Faith That Works: Contagious – A sermon on James 3:1-12

Contagious sermon slides

Slide01

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in
us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of [Gehenna.]
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
-James 3:4-10
Has anyone ever said something to you that changed you?
Slide02
I was a teenager on a joint Polish Catholic/United Methodist youth group retreat
when I heard a few words that completely changed my life. My friend, Bill
Kozlowski, was a couple of grades ahead of me. His mom was one of the youth
leaders at his church and every spring our two youth groups had a spring retreat
together.
I remember Bill saying to me, “Erin, one of the things you need to realize is that
you’re not better than anyone else.” 
Those words alone could have hurt my feelings, but the important part was that
Bill kept speaking.
He added, “You also need to know that no one is better than you either. God made
us all, and no one is better than anybody else.”
It was a simple truth. I doubt that 16 year old Bill had any idea that the words he
said then would so positively affect the rest of my teenage years and beyond.
I mean, imagine being an insecure, self-conscious adolescent, constantly
comparing yourself to others and feeling like you were coming up short…and
then you hear, really hear, and choose to believe, that you are genuinely okay,
that you are enough, just as you are. Believing those words as a teenager was a
game changer – I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was measuring up
or how I compared to others.
His words helped me to navigate a pretty challenging season of my life with quite
a lot more grace and confidence. His words changed me. His words may have
even been part of why I later felt called to youth ministry.
A few short years later, when Bill tragically died in a Coast Guard accident, I was
all the more grateful for the words we shared during his all-too-brief time with us.
Can you remember a person in your life that said something to you that changed
you?
You see, our words are powerful.
In fact, let’s do a little survey:
Consider your closest relationships – perhaps you are married, or think of your
best friend, your parents. Or even consider the people sitting right around you.
How many of you think that you could say/text/tweet or do something in the next
30 seconds that could dramatically improveyour relationship? Go ahead and raise
your hand. (pause)
Okay, how about this – how many of you think of something that you could say
that could really hurt/destroy/cause harm to your relationship?
Whatever you just thought of – DON’T SAY THAT!
Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the good choices that we
make all of the time – there are plenty of times we don’t say something mean and
it keeps our relationships better.
We can know words are powerful if we consider we worship a God who spoke
the universe into being…we can look at the beginning of the Gospel of John and
see that in the beginning was the Word, the logos, and the Word was with God
and the Word was God…
Slide04
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, the words you speak come from your heart.
Our words are rarely neutral – they give insights into the heart of the person
speaking. Whatever we say isn’t just random words – what comes out of our
mouth comes from the same place as our convictions, aspirations, dreams, hopes,
doubts and emotions. Since our words are rarely neutral, what we say always has some intended result even when we don’t think about it.
Most of our life is built around words. We’re a culture that is always talking one
way or the other – if we’re not literally speaking, we’re texting, typing, updating
our status, tweeting, emailing, or writing. We even sing words. Words are a part
of everything we do, they are a part of all of our relationships.
When I reflect on my life, on conversations I’ve had, conversations people have
overheard, I’m not always proud of the words I’ve spoken.
I imagine I am not alone in realizing there have been times in my life when I’ve
said unkind things, yelled out of frustration, complained and made people feel
bad. With my words, with my tone of voice, with my impatience…there have
been so many times when I’ve hurt others. I’m not proud of that – but I also
imagine that I’m not alone in feeling regret about things I’ve said.
You may have said things you’ve regretted too. There may have been times when
you talk too much.
Today’s passage in James is focused on the incredible importance of “taming our
tongue” – the importance of taking care with our words.
I believe that our words have unprecedented power today.
Consider this: When this letter was written, the audience was the twelve tribes of
Israel who were now living as refugees in foreign lands. The letter was written at
a time when communication was only as fast as the messengers could walk, run,
or perhaps take a horse. It was like an Oregon Trail type of journey – To get the
word out to the next village might take a few days or weeks.
Even when my husband Dennis and I started dating (way back in the last
century!), we lived in different states for a while and wrote letters to each other,
so we can remember that it would take 3 or 4 days to send our messages.
Times have changed since then – and especially the way we communicate. While
this passage focuses on taming our tongues, if it were written today it would
encompass all of the ways we use words.
Just how powerful are our words today?
Consider this example – if I were to sit down and have a conversation with
(church member) today at lunch or even over the phone, and things got a little bit
snarky or I said a few things that were kind of harsh, some damage will be done. I
have the ability, even in that conversation, to have a change of heart, to apologize
for my carelessness, and to try to make things right.
Now, if I were to stand up here at the pulpit and say the same careless thing – now
I’ve multiplied that impact times the 150-200 or so people in this room. We don’t
have a live feed, maybe I could get to the audio recording and edit things before
the sermon is posted online. The damage said here feels like it is pretty
containable.
In today’s culture, we have so many more ways to communicate our words than
just speaking.
Now let’s imagine that instead of just speaking, I decide to put my unkind
thoughts out on Facebook, Twitter, or to vent a little in an email or text message.
What I have learned is that typed words often can take on a life of their own.
(Especially words taken out of context, which is something our soundbite culture
loves to do.) In just a few keystrokes, an email can go from one person to
hundreds. Emails passed from one person to another, even what starts as more or
less well-meaning emails from good people, have broken relationships, caused
people to lose jobs, and caused great damage. Faith communities have suffered
from the words of its members.

 

Added to this is the tricky element that we don’t know which words will be contagious, which will go viral – a few years ago I wrote a blog post about St. Barnabas’ tornado damage that was widely shared, and we ended up with more people sending Easter eggs than we could have ever imagined. I had to do some damage control to stop the flood of responses.

Slide06
In 2013, I posted this Instagram picture as part of a Youth Ministry photo blog
challenge with the topic “where would you like to be in 10 years.” I was very
surprised a few months later when I received messages from friends in California,
New York, Ohio and Texas letting me know that the same photo was picked up
by a Buzzfeed/clickbait type Facebook post full of pretty unfavorable 10 year
change illustrations of celebrities like Brittney Spears and Will Smith. I no longer had any control over the context around my original words.
Words are powerful…and words are contagious.
Emails get forwarded, posts get shared – unlike the days of James’ letter when
we’d have to carry it by horseback, in an instant we can spread images and
messages around the world.
I invite you to take a moment to focus on this part of our Scripture from today –
it’s also printed in your worship guide: “People can tame and already have tamed
every kind of animal, bird, reptile and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It
is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father
and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from
the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”
What strikes me about this text is that we have the power in our words for both
blessing and cursing.
You may have expected to hear a message about not saying bad things, but…
This means we have the unprecedented power to do good work with our
words, too.
There’s a Harvard Business Review article that investigated the impact of using
either positive feedback to constructive criticism to change team behavior.
Slide09
They called the ratio the praise-to-criticism ratio, and monitored results in
companies and teams and different performance levels. The highest performing
teams used an overwhelmingly higher amount of praise to motivate behavior.
Interestingly, there is a similar study that shows effects of praise and criticism in
the success of marriage relationships and the results are similar. The research
varies, but the general consensus is that it takes about 5 or 6 positive comments to
beat out the negative messaging we hear.
If that’s accurate, let’s work out some math here in this room then.
Let’s say there are 150 people in the room to make the math easy.
If each of us made a commitment to have a positive impact with our words and
our witness once a day this week, that would be enough to overcome about 30
negative things a day. If we commit to each saying just 5 positive, life affirming
messages a day, that should work to even things out.
And yet, imagine what impact we could have if we all decided to be all in on this
project, if we all committed to doing our best to be positively impacting people
whenever/however we communicated this week – what kind of positive, life
giving force could we become?
What dreams and ministries and visions could we accomplish if we all vowed to
use our words to build one another up? 
Our words are so powerful.
The tricky thing is, we never really know when we are saying words people are
hearing. My friend Bill probably had no earthly idea that he was saying something
to me that would be a sermon illustration a couple of decades later. He caught a
moment when I was ready to listen. We don’t know when we’ll have an impact or
who we are impacting, so let’s just commit to assuming each moment we have is
that moment of truth that can impact another life.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to think about what could happen to us as
a faith community if we committed to treating one another with that kind of care,
if we committed to lifting one another up with encouragement and put a stop to
grumbling, gossiping and complaining to one another. And then if we extend this
power of words beyond our walls…
We have the power to be an absolutely transforming force in the world. Let it be.
Amen.

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