at Batesville Presbyterian Church on September 17, 2006
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me. As children we were taught to say that when someone said hurtful things to us. As an adult, we realize the words should be changed to reflect the truth. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may really hurt me. Perhaps our deepest wounds in life come from words spoken about us or against us. For spoken words are perhaps the most powerful force on this planet.
Politicians and preachers recognize the power of words. As we begin the Fall election campaign for Congress we anticipate negative campaigns because that is the nature of current politics. Believe it or not American political races may have been even more vicious in the past. For instance, consider the presidential election of 1828. This was the most Presbyterian election in American history in that both candidates -- John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson -- were pew holders at Second Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. This campaign between two Presbyterians who belonged to the same congregation was one of the bitterest campaigns ever waged in American politics. Slander and character assassination were the order of the day. The personal attacks included lurid lies about Andrew Jackson's mother.
When the votes were counted Andrew Jackson won the campaign, but the viciousness of the fight carried over into his first term in office. Historians have noted that most of Jackson's energy during the first two years of his presidency were given over to fighting vicious rumors against the wife of a friend, Margaret "Peggy" Eaton, wife of John Henry Eaton. Rumor said Mrs. Eaton had been involved with her current husband while married to her previous husband, John Timberlake, who had died under mysterious circumstances while serving overseas in the Navy. Like President Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Eaton were members of Second Presbyterian Church in Washington. So imagine the heartache that they experienced when they learned that their pastor, Rev. John Campbell, was the source of the rumors. Nor would the pastor deny the rumors even when presented with evidence to the contrary and being confronted first by President Jackson in the White House and later by Mr. and Mrs. Eaton in the pastor's study at the church. Poor Mrs. Eaton. Her pastor was the source of vicious rumors against her.
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. (James 3:5-10)
And the tongue can work against the minister as well. A nationally known pastor told a small luncheon group how his daughter had been destroyed by her teacher who intentionally used language to destroy the girl's self-confidence. Unfortunately, the pastor did not realize the nature of the problem until it was too late and the damage was done. The preacher's daughter is now able to hold only a part-time job doing unskilled labor due to the deliberate destruction of her self confidence. The pastor later learned the teacher had deliberately done this to his daughter because she was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.
We wonder why a pastor would be so vicious as to attack the character of a church member or why a teacher would intentionally damage a student. This does not seem to be rational behavior. We can begin to answer the question by recalling a concept from Psychology 101 as taught in universities across America. There a is a concept called "projection" whereby one person projects onto another person or group of people all the negative traits that the person doing the projecting cannot face in himself or herself. Someone who is obsessed with the behavior and life of the Pope or the General Assembly, a coach or a pastor, may be projecting onto that person or group their own negative feelings about themselves. We feel safer projecting our negative feelings onto someone else rather than recognizing them in ourselves.
Projection causes someone like the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. in 1828 to single out a woman in his congregation as someone who must be destroyed even to the point of telling lies about her. I think the pastor of Second Church projected onto this congregation member because she belonged to a different faction in the political infighting in the denomination in those days. The Old School versus the New School was the debate and most people today do not even know what they were fighting over. And projection is what caused a teacher to focus on an innocent girl whose father was a Presbyterian minister because the teacher had a bad experience with another Presbyterian minister in her past.
Now we are not here today to talk about psychology so let's turn to the spiritual aspect of the damage we do with our tongues. In verse 12, James mentions a fig tree. "Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?" When James mentions the fig tree we recall Jesus' dramatic encounter with a fig tree. The day before Jesus had set Jerusalem to talking by lowering the boom on money changers in the temple. That night he lodged outside the city in Bethany. Early the next morning Jesus was returning to the city. He was hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree alongside the road, he approached it anticipating a breakfast of figs. When he got to the tree, there was nothing but fig leaves. He said, "No more figs from this tree—ever!" The fig tree withered on the spot, a dry stick. The disciples saw it happen. They rubbed their eyes, saying, "Did we really see this? A leafy tree one minute, a dry stick the next?" (Matt. 21:18-20) Thus did Jesus illustrate the spiritual principle of the destructive power of the spoken word. The more we mature spiritually the more closely we must watch what we say for our words literally have the power to heal or to destroy.
James reminds us of the negative power of words but he also alludes to the positive power for good that words can convey. In our text today James mentions every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature and so reminds us of that the power of the spoken word is a foundational component of creation. In the Genesis account of creation God creates the world with the sound of God's voice. God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. (Gen. 1:3) God's spoken word created the birds, sea creatures, vegetation and finally, human beings. God spoke and created the world. And God said that it was good.
Such a small little part of our body, the tongue, yet it is our primary way of projecting ourselves onto the world. No wonder the number one way to judge the wisdom of a person in the ancient world was how well they were able to control their tongue. As James puts it: "Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check." The tongue is a power instrument for positive or negative energy. Let us use our tongues to produce the positive energies of love. That is the best thing we can do for our own happiness and health and for the happiness and health of the world.