If you’re familiar with Jabberwocky, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or Through the Looking-Glass, you know Lewis Carroll used his tongue and his pen to create some of the most creative literary work of the 19th Century. You might not know that he was also a deacon in the Anglican Church! In 1876, he completed a “nonsense poem” called “The Hunting of the Snark.” It has driven readers and critics a bit wacky trying to figure out its meaning ever since it was published. The poem was a wildly creative piece about an imaginary creature whom Carroll said was indescribable, although he spent more than 500 lines describing his 10 characters’ frustrated search to find the Snark.
In modern times, it’s a whole lot easier to find the snark. You don’t even have to hunt for it – get on the Internet for less than a minute, and you’ve found snark, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of Christian snark out there. Of course, I’m talking about today’s meaning of snark – “snark” happens when someone is really good at using their words to cut another person down. You have to have a really sharp tongue to be good at snark. And snark happens best in the presence of an audience, who gathers to watch the fun of seeing somebody verbally destroyed, like sharks smelling blood in the water.
The irony did not escape me this week that anyone preaching on James 3:1-12 in our lectionary today is attempting to use their tongue to address the issue of how Christians should not use their tongue. James is speaking specifically about teachers, and he includes himself as one of them. But today, I encourage you to think beyond the traditional classroom model of teacher and students. If you profess yourself to be a Christian, then you are, in effect, a teacher of the faith in your community. Like the impact of what a parent says and does in front of their child – as teachers of the faith, what we say and do in front of others teaches them what a Christian is. Whether our words are witnessed by other members of our local faith community, or witnessed in our wider community, what comes from our tongue teaches the people around us who we really are – and what a Christian truly is.
Last week we talked about our actions. That faith without works is dead. A faith life alive with both good words and good works is the true living faith of those who follow a true living God. This week we receive a reminder, a warning really, from James that good works of faith do include the actions of our tongue – actions that have either the gift to build others up, or the capacity to tear them down. James says that choosing to use our tongue to endanger the status or character of another person or group of people has an effect on the speaker spiritually, staining our own body, whether our target is aware of our snarky destructive behavior or not.
No matter how good a person we are, or how long we have been practicing the Christian faith, one of the hardest things we do is to control our own tongue – to avoid speaking violence or hate against another person, particularly those who have wounded us, or who wish us harm. James says that with our tongue we bless the Lord our Father, and then with that same tongue we curse others. When we curse others, we are cursing the creations that God made in the likeness of God himself.
Why is it so hard to control our tongues?
Probably because our tongue is both so easy to use, and holds so much power. Have you ever noticed that one of the easiest ways to bond with a group of people is to get together and talk about something you’re all passionate about? That’s a wonderful thing – when it’s being used for good. When we gather in group Bible studies, or healing prayer circles, or catching up with each other for updates on the people we care about. Our tongues carry words of encouragement and joy and comfort. Words of God’s grace, compassion, and love.
But it isn’t always that way. We aren’t always at our best as Christians. There’s another way that we bond in groups, when we slip into our Christian snark, sharing gossip disguised as news, giving judgments disguised as advice, or participating in the dismantling of the character of a person or a group of people.
James gives us three metaphors for the great power a tongue wields. Our tongue is a bridle, whereby merely pulling a comparatively small amount of pressure on the tongue of a huge horse, the rider can control the direction and behavior of the entire massive animal. Our tongue is small but holds the power of a tiny rudder, that with the slightest turn can control the direction of a huge ship sailing in the water. Finally, James offers up a startling image of both the power and the danger – the tongue is a small ember that holds within it the potential energy to set roaring fires ablaze.
Throughout Pentecost, we have heard Scripture tell us that it is what comes from inside us, what proceeds from the heart, that matters. When ugliness and hate and anger comes out of us, it is the tongue that is the agent of that destructive force. James says it is a fire that is kindled in hell. The word Jesus uses in the New Testament for hell is Gehenna, and those reading a letter from James would have known that the name is derived from that of a valley south of Jerusalem. Since ancient times, the valley had taken on a reputation of being cursed as the site of nightmarish evil and firey horror, where pagans sacrificed the lives of children to their false gods, where ancient Jewish kings burned and destroyed pagan offerings, where the bodies of criminals and other unclean things were disposed of.
James makes his point well. Not a place a faithful follower of God wanted to find themselves.
If you’re like me, you’re feeling the heat a little bit by now. James’ warning is pretty harsh, particularly for preachers and teachers! But he gives us some breathing room. James says we all make mistakes and nobody is perfect. But he also says make no mistake about this: if you are going to stake your claim under the banner of Jesus Christ, then you had better make sure that you are living and teaching the truth of the Gospel, without traveling outside the teachings of God’s love and grace, his mercy and forgiveness that is offered to the everyone, regardless of who they are.
Beware of using the same tongue that blesses God in his house on Sunday morning and then turns and speaks words inciting hate and bitterness and violence Monday through Saturday. That’s where the snark is. Those are the fires of hell that, if allowed to burn from Christian hearts and mouths, damages the church’s ability to do mission work among unbelievers, burdens the fragile faith of new believers, destroys churches and consumes communities.
Tragically, our tongue can silence the Gospel message in us. When we look with Gospel truth at ourselves, we see the cross we most often pick up and carry is in fact our own cross, and not the cross of Jesus. Jesus says in our Gospel lectionary today, Mark 8:27-38, “’If you want to be my followers, you must deny yourselves, and take up the cross and follow me.” The cross of Christ invites us to set aside our nature and put on God’s nature of compassion and love and self-sacrifice.
How do we know the difference between his cross and ours?
The cross of Jesus is completely self-sacrificing. Our cross has a self-serving agenda.
The cross of Jesus sits beside thieves, prostitutes, lawbreakers, sinners. Our cross stays comfortably near the crosses of those who look and act like we do.
The cross of Jesus suffers for the sake of the world, the entire world. Our cross suffers for those who deserve it.
The cross of Jesus dies as a pure sacrifice for a broken world. Our cross struggles under the weight of its own woundedness.
The cross of Jesus is Resurrected to new life in God. This is, blessedly, where our cross meets and becomes one with God. This is where we are Resurrected, and Reconciled, and Renewed to eternal life through the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How exciting is that?! How wonderful! Nothing else in this world even comes close to being as good that Good News!
This is the message we have received.
This is the message was are sent out to deliver to the world that needs so desperately to hear it.
This is God’s message for the world: I love you. You are forgiven. I want you all to be one with me. This is the message that should be on our tongues.