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Worship and Sermons
September 16, 2018

“Finding the Right Words” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, September 16, 2018, Year B / 17th Sunday after Pentecost – Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12 and Mark 8:27-38.


THEME: Choose to speak God’s words of love.

Like many of you, I’ve been focused this week on Hurricane Florence.  We’re all praying for those folks down in the Carolinas who are affected by it. 

Some of us know first-hand what they’re going through.  It wasn’t that long ago that Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in our part of the country.  Natural disasters are just something that we in the East have to deal with.

We’re not alone, of course.  The folks out west have their own variety of natural disasters to deal with.  We tend to think the most serious ones are earthquakes.  But, if you talk to anyone who lives out there, they’ll tell you what really frightens them are wildfires. 

We’ve all seen wildfires on the news.  But few of us have experienced them personally.  This past year Jane, our youngest, was a Freshman out at the University of California in Santa Barbara.   Her experience has given us a whole new appreciation for the awesome, destructive power of these fires.

On December 4th, as Jane was gearing up for her finals, 50 miles to the east a young mother was pulling into her driveway in the small town of Santa Paula, in the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest.

From inside her kitchen, she heard a loud bang. She looked outside and saw a shower of sparks falling from an exploded electric transformer.

Now, the rainy season in California normally begins in November, but it was late last year.  Her lawn was no more than dry stubble.  It quickly caught fire. She called 911, got her kids in the car and evacuated.

That was the start of what became known as the Thomas Fire.  In just 12 days’ time, it burned west across the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and then all the way up the coast from Ventura to Montecito.  Then it spread into Santa Barbara County, and residents there were told to evacuate.

Jane was just a few miles west of there.  The smoke turned the sky to orange haze.  We could not have been more relieved when, a coupled days later,  her finals were canceled and she caught a flight home.

It took another 4 weeks to finally contain the fire.  In that time it became the largest wildfire in California in modern times.  It burned over 280,000 acres and almost 1,000 homes.

That’s the ferocious speed and power of a wildfire.  And, according to our passage in James, that’s the same power that our words have to affect others.

You’ll remember from last week that James is calling his fellow Christians to make sure their actions are consistent with their professed faith.  Today, he shifts his focus from our actions to our speech. 

How is it, he wonders, that Christians can bless God one moment and then, with the same mouth, curse their neighbor the next?  

 For James, this is hardly a casual matter.  His point is the words we utter have tremendous power.  Their influence is akin to the capacity of a small rudder that controls the direction of an entire ship.  Yet we find it near impossible to control our tongue.

Only those who are spiritually mature – what he calls perfect – can rein in their tongue.  And the only person who was ever able to do that was Jesus.  When he spoke, it was as if God was speaking.

When God spoke, all sorts of good and miraculous things happened.  Creation came into being.  His covenant was pronounced.  His promise of land, offspring and blessing were spoken aloud and therefor became reality.

Then, God’s Word came to life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s how you and I know God’s promises and blessing.  In Jesus, who is the incarnation of God’s Word, we speak God’s promises and we affirm his commands to one another.  These words sustain us.  They’re the basis of our community here in the church.

What James wants us to remember is that speech reflects the speaker.  So, he wants us to examine ourselves and our speech closely.  What kind of words come out of our mouths?  Are they from God?  Wherever they’re from, they speak loudly of who we are – and whose we are.

James doesn’t stop there.  He also wants us to remember there’s another dimension to the impact of our speech.  What we say has a profound impact on others.

Have you ever had this experience?  You tell a friend you’re going to have a certain medical or dental procedure.  They say, “Ohhh, that’s going to really hurt.”  And then, sure enough, it does.

Or a work colleague tells you that the new manager in accounting is difficult to get along with.  And, lo and behold, your first interaction with him or her is full of friction.

We have a name for this phenomenon.  We call it the power of suggestion. Psychologists have a fancier name for it. They call it ‘response expectancy.’

Whatever name you give it, it works like this.  Once we anticipate a specific outcome, our subsequent thoughts and behaviors actually help make that outcome a reality.

The power, then, lies in the suggestion that first makes us anticipate that outcome.  More often than not, what we expect - and therefor what we get - is determined by a simple word or two from someone who first spoke to us.

So, when the words we speak are evil, the evil we speak not only reflects us, but it affects others – how they act and what they experience.  And so it spreads, person to person, community to community.

And that’s why James calls the tongue a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

He compares these ill-spoken words to a small spark that sets a whole forest ablaze.  With the speed of a wildfire, they spread from person to person.

But that power works as much for good as it does for ill.  When what we have to say reflects the love of our creator, the love we speak spreads like a wildfire as well.  Here’s an example of that.

Camille Loomis is a music teacher in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  It’s a rural school district.  Camille teaches kids from Preschool age through High School.  She starts her classes off with an opening exercise she calls the “Compliment Circle.”

Here’s how she describes it. “It’s simple,” she says, “at the beginning of class, we go around the circle and give a compliment to the person sitting on your left. It’s amazing to see the tension melt off a 7-year-old’s face with a simple, “You’re nice to me in class,” or “I like your shoes.” 

Folks, we can all choose to do that, can’t we? 

Yes, we’re all sinners. Every single one of us is a work in progress.  I don’t care how old or young we are, we’re all disciples in training.  We are apprentices of Jesus Christ and none of us is perfect.  James makes that abundantly clear. 

But inside each and every one of us is both good and evil.  We get to choose which words we will spread. 

The more certain we are that we belong to God, that we are one of his beloved, the more reliably our speech will reflect his love.  And the more his love will spread to others.

But first we have to decide to avoid three bad habits:  criticism, complaint and condemnation.  As the famous inspirational speaker Dale Carnegie said, “Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

He’s absolutely right.  Speaking with love and forgiveness is the hallmark of a Christian character.  It’s what this world needs so desperately. 

We certainly don’t hear a lot of that in our public discourse.  In fact, at the very highest levels of our government, we hear the exact opposite.

Friends, you and I have the opportunity in our private lives to change that.  Let’s remember that others will see God in our words, as well as in our actions. 

To whom will you speak this week?  I’m not only talking about your family or friends, but also folks you may not know well, or at all. 

Every one of these conversations, no matter how short or how long, is a chance to spread a spark of God’s love. 

Maybe we do that by saying nothing in order to show patience with someone who tries our patience.  Or maybe it’s just a few words of understanding and sympathy to someone who’s clearly having a difficult day.

Or maybe it’s the way we encourage someone who’s been beaten down by life, or the way we appreciate someone else’s achievements and triumphs.

All of these speak loudly of God. They’re God’s words within us.  And when we speak them, others experience God through us.  They’re like little sparks of love showering down on parched grass.

Who knows what kind of blaze they’ll light, and where that fire will spread? 

Maybe it’ll become a wildfire of love, empathy and compassion.  Maybe, just maybe, that blaze will light up the lives of a whole new community of believers who will share God’s love and light as much as we do.

May it be so.

Last Published: September 18, 2018 9:46 AM
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