The Words of Our Mouths

(A sermon for Pentecost 16B–September 16, 2012–James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38)

Last Monday, I started a new job as an adjunct professor at Bangor Theological Seminary, teaching Introduction to Christian Worship. When I prepared my first lecture, I wavered between a manuscript and an outline. Some things I wanted to filter into exactly the right words, while others I trusted myself to simply tell in “close enough” to the right words. By the end of the three hour class I was exhausted from making sure to say everything the right way, from filtering things as perfectly as possible.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. (James 3:1-2a, NRSV)

No kidding.

We live in a mostly unfiltered world. The conversation in public forums this past week, whether written or spoken, has been disturbing. The unfolding story about a YouTube video as the precipitating factor in violence toward Americans across the Middle East has reached no comprehensible conclusion, but that hasn’t stopped people from giving their opinions and condemning one another for doing so.

The sign on the right approximately translates as, “We disapprove/condemn the humiliation of the prophet but NOT with Terrorism.”

We saw scenes all week of people in other countries threatening the safety of our embassies.

We also saw scenes of people in other countries holding signs saying, “We are not all like this.”

Some of the people speaking cruelly – on all sides – do it with the supposedly authoritative voice of their religion. And the sad thing is I could say something like this almost every week and find a news story to go with it. As much as we might want to think people used to be more kind in their speech, that there were gentler times, the truth is it’s probably always been like this. We just hear more news from more places more often and it comes too fast to be filtered.

The gospel lesson brings us a story in which all the filters are off.

Mark’s Jesus inhabits his full humanity … fully. He works through who he is, and comes to the understanding that he is both the same as his friends and not one of them at all. We saw that understanding coming in last week’s story. Now he wants to know what other people think, the general opinion. He asks the people who know him well, the ones who have walked the dusty roads with him, the ones who have gone looking for him when he took retreats to pray.

Who do YOU say that I am?

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29b, NRSV)

Those retreats are over. Peter isn’t the only one who knows he is the Messiah. Jesus is sure now, too.

For Jewish people living in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in the first century of the Common Era, Messiah meant a savior who would ride in and defeat the enemy. When Peter says he believes Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus warns them all to be silent. Telling people he is the Messiah will give them the wrong idea about who he is! He needs them to understand he is a different kind of Savior. He tries to tell them what is coming: arrest and trial and death and more.

Now the filters come off.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:32b-33, NRSV)

Poor Peter: all he wanted to do was see Jesus alive and victorious! But Jesus could see what must happen; it was time to tell them all how wrong they had it.

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. (Mark 8:34-35)

His friends, his disciples, thought they understood who he was, but they were wrong. Jesus didn’t come to save them from the Romans. Worse, he employed the language of Roman execution. Everyone knew what the cross meant: shame and disgrace inflicted as a deterrent for the pettiest crimes. There was no honor or glory or dignity in crucifixion. There was no fame or greatness in it. Worst of all, you had to carry our own instrument of torture and death to the place where the Romans would kill you.

It didn’t sound heroic. It didn’t sound like being a Messiah. How could that save anyone?

Peter felt the sting of Jesus’ rebuke as sharply as a slap across the face. And the more Jesus talked, the worse things sounded.
They disagreed on the most basic understanding of Jesus’ purpose.

It’s part of the human condition, seeing things differently and finding it hard to come to agreement. We hold stubbornly to our own hopes and plans. We don’t play well together, even though we secretly believe Christians should be nice. But even here there are people who have been shocked or disappointed by words exchanged under this roof. Even here there have been rebukes, delivered and received.

It has always been that way.

By the time the letter from James was written, people had been living in Christian community for decades, maybe even a century or two. We don’t really know. What we do know is that people in the first and second and third century were not that different from people in the twentieth or the twenty-first. Even those committed to following in the way of Christ got into disputes with each other, or forget to put the good of others or the community ahead of their own needs. Out of the same mouths speaking words of love also came words of pride, condemnation, provocation and cruelty. This letter is a wisdom text; it gives a guideline for communicating and a warning against the way our tongues get us into trouble when we take off the filters that matter most.

Sometimes the filter is just off before we know it.

Here’s what might have been going through Jesus’ head:

Peter, you have got to listen. You are tempting me to be the person you think I am, the one who will ride to victory, a Messiah who will not die! This is hard enough without being pulled off course by your dreams!

Here’s what came out of his mouth:

Get behind me, Satan!

What’s compelling to me about this story is how Peter and Jesus lost it not because they hated each other, but because they loved each other and cared so much about the same thing. They both wanted the Messiah to play the part God sent him to play. Peter just didn’t know what that meant. And the truth shocked him.

We are called, each of us, to carry a cross. It’s a mark that makes us different in the world’s eyes. That is not what Peter wanted, and most of the time, it’s not what we want either. We’re seeking something more stable and comprehensible, more socially acceptable: a list of rules we can check off, a syllabus we can use for learning, or a business plan we can follow.

Instead we get the cross, ancient instrument of torture and mark of shame. The cross has never been a sign of human accomplishment, of conquest in battle or success in the boardroom. The cross is a symbol of divine victory, of triumph over death and restoration of relationship.

Our battles and our victories will be more ordinary, but they can still serve the divine purpose. Our tongues can be instruments of torture, for ourselves and for others. Taming them and filtering our words can be our cross to carry. This is not the last story in which Peter said something wrong. He denied knowing Jesus three times on the morning of the Crucifixion. But he pulled himself together and went on to use that same tongue to spread the Good News of the Resurrection.

Jesus’ cross restored humanity’s relationship with God. There is more restoration to come. These tongues of ours have the power to spread discord, and it comes naturally to us. But maybe the work of the cross today is to restore our relationships with each other. So as we speak about the news of the world, or the activities of the town, or the future of the church, or the daily lives of our families, let’s try and find our filters. Let us speak no more curses, but speak words of blessing as sweet as honey. And may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in God’s sight. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “The Words of Our Mouths

  1. I wish I had read this before our very contentious church council meeting today. The sad part for me (as moderator) is that people were so wrapped up in their need to be right and their need to be heard that they couldn’t hear that we were all trying to get to the same place.

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