My Word! (and yours, too)

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38.  

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A few weeks ago a parishioner handed me an article he had clipped from the Wall Street Journal. Always happy to get these sorts of things, I reached for it. But he held back. “I hope you’ll take this in the right way,” he said. Then I held back! It was clear that he wanted me to look at the article and then, from my reaction, he might say something more about the “way I should take this.”

With slight hesitation, I looked at the title, and I burst out laughing. The title was, “People love your sarcasm, really” (WSJ, August 24, 2015). The article discusses findings by several major business schools and explores the ways in which sarcasm can on the one hand suggest higher creativity (I like that part a lot), but on the other hand, can sometimes backfire. Sarcasm can offend, belittle, baffle, distance, and sometimes have exactly the opposite effect as intended. The word, “sarcasm,” after all, comes from the Greek and Latin word meaning “to tear the flesh.”

That article reminded me that while I know the risks of sarcasm and the pain of it going wrong, I don’t always watch my words the way I should. Our scriptures today focus on just that: the importance of words and the words we choose.

The old idiom aims to help us be strong when it suggests “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” And yet, that’s not quite true, is it? Words can and do hurt. We can all probably think of times when we’ve said something that hurt another person and later we’d do just about anything to take those words back. Most of us, also, can probably remember times when words have been used against us and they’ve felt constraining, insulting, or even abusive.

In today’s first scripture reading, Isaiah shows a faith we sometimes long for. The speaker in Isaiah “gives his back to those who strike, and doesn’t hide her face from insult or spitting.” She’s NOT disgraced. He’s VINDICATED, because the speaker so fully and completely rests in the care of God. “Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. [Because when it’s] the Lord GOD who helps me; who [can possibly] declare me guilty?” We hope to have that sort of faith, but in the real world of here and now, words fly. And words wound.

In today’s Gospel, I can only imagine what Peter must have felt like with Jesus’s sharp word, “Satan.” To be called the devil is bad enough but to be called the devil by the Son of God is about as bad as it gets. But it all began with Peter’s own casual words. When Jesus begins to explain that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, … be rejected, … be killed, … and after three days rise again” Peter jumps in, “No, Lord, no way. We can’t let this happen.” Peter probably has a thousand alternative plans racing through his head—get Jesus out of town, have Jesus run for office and work through the corrupt system, start a rally, gather the other disciples and take the temple by force, take some kind of settlement so Jesus can quietly go into the countryside and keep preaching and teaching, not causing any problems. But Jesus spots the sell-out in Peter’s sales pitch. It’s language of the betrayer, the accuser, the tempter, the same one who tried to get Jesus to take the easy way out in the desert, just after his baptism. And so Jesus calls out that duplicitous spirit, “Satan!”

Peter is wounded, hurt, and insulted. Sticks and stones probably would have felt better. But Jesus puts all of this in a larger context when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Though we may not often think of it this way, sometimes the very best way to “take up our cross” is to hold our tongue.

The Letter of James names the dangers of the tongue in ways we probably all understand.

The tongue is a fire. The tongue is … a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. … no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, [James concludes] this ought not to be so.

We know all this. In our culture, a careless word can get you killed. A careless word (whether a Tweet, a post, or an email) can get you fired, can lose friends, or can lead to divorce. And on the other side, how many millions of dollars are spent in therapy trying to delete a word that feels like it’s written on our hearts with indelible ink—words thrown at us long ago by classmates, siblings, parents, or society itself.

And so, we know the problem, but what’s the solution? Isaiah has faith. Jesus says we should take up our cross. And James leaves us hanging: “This,” he says, “ought not to be so.”   Well, no kidding, James, (we might say with a touch of sarcasm).

But (thankfully) James does keep going in a verse that is just beyond the reading we heard today.

After all these words about words, this insight into the power of the tongue, James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

Gentleness born of wisdom.”   Isn’t that the goal? Wouldn’t that be a fantastic hope for each day as we get out of bed, “Lord, grant me gentleness born of wisdom.” Every once in a while we come to know such a person who uses words that way. It might be a grandparent with little formal education, or a nurse who’s been educated by long hours in the clinic. It might be a military leader, who through wisdom, has achieved a kind of softness that is disarmingly gentle. Or it might be a child.

“Gentleness born of wisdom” is that knack of “sustaining the weary with a word,” as Isaiah puts it.

As we move into this new season together, let us take up our cross (in part) by taking care with our words. Let us pray for the “gentleness born of wisdom,” that we would offer the weary words of hope, comfort, and love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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