The Untamed Tongue
Dr. Baron Mullis
September 13, 2015 - James 3:1-12


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The Untamed Tongue                                                               
James 3:1-12        

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
September 13, 2015


As we are preparing to come to the Lord’s table, I know that you know the importance of being honest with yourself and with God about the nature of your inward life, your spiritual life.  I also know that honest self-reflection can occasionally be bad for one’s self esteem. 

Who, after all, among us enjoys reflecting on our failures?  Who, after all, among us enjoys hearing when we’ve hurt or offended someone?  And truly, who likes to think of lost opportunities to have done what would have been a good turn?

No, we are supposed to prepare ourselves to come to the table and the text of the day, from James, is exquisitely well positioned to help us with honest reflection, but I am almost equally certain that few of us will enjoy it. 

Rarely is a text so plainly about what it says it is about. 

This text is about what trouble our mouths can get us into. 

One of my good friends who is now deceased had a wonderful turn of phrase she would use to preface something that she wanted share.  She would say, “Now, I never repeat gossip.  So listen carefully, I’m only going to say this once.”

Or of course, there is that quote from Alice Roosevelt that was immortalized in Steel Magnolias, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”

Both of them suggest that gossip, slander, other such slips of the tongue aren’t really so dangerous.  Just lean in, and we’ll have us a little chat.  It’ll just be between us. 

But what it really means is, “We’re going to create a little community, just you and me,” and they don’t add, “And if we do it just so, someone will be on the outside and we’ll have a really special little club.”

Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer considered the sin of gossip so toxic to genuine community that in the underground seminary he led during the second World War, students were prohibited from speaking about another student, even to praise him, if that student wasn’t present to hear all that was said. 

The reformers didn’t like the book of James.  One very prominent professor, I recently learned, tore this book out of his bible.  Martin Luther himself was so horrified by what he thought represented works righteousness that he thought it should be culled from the herd.  Another prominent scholar has notably referred to James as, “a bunch of pietistic do-goodery.”

And to be fair, it’s probably one of the least sophisticated books of the Bible that we can find.

And its meaning is probably one of the plainest. 

You know where you stand with James.

You know what he’s saying to you about your life particularly. 

And this morning, we know what he has to say about the untamed tongue.

You know the nursery school rhyme, Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

Except that words can hurt. 

Words can cut to the quick.

Many years ago, during one of the alphabet soup amendment debates, a colleague of mine stood on the floor of the Whitewater Valley Presbytery and prior to a contentious vote, it was about whether or not Presbyterian Clergy could officiate at services of holy union for gay and lesbian couples, and he said, “I’d like to move that we not have this debate.  None of us are going to change our minds, but we can make a lot of speeches.  And I am very mindful that words can hurt, or words can heal.  And if words are not going to heal, they are best not spoken, I move that we dispense with debate and go straight to our vote.”

The Presbytery of course, voted to have a debate anyway. 

And he was right.  Words were spoken that were not spoken to heal.  And at one point I looked down the pew and observed a member of my congregation, a woman I knew to be estranged from her son, quietly weeping.

Words can hurt, or words can heal. 

Listen to Frederick Buechner,

“In Hebrew, the word dabar means both “word” and “deed.”  Thus to say something is to do something...”1

Did you know that?

Last Saturday, I sprayed the shower of the master bedroom down with Tilex and took down the shower curtain to be laundered because, well, it needed cleaning.  Then I went outside, mowed the grass and worked in the yard for an hour or so, and then frankly, I needed cleaning.  Remembering that I had left Tilex in the master bath, I went to the guest bathroom to take a shower.  When I was finishing the shower, Tucker the beagle decided he would come in and lick my toes as I dried off.  It’s something adorable he does.  But the guest tub is slicker than the master, and I start to slip and as I slipped my foot moved very quickly and grazed the tip of his nose.  He ran off with his tail between his legs and was afraid to come back to me.  Only after a while did he come and make peace with me.

Why?  Because I’d scared him. 

He wasn’t dumb – he didn’t want to risk getting his nose bumped again.

I could talk to him as sweetly as I could, but he remembered my inadvertent foot coming at him. 

I did one of my unscientific polls that I like to do from time to time this week, asking what words hurt and what words heal. 

I can’t imagine that you’ll be surprised to learn that words such as “You’re a disappointment,” or “I hate you,” or “I don’t support you,” or, “Stupid,” or “You’re not good enough,” are all words that hurt. 

And I can’t imagine that you’ll be surprised either to hear that words such as “I’m proud of you,” and “I understand,” and “I love you,” and “I forgive you,” are words that heal.

None of this should come as any surprise, and please pardon me if I’m being pedantic, but James is very clear that knowing what hurts people and doing something about your mouth seem to be dangerously far apart in application. 

I just can’t think of when a scripture lesson can be any plainer than this. 

But how hard it can be to keep it in the front of our minds?

Buechner adds,

“I love you. I hate you.  I forgive you.  I am afraid. Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it cannot be undone.  Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric circles lap out endlessly.”2

So imagine this, in my unscientific poll, several people added, “But words don’t heal.  Time and actions do.”

And that’s true.  That’s why dog trainers say to use positive reinforcement, not negative. 

Is James’s advice pietistic do-goodery?  Perhaps.  But he couldn’t be any plainer.  Words can hurt or perhaps, if they truly are deeds, they can heal.  But as we prepare to come to the table, will we look at our words?  Will we examine our lives?  Because if words become deeds, they can indeed heal.

That’s why I love a classic poem by Edwin Markham, perhaps you know it?  It’s called Outwitted.

He drew a circle that shut me out--

Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

I could go on, but this doesn’t need further explanation, it just needs further living.  Words – slander, gossip and meanness – can draw a circle to shut out.  Or words – kindness, gentleness, and goodness, can draw a circle that takes in.  It’s up to you.  Over so little of our lives do we ever have such ultimate control.  But if we will heed James’s word, and tame our tongues, we may move a little closer to the abundant life that Jesus promises.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.


1 Buechner, Frederick.  Wishful Thinking, a Seeker’s ABC.  ((HarperOne, San Francisco, 1993) P120
2 Ibid. 

Last Published: September 19, 2015 2:51 PM