Thursday, September 13, 2018

Salty Speech


When, as a newly ordained curate, I asked my boss if I could show a clip from a film that included some profanity, he surprised me with how little concern he showed. After giving me permission, I reassured him, saying, "Don't worry; I will be sure that there aren't an F-bombs or GDs," and he quickly replied, "I've always liked Goddammit!" Apparently, I had misjudged the whole "curate needs to ask the rector" concept.

I never had a problem with saying dirty words. I said them all the time, but I had a knack for only saying them when parents weren't around. I could swear here and there, but I never got in trouble for it the way my younger brother did. (Mainly that's because I tattled on him.) But, behind the angelic appearance, was a blue streak.

James wouldn't approve. James has a gift for plain, clear diagnosis, and he offers it again in this Sunday's reading (James 3:1-12). Decrying the duplicity of the tongue, he notes how "with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God." Like a gentle but unequivocal parent, James writes, "My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so." But, as in the readings from the previous two Sundays, in order to make his case, James offers not a practical argument but a theological one.

"Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh." In other words, if you can't get olives from a fig tree, you also can't get profane, cursing speech from the mouth of a person made holy by God. James doesn't mean the kind of swear words that were once beeped out on network television. James means the kind of condemnatory, critical, "no, you really go to hell" talk that has begun to tear the Christian community apart.

We can't bless the Lord with the same mouth that curses one made in God's image. In a practical sense, of course we can, but, in a theological sense, that's actually impossible. James asserts that those two kinds of speech cannot come from the same mouth just as fresh water cannot come from a saltwater spring. What does that mean for us?

Perhaps it is an invitation to diagnosis. What does our speech sound like? Are we quick to criticize? Do we ever use words to dismiss or discount another human being as if they were less than us, less than human? Do we speak of those who disagree with us as if they were of inferior intellect or questionable moral character instead of honoring their full and equal personhood before debating the issue at hand? If that's the case, maybe the diagnosis is that we haven't experienced the transformation to holiness that God gives us in Jesus Christ.

What it isn't, however, is an invitation to make ourselves holy by cleaning up our speech. James lets us know that from the start: "And the tongue is a fire...[and] no one can tame the tongue." No human being can make her or himself good by starting with the tongue, with speech. It must, absolutely must, go the other way around. We must start by becoming holy in Christ. Then our speech will follow. We must pursue a lifetime of holiness and let our speech be a measure, an indicator, of the extent to which our clinging to Christ is shaping us into Christ. Be encouraged, however, for James isn't writing to heathens but to believers, and he is writing to them in order to remind them that being formed into the holy ones of God is the pursuit of a lifetime, and our speech--all of our speech--is a reminder that our pursuit takes a lifetime.

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