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Sermon for Sunday March 4, Lent II

Words That Hurt, Words That Heal
James 3:1-12; 4:11-12
March 4, 2007

Near the turn of the last century, in a small village in Croatia, an alter boy named Joseph Broz served the priest at Sunday mass. The boy accidentally dropped the glass cruet holding the communion wine, shattering it into pieces. For those of you who come from a Roman Catholic background, you may understand the severity of the mistake. The priest flew into a rage, slapped the altar boy across the face and said, “Leave the altar and don’t come back.” The boy never returned to the church. He grew up to become known as Tito, the harsh communist ruler of post WWII Yugoslavia. At about the same time, an altar boy named Peter John also dropped a wine cruet in Peoria, IL. The boy later recalled, “There is no atomic explosion that can equal in intensity of decibels the noise and explosive force of a wine cruet falling on a marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a Bishop. I was frightened to death.” The priest, however, with an understanding smile gently whispered, “Someday you will be just what I am.” That young altar boy eventually became Archbishop Fulton John Sheen, a writer and pioneer in religious broadcasting. What a difference words made in the lives of those two boys. I’m reminded of the sober truth of Proverbs 12:18, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Today we turn to the NT book of James to hear the practical advice he gives on the power of words.

James can be difficult to read because he’s so confrontational. He knows us too well. He understands that humans stumble through life, make mistakes, and behave sinfully. If you question this fact, James says, then just listen to your words. What if I asked you to carry a voice recorder with you and to record every word that you speak in the next week, and then bring the recording here next Sunday so we can replay your words for everyone to hear? I wouldn’t do it. I’d be ashamed at what you might hear. Every fault of my life would be revealed in my words. James says that our words express our thoughts and the true feelings of our hearts.

James uses three words pictures to point out the power of spoken words. First, he compares the tongue to a bit used to direct a horse. With a bit, the entire animal moves in the direction you choose. Then James compares the tongue to the rudder of a big ship. Even the slightest movement of the rudder changes the course of the boat. Words direct and control people and relationships. A parent, a spouse, or a friend can use the power of the tongue to steer a child away from trouble, or give guidance to a friend making an important decision. But, the power can also be misused. James says the tongue is also like a fire. It’s like a small spark that ignites a blaze of destruction. Fiery words, even when they seem insignificant, have the power to burn deeply and can scar people for the rest of their lives.

Again, if you doubt the power of words, get on the phone and start gossiping about someone else. When you say harmful things about another person, your words soon build a wall between the two of you. Your feelings and actions are affected by the conversation. Words can hurt, and once they’re out, you can’t take them back. It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. You can squeeze out three quarters of the tube, but you can never squeeze back in again. Words spoken in hasty anger or lack of restraint are out there, and their power can’t be taken back. As James laments, “We can tame all kinds of animals, but we can’t tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Remember Proverbs 12:18 -- “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Words can hurt. The good news is that words can also heal. If you are a parent, your children need to hear spoken words of affirmation from you. If you are married, your spouse needs to hear words of love and acceptance on a regular basis. This week, whether it’s a friend, co-worker, or someone in your social circles, you will rub shoulders with those who need to hear that they are worthwhile people. The people around you need to hear spoken words of high value that picture a special future. Let me say it again -- spoken words of high value that picture a special future. Let’s think about what that means.

To begin with, healing words are spoken words. Kind thoughts are no good if they’re not expressed. Sometimes I hear someone say, “I can’t say something nice. I don’t want to inflate his ego,” or, “She knows I love her without having to say it.” Ever heard this gem: “Telling children their good points is like putting on perfume. A little is OK, but put on too much and it stinks”? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I know my father loved me. I he did the best he could. I just wish he told me. I wish, just once, he could say, ‘I love you.’ ”The people around you are not mind readers. They need to hear healing words come from your mouth.

Words that heal also express high value. It’s not enough to speak just any old words. Healing words say, “You are important to me. You are a person of worth and I’m not going to cheapen you with bad thoughts or careless words. I value you as a person, and I will honor you by what I say.”

Healing words also express a special future. I read a story about a grandmother who cuddled her new grandson in her arms. The new father was grinning by her side until the woman looked at her son and said, “How could anyone as dumb and ugly as you have such a good looking child?” Her words might have been brushed aside as a bad joke, but they instantly brought tears to the new dad’s eyes. He replied, “It’s taken me years to believe I’m not ugly or dumb. Why do you think I haven’t been home for so long? I don’t ever want you to call me dumb again. The woman sat in stunned silence. She had meant her words as a joke. For years, without realizing the impact of her words, this woman teased her kids about being stupid, fat and ugly, just as her mother had teased her. How often have we said something without thinking, not realizing the harmful impact of our words? Healing words picture a special future for others. Instead of saying, “Nobody’s going to want to hang out with a fat mess like you,” or, “ You will never achieve your goal. That kind of stuff’s for smart people.” we can offer a gift of words that celebrate people’s best qualities. “You are special. You can do great things with your life. I believe in you.”

I’m not just talking about sappy sentimentalism here. I don’t often cave in to gushy feelings or self-help psychobabble. What I’m saying is that I’ve seen the power of words. I’ve said things I regret, and I’ve been on the receiving end as well. I suspect most of you are the same. We need to remind ourselves that words can hurt and words can heal. People have a deep need to know that they are loved, accepted, and created by God for a purpose. God can use our words as a source of encouragement and new beginnings for others.

So, how do we do it? James would say, pray for wisdom that comes from heaven, wisdom that us pure, peace-loving, considerate, sincere, and full of good fruit. Ask God to make you aware of your harmful words and thoughts. As they come to mind, confess them, ask for forgiveness, and walk in step with the Holy Spirit. Make amends to those you’ve hurt. This week, before you open your mouth, ask yourself, “Does God want me to say what I’m about to say?” If the answer is no, then show some self-control, and make a choice to honor others with your words. May God help us control our tongues. May God forgive our sinful thoughts and words. May God empower us to use our words to depict high value and special futures to others. And remember these words from Proverbs: ““Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

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