I don’t know about you – but the only thing on my mind this morning is giving thanks that this we were spared from that storm this past week. If it had drifted just a few miles further north –we would be in the same mess as our neighbors in the Carolinas.
At the same time I feel so badly for our neighbors whose lives have been turned upside down by that storm. I’ve visited Newbern and Wilmington many times. They are both beautiful cities – with very nice people. It’s going to be a long struggle for them to get back on their feet. And of course – it’s not yet over for them as they continue to deal with massive flooding – in the dark.
This could so easily have been our fate. So – I have mixed feelings this morning: joy and relief that we were spared, and deep sympathy for our neighbors who are suffering so badly.
Well – this morning I want to again look at our 2nd Reading from the Epistle of James. This is the 3rd week in a row that I’ve talked about The Epistle of James – but is has become one of my favorite smaller writings. I never paid much attention to it until recently, but it has really grown on me.
Just to refresh your memory – we’re not sure who wrote it – but we do know that the writer was Jewish – and that he was taking old Jewish morals and codes of behavior, and trying to interpret them from a Christian perspective. We also know that he was writing for Greeks – not for Jews. The Greeks were fascinated by this new Christianity. It was totally different from anything in their religions, and they were intrigued by it
Now – I need to remind you that the Greeks saw life and the world – in terms of opposites in balance. Everything has its opposite: light / dark cold / hot wet / dry active / at rest tense / relaxed.
And for the Greek – the trick to living a good life was to keep the opposites in balance.
If one overpowered the other – you were is “dis – ease”, or disease. And this idea becomes a theme all through the Epistle of James. We get phrases like: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” See the opposites? It’s the same opposites that I feel about the storm: Joy that it missed us – but pain that it hurt our neighbors. That is very Greek.
Now – in today reading – the writer of James gets into “the healthy use of our tongues.”And he likens our tongues to the rudder of a boat. The big boat is steered – by a small runner on the back. Likewise – our whole being is governed by our relatively small tongue.
He says: “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…. It stains the whole body… 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.” And then he goes on to describe it as a tool for blessing and cursing – the classical Greek opposites.
Well – the writer of James doesn’t think very much of the tongue – does he? He describes this big organism of a human being – being controlled and directed by this little “rudder” of a tongue placed in the middle of the body. And everything has to answer for the directions that the tongue sets. James has an issue with that.
I know – in my own life – if something is going to get me in trouble – it’s going to be my mouth. I know that. I’ve always known that. So James speaks right to my heart.
Now – all of this business of “the tongue” – and “speaking blessings and curses” – – – this builds on one of the great O.T. themes – that pops up all over in both the Old and New Testaments. The early Hebrews knew that it was breath that allowed one to speak. If you couldn’t breath out – you couldn’t speak words. And the Hebrews saw “breath” – as a very holy, sacred thing. When God breathed into Adam, and gave him life, God put breath in him.
So humankind’s breath – is an extension of the “breath of God” – the Holy Wind, the Holy Breath, the Holy Spirit. The Hebrews also knew – that when a human uses that “Holy Breath” to form a word – and send it out – it is Holy – and it can never be taken back. It is sent out – to either give life / or take life, heal / or hurt, build / or destroy. And once it leaves our lips – it is gone – to do its work – and can never be reeled back in.
All through the Bible – God, or a person, or an angel, or something SPEAKS – and it happens. And this is what the writer of James is building on in his Epistle. “The tongue is a fire. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likes of God.” Great ancient Hebrew thinking – presented in a Greek context. Oh – the Greeks would have loved this. It’s just brilliant.
Well – does it speak to us today? I think it really does. First – I really like the Greek idea of opposites. Like many of you, I live kind of a hectic life – with multiple offices, and multiple jobs, and way too many gadgets, and too many interests. And I have to balance all that stuff – or my life spirals into a mess – and suddenly I’m feeling pulled apart and confused. I’m very conscious of striving to keep balances in my life – so I stay mentally and spiritually healthy.
And then there’s the matter of “the tongue.” I try really hard – I really do – to send forth good words – but I can sure mess it up. It is SO EASY to say the wrong thing – and really hurt someone. If I don’t bridle my tongue – – – an image that James uses – – – I can get into serious trouble – and then, I’m in “dis-ease.”
So – this passage from James gives us two things to work on in our day to day lives. One – the Greek idea of keeping all of those opposites in balance – to avoid “dis-ease.” The other is that old Hebrew idea of being aware that we use Holy Breath to form words – and that our words are “holy expressions.” We should be very careful how we send those words out – because they can do wonderful things – or they can do very destructive things.
I like the Epistle of James. And I commend it to you. Just remember that it has to be read with the context of two cultures. But it offers us some pretty powerful insights into living a full and faithful life.