Scripture: James 3:1-12
For two years I worked as a substitute teacher. For whatever reason I ended up in elementary level class rooms more often than not, and a peculiar thing happened regularly. Almost once a week there would be a child who would ask me if I was from England or Ireland. Across different schools and different classrooms this same question would come up. My best guess as to why this kept coming up is that I tend to talk a little faster than average, due to a childhood speech impediment I never quite mastered I tend to pronounce the R sound softly, and unlike most of the people in southern Indiana I keep “g” on the end of words like running. I suppose these three things added up to make the way I talk sound just a little off to those young ears. I find accents fascinating. It is incredible how with the same language just making minor changes in how we form and say words can completely change how it sounds, as this woman brilliantly demonstrates:
What is really neat about accents is that it is more than just pronunciation. With just a little practice anyone can start to get the basics of an accent down. However, to truly speak with an accent requires mastering the cadence, the phrasing, and the idiosyncrasies of that accent. Our accent can speak to where we are from, even within the same country. For instance if you met a group of people that included someone from North Dakota, Texas, and Brooklyn you would probably be able to tell who was from where just by talking to them for a few minutes. While accents can change and modify over time, they form when we are young and without a lot of intentional work we never outgrow them, and everyone has an accent. An accent is a way that our words communicate something about us, about where we are from, and about who we are. When I read this morning’s scripture I have to wonder just what would a Christian accent sound like? If you hear someone with a Scottish accent talk for instance, there is no doubt where they are from. So is there a way that our words can instantly communicate who our Lord is?
One of the things that comes up again and again when I get to teach Bible studies, is how much things do not change. We are separated from the era the bible was written in by thousands of years. The language we use and the language the bible uses are radically different, and the cultures of antiquity and our modern day American culture are light years apart from one another. Despite all of those differences, so much of what we find in scripture is so relevant today. This morning’s scripture is such a prime example of that.
Sometimes to get a better understanding of scripture, it require some careful cultural and historical context to unpack but not this one. What it is saying is perfectly clear, and the point still rings true today. Our words can get us in trouble. The old saying goes sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me is a bold faced lie. Words can cut deeper. Words may not break our bones but they can piece our hearts and crush our souls. This morning’s scripture also points out that just like a bit directs an animal or a rudder steers a ship, our words guide us. The tone we take, and the way we talk with other can be a guiding force in our lives. Just like our accent, the way we pronounce our words, communicates something about us, the way that we use words also communicates something about our character and heart. Practically speaking, to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ we need to sound like faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. To have a faith that works, we need to be known by our Christian accent, and I think there are three ways to develop the proper accent.
First, we have to be mindful of our words. In this morning’s scripture James is quick to point out there is an odd juxtaposition in how we use words. As James writes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father and with it we curse human beings who have been made in God’s image. Out of the same mother comes praising and cursing. My brothers and sisters this should not be.” It is odd that we can go from singing “How Great is our God, sing with me. . .” to the things we say about the driver of the car going really slow in the left lane.
However, this scripture is about more than avoiding George Carlin’s seven dirty words. It is very possible to curse without cussing. This scripture is about the intentions of our words, do they build up or do they tear down. I really appreciate how James makes this clear at the end of this morning’s scripture by comparing our words to a spring of water. The words we use, the way we speak with other people can either be refreshing and life giving or they can be bitter and salty.
I probably do not need to explain what salty words are like, because all of us have been on the receiving end of someone spitting venom our way. We also have to confess that we are all guilty of using words to try and hurt or harm another person at some point. With our words and our tone we can quickly tear down and deflate another person. Sometimes people try to spin this as a positive. Someone might be quick to say, “they just tell it like it is” or “it’s not my fault if someone else can’t handle the truth.” But that’s not being honest is it? When someone says they are just telling it like it is, they are not trying to engage in honest conversation, they are trying to destroy someone else’s position. We are not telling it like it is, we are using our words to tear someone else down. We are purposely using salty words that are intentionally meant to be bitter to the people we are speaking to. Our words can be absolutely destructive which is why James wrote “The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”
The opposite of salty and bitter is uplifting and edifying. Jesus himself talks about this and in Matthew 13:35-37 Jesus states: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
We can tell the sound of a Christian accent because the words are not empty, they are sincere, they build up, and they are good. As Christians we should have good stored up in us because of the abundant overflowing of grace from God the Father made known by Jesus the son, and that good should flow out in our words. A Christian accent is not known for the gossip it spreads, it is known by being a non-anxious presence that brings peace and assurance. A Christian accent is not known by cynical snark, it is known by encouragement that inspires. A Christian accent is not known by empty words and hollow boasts, it is known by sincere empathy and genuine love. A Christian accent is not known by its cursing, it is known by the praises of the Great God it sings. This scripture really challenges us to consider do we have a Christian accent? One of the ways that we develop a Christian accent is that we have to be mindful of our words, because the way we use our words speak to the goodness in our heart and show just how much Jesus is truly Lord of our life.
The second way to develop a Christian accent is that we cannot fake it. I have spent more time in my life than I willing to admit trying to learn how to speak in an Irish accent. I got a little bit of it down, but I am “meh” at best. If I would ever try to use it with someone who is actually from Ireland, it would be insulting and laughable at how fake it is. People who hear and speak a certain way can easily hear when it is not being done right. The funny thing about a Christian accent, is that even people who are not Christians can tell when someone is faking it. It is possible to try and fake a Christian accent. Someone can attend church, they can use the right words, the can “amen” and “alleluia”, and they can sound very churchy. However, if Monday morning through Saturday night, it is a different story, then that is the very thing that this morning’s scripture is all about. Out of the same mouth should not come praise and cursing. We cannot fake a Christian accent, the way we speak on Sunday morning is the same way we should speak the rest of the week. Christian author Brennan Manning once rightly said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” We cannot fake it because again, a Christian accent flows from our heart, it is an outpouring of goodness because we have responded and are filled with God’s goodness.
The final way to develop a Christian accent is that it stops being an accent we practice at, and it becomes just part of who we are. We do not think about it, but every single one of us have an accent. It does not sound like an accent to us, because it is what we are used to, just like Australians do not think about the fact they are speaking with an Australian accent because that is what they are used to. In the same way using words that are uplifting, encouraging, full of grace, and love should be what we are used to and should be how we always are. Even, when we are not talking to others. Studies have found that for the average person 60-70% of their self-talk is negative. If I am being brutally honest, this is a great struggle for me. I am pretty hard to insult, because there is not much negative you can say to me that I have not already repeatedly said to myself. However, Jesus warned about the dangers of empty words and in this morning’s scripture James wrote that we should not praise God and curse human beings. . . which includes cursing ourselves who have also been made in God’s likeness. This does not mean our self-talk should be only about how awesome we are, we do not need to adopt a narcissistic, Pollyanna outlook. We can be humbly honest about failings, our shortcomings, and how big our need for grace is. Our self-talk, my self-talk, should still have a Christian accent. It should still be uplifting and edifying. Even our self-talk that dwell on our failures can still praise God as admit to ourselves that we may be big sinners, but thank God Jesus is a greater savior!
So may your words not be empty or salty, but may the way you speak to others be refreshing and life giving. Practically speaking the words we use speak volumes about who we are, so may your words give you a Christian accent. A faith that works is one that is always active, so may you not just speak like a Christian on Sunday mornings but may your words always be full of grace, truth, and light. May the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ reside deep in your heart, may that love like a fresh water spring pour out of you, so that when you speak everyone wants to hear what you have to say.