Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12th, 2021

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12th, 2021

Proper 19 – The Epistle James 3:1-12
Rev. Phil Schmidt

 In our epistle reading James talks about the devastating power of the tongue.

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. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

This description of the power of the tongue might sound like an exaggeration, but there are many incidents which illustrate the truth of these words.

For example, I think back to my former congregation which, once a year, offered an all-day bus excursion to places of interest. These outings were popular and were a form of outreach to people who did not have a close contact to the congregation. However, every year there was at least one person who said: “Where are all these people on Sunday, when we have our services?” The implication being that only people who attend worship regularly have the right to enjoy a bus excursion sponsored by the congregation. On one of these occasions a couple on the bus overheard this question about “where are all these people on Sunday?” and felt deeply hurt by this remark, which they thought was directed at them. They felt so wounded that they completely withdrew from the life of the congregation. They never set foot in our church again. This one remark permanently alienated two people. No one was able to heal this grievance.

In addition, it is well-known that social media offers unlimited possibilities for the tongue to cause massive devastation – “tongue” in this context meaning also written words. Young people have committed suicide because of malicious slander which was posted in a chat room. Internet accusations have the power to ignite a forest fire of hate and violence. Because of the power of the tongue things like racism and anti-Semitism can survive from generation to generation.

James claims that the tongue cannot be tamed, but that we should try to gain control of it. There are all kinds of desperate ways of telling people to control their tongues, most of them rude, such as, “Shut your face!”, “Put a sock in it!”, “Keep your big blabbermouth shut!” or in German: “Halt’s Maul!” or “Schnauze!” But these admonitions do not go to the root of the problem.

As James points out, the power of the tongue has something to do with whatever pours out from inside of us:

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing…Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? …No more can salt water yield fresh.

The book of James tells us to pay attention to whatever is welling up inside of us, but it does not offer any solutions. So, we have to leave James and turn to Jesus for help.

In this context there is a word of Jesus in the gospel of John which can give us orientation.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

This passage goes to the root of the problem of how to tame the tongue. The key term here is “heart”: Out of the heart can flow rivers of living water!

The word translated as heart means literally “cavity”, or “hollow space”. In the New Testament it is often translated as “belly” – meaning stomach. One translator writes that this word designates “man’s innermost being”. In other words, in our innermost being is a cavity, a vacuum.

A good illustration of this vacuum is Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a philosopher, mathematician, historian, social critic, political activist. In 1950, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was also an atheist. In 1957 he wrote an essay entitled: “Why I am not a Christian.”

His daughter, Katherine, offered an insight into his rejection of God. She wrote:

“Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there’s an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it… He once said that human affection was to him ‘at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God’” 

What the daughter of Bertrand Russell wrote about her father apparently applies to all people. At the core of our being is an empty space which can only be filled by God. As the psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “The central neurosis of our time is inner emptiness.”

I believe that every person experiences this internal vacuum in some way. Our lives are defined by what we do to fill this aching cavity.

Strangely, it is in moments of success and fulfillment that people experience this inner emptiness most keenly. For example, I will never forget my last day of school. I left the campus and crossed the street to the bus stop, realizing that after 16 years I was free at last: This is the day that every pupil dreams of: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks!” And what did I feel at this moment?  As I waited for the bus that would take me home, I felt completely empty. I felt that there was nothing inside of me.

And I am not alone. What did the tennis star Boris Becker feel after he had won Wimbledon for the third time in 1989?

“I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed … It’s the old song of movie stars and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything, and yet they are so unhappy. I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.”

Or consider the novelist Jack Higgins.  His 85 novels have sold more than 150 million copies and have been translated into 55 languages. His most successful novel, “The Eagle has Landed” was adapted into a successful movie. Near the end of his life, he wrote: “When you get to the top, there is nothing there.”

In other words, we all have this inner vacuum which can only be filled by Divine Presence. So, how do we go about filling up this inner cavity which demands fellowship with the living God?

The first step is to recognize that there are many ways to fill out our inner cavity. Some of the options seem to be superficial. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “comfort food”. The term comfort food has been traced back to 1966, when a news magazine in Florida stated:

“Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or chicken soup.”

I find that things like popcorn, dark chocolate and peanut butter with marmalade work well for me. Filling our inner vacuum with food and drink is not something to despise. On the one hand, the Bible states: “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). But on the other hand, Psalm 104 is a word from the mouth of the Lord which proclaims that wine was created to “gladden” our hearts, and bread was created to “strengthen” our hearts. In other words, food and drink are not just a means of nourishment; they are also God-given ways of giving us joy and emotional strength. Psalm 104 reminds me of a poster I saw with the message: “Chocolate is God’s way of telling you that he wants you to be happy”.  Jesus himself enjoyed food and drink to such an extent that his adversaries accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard.

There is a saying in German: “Liebe geht durch den Magen“ – which could be translated „Love enters into us through the stomach.” This means that preparing a meal is a way of demonstrating love. This is also true of God’s love. Divine love enters into us through the stomach, which is why God prepared a meal for us which we celebrate as the Eucharist. The bread and wine of Holy Communion fulfill the words of Psalm 104: they fill our hearts with joy and strength. Every Eucharist is a celebration of Easter, which revealed God’s power to transform death and destruction into the promise of eternal joy.

In other words, Christian worship, in which we hear the word of God, in which we sing, pray and celebrate as a community, is a way of fulfilling the promise of Jesus:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

This is how we can tame our tongues. If the inner vacuum is filled with Divine Presence, the tongue will reflect God’s love and grace welling up inside of us. As the book of James points out: blessing and cursing cannot spring up from the same source. May the Lord help us to receive his Presence in worship in such a way that we use our tongues to praise him and to speak words of comfort and grace to whomever we encounter. Amen.


The Epistle: James 3:1-12

Not many of  you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of  us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships:  though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also 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. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of  iniquity; it stains the  whole body, sets on fire the cycle  of nature, and is itself  set on fire by hell. For every species of  beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but 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. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.