In Jane Austen’s novel Emma, there is a key moment when Emma and several friends go out for a picnic. To liven up proceedings, somebody suggests that they play a game: each person should say one very clever thing, or two moderately clever things, or three things very dull indeed.
A character called Miss Bates good-naturedly comments that she will have no trouble meeting the last requirement. Fired up by her own wit, Emma shoots from this hip: ‘Ah ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number – only three at once.’
There then follows a tumbleweed moment. As a reader, you feel the pain. The humiliation of poor, boring Miss Bates. The embarrassment of the onlookers. The self-loathing of Emma once she realises what she has done. Her Freudian slip has revealed her pride and contempt. Will things ever be healed? And most of all, we feel our own pain – for I expect most of us have been there. Carried away by anger, or inflated by our own wit, we too have said things which can never be undone.
St James wants us to understand the dangers of careless speech. In today’s epistle reading he warns of the damage an uncontrolled tongue can do. In chapter 3, verses 1-12, a dramatic passage full of colourful imagery, he reflects on the power of words. We use words for many things – to bless and to curse; vows to marry, promises to bring Fred up in the faith, murmurings of love. Words good and bad. James’ point is that words make a difference.
In the last few weeks, as this church has followed a sermon series through St James’ letter, one point has become very clear.
Everyday living matters. It is in the simple daily actions that faith is made real and shown. What we do and say to those near us is not a little thing, it is one of the most profound tests of faith. For no matter how many things we believe, our insight is nothing if we do not care for the needy. It does not make much difference if our faith is incredibly strong, if it does not issue in practical love.
Someone once said that as you bring up a child there are two little eyes watching everything you do. Two little ears hearing every word. Today as Fred is baptised we shall make promises to bring him up in the Christian faith, to introduce him to the love of Christ – and so much of that is learnt in the home and from the family.
It’s wonderful when you see children pick up good communication. It’s lovely to hear a little voice singing happy songs through the house. It’s a beautiful thing when hear you them giving words of comfort or encouragement to a hurt friend.
Words well used can build us up. James points to the power and responsibility of a teacher in verse 1. In my time as a vicar I have known quite a lot of choir directors. Many of them are talented – but only a special few have a children’s choir. They are the ones who can encourage, give feedback without crushing, keep discipline without destroying a young person’s spirit. Their words nurture and grow.
Through music and speech we praise God. Yet as James reminds us in v.9, with our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God. The image in v. 3 of a horse being guided by a bridle, or in v.4 of the ship being steered by the rudder speak strongly of how often we see a piece of gossip or an insinuation change the whole dynamic of a situation. A tweet by Elon Musk – and the share price of Tesla drops by 3%.
A careless word broadcast around the world by the internet is like the out of control forest fire of v.5. Our words have eternal consequences, v.6 tells us that we are accountable to God for the things we say. Let’s be thankful that it is also with our mouths that we confess our sin and are reconciled with God. James does not pull any punches in his rhetoric as he urges us to control the power of the tongue. But how?
Perhaps there are certain situations where you know you will get carried away. With a certain group of friends, or after the 3rd glass of wine. Be prepared, or avoid getting into that situation in the first place.
As James says in Chapter 1 v 19, Listen before you speak. We are given two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion.
You could just put a sock in it. But if we continually stifle our feelings, pressure builds up and the boiler eventually bursts. It’s much better to release frustration in a controlled way. Rather than snap sarcastically at the end of your tether, say something constructive earlier on. I have to admit, I struggle with that. Even saying: ‘When you do that, I feel like this, so please do the other’ feels like conflict and quite a big deal. But it’s much better than clearing up the mess after the eventual explosion.
Going deeper, it’s good to tackle the underlying thoughts too. If we entertain resentment in our mind, if we allow bitter feelings to develop, then, as Emma found, they will eventually find their way to the surface. So let’s deal with our thoughts and address them early on.
Finally, ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Pray that we may be filled with God’s presence every day. In the baptism promises we say ‘With the help of God we will.’ For we need His help. With him, we can learn control. Inspired by God, our speech can be a blessing. With the help of God, we can praise him and raise children who know the power of kind and faithful words.
The good news of the gospel is that those wounds one day shall be healed. Those harsh words will be forgiven and forgotten. In God’s new creation they shall be no more, and if we start living God’s way now, then that future promise starts being made real in the present day. With that in mind, let us make our promises for Fred