“Who are our teachers?”

James 3:1-12, September 12th, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

Read Statement of Faith


“Hear now the epistle of James, found in our New Testament, chapter 3, verses one thru twelve.”

James 3:1-12

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  2 For all of us make many mistakes.  Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.  3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  6 And 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.  7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?  No more can salt water yield fresh.

“Having listen to the words of James, let us consider of what purpose does this teaching serve at this time, in our lives.”

“Who are our teachers?”

Over the years I have always enjoyed my times with the children.  I miss not having our children’s time during worship, these past eighteen months.  Especially this morning.  Today’s Lesson is so easily delivered through a simple illustration.  All I need is a small plate, a spoon, and a tube of my favorite toothpaste.  With these items to assist me I would explain to them that a tube of toothpaste is very much like the words we use.  I would just put a dab of toothpaste on the plate.  Then looking them in the eye I would give a short little sermonette about how our words are very much like toothpaste; once they come out of your mouth, they cannot be put back in.  By then the children are very animated… as they have noticed that I forgot to stop squeezing the tube of toothpaste.  (Hopefully, I left the plate in the right spot.)  That’s when I would pick up the spoon and desperately try to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  To no avail.  It cannot be done.  Words are indeed like toothpaste.  Once they come out of our mouths; they can not be put back in.   /original author of children’s illustration unknown/

Then I would ask the children to join me in prayer. 

Usually, a short simple one.  I would invite them to repeat the words after me.  Like this.  (If you would all play the role of the children, please.)  Let us put our hands together, close our eyes, bow our heads, and repeat after me.  Dear God, we thank you for this day.  Please bless us one and all.  And bless the words we speak.  May they not be unkind or hurtful; but rather helpful, compassionate, and loving.  Guide us through our day, helping us to be careful… especially of the words we speak.  Amen.

In our lesson from the letter of James this morning, our author is counseling us regarding teaching.  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” /James 3:1/ This is all too true.  As a Pastor, or a Rabbi or Priest, I am considered a teacher.  And yes, sometimes the students or their families criticize what the teacher says or does not say.  Let me give you an example.  When I was the Junior pastor at the Church of the Palms, in Delray Beach, back in 1994, I was charged by my senior to talk with the children during the allotted time, during our worship service, and give them a message connected to that day’s sermon.  The topic on that day was – God’s love.  So, I brought a soft loveable teddy bear to help illustrate the message.  How could I miss, right?  As I got into the topic, saying how lovable the teddy bear was, this lad in the back of the group yelled out “Barney”.  I was so focused on what I was saying that I just ignored his insistent chant Barney, Barney.  Mercifully, I got to the end of my talk and said a quick prayer and brought the moment to an end.  I had no idea, whatsoever, as to what the young lad was trying to say to me.  It was pointed out to me by more than a few folks, that Barney is a purple stuffed Dinosaur.  “The child was trying to help me by saying ‘Barney’, as every child there (every child in the country) fully understood how loveable that popular purple stuffed Dinosaur truly was!  Yes, teachers can sometimes get it wrong and miss a teaching moment entirely!       

William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia, infers quite clearly that we oft times need to… “be reminded that communication does things to people, the givers and the receivers.  Wisdom is about getting things together, seeing how they connect, and becoming more of a whole person.”  My responsibility, as a teacher, was to teach the children gathered that day about the love of God.  But, because of my disconnect, I was unable to bring things together.  I failed to see how ‘Barney’ could possibly help describe to the children God’s love.  I missed an opportunity to become more whole as a teacher and as a pastor that day.  Yet, my failure has pushed me to be more aware of the living, breathing realities of each moment; bearing in mind that ‘every’, and ‘any’ moment, can turn into a ‘teaching moment’ for either, or both, the teacher, and the student!  Reverend Loader is quite correct when he urges us to remember that communications, at every level, does things to people, both the giver and the receiver!  When we endeavor to take on the role of teaching or addressing a group or even just one individual, we must acknowledge our responsibility in that communication; our words will impact that group or that individual in some way.  No, they may not remember what you said a few hours later, but like a plate of food, it will have nourished them in either a positive or negative way.  If the effect of your communications was neutral (which is highly unlikely) the lesson is probably meant for you… as you prepare for the next contact with that audience. 

The writer of our lesson today uses stronger language then perhaps I would normally use, yet clearly, it is easy to remember the message!  So also, the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And 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.” /James 3: 5&6a/ Just as the simple illustration in the ‘talk with the children’ and the toothpaste.  A tongue used carelessly, can inflict damage to others.  Some words can set off a ‘chain reaction’ that can have devastating consequences.  Just as a carelessly discarded match or ember from a cigarette, pipe, or cigar, can be responsible for that next forest fire, like those along our western regions of our country.  This is not to minimize the over ridding issues that are clearly driving those massive fires to record setting levels of destruction.  But let us not be careless, especially when in such drought-stricken regions of the country.  Our scripture lesson this morning did not have knowledge of these blazing fires we are now seeing in our western region, yet clearly had knowledge of fire’s destructive capabilities as he wrote out this illustration for our ears to hear!    

Daniel B. Clendenin, a writer and teacher, also suggests the importance of being careful of what we say.  “With our words we name the world and each other, and at least in some sense our naming creates a genuine reality.  Once our speech and narratives take hold, they have a tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil.”  This author points to our last verse of this lesson.  “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” /James 3:10/ Blessings can have both power and tenacity, and cursing can be destructive and evil.  We each need to take responsibility for how we speak, as our tongues can do much good and sadly, they can cause much harm.  We see this in the public media at every level, played out on a regular basis.  Our words ‘have’ the ability to… ‘inform’ others of information and knowledge that they may use to improve their lives and the lives of others whom they will have the opportunity to touch.  When this is done with truth, with integrity, and with compassion for the wellbeing of others, we shall be passing on data and information which shall teach others the importance of passing ‘forward’ the lessons, the teachings which someone has instilled in us.  Yet, when we use our voices, our vocabularies, and our abilities to influence others for our self-interest, or without integrity or some element of virtue than we are misusing this most powerful tool which our Creator has blessed us with.  Therefore, as our scripture teaches, and expounds upon, we can use our words skillfully to bless the lives of others and perhaps promote a good cause ‘articulately’ and well.  Or we can ‘curse’ the wellbeing of our fellow beings here on Earth with malice, possibly very skillfully as well, using our proficient and sharp tongue to spread wickedness and spiteful hatred; thereby harming others and possibly be part of the evil which is very much alive in our society and throughout our country.  Evil which exists on every continent on Mother Earth.  

Our scripture lesson is suggesting that “we ‘all’ ought not be teachers,” yet we all are already teachers at some level or another, intentionally or not!  The children listen to every word we speak, even when they refuse to acknowledge what we have said.  Every conversation has the opportunity, to be a learning moment which also means someone is filling the role of teacher.  The question is “what type of teacher shall you be, or what type of teacher are you?”  My grandfather Dixon, my mother’s father was a pastor.  He taught me, at a young age, that “one ought ‘not’ ‘overlook’ a teaching moment.”  Life is filled with opportunities for us to teach others, perhaps one person at a time, or in a classroom filled with children.  Some of us will seek positions or careers where we are formally recognized as teachers or professors, but teaching does not begin and end with a diploma or an educational certificate.  Many teachers are highly skilled in the art of instruction and leading a classroom.  Others, like myself are given an opportunity to pass on the lessons from holy scripture to a faith fill community.  Still others are never recognized as teachers, yet they assume the role in small group settings or in spontaneous ‘one on one’ opportunities.  We all may find ourselves being presented an opportunity at any given point in time.  The question remains: “shall we be a teacher of ‘good’ or an instructor in fear, anger or evil itself?”

As we bring this teaching moment to a close, I pray, we each seek opportunities to learn from one another, doing so with an openness to hear the truth contained in every life situation.  And when it is our turn to take on the role of teacher, counselor, or parent who has ‘the opportunity’ to expound on a lesson or explain a learned piece of knowledge, that we shall remember today’s lesson from the letter of James.  “What we say truly matters!”  Let us be sure we make the most of every opportunity! 


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