Sermon September 12: Use Your Words... (James 3 excerpts) Rev. Betsy Hogan
It's extraordinary to realize, isn't it, that it's been twenty years since 9/11. At least for those of us who remember it happening.
Which in a way is extraordinary in itself – the fact that it happened long enough ago that there are bona fide grown-up adults who have no memory of that day. But who have, nonetheless, lived nearly the whole of their lives in its wake.
The NATO invasion of Afghanistan it provoked quite literally just ended. We've been at war the entire time. Not peace-keeping, not nation-building, Canada didn't join in the invasion of Afghanistan out of the goodness of our hearts – we deployed our army into war as a direct response to 9/11. And it lasted so long that there are bona fide grown-up adults in our midst for whom it's just simply always BEEN.
Which itself is also kind of extraordinary. Because when I consider that a few of those bona-fide grown-up adults grew up in my house, I'm not sure – and in fact I highly doubt – that they actually grew up with any real consciousness of that, in any real way.
That Canada's been 'at war' this whole time. My kids even had two uncles that WENT. But I don't know that that registered, in any kind of 'collective consciousness Canada is a war' way comparable to the Great War, or the Second World War, or even Korea.
So it's curious, to consider twenty years later what it's actually looked like on the ground, as it were – to be living "in the wake" of 9/11. What it's meant, how it's manifested, what's been changed.
It's arguable, of course, that the most profound manifestation of living "in the wake" of 9/11 has been a sort of kneejerk, default, heightened suspicion of "the other". The easily identifiable Muslim. Because that's been absolutely real. Even if it was immediately ridiculous out of the mouths of the British, for example, to hear them talking about the sudden perfidy of not knowing if they're safe on the tube or on a bus or just walking down the street – when the IRA was patently making sure of that for decades. Nevermind Americans, who've always been and continue to be at the greatest presenting danger... from each other.
But it was a traumatic time. And we're not always reasonable and we're not at our best, under traumatic conditions. Particularly when we can focus our suspicions toward a target we've distilled into "easily identifiable."
Which is why what DID make it across the pond in the wake of 9/11, was a slogan that Americans immediately adopted from the British -- fresh from all those decades of IRA bombings -- and plastered everywhere.
"If you see something, say something." Package unattended, weird looking envelope, strangely bulky backpack – fill in the blank with pretty much whatever or whoever anyone might decide in the moment seems not quite right – and urgent duty was clear. "If you see something, say something."
It was of course about security. It certainly had been during the IRA years, and of course it was in the wake of 9/11.
But what's interesting about it, about 'see something say something', is how quickly people recognized in it a far broader utility. A far broader value.
Because after 9/11, it had spoken into a population that was traumatized, that was 'in their bones' afraid and with good reason. And what it did was it handed back to them a measure of control. A reminder of their own capacity.
That they weren't in fact just disempowered sitting-duck victims: if they saw something, there was a response they could DO. They could SAY something.
And that was empowering. It IS empowering. To be reminded we have agency. To be reminded we have capacity. We're not impotent – we can act. It's empowering.
Which is why, unsurprisingly, it took no time at all for " see something, say something" to shift in the collective consciousness completely AWAY from being a Homeland Security "wake of 9/11" thing to being a phrase that's nearly always now associated with bullying, harassment, badgering, violence, even just nastiness or rudeness.
In fact, when I looked it up for this sermon, 'see something say something' I was actually surprised it started with 9/11. I honestly thought that it started as just a really good slogan against bullying.
Because it IS. It's empowering. If we're a bystander to an unsettling, upsetting, traumatic, fearsome situation, in which someone's being hurt – see something say something is empowering. It makes us feel like there's something viable that we can DO.
And it's something viable that actually leverages precisely the subject of the scripture passage that we heard this morning from the letter of the Apostle James. The power of our words.
Because "Oh my stars," James is basically saying in this whole passage, though not incidentally in far more beautiful language: "My brothers and sisters, my friends and companions in faith, it is UNBELIEVABLE how powerful words are, when you think about how small the tongue is."
And of course, he's right! I can't imagine that there's a single person here who actually believes that sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me. Because we all know better. We all know that's not true.
We all know that long after bruises and bones have healed up and left not a trace, the wounds from words can still feel painfully fresh. It's honestly why it always makes me kind of cringe when parents and teachers try to curtail behaviours like hitting and shoving by saying "use your words".
Because in effect, though I'm no fan of hitting and shoving, all that essentially accomplishes is the channelling of a whole lot of childhood aggression into an arsenal of weapons that's FAR more cruel. FAR more longlasting. And FAR easier to keep secret.
We know how powerful words can be. James isn't providing us with any great insight here, though it's fair to say that all his musings about how very SMALL the tongue is, despite its monumental capacity, do pack quite the emotional punch.
But he NEEDS them to. Because the primary point of what he's writing here, for the early Christians and for us, it's serious. It's urgent. Be careful, he sayings. Be cautious, be wary, be mindful of the tongue and its monumental capacity.
Because it has great power. And essentially, with great power comes great responsibility.
And that's key. That responsibility. Because for James, for Christians, for those who are trying to follow the Way of Jesus, nothing can ever be thought of, talked about, described, without taking into consideration that element of responsibility.
It's fundamental to Christianness as James understands it. That we live in the world with other people. It's fundamental to Christianness -- that related-ness of not just "love" as sort of a vague concept, but "love of neighbour". Actual people. There's no "Christian living" for James that can be separated from our responsibility TO and our responsibility FOR our neighbour. Other people. Anyone. Everyone.
So James here is looking at his congregation, that early community of Christians in Jerusalem, and one minute they're full of praise and thanksgiving for God and the next minute they're sniping and griping and cursing each other out – and he says ENOUGH.
Get control over what's coming out of your mouth. Be mindful of the weaponized words you're launching at each other. These have power. They're hurtful. They're harmful. Do you speak like that to God, he asks them rhetorically? No you do not. So don't speak like that to God's people. With power always comes responsibility to and for the people around you. So get some control over this power, he says to them and to us. Be mindful what you say.
Think before you speak. And if you can't say anything nice?
The instinctive answer is always "don't say anything at all". Which I discovered this week actually comes from Thumper's mother in the movie Bambi. Or, to be fair, possibly from a whole lot of other mothers before the movie Bambi ever happened, but where it very much doesn't come from?
This letter of James, or anywhere in the Bible. Because although certainly his primary message here is about exercising control, being mindful, being aware how easily our words can be weapons of terrible cruelty –
What he also speaks to here, and still in the sense of responsibility TO and responsibility FOR the people around us, is the power that our words also just as surely have to produce "a harvest of righteousness", as he puts it so beautifully.
Which kind of doesn't let us get away with "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".
Because for James, for whom faithful living can't be separated from being responsible to and for those around us –
if there's something going on that's wrong, or bad, or hurtful, or harmful, that responsibility's just as real. And it's ours. See something, say something – for James it's not just about the reality that silence equals complicity or silence equals consent.
For James, it's about making things better. Contributing to a harvest of righteousness, is the way he puts it. Speaking up against the wrongness with words that are "gentle", yes, and "peaceable", absolutely, but at the same time absolutely clear that the wrongness is wrongness.
That it's been seen and it's being challenged. And the words of challenge are like a seed getting planted toward a harvest of righteousness. Our words are powerful, James is saying here. And if that means we need to exercise control and be mindful of them – which it does – it also means we have their power at our disposal to speak clearly when something's wrong. To lift things up to better, to build things up to better. To grow righteousness.
Rightness. Holiness, justice, caring, in how people deal with each other and get treated by each other. Jesus did it all the time. Usually gently, nearly always peaceably, but always when he saw wrongness, always absolutely clear. That wrongness is wrongness and it needs to stop. See something, say something. Use the power of your words to challenge wrongness and contribute to a harvest of righteousness.
Which is ironically a bit wordy to have the ring of a good slogan. So here's one I found this week during my reading. If there's wrongness, if someone's getting hurt, if someone's getting harmed.... "If you can't say anything nice, at least say it nicely."
James could hardly have put it better himself.