"Taming the Tongue"
Scripture – James 3:1-12
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Sticks and stones may break my bones" – please finish this saying with me – "but words will never hurt me." That was our rebuttal when someone said something ugly to us, and it was an absolute lie, wasn't it? The other person's name-calling that triggered our reply had struck a nerve. Someone bruised our feelings or made us angry, and we chanted that their words bounced off of us harmlessly when, in fact, they pierced our soul.

All of us have uttered words that cut someone to the core and, later, we wished we could retrieve them. Peggy Lewis has haunted me throughout my life. She was in my third grade class. She was unattractive, her hair was always disheveled and her clothes were often soiled. I am ashamed to say I joined in with the others who taunted her. We ridiculed her, we called her names, and we made her cry. Over the years, I have wondered if she ever recovered from the cruelty or if I had contributed to ruining her life. I hate the fact that I was so heartless.

Why did I do such a viscous thing? To fit in with others? To try to boost my own ego by knocking her down? Many times I have prayed that others lifted Peggy and made her feel beautiful and loved.

Words spoken to us early in life reside in the depths of our subconscious and can have a lasting impact on us for good or ill. Many grow up believing "I am a valuable person worth loving." Others constantly battle their parent's condemnation: "You will never amount to anything."

In our passage from the Letter of James, we see that the writer of this letter understood the power of words. He shares a couple of metaphors to illustrate how something small can exert a mighty force. He reminds his readers that a bit in the mouth of a horse can control the whole animal. A small rudder on a huge ship can direct the course of the vessel. Then, he serves up his point: the tongue is a small part of the human body, but it exerts enormous power.

Words are mighty tools that each of us possess. Words can communicate. Words can elevate. And words can devastate. The remark someone makes about you can spur you to stand erect or cause you to slump your shoulders. A small comment can swell your self-image or crush your feelings.

The author of James is writing to a first century community of faith that is in distress. He warns them that their tongues could be their undoing. He says that every kind of wild animal can be tamed, "but no one can tame the tongue." He grabs his audience by the lapels and shakes them when he declares "The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." It almost makes you think he has been listening to some of the current candidates for president! Some candidates believe that winning points with the public comes not from laying out their position on key issues, but rather in ridiculing their opponents – calling them traitors, liars, ugly, dumb – while themselves twisting the truth beyond recognition.

The author of James says, "The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." Then he reminds us that none of us is immune from hateful speech. Odious thoughts within us occasionally erupt into caustic remarks. Even though we know what is right and what is wrong; even though we know what bolsters and what ravages, all of us struggle to tame our tongue. James says, "With (the tongue), we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing."

James employs another metaphor to warn us of the destruction our tongues can unleash. He reminds us that it only takes a spark to start a forest fire. Criticism, sarcasm, ridicule, gossip, lies can all ignite a blazing wildfire.

The next time you start to make a critical comment about someone, ask yourself if it is truly necessary. Then, dig deeper. Probe your motives for wanting to criticize. Are you angry with the person? Have you slipped into a habit of routinely criticizing others? Are you feeling wounded yourself?

Jesus says that our toxic talk reveals inner pollution. Jesus said, "It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come." Among the things Jesus mentions are slander, deceit, greed, envy, and murder." (Mark 7:20-22)

Vile words not only ruin reputations, they can be the catalyst for deadly actions. Before walking into an historic black church in Charleston and murdering nine innocent people, Dylan Roof had indulged on a diet of racist rhetoric and written his own xenophobic manuscript.

Jesus also said, "On the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36-37)

Is there anything we can do to harness the harm we inflict or is it impossible to reign in our venom?

In the 1930s, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as the head of a small school for ministers, he proposed a rule that he hoped would tame the tongue. The rule was this: No one in the school could talk about another person in the school, unless the person was present to hear what was said. It was his attempt to silence the slander, to kill the criticism, to remove the rumor, and to desist the deceit.

How well did it work? One of the students later reported that it was a failure. They could not keep the rule. However, their attempts to keep the rule and their resolve to try again each time they failed, totally transformed the environment of the school.1 People were kinder and more honest. They became more concerned about one another's welfare. They drew much closer to one another and closer to God.

In the sixties, Elias Chacour was sent by his bishop to become the priest of a church in the village of Ibillin in Galilee. It was not the greatest assignment. The people of the parish were fractious and hateful. There was constant gossip and the villagers said terrible things about each other. Feuds divided families. Many seemed to gain satisfaction by insulting and undermining each other.

After several months, on his first Palm Sunday, he awoke feeling distressed. He dreaded leading worship that day because all he could think about was the friction in his congregation. Early that morning, he prayed for his people to overcome their spitefulness and divisions. He asked God: "Do I once again challenge them to a life of compassion? Do I scold and lecture them? What can I possibly say this Palm Sunday morning that I haven't said before? God, help me. And help my people."

Later, the bell began to ring and people filed into the church. It was an especially large crowd. Several had to stand. With such a sizable crowd, Father Chacour should have felt encouraged, but as he led the service, his sense of burden increased. As his eyes scanned the worshipers, he could see a good number of people that he knew were at odds with each other. Abu Muhib had come to church dressed in his Israeli police uniform. Ordinarily, no one except his wife and children would have sat near him, but today with such a crowd he was jammed in like the rest. Um Daoud was there with her family, but her sister sat on the opposite side of the church. Several times he blessed them with the peace of Christ, but each time it made him more aware that there was no peace among his flock.

As the service drew to a close, God's Spirit moved him to do something he had not planned. He hurried down the center aisle to one of the two doors of the church. With all eyes on him, he locked the door. With everyone still frozen, he walked to the other door and locked it, too.

Then, he marched back to the chancel and faced everyone. In a firm voice, he said, "You know how much I love all of you and how saddened I am that you hate and decry each other. Since I have been here, I've tried to help you reconcile with each other, but I have failed."

The church was deathly quiet and no one moved, so he continued. "There is only one who can work the miracle of reconciliation in this village: Jesus Christ. So, on his behalf, I say this to you: The doors of the church are locked. Either you kill each other right here in your hatred and then I will conduct your funerals, or you use this opportunity to be reconciled together. If that reconciliation happens, Christ will truly become your Lord. The decision is yours."

A few men wanted to leave but Father Chacour said, "Don't try to get out. The doors are locked and the key is in my hand. You can only get this key if you kill me. The way to liberate yourselves is to make peace with those you have hurt and those who have hurt you."

No one said a word. They looked at him, they glanced at each other, and they stared at the floor. He stared back at them and thought, they came here to celebrate Palm Sunday and they have been taken captive by their crazy priest!

They sat in silence, locked inside their church. Five minutes past. Then, ten minutes. He could feel the perspiration running down his back and a huge knot of fear clutching his stomach. He prayed in his mind, "O God, what have I done? Is this another failure?" Knowing he could do nothing but continue on the path he had taken, he continued to stand before them.

He detected a slight movement. Abu Muhib slowly stood up, his police uniform instantly identifying him to every eye in the church. He looked at others and then looked at Father Chacour and said, "Father, I ask forgiveness of everyone here and I forgive everyone. And I ask God to forgive me."

Father Chacour stepped down from the chancel, reached out his arms and said, "Excellent! Come here, let me hug you!"

The policeman came striding forward, tears running down his cheeks. The two men embraced and they made each other's faces damp with their tears. Father Chacour shouted to everyone, "Why don't we all hug each other right now?"

Everyone stood and began hugging each other. Tears and laughter mingled as people who had said terrible things to each other, or who had not spoken to each other in years, were now embracing.

That Sunday turned out not to be Palm Sunday after all. It turned out to be resurrection Sunday because the people of that faith community were transformed and began a new life.2

Words can harm or heal. Which will it be for you?


  1. Thomas G. Long, "Sticks and Stones," 30 Good Minutes, October 2, 2011.
  2. Elias Chacour, We Belong to the Land, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2001), pgs. 28-32.


Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

God of love, you speak to us the Words of life, words of forgiveness, words that call us to reach out to the poor and the hurting, words that offer us hope and direction. As your people gathered to worship you this day, we in turn speak words from our mouths and our hearts to you, and so we pray, God of love, hear our prayer.

We bring before you those in our world who suffer from the effects of acts terrorism...where sadness and grief are real, bring healing and comfort. Where fear accompanies each hour of the day, and loss of property and belongings are the result of terroristic threats and actions, bring hope and peace. God of love, hear our prayer.

We offer thanks and praise for all those who first respond to acts of terrorism, for their selfless acts, and their willingness to be your hands and your arms and your face in the midst of disaster. God of love, hear our prayer.

And as hard as it is sometimes to pray for those who hurt and those who harm, as your people, we pray for those who have turned to violence as a means of revenge or as a means of making a point. Heal those hearts. God of love, hear our prayer.

We lift up to you the people of Syria. We pray for peace in that land, we ask that the upheaval and power struggles might be resolved – for those who are hungry there, and for those who are destitute there, bring a measure of hope. For those who are refugees, help them find open arms to welcome them among the world's nations, and a commitment to meeting their needs across the globe. God of love, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who lead our nation, our state and our city. Give those whose decisions and actions impact not just the world today but the world in the coming years, wisdom and courage. Give them the ability to work together for the common good, and the vision to help create a world which will be life giving not just to us, but to our children and grandchildren as well. God of love, hear our prayer.

We voice to you this day concerns for those we love and those in this community of faith who are walking in the very shadow of death, for those approaching the end of their earthly life and for those who have known the death of a loved one. May they all know of your presence in their life.

God of love, hear all the prayers we voice and those that remain in our hearts. Knowing we are heard, we say, "Amen".