Sermon: Words can be wildfire (Proper 19 Year B)
Proper 19 Year B
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Visalia, CA
As some of you may know, before I went to seminary I studied linguistics. I didn’t learn how to speak every language like Uhura on star trek, but i did learn a lot about how language works in people’s minds. One of the most wonderful things about language is that I can come up with a sentence that has never been said before, and since we share the English language, you’ll be able to understand what I say. If I’m a really good speaker, maybe a phrase will stick in your head and you’ll remember it later, and if what I say is compelling enough, maybe you’ll share that thought with someone else. And so thoughts that were once in my head might spread like a fire through a community. This is not bad, in theory. The fire of the holy spirit descending at pentecost was a good thing. That fire giving the apostles the ability to be understood in a variety of languages was a good thing. And being able to share bits of our selves with each other in conversation is a good thing. But, and here’s where the epistle of James uses such memorable phrases that I need to just quote it: the tongue is a small member of the body, but it does powerful, dangerous things.
Probably how I should preach this sermon, since the lessons are about the power and dangers of speech, is just to be silent for 12 minutes. That would be the safest approach, probably. I wouldn’t have to worry about teaching a wrong interpretation, or setting anything on fire. I mean, how many times have you said something without thinking and regretted speaking at all? It’s probably better to say nothing at all than to say something that hurts someone. And pretty much anything I can say would hurt *someone*. Something that might be the exactly right thing for one person to hear might make another person uncomfortable or angry. And sometimes, no matter your intentions or what you meant when you say it, something you say explodes in your face and you’re left with the barren scorched earth after the wildfire blazed through. Sometimes there is no right thing to say, and that is why James calls the tongue such a fire.
The epistle of James is one of the clearest letters in the Bible. James always explains exactly what he means, and he doesn’t beat around the bush or pull punches. He calls us out for using the same tongue for insulting people behind their backs and turning around and praising God at church. As James says: this ought not to be so. I don’t really know what else to say that James hasn’t already said. It shouldn’t be the case that authorities and teachers in this world can lead people astray so easily and without consequences. It shouldn’t be the case that we use the same tongue to praise the god who created us and curse others who god also created.
I began this sermon with the psalm verse that I almost always use. Psalm 19:14. May the words of my mouth be acceptable in your sight O Lord. This is what I pray before I preach for sure, and it is also what I try to pray before I speak anytime. Sometimes I forget. The tongue is difficult to tame after all. This is only half of the psalm verse. The other half of the verse, as the psalmist wrote it is “may the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, o Lord”. I did change this in my prayers before preaching, so that it’s not just the meditation of my own heart, but that all our hearts would be acceptable in Gods sight.
It is not only the words that we say that are important, but the thoughts that produce those words. The praising that we do on a Sunday is an indication of praiseworthy thoughts, yes. But what about the grumbling on Monday? What about the nasty thoughts about that one politician on election Tuesday? Are those meditations acceptable in God’s sight? Jesus holds us to a greater standard. It’s not just the bad things we *say* that are a problem, that we were even *thinking* them is an indication of what’s in our hearts. And from a perspective of cognitive linguistics, this makes sense. We think in language. We don’t always realize it, but our very thoughts are structured by the grammar of the language we speak. So if we have a thought, regardless of whether we say it aloud or not, it’s as fully formed and “real” in a cognitive sense. We might be able to tame our tongue and larynx, physically, but we haven’t really tamed our inner voice.
This feels dangerous to me. Not even my thoughts are a safe place. Well. No. That’s true as far as God is concerned. I so pray that both the words and the meditations that come from my heart are acceptable to God. I know I fail sometimes. And that’s also why James warns us so sternly about the tongue. Because it is not just our own hearts at risk here. When we speak we put thoughts into another person’s mind. It sounds like telepathy when I say it like that. But language really is that powerful. We might call it superstitious today to believe that spoken blessings or curses have magical power. But the words we say have real consequences cognitively. Language has a real affect on our hearts. A careless nasty word here evokes a negative thought there, and that negative thought becomes evil in our hearts. Is that not a curse in the very worst sense? James might not have had the vocabulary of cognitive science, but he knew how dangerous language could be.
Jesus knew this too. I mean, do we expect anything less from the incarnate word? In the gospel passage, we see Jesus asking what people are saying about him. What they are saying is an indication of what is in their hearts, after all. Are they cursing Jesus or blessing him? They call him a prophet. Ok cool, that’s not technically wrong I guess, Jesus is preaching god’s word in the world. But Jesus changes one word in the question: not who do people say that I am, but, who do you say that I am? Peter, it’s always Peter who’s first to answer the teacher’s questions, isn’t it? I wonder what that indicates about what’s in his heart? Peter says “the messiah”. The Greek word is Christ, in English the anointed one. Aka the king chosen by God, like how Samuel anointed David out of all the sons of Jesse. For a Jewish man living under the occupation of the Roman Empire, this was a dangerous title. Jesus, like James, was keenly aware of how words could start a fire. If it got around that people were talking about him like a king, thinking about him in their hearts like a political power, the Romans wouldn’t wait til the fire spread, they would put it out at the source. At least, that’s one explanation for why Jesus forbade the disciples to proclaim Jesus as the messiah right then.
In the next sentence, Jesus starts to prepare his disciples for the very real consequences of using a word like “messiah”. The son of man will be rejected and killed by the authorities. He will suffer. Peter, again, Peter, speaking without really considering, rebukes Jesus, I can imagine he said something like “don’t be so pessimistic, we can take the Romans since you’re the promised messiah!” But that speech, or one like it, was rejected by Jesus. Jesus’s exclamation to “get behind me Satan” evokes the temptation in the wilderness, where Jesus was offered earthly power by Satan. It would be so easy to give in to those words, to surrender to the thought of supreme earthly power. But that is not acceptable in God’s sight. Jesus tells Peter that he is setting his mind on earthly things, that the meditations of his heart are not on the divine things they should be.
What are the divine things that we should be setting our minds on? Well, Jesus was trying to tell them! Mark says he said it all quite openly, in fact: the son of man must suffer and die and after 3 days will rise again. Resurrection. That is the divine thing. That is the blessing from God that drives out the curse of death. Jesus knew how powerful words were. He knew he needed to speak this new idea, resurrection, into his disciples’ minds so that they would be able to understand it, to conceive of it, later. It’s not magical telepathy, it’s just how language works in our minds. Resurrection is what we need to set our minds upon. Resurrection is what we need to meditate on in our hearts. Resurrection is what needs to be on our tongues.
We’re about to proclaim the Apostles Creed together. At the center of that creed is the resurrection. We might, well, we will, fail in our words and meditations tomorrow. But right now let our words and meditations be acceptable in God’s sight. Let us set our minds on divine things. Let our tongues bless God and not curse anyone. Let us proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, the word made flesh.