A sermon preached at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas on Sunday, September 13, 2015.
Proper 19, Year B:
Isaiah 50:4-9 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38
I’ll admit – I’m a Broadway musical junkie. And for the past few weeks in listening to the Letter from James all I hear in my head is Eliza Doolittle singing,
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through; first from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
We are inundated with words. Words from politicians, words from individuals who feel they represent us, words from people seeking justice, words from people seeking help. Words telling us what to do and what to believe. Words telling us we are right, telling us we are wrong.
Words are important. They often define who we are, where we come from, and what we are feeling. Words have power. Whoever invented the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” never had a bully taunt them, a parent scold him, a fiancée break an engagement, or a doctor give her a cancer diagnosis. Words cut deep.
And we hear words in church. God’s Word – and words from those who seek to help us recognize a connection between the Gospel and our lives.
Today James continues his admonition of the power of words. Three weeks ago we heard him say, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22). Perhaps that is the cry of My Fair Lady.
Last week we heard James speak of right behavior in the treatment of the less fortunate and in obeying the commandments. He reminds us that we are to love our neighbors in fulfillment of the Scriptures. Again, is Eliza asking to be recognized for who she is and not who they are trying to mold her into?
Today James reminds us that we are called to a self-discipline that will restrain our speech and our anger, as well as our behaviors that take us away from God’s perfect creation. He calls us to listen to one another and obey. It is of no value for us to claim that we have heard God’s Word unless we demonstrate it by living it. Put in another way – be careful what you say – your tongue can be an instrument of evil.
We all have our own memories of how words have impacted us – words that have wounded and healed, words that we have given, and words we have received. “We all stumble in many ways,” says James; only the person who has “tamed the tongue” can claim Christian maturity. It’s not easy. Humanity has tamed the world of nature, James observes, “but no one came tame the tongue.”
In our day of electronic communications James’ message about tongues applies to texts and tweets as well as oral communication. It is really the words that come off our tongues or through our fingers that are the problem. Once those words are out there, they and the pain they cause can’t be called back.
When we hear a word, the physical movement that enters our ear and then inner ear activates 24,000 little nerves, which react through the limbic system and results in the pituitary gland sending hormones into the body. Our whole physical system reacts when we hear words of care or condemnation. When we hear words that bring us pain or anxiety, the physical-chemical reaction takes 72 hours to subside. No wonder some people live in a perpetual state of agitation and upset!
The reading from Isaiah seems to counter-act James a bit today. “God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” says Isaiah.
In Biblical times, teachers held great power, and were held to a higher standard by God. James admires teachers who are careful about everything they say and warns those teachers who cannot control their tongues. This inability to control one’s tongue, he implies, is the Achilles heel for teachers.
Teachers who misspeak became a problem in the first century because of the democratic approach of local congregations. The use of ecstatic utterances (speaking in tongues) in worship services in Corinth led Paul to give strict instructions about what kind of speech was appropriate in that context (see 1 Corinthians 14:20-33). Paul shares that if we all speak in tongues, people will say we are out of our minds. We may not be called to speak in tongues, but we are all called to speak as a prophet, proclaiming the Good News. Nevertheless, James gives several warnings against allowing one’s tongue to go unregulated. He compares an unbridled tongue to a ship without a rudder, or a fire that is out of control. And I’m sure we each know someone who could fit into this category.
Despite his negativity, James shows us what makes a good teacher. He imagines teachers who are communal leaders called by God to shape communities of faith that reflect the goodness and grace of that all-loving God. Such teachers do not hide behind pulpits and podiums nor are they content merely to deliver lofty lectures. The kind of teachers James hopes for instead rub shoulders with the people, live in the midst of their struggles, sharing their grief and joys alike. Such teachers are living examples of a life lived in faithful service to one’s sisters and brothers. We are called to use words for the building up of others and the building up of God’s Kingdom.
And in the realm of Christian formation, we are all teachers. Before we teach, we need to listen. We need to listen to God, to God’s Word, to God’s people, to God’s world. We need to be in relationship with those who we have been called to lead. The most important gift each of us can give to our children and youth is our presence. Being present is one of the most important roles of a teacher, a parent, a friend, a mentor. “Speeches” will mean nothing if we don’t have the one-on-one conversations first.
When I am inviting an individual to serve in a teaching ministry, many times he or she may tell me that they don’t feel equipped with enough knowledge to teach. Yes, teachers need words to teach, but they need something that is within each of us – a love of Christ. If we believe God is active and that Jesus is alive in the world, then the question posed to us in today’s Gospel is not whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That is the easy part. It is how we use our words, and our actions, to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom.
The Word continues its creative, powerful ministry in the words of servants of God who teach others. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ is a powerful, community creating affirmation. As Jesus calls his followers to discipleship, he warns that we must not be ashamed of him or his words. And that in itself is risky behavior. Are we willing to speak the truth in love and follow Jesus to the cross?
Today’s Gospel asks us to confess Jesus as Lord. We do this with our words, but also with our actions. And it is not easy. It’s harder than having to hold our tongues. We need to take a stand in what we believe and make sure we are not hurting someone in the process.
Eliza Doolittle can teach us a lot (with some editorial liberties):
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don’t waste my time, Show me!
Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall!
Don’t talk at all! Show me!
Never do I ever want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream;
Say one more word and I’ll scream!
Haven’t your [hearts] hungered for mine?
Please don’t “expl’ine,” Show me! Show me!
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over [your] brow,
Show me now!*
What are we waiting for? Let’s stop talking and start acting – living out the Gospel and passing along our faith as we leave this space and go out into the community. And when we do use our voice, let’s make sure our words are in keeping with the Gospel.
*Very slightly adapted from My Fair Lady, a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who takes speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, so that she may pass as a lady.