As I’ve said before, I love the book of James, but it can, at times, be a real Debbie Downer. In this Sunday’s lesson from the third chapter, he takes an image that is well known and much beloved, tongues of fire, and turns it into something fairly lamentable. Most people, when they think of tongues of fire, picture the Pentecost story as the Holy Spirit arrives with power and might to change the whole world. Through that powerful in-breaking, God undoes the Babel story and makes many tongues speak one language.
In contrast to God’s amazing use of the tongues of men and women to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ far and wide, James sees the tongue as nothing more than a necessary evil. He goes so far as to say that “the tongue is a fire. 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.”
Clearly there is some context missing here. The author is addressing something in particular, and we are not privy to the details, but we can certainly guess what is going on. The Church, even when it is filled with people filled with the Holy Spirit, is not immune from the tongue being used to burn. There’s the gossip that pours out at coffee hour. There’s the quiet murmuring of parking lot conversations. There the grumbling over music, preaching, outreach, or, God forbid, somebody sitting in my pew. The tongue is the outlet for many of the growing pains that happen in the life of the Church, and wise leaders know how to hold their own tongues and respond to the fires that can be set by the tongues of others.
These are tough words from James, but I’m thankful that the RCL Divining Rod decided to have them read. We need to be called to task every once in a while. Scripture offers reproof even 2,000 years later because human beings do what human beings do, no matter the context of space and time. In response to this difficult teaching, we have the Collect for Proper 19B with its invocation of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it could be slightly reworded this Sunday, “Send tongues of fire upon us, Lord, that in all things your Spirit may direct and rule our hearts and tongues to the honor and glory of your name…” Amen.