Words Matter

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

James 3:1-12

I can sum up James message and this sermon in two words: Words Matter.

But you know, I’m a preacher and I can’t stop there. But if you remember nothing else from this sermon today: remember this: Words matter. They matter more than we realize.

I know, I know, when we were children we learned that little rhyme:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but (congregation finish) words will never hurt me”

I know it was meant as something we learned to help us ignore the taunt… the words hurled at us like verbal bonds from unfeeling, ignorant or mean people,

But… the rhyme was wrong. Dead wrong. Words  Words do hurt- all the time. Words can hurl verbal bombs that change people’s lives. Words matter.

John Calvin once said: “The only thing more damaging than a loose cannon—is a slippery and loose tongue.”

Words matter.

Do we need more evidence?

This week eruptions at embassies in the Middle East… the death of diplomats were ignited by what: words. Words in a movie… words spread through papers and social media.

Words matter. Calvin knew it. You know it, I know it and so does James.  James must have seen great damage done by leaders and members of the congregations who have apparently not learned to control their tongues…

He uses the images of a bit that controls a wild horse and a small rudder that controls a big ship as illustrations about how this small, seemingly insignificant part of our body, has great power.

Power to damage.  Words matter.

You have to wonder “what is going on in his church or culture? What does it look like or sound like? What are they saying to each other that cause James to speak so directly about their speech?”

Of course, if James were alive today… you would know why he wrote those words:  You’d think he’d been watching too many political commercials… or he had been on facebook to long or twittering too much. People say all sorts of things that ignite verbal battles, if not actual ones.

If you need evidence of the damage a tongue can do, look no further.

The tongue for James, is like a spark that sets a wild fire ablaze that goes out of control… set on fire by hell itself. He says while every wild animal has been tamed by humans, no one seems to be able to tame a tongue which he calls, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those made in the image of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”

James might put it this way were he alive today:

“The same tongue that sings praises to God this morning in worship is also the same tongue that, this afternoon, is likely to post words and quotes on facebook that are demeaning and hateful—they are words that  would embarrass Jesus Christ. This ought not be so.”

Remember, he wants to say: words matter.

I heard the story of a man who lived in a small town… he started talking about another man he didn’t like. He passed along a story that he was sure was true, that ended up destroying the man. His family, his job, and his integrity were devastated by all the words passed on through the rumor mill. The man finally had to leave that small town it got so bad.

As you might guess, the man who had passed on the story discovered the rumor he had been passing on was false, full of half truths others had shared only to make them feel better at someone else’s expense.

He realized that he had helped to destroy an innocent man with his words.

He went to his pastor and said, “I have destroyed a man with my words” and he told his pastor the whole story. “Please, “ he said, I am sorry—can I be forgiven this sin?”

The pastor told him that this was not so simple and told him to take a bag of feathers and place one in the front yard of every house in that small town.

Although the man thought this was a strange request for a pastor to make, he really wanted forgiveness, so he followed the instructions to the letter.

At last he came back to the pastor and said, “I have done all that you asked, may I now be forgiven?”

“Not yet, my friend” the pastor replied. “You must first retrace your steps and bring back to me every feather you placed around town”

“But Pastor, I could never do that, the wind has carried the feathers away!”

“Yes,” the pastor said, “And in like manner your careless words destroyed an innocent man!”

Words do  matter.

James wasn’t the only one who thought words matter. So did Jesus… One of the strongest warnings Jesus ever gave has to do with how we use our speech:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter…” (Matthew 12:36)

Words matter. Jesus knew it. James knew it… you know it.

So did my mother. Which is why she taught me some wiser words than “sticks and stones…”She taught me to “think, before you speak, watch what you say”.

This, is very good advice—when I have followed it!

I confess I forget her wise words sometimes… and often pay the price!

Sometimes I speak and I wish I could rewind the tape… or auto-correct what I said. Instead, I find myself apologizing for the hurt I’ve caused someone—even people I love. …Does that ever happen to you?!

Mom told me to “think before I speak, watch what I say”– Mom, it turns out was pretty smart!  Who knew?!

Why is this important how we choose our words? James told us. It is not just about being nice. For James there is more at stake than that.

James says that when we speak, we need to remember that everyone…whether you like them or not– is a child of God, made in the likeness of God.

When you speak ill of someone… when you spread rumors about someone… when you seek to harm someone with your words… you are doing this to someone who is a child of God and precious in God’s sight.

As I listen to speech in  a political season,  it basically saddens me. We are not at our best. (do you agree?) After listening to James, I wonder if the people who go to church on Sunday realize that they are demonizing people who are children of God with their speech. Mitt Romney and Barak Obama are the beloved children of God. But the same mouths that offers blessing on on Sunday morning, also seem to be aimed at cursing. That is sad to me.

So James wants us to watch what we say… even warns us to hold our tongues if necessary… because words can hurt and do great damage. Sometimes it is better to say nothing. Or as Momma, said, “If you can’t say something nice, it is better to say (congregation) nothing at all.”

James would agree with Henri Nouwen who said:

“Words are very important. When we say to someone: “You are an ugly, useless, despicable person,” we might have ruined the possibility for a relationship with that person for life. Words can continue to do harm for many years. It is so important to choose our words wisely. When we are boiling with anger and eager to throw bitter words at our opponents, it is better to remain silent. Words spoken in rage will make reconciliation very hard. Choosing life and not death, blessings and not curses often starts by choosing to remain silent or choosing carefully the words that open the way to healing.”[1]

Words matter… because they have the power to hurt… but let’s also remember,  as Nouwen said, they also have power to bless, to heal and to change lives.

That is also the witness of our gospel. The gospel was conveyed using words after all.

It was with a word that Jesus forgave sinners… and offered a second chance to those who thought God had given up on them…It was with a word he invited disciples to come and follow him… it was with words, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near… it was with words, Jesus shared the gospel of the loving grace of God… and it was with words… that gospel changed lives and the way we see each other.Remember, it is with words that we were offered the gospel. Think about how the gospel changes those who hear it and how they see others.It is through the gospel, we offer words of healing, blessing and hope.

That’s what Walter Wangerin- a pastor, professor and writer of words was doing when he wrote to a youth who had been verbally, physically and sexually abused by an adult in her life. Words had been used to destroy her. She began to think it was all her fault. But Wangerin, using words he learned from his faith, offered her gospel as she was dealing with her shattered life… shattered by the words and actions of another:

He wrote to her:
“And you, the child whom he ravaged, must not call yourself ugly. You aren’t His action does not define you.You, child; you are as soft as the blue sky. Touch your cheek. Do you feel the weft of life there?Yes: God wove you more lovely than wool of the clouds, smoother than petals of lily, sweeter than amber honey, brighter than morning, kinder than daylight as gentle as the eve.Listen to me! You are beautiful. You are beautiful. If you think you are ugly, you’ve let a fool define you.

Don’t! You are the handiwork of the creator. You are his best art, his poem, his portrait, his image, his vace—and his child…God caused the stars to be, and then bent low to make you… You are not an accident, you were planned. You are the cunning intention of almighty God.Well, then, shall you think ill of yourself?

NO! You shall think well of yourself as you do any marvel of the deity.”[2]

James was right! So was Jesus.  Words do matter. Matter more than you ever know.  They have the power to curse or to bless… the power to harm or to heal…  So on this day and every day, may we offer this prayer that “the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in God’s sight!”  Amen.


[1] From devotion on Sept 5, 2012 from the Henri Nouwen Society

[2] From “Little Lamb, Who Made thee”


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