Year B, Proper 19, Track 2, 16 September 2018
Isaiah 50:4-9a, James 3:1-12, Mark 8: 27-38
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT
When was the last time you considered your tongue?
Perhaps if you recently bit it, or burnt it, or if you are one of the good ones who actually listen to your dentist and scrape or brush your tongue each day. Or, if you’ve recently had a dripping ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Perhaps someone even moved you to stick your tongue out at them recently – a move that might be considered rude and childish.
We may not always think about our tongues, yet the tongue is an amazing gift from God, for it is with our human tongues that we have the capability of language. And all of our readings today focus on the power of language: the power to bless, the power to curse. The power to affirm, and the power to rebuke. The power to build up, and the power to destroy.
The Servant of the Lord speaking in our reading from Isaiah proclaims, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
This passage is from one of the Servant Songs, – it is poetry as originally written in Hebrew. The unnamed Servant is a Servant of Yahweh, who speaks in the midst of a nation blaming God. This servant seeks to be the teacher saying, NO – only God can save us. The servant is urging the people to pay attention, and to listen to him: that the Lord God is the only one who can help and protect them. It is in the trenches of anger and chaos that this Servant finds a vocation – to be a spokesperson for God. To sustain the weary with a word.
In our reading from the Letter of James, we hear: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness….
As it is September, a month when we typically honor and celebrate students and educators, it may sound odd for James to say, “not many of you should become teachers.” Why are teachers being so judged? Well, he doesn’t just mean school teachers or professors – he truly means all of us. All of us are teachers, and all of us are taught when it comes to living lives of faith. It is whenever authority is invested in any of us, that we have to be careful.
And James goes on to write: “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. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Wow. James has clearly considered his own tongue!
The tongue as a fire. The tongue as full of deadly poison. I am sure that many of us can think of times when words have hurt us so deeply, and times when we have used our own words to hurt others. The old adage of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is absolutely false – words hurt, and words can kill. Jesus knew that – in the Gospel of Matthew he calls out the people who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God – telling the crowds that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What we speak our of our own mouths can defile us, and greatly harm others.
In our Gospel passage this morning, again, speaking and language matter. Mark gives a scene some considerable time after Jesus and his disciples have begun their ministry and relationship together. Jesus asks them, “who do people say that I am?” What’s the word on the street? What are people saying? People have clearly been talking about Jesus, as the disciples tell him, “well, some say John the Baptist, others say you’re Elijah, or one of the prophets.” And then Jesus moves to the more important question: “Who do YOU say that I am?”
And dear, blessed Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.” For once, Peter seems to get it right.
But then, Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him, and then tells them that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed, and then three days later rise again.” And Peter, after getting it so right, gets it so wrong. Peter doesn’t want to hear this – he does not want to hear about a suffering messiah. One can wonder if he even heard Jesus through to the part about rising again after three days? So, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. But Jesus then rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Who do we say Jesus is?
Truly – what do we say? How do we say it? How do we show it? How do we use our tongues and our words to profess our faith upon leaving this church, and going out into the world? What do we say and how do we act to show God’s love for this broken world out in our city?
We are all teachers – we show by word and example what we believe and what we are about. And each of us contains fire: a small fire that can set a forest ablaze. A small fire that can be used for good – for warmth, for power, for purification – or for bad: choking smoke, smothering flames, and destruction.
I invite us to consider our tongues – to consider how we speak. Do we speak up for ourselves and for others? Do we know when to remain silent, when it is someone else’s turn to speak? Can we act as spokespeople for God? Yes, we can. Can we sustain the weary with a word? Yes we can.
Can we deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Jesus? Jesus is not asking us to seek out suffering, or to suffer needlessly. But he asks us to suffer the consequences of following him.
We possess the power to both bless and curse. Let us try to be more mindful and seek to bless – to profess our faith in Jesus. We are not to bless and praise and worship God, and then curse another human being, who is made in God’s image. Let us bless each other. Let us be spokespeople for God in a time and place that is as in need of good news as Jesus’ time and the Servant’s time – if not more. Let us use our words to sustain the weary. Let us mind our tongues.