The Sixteenth Sunday After PentecostThe Rev. Dana English St. Paul’s Within the Walls September 13, 2015
Our four readings today are all about tongues, and voices, and the words they deliver.
Words, words, words!
Words can be used to encourage and to distress, to sooth and to mock, to wound and to heal.
“The tongue is a fire,” says the writer of James!
He had reason to fear the tongue and the words that issue from it, because words have immense power: how we use words manifests our very souls, and sets the direction our bodies take as we go out into the world.
This immense power can hold us back or hurl us forward.
“From the same mouth, says the book of James, come blessing and cursing.” Think of the way you use your words:
We say that we “sweet talk” someone into doing something we want them to do for us. My teenaged sons know how to do this with me—they have practiced this art! “Mom, you look very nice! Mom, I think I will go out with my friends tonight after all….”
I remember listening to the songs of one of my favorite musicals, growing up: “The Music Man.” From the rhythm of the repetition of the name, “River City,” by the traveling salesmen in a railroad car, to “Seventy-six Trombones,” The Wells Fargo Wagon is a-Comin,” and the barbershop quartet, “Good Night, Ladies (pick a little, talk a little”) I was mesmerized by these wonderful songs. The words of the songs showcase the persuasive powers of the con man, Professor Harold Hill, who gets off the train at River City intending to cheat the town with his standard scam: collecting money to train a boy’s brass band, uniforms and instruments and all, then skipping town with the money. Happily, Harold Hill, exposed by the town’s librarian, Marian, wins her hand. So all is well, at least in River City in 1912.
But words wound, as well, and I cannot imagine that any of us has not been touched by words of gossip—thoughtless words, cruel words, intended to hurt us….
At the farthest end of this scale, think of Iago, the villain in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” who by whispering, by innuendo, by planting the seeds of doubt through a hundred different diabolical hinting words literally drives Othello insane with jealousy, to the murder of his innocent wife and death by his own hand.
“The tongue is a fire.”
The book of James is a book that can be called Christian wisdom literature—a sort of Proverbs in the New Testament—it is full of practical exhortations as to how to live the Christian life. Clearly, there had been a problem in Christian congregations with the use of the tongue, and words that diminished the body rather than built it up.
So this is what James goes on to say about the problem. This is how we are to use the tongue:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
“Do not swear; let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’”
“Do not speak evil against one another.”
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Because words have to direct us to the main thing, the great theme of this New Testament book of James:
that Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” “Faith must be completed by good works.”
Today, September 13th, the church commemorates the life of St. John Chrysostom. He was born in the year 347 in the third city of the Roman empire, Antioch. A brilliant preacher, he was given the name Chrysostomos, that, literally, means “golden-mouthed.” John became a hermit in his twenties, living a life of extreme asceticism. He spent the next two years continually standing, scarcely sleeping, and committing the Bible to memory. As a consequence of these practices, his stomach and kidneys were permanently damaged; poor health forced him to return to the city. In Antioch, over the course of the next twelve years, John gained popularity because of the eloquence of his preaching and teaching at the Golden Church, Antioch’s cathedral, especially his perceptive expositions of passages from the Bible. He continually emphasized the need to care for the poor, and spoke out strongly against the abuse of wealth and personal property:
This is a passage from one of his sermons:
“Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food’, and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’….What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar, as well.”
Against his wishes, John was made Patriarch of Constantinople in 398, when he was 51. He set about reforming the Church and exposing corruption among the clergy and in the Imperial administration. He refused to host lavish social gatherings, making him popular with the common people but unpopular with wealthy citizens and the clergy. His other reforms of the clergy were also extremely unpopular, telling visiting preachers enjoying the capital, for one, to return to the churches they were meant to be serving, with no reimbursement. Then a silver statue of the empress Eudoxia was erected near his cathedral. In harsh language John denounced the pagan dedication ceremonies, as he had also spoken repeatedly against the Empress’s personal extravagance. Eudoxia retaliated by sending him into exile in Cappadocia. Despite the intercession of the pope and many others, driven into even deeper exile by his enemies in Constantinople, John died of exhaustion and starvation on September 407, scarcely 60 years old.
With his tongue, with his last breath, he spoke these words: “Glory be to God for everything.”
How did Jesus use His words? His tongue? How did he choose to speak to the people around him? To his followers, and also to those others, the many, who were curious, skeptical, interested but uncommitted? They really had no idea what he was saying, most of the time, and what he meant by the words he said.
How was He asking them to respond? What in the world was he asking them to do?
Jesus speaks these words in Mark:
“Take up your cross and follow me,” because “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
This paradox pretty much sums up the mission and ministry of Jesus’s life on earth.
Jesus deliberately used parables and paradoxes. He didn’t make it easy. Then, or now. You have to stop words, be silent, ponder, and wait to fully understand many of this Jesus’s words. It would have been the same if we had been there, if we had been one of those who encountered in the flesh this charismatic, powerful, disturbing prophet/preacher/rabbi.
When Peter uses his tongue to rebuke Jesus for saying uncomfortable things, distressing things, things about suffering, things about death, Jesus rebukes him, so sharply, so strongly, that he actually says, “Get behind me, Satan!” When poor Peter, in his bumbling way, was only trying to say that everything would be fine and not to worry!
But Jesus recognizes that there will be a violent end to his ministry, and to his life; it is inevitable, and it will come soon.
So he must now put these words to his closest followers:
“Who do you say that I am?”
This is the beautiful conclusion in the book of James: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you;” “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
These are the same words that Jesus had said:
“The first shall be last, and the last, first. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
St. John Chrysostom interpreted these words with his own words as he delivered his last homily before going into exile:
“The waves have risen and the surging sea is dangerous, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand upon the rock. Let the sea surge! It cannot destroy the rock. Let the waves rise! They cannot sink the boat of Jesus. Tell me, what are we to fear? Is it death? But ‘for me life is Christ, and death is gain.’ So tell me, is it exile? The earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains.’ Is it the confiscation of property? ‘We brought nothing into the world and it is certain we can take nothing out of it.’ I have nothing but contempt for the threats of this world; its treasures I ridicule. I am not afraid of poverty, I do not crave wealth, I am not afraid of death, and I do not seek to live except it be of help to you. So I simply mention my present circumstances and call on you, my dear people, to remain steadfast in your love.”
Powerful words. To propel us into the good world that this good God has created, into which his Jesus came to redeem all of frail and broken and suffering humanity. May the words that go forth from our tongues be full of the love and joy of this same Jesus, who so loved the whole wretched mass of those around him that he gave up his life for them all, and for all of us.
The tongue is a fire.
But it is also the organ of the body without which we could not deliver these good tidings, this great good news of faith and hope and love.
Thanks be to God! Amen.