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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tame Those Toxic Tongues

James 3:1-12
“Tame Those Toxic Tongues”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 17, 2006

I grew up in West Virginia, so we were required by law to watch “Hee Haw.” It was an integral part of the Saturday night TV lineup: “Hee Haw” at 7, “Lawrence Welk” at 8. TV doesn’t get much more thrilling than that. If you’ve never watched “Hee Haw,” you should. Once. That’s enough. I understand the reruns are being shown again on CMT. Thank goodness for the V-chip. One of “Hee Haw’s” weekly routines was the Rumor Song. (Remember this one?) It featured Gunella Hutton and a bevy of women standing in a cornfield singing this:

“Well, we're not ones to go 'round spreadin' rumors/Well, really we're just not the gossipy kind;/No, you'll never hear one of us repeatin' gossip,/So you better be sure and listen close the first time!”

And then they’d sing a verse about Junior Samples or Grandpaw Jones and the problems they were having with the missuses. We’d laugh ‘till it hurt. But then, we only had three channels.

Rumors and gossip on television used to be confined to the cornfield, or the soap operas, or to something Barney overheard Andy saying to Helen about someone else getting married so all of Mayberry started planning Andy’s wedding by mistake. Nowadays rumors and gossip aren’t just segments; they’re the whole purpose of shows. “Desperate Housewives,” “Jerry Springer,” and all the so-called reality shows exploit our most voyeuristic urges. People don’t have time to get together at the clothesline or the cornfield, or even at the water cooler. So we get our fill of scandal by watching at eight, seven Central. And if you can’t watch the shows, you can always catch the bleeps and blunders on the Internet. (Which reminds me, did any of you hear CNN’s Kyra Phillips leave her microphone on while talking about her sister in-law in the bathroom? Love to have a hidden camera at their next family reunion.) All these shows and sites have a competitive edge to them. This week’s rumors and gossip, this week’s scandals have to be juicier than last week’s. They have to be shared faster. They have to intrude farther. Not only do we have to hear the story, we have to extract blood to verify the rumors, as with Floyd Landis and Barry Bonds.

Perhaps it’s fitting that so many sports professionals are now the subject of rumor. Gossip itself has always been a competitive sport. No matter what it is, or how it starts out, the next person down the line either has to best the story, or add something to it, so that by the end (if there is an end), the final story bears almost no resemblance to the original. It’s like the kids’ game, where the first one whispers in the second one’s ear, and so on down the line, until the one at the end tries to say what was heard. It’s never what was said at first – and the kids are trying to repeat verbatim. Perhaps that’s illustrative of all communication. The more people involved, the worse the communication becomes. Plus, add to that the 15 minutes of fame that come with having rights to the story – fact or fiction – and the thrill of victory dwarfs the agony of someone else’s defeat. Rumor and gossip are bloodthirsty sport. And at their core they’re selfish. Rumor and gossip are the absolute lowest form of self-promotion. The puffing-up of the rumor-teller depends on letting the air out of the rumor-ee. People will even go so far into obsessive, competitive selfishness that they’ll spread ugly rumors about themselves just to get attention. John Mark Karr comes to mind. Rumor-hungry 24-hour news networks, and the rumor-thirsting people who watch them, are more than willing to fan the flames.

Speaking of flames, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” writes the Apostle. “And the tongue is a fire,” he says. “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Apostle James’ head would just burst apart if he ever saw an episode of “Judge Judy.” Not so much because of the content (although it’s hard to imagine an Apostle getting hooked on the show, or, say, “Nancy Grace”), but because of all the terrible things (true or false) that people will say about each other. Publicly. In front of God and everybody. It’s less hard to imagine what the Apostle might do if he walked into our living rooms and saw us munching popcorn and staring at the tube, listening to all the things people say about each other. He’d want to just smack us upside the head. Rumors! Gossip! The very flames of hell, themselves! Eagerly anticipated, willingly watched, and shamelessly spread. Heaven forbid a Saint of the church would push us off the couch, grab the bowl of chips, and flip over to see what’s happening on Wisteria Lane this week. But, sin being what it is, and rumor and gossip being as powerful as they are, who’s to say?

No doubt the Apostle was so extreme in his condemnation of rumors and gossip because he understood how even the best of saints can be drawn into their web. No doubt he himself had seen the damage done by even the best-intentioned person who let his tongue flap faster than his conscience could restrain. Maybe he himself had committed sins of the tongue. He wrote, “…no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” To the Apostle James, the tongue is just a tainted transmitter of toxic waste. Blech!

Which is ironic, because all of Jesus’ apostles (including, we assume, James) were present on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and appeared to rest above the head of each disciple as “tongues of fire.” At Pentecost, the tongues of fire were ignited by God. They were a gift to the church, its main and central gift of the Holy Spirit. The tongues of fire were symbols of what the evangelists were supposed to be, spreading the good news, preaching the gospel, teaching all the world what Jesus had told them. But somewhere, somehow, the symbol of the tongue was infected by human sin. The fire of God had morphed into the flames of hell. When did this happen? How did it happen? Probably the first time one of those disciples spread a rumor.

“The tongue is a fire,” said Apostle James. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” With these words, James goes beyond the human hurt and destruction caused by rumor and gossip, to an even deeper issue of faith. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we here to listen to ourselves? Did God create us and give us tongues so we could say ugly things about people who aren’t in the room, in order to make ourselves look important? Is our purpose to glorify ourselves at the expense of others? Is that why God put us on earth? Is that who we’re supposed to be? Of course not. We know that. Intellectually. We know we’re not supposed to spread rumors and gossip because it’s wrong. Just like we know we aren’t supposed to speed, or litter, or copy computer software, or break any other of the Ten Commandments. We know rumors and gossip are bad, maybe even of the devil. What makes rumors and gossip worse than bad, makes them downright evil, is that they pervert who we are and what we’re here to do. Our brothers and sisters – the human beings who are our neighbors – the people of this earth – are made, as the Apostle says, “in the likeness of God.” When we verbally assault any one of those brothers or sisters made in the likeness of God, it’s like we’re assaulting God. We betray who we are, and what we’re intended to be. We sin for our own glory, and vandalize the image of God. The Apostle says, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”

If rumor and gossip are a competitive sport, then the quickest way to stop is to set yourself up for failure. This is a game you must dare to lose. Realize that there is no possible story, no possible fact or fiction you can spread that can’t be bested, and won’t be bested by the next person down the line. No one can stop gossip. But you can stop yourself from playing the gossip game. Unilateral withdrawal is the only response. There is no negotiated cease-fire. You have to pull yourself away from the front lines. Accept defeat with honor (but not too much honor). Know that by losing the gossip game, you become more the child of God you’re intended to be.

The Rev. Cynthia Logan tells the story of her grandmother, who once invited the Ladies’ Circle over to her house for afternoon tea. When the discussion turned to gossip, Cynthia says, her grandmother stood up, removed the tea from the table, told the ladies she wouldn’t abide gossip in her home, and sent them straight out the door. You go, grandma. It simply comes down to the opposite of what Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.” It’s more like what most grandmothers taught us, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Grandmothers are smart people.

The spiritual battle for your tongue is only won by the good news of Jesus Christ. A spirit of encouragement is the only way to repent from habitual sins of gossip and rumor. Like a horse with a bridle in its mouth, we have to let the Holy Spirit pull our attention, and our words, back into line. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but let your mouth be pulled toward words of optimism, hope, and faith – and away from the infinitely destructive words of rumor. Who really cares what other people are doing, anyway? If they’re not doing works of optimism, hope and faith they really aren’t worth talking about in the first place. Put your mind on God, and your tongue will light the fires of the Holy Spirit. The flames of hell will find someone else to fire up.

The shelf life of rumors is very short. You’d better be sure and listen close the first time, if rumors are what you’re listening to. If you hear the same gossip more than once or twice, it gets old. Rumors grow stale very fast. But words of love, words of optimism, hope and faith always bear repeating. You can never tell your kids, “I’m proud of you,” too many times. You can never say, “Thank you, mom,” enough. You can never tell someone too much that you believe in them, that they are children of God. As many times as you stop to think to say, “Thank you, God,” you can never say it too many times. Because sin is out there. It pulls us away from who we are and what we’re supposed to be. It sets our tongues a-wagin’. But sin is not our master. Sin does not have to have its way with us. We can use our gifts of speech and our talents of encouragement to light a fire for God. Brothers and sisters, this is the way it’s supposed to be. Tame those toxic tongues.