Blessings and Curses

The blank screen comes to life and suddenly you’re faced with the round face of a kid dressed in a suit and tie; the dark suit and red tie stand out against the green chalkboard background. “I think we all need a pep talk,” the child says confidently and without a hint of question in his voice. The video then pans across an empty football field and the kid dressed in a suit who is set on giving the whole world a pep talk tosses a football in the air. The motivational speech goes on with swelling music in the background and the images speed up as he encourages those watching to do something meaningful with their life, to tap into the awesomeness that is who they already are. Now is the time to do amazing, awesome things, and this young child believes that you are the person who is capable of far more than you can imagine.

The video, A Pep Talk from Kid President, currently has 43 million views and teachers around the country use it in their classrooms at the beginning of the school year so that the children in their classrooms can come to realize the full potential of the work that they can do, even as children. My friend, Brad, and his brother, Robbie, aka Kid President, created a series of videos, and the Pep Talk took off five years ago. In hearing Brad talk about the work he and Robbie did, he wanted to use the power of words to encourage, inspire, and motivate people. Words matter, and Brad wanted to bring more good into this world using words. Perhaps the reason that Pep Talk went viral is how deeply it resonated with people; so many of us are in deep need to hear something good, we need to hear good, powerful words spoken into our lives.

Our epistle lesson today finds its home in a similar message; our epistle lesson today is all about language and the power of the tongue. James continues his letter to the diaspora, to the churches dispersed throughout the nations, in which he extends his teaching on living a godly life by speaking directly about what he poses as the most powerful part of our embodied experience: the ability to speak. With the tongue, we are able to do amazing good, blessing God and driving powerful ships and with it we are also able to do immeasurable harm, setting a whole forest ablaze and denying the very image of God imprinted upon every person’s soul. No one is able to tame the tongue entirely, James says; we will all make mistakes even if it ought not to be so.

What this passage is about is not just the power of the tongue, although it is certainly that, and it’s not just about keeping your language clean like I thought when I was growing up. This passage at its core, however, is about the nature and danger of sin. As Father Steve mentioned last week, James isn’t afraid to go from preaching to meddling; James doesn’t hold back when it comes to addressing the things that deeply affect the life of the church. And there may be no greater threat, in James’ mind, than the danger of the unbridled tongue. If we take a moment, and I’m going to leave some space for us to do this in a few, to think and to reflect all the ways in which we have used language for good or for evil, it wouldn’t take long for each of us to develop a laundry list; it wouldn’t take long for us to see our blessings and our curses piling high, and to feel like James might be getting a little too personal this morning.

And it might not take long for it to feel like the preacher’s getting a little too personal this morning as well, because the nature and danger of the tongue, is really about the nature and danger of sin. Sin is not something we like to talk about; even in our penitential seasons of Advent and Lent it can be difficult. We must talk about sin, however, because without talking about it we forget that it is mentionable and manageable. If we fail to talk about sin it is tempting to think that our lives are not affected by our own sins or the sins of others, and we all know that this just simply isn’t true.

As St. James says in our lesson today, all of us make mistakes. There’s balm in hearing that, because there is no one in this space or in any other space into which you will go today that lacks someone who makes mistakes. Sin is pervasive in this world and in our lives; we all make mistakes. Though the tongue is a small member, it boasts of great exploits – James warns against the explosive power of sin, the explosive power of the unbridled tongue that denies God’s goodness in ourselves and in each other.

But just as pervasive as sin and the mistakes that we all make, so also is what James affirms after he highlights that in our greatest sins we bless the Lord and Father and with the same tongue curse those who are made in the likeness of God: my sisters and brothers, this ought not to be so. This ought not to be so, is a fair assessment: it should not be so that with the same mouth we offer our praise to God the Father and yet also fail to respect the dignity of every human being.

But here is what I know to be true about the nature of sin: through God’s grace what ought not to be so can actually not be so. Despite our very human existence and pervasiveness of our mistakes, God is at work in this world. We will fail to miss the mark and we will inevitably fall into sin, but it is God, who continually invites us to turn and to return, who invites us to join in the work God is doing in this world. James warns those early Christians that they can set the whole world on fire with the sins of their tongue; cursing (with our words or our actions) those made in the image and likeness of God can do far more damage than we can imagine. We would be wise to heed this warning from St. James.

But let us not forget that with the same tongue we can set the whole world on fire for God. With our words or our actions, we can bless the Lord and Father. To bless the Lord and Father is to live into our baptismal promises. To bless the Lord and Father is to get into good work; it is to see the whole of God’s creation and created by God. To set the whole world on fire for God is to go out and to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. We can do amazing things, but only with God’s help.

Before we say the Creed today, we’ll take a couple of minutes to sit together in silence. If you’re holding in a face of shock or horror, go ahead and let it out; I can take it; it might be awkward, it might feel uncomfortable. Settle in, get comfortable in the uncomfort, because here’s the thing: We will never be able to do the amazing things that we have been given to do, if we do not first confess and own our sins. We will never be able to help set the world on fire for God if we do not first lean into the reality that a life marked by sin ought not to be so; if we do not repent of the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf we will fail to live up to the amazing work we can do. This is a chance to sit in stillness; it’s a chance, before we kneel to communally pray the confession of sin, to take stock of the ways in which we both bless the Lord and Father and also curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

So as we sit in silence, let us remember the ways we affect others with our words and our actions; let us recall our blessings and the curses. Let us lean, together, toward God’s grace and forgiveness so that we will be able to go out into this world to do the work we have been given to do.

Take two minutes to sit in silence to reflect on where God might be calling you. 

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 19B on James 3:1-12 on September 16, 2018.

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