September 16, 2018

2018 Sept16

Custody of the Tongue

Proper 19 - Year B
A Sermon Preached by The Rev Karen Siegfriedt


Growing up, we all heard the saying: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” This rhyme was supposed to persuade the child to ignore bullying, to remain calm and confident in the face of taunts, and to refrain from physical retaliation. However, words can and do cause permanent psychological harm, especially to those who believe them. Words can take root inside of us and change our perception of ourselves and others.  What I would like to talk about today is custody of the tongue. I will use the reading from the Book of James as my text.

In today’s passage, James gives us some godly wisdom about how lethal the tongue can be if not carefully controlled. “5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. 7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women God made in his image.”

{Chapter 3: Translation from the Message Bible}

The Book of James is the lone book of wisdom in the New Testament. It is one of those books in the Bible that speaks to every generation. It is clear and forceful in its moral exhortation, encouraging action over faith. The author urges the reader to seek wisdom from above in order to become a powerful instrument in bringing forth the kingdom of God on earth. And so in the first chapter, James gives an overview of what true wisdom from above looks like. It includes: Taking care of how we speak, giving care to those in distress, and being careful about what we let into our lives.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:19;26)

Today’s reading compares the tongue to a fire. We in California are particularly aware of how deadly fires can be. So far this year in 2018, a total of 6,188 wildfires have burned over 1.5 million acres, causing 2.8 billion dollars in damages. We know that it only takes a spark to get a fire going. One wayward spark can destroy the lives and the livelihoods of so many people as well as contribute to economic despair and the destruction of the environment. The tongue is like a fire. It can bless or it can curse. Words that are not carefully selected can cause great harm. One wayward comment can send a person on a downward trajectory! Let me give you an example. (A personal story is told here.)

Words are powerful. So before speaking harshly or unconsciously, think about this rhyme:

“Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can also hurt me. Sticks and stones break only skin, while words are ghosts that haunt me. Pain from words has left its scar on mind and heart that’s tender. Cuts and bruises now have healed, it’s words that I remember.”

Language is a forceful instrument. Our speech can encourage or discourage. Words can be medicines or poisons. When our words bless, they lift others up. When they curse, they can destroy people, reputations, and futures.

Words can break or save lives

make enemies or friends, start

war or create peace.

Today, one of the most effective campaigning devices that is used to promote a candidate to public office is not listing their virtues but rather to focus on lying, slandering, and telling ½ truths about the opposing candidates. Political agendas are currently being advanced by appealing to the electorate’s more primitive fears and unworthy cravings rather than promoting the common good. Error, miscommunication, deception, slander, and fake news have all become so common that we expect them even from reputable sources. This harmful speech is putting our democracy at risk and creating great anxiety among our most faithful allies. As we move further into the information age or as some people call it, “the disinformation age,” careful speech and custody of the tongue are all the more pressing. So how do we as Christians proceed with this difficult task of taming our tongue?

The Book of James does not offer us any easy fixes in controlling the tongue, probably because there aren’t any. However, both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions offer us some ‘fire prevention’ advice when it comes to custody of the tongue. For Christians, right speech and careful conversation are part and parcel of a life lived in the Spirit of God. For the Buddhist, right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eight-fold path. Here are a few insights from their tradition:

•“Abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully.”
•“Abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others.”
•“Abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others.”
•“Abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.”

Positively phrased, this means we are

to tell the truth, to speak

carefully, to talk only when

necessary, and speak words that

encourage, not destroy.

There are no easy fixes to taming the tongue just as there are no easy fixes in keeping California ‘fire free.’ It takes discipline, good habits, and practicing the wisdom of the ages. When it comes to fire prevention, there are concrete actions we can take to prevent wild fires like clearing the land so there is at least 100 feet of defensible space, avoiding burn piles or open flames during the dry season, and never throwing cigarettes or matches on the ground. Likewise, there is also plenty of wisdom out there on preventing the tongue from setting things ablaze.


  • Only speak that which is factual, true, beneficial, and necessary. There is no place for idle chatter or gossip in the kingdom of God.
  • Learn to communicate honestly and tenderly. Remember it takes 15 compliments to neutralize one harsh comment.
  • Do not speak when angry or fearful because these emotions hinder us from being able to speak the truth in love. Instead, wait until these emotions subside before opening your mouth.
  • If you need to correct someone (like your child, or an employee, or your spouse) ask yourself the following: Is this the right time? Do I speak of facts or am I simply reacting to hurt? Do I speak gently or harshly? Are my words profitable or not? And do I speak with a kindly heart or from malicious intentions.

Finally, I want to end with a story about a mother who spoke to her teenage daughter before she began middle school. She told her daughter to empty out a tube of toothpaste. After her daughter squeezed out all the toothpaste, she instructed her to put the toothpaste back into the tube. The daughter exclaimed: “I can’t.” The mother then responded: “You will remember this plate of toothpaste for the rest of your life. Your words have the power of life or death. As you go into middle school, you are about to see just how much weight your words carry. You are going to have the opportunity to use your words to hurt, demean, slander and wound others. You are also going to have the opportunity to use your words to heal, encourage, inspire, and love others. You will occasionally make the wrong choices…Just like this toothpaste, once the words leave your mouth, you can’t take them back. When others are misusing their words, guard your words. Make the choice every morning that life-giving words will come out of your mouth. Decide tonight that you are going to be a life-giver in middle school. Be known for your gentleness and compassion. Use your life to give life to a world that so desperately needs it. You will never, ever regret choosing kindness.” (Facebook)

(Demonstrate with a tube of toothpaste): So before you speak, ask yourself the following questions:

Is it true? Is it kind? Is it

necessary? Does it improve upon

the silence?

And if the answers are yes to all of these questions, then go ahead and share your words of wisdom from above.

“Lord open our lips. And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

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