenge these instances of animosity because we know that God wants so much more for all of us. Let’s tame our tongues. Let’s use our words to bless. Let’s use our words to heal. Let’s speak words of love. And let’s begin today. Thanks be to God. Amen.