A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 1, 2014
James 3:4-10 CEB
Most of us, as children, learned about the three wise monkeys that represent the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Allegedly, the source of the popular representation of the three wise monkeys dates to a 17th-century carving over the door of a famous Shinto shrine in Nikko, Japan. It is believed the saying is based on the writings of Confucius, as a similar phrase can be found in the Analects of Confucius that dates back to the 2nd to 4th century BCE. Confucius said: “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.” It is also said that the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who lived a life of non-possession, made a notable exception in that his only possession was a small statute of the three wise monkeys.
Well, certain celebrities who have been in the news lately probably wish they had been more careful to heed the wisdom of the three wise monkeys, especially the one admonishing “Speak no evil.” Take, for instance, Don Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, who has been in the middle of a firestorm the past weeks for a few racially-charged remarks he made to his girlfriend. The NBA immediately opened an investigation, and there have been demands that Sterling be banned from NBA games and forced to sell the team. Speaking a few ill-chosen words has turned Sterling’s life upside down.
About this time last year it was celebrity Paula Deen who was in the news, whom USA Today described as “a Southern cooking icon.” Deen’s empire included restaurants, cookbooks, kitchenware, furniture, a Food Network cooking show, and public appearances. Yet, Paula’s empire began to crumble last year when it came to light that she had uttered racial slurs and tolerated racial jokes in the workplace. When she saw the writing on the wall, Deen posted tearful online videos apologizing for her mistakes and begging for forgiveness. Though Deen has recovered somewhat, some have predicted that she will never again know the success that she once did. Howard Bragman, of Reputation.com, stated, “When her obituary is written, this will be a significant part of it.”1
I am reminded of a verse attributed to Jesus where he is quoted by Luke as saying, “whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3 ESV). In other words, be careful that you speak no evil! It may someday be repeated so the whole world can hear.
I have read for this morning’s text that familiar passage from the book of James where he talks about the power of the tongue. Though a very small member of the human body, the tongue is like a flame of fire that can set ablaze “the circle of life.” With the tongue we both bless the God 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 3:9-10 CEB). How Paula Deen and Don Sterling probably wish they had controlled their tongue a bit more and avoided the firestorms their tongues started.
But who of us hasn’t allowed our tongue to get us into trouble as well? Who of us hasn’t at some point in our lives uttered an inappropriate or insensitive remark, or maybe even told a politically incorrect joke, or maybe even uttered a racial slur? If there is anyone who is truly without offense, I would like to meet them. And if there is anyone who has completely tamed their tongue so that it never utters an inappropriate remark, I would like to know your secret. Most of us stand in need of some perfection, do we not, when it comes to controlling the tongue and speaking no evil.
In the wedding ceremonies I conduct, I always give a short homily, seeking to give the bride and groom some wisdom or advice about how to have a more successful marriage. And one of the homilies I often use is titled “The Words We Speak.” And I often say something like this: “As you begin your lives together as husband and wife, I would encourage you to always remember how powerful—how important—are the words that we speak to our spouse, our best friend, and our lover. May it be determined today that we will not allow degrading words, hurtful words, belittling words, or harsh words to ever escape from our mouths. The words that escape from our lips in anger or haste have the potential of cutting like a knife and causing much hurt. But the other side of the coin is that the words that we let go can also sooth like a gentle touch and make for a heaven on earth.”
Yes, the good news is our tongues can also be used to accomplish much good. James compares the tongue to a fire. A fire out of control can quickly cause massive devastation. But fire is also good—when used properly. Properly used and controlled, fire enables us to cook our food and warm our bodies in the winter time. Fire can be used to give us light when it is dark.
So it is with the tongue. When used correctly, our tongues and the words we speak can bring about so much good. Carefully chosen words can provide encouragement, offer much-needed hope, promote healing in those who are ill, and even turn someone’s life around.
A timely word spoken at just the right moment can often be the encouragement that someone may be needing to turn their life in a whole new direction. Maybe you can think of someone from your past whose words made a profound difference in your life.
I never really had much confidence in my writing ability until near the end of my college education when I took an Expository Writing course. Dr. Hollingsworth is the first person I can recall who applauded my writing efforts and opened the door to the possibility that I might actually be able to write something of significance. Then my senior year, Dr. Burton, my Shakespeare professor, sometimes read out loud to the entire class some of the exam essays. I was quite surprised and thrilled one day when the professor read my essay to the class, citing it as a well-written essay. Dr. Hollingsworth and Dr. Burton used their words to bolster my confidence and encourage me to pursue the writing craft. And the day I graduated, as I walked up the aisle at the beginning of the graduation ceremony, Dr. Hollingsworth shouted, “Way to go, Mr. Hammer!”
I have made mention in the past of the great artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso testified as an adult, “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.” Words have the power to change lives for the better.
And so, in gratitude we remember those people in each of our lives who used their words to encourage, edify, bolster our confidence, and help us to believe in ourselves. But may we also survey our lives and relationships and ask ourselves, “Who is it in my life among my family, friends, or associations that needs a word of encouragement or word of affirmation? In what ways can I use the power of my words to bring about good or maybe even help turn someone’s life around?”
There is a verse in the book of Proverbs that says, “To give an appropriate answer is a joy; how good is a word at the right time!” (Proverbs 15:23 CEB). May we not only determine to “speak no evil,” but also determine to use our words to bless the lives of others by seeking opportunities to speak words that are encouraging, affirming, uplifting and good. Amen.
1Lorena Blas and Cindy Clark, “Experts: Paula Deen is done,” USA Today, June 24, 2013.