Sunday 16/9/18 16 after Trinity 8am, 9.30am, 6pm
(Isaiah 50.4-9a) James 3.1-12 Mark 8.27-38
Have you ever been in a position where you’ve thought to yourself, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ It may be because you’ve met a friend who has been suddenly bereaved. Or someone may have said something offensive. Or a relationship difficulty is such that anything said may make things worse.
In those situations we sometimes end up saying out loud, ‘I don’t know what to say’. And immediately we find we’ve said something, we have communicated our sense of inadequacy. And paradoxically, we may even have said the right thing – we may have known exactly what to say.
Speech is strange, and subtle and immensely powerful. We are prone today to think of communication in the reduced form of information, packets of facts which fly around the internet. Words are about getting messages from my mind into your mind and vice versa. The real change in the world happens through actions, in the hard physical realm of bodies and material stuff. All today’s readings teach us differently.
I want to start with a verse from the Old Testament reading [which you would only have heard if you were at the 8 o’clock service]. Isaiah says, ‘The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary.’
It’s an extraordinary claim – not just to have such a tongue, but that there is any word at all that sustains the weary. You may say only a good night’s sleep can do that, or a hearty meal. Or if you mean weariness of soul – well, is there any formula of words that can put that right? Are we not taught to listen, and not to rush into thinking we can offer a quick solution which will put everything right? Can we trust that a good word, a truthful word, is capable of producing astonishing benefit?
In our epistle, James warns us of the harm that the tongue can do. A wild, uncontrollable fire, a source of deadly poison. He’s saying that from low level gossip to outright calculated slander, the evil word can release a chain of destruction.
The playground response used to be ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. James will have none of that. Words can kill.
Then, in the Gospel, Peter is using his tongue. He’s always quick to use his tongue. And over the space of a few verses, he shows us both how to get it right, and how to get it wrong.
Jesus asks, ‘Who do people say I am?’ and Peter answers, ‘You are the Christ’. He was inspired. In another Gospel, Jesus here replies, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven’. Peter’s tongue spoke the words of God himself.
And then a little later, when Jesus has told how he must suffer and be killed, how does Peter use his tongue? He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him: ‘Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you’. He’s well meaning – but badly wrong. He tries to get Jesus to think about himself above others. He tries to prevent the salvation of the world. And Jesus replies, ‘Out of my sight, Satan’.
It’s worth stopping to note that the instructed tongue of Jesus, the tongue which like no other knows the word which sustains the weary, is quite prepared to bring a firm admonition if necessary. The way of Jesus is not to be blandly nice, but to combine love with justice, and grace with truth. From my youth I’ve been struck by that pithy advice of Jesus as he was sending out his disciples: ‘be wise as serpents and harmless as doves’.
Peter wasn’t there yet. He could be wise in one breath and harmful in the next. In time, his tongue would become instructed, and so may yours and mine. And we should not underestimate the good that may do.
We shouldn’t imagine that the world of words and the mind, and the world of matter and bodies are like separate compartments. Our minds are never anything but embodied, and our bodies are mindful. Words always appear as physical – you can’t communicate a word without using vibrations in air or ink on a page or light from a screen. Words come from your body and to your body. It is said that human language may have developed from music. We often think of music as going beyond words, and that’s true, but words also are rooted in playing with sound and rhythm – think of how babies play with their voices before the words come.
And music is heard and made with our whole bodies. It’s deeply connected with the body’s natural rhythms – as is poetry. Think of how a sonnet connects with both the rhythm of the heart in the de-dum-de-dum-de-dum within the line, and the rhythm of breathing in the length of the line.
What I’m trying to say is that words shape us very fundamentally. We should not be surprised that Scripture teaches us that they have the capacity for such good and harm, and we should not underestimate that.
Morrisons have recently introduced a quiet hour early on a Saturday morning, when the tannoy is silent, there’s no music, and the lights are dimmer. The aim is to provide for people with autism, to reduce the level of stimulation. I think if we more generally took account of the problem of over-stimulation it would benefit all of us. We don’t know what we’re doing to ourselves by having noise everywhere. I like to think St Mary’s is a place of resistance, one building where you can find stillness.
Words and music – they are tied together – and it’s good that they are joined in the festival here in Nantwich next month. They are about our whole selves, minds and bodies. They are about our health: mental, physical and spiritual. They can sustain the weary or do Satan’s work.
There’s a small group on the PCC who are at present looking at communication at St Mary’s, and asking our many groups where things are going well and where there have been problems. It’s possible to think of that as concerned simply with how well information is conveyed between people, so we don’t double book or leave things undone, for example. But communication is rarely just about a good system of notifying each other. When things go wrong we should be alert to whether it’s because we’re just not attentive enough to each other, too focused on ourselves.
Jesus went on to say to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me’. It sounds like martyrdom, and for a few it can mean that. For most of us though, it starts with small things. It starts with realising that me and my little circle are not all that matters. It is my Christian duty to consider how what I do concerns others. It is our duty at St Mary’s to think about, not just the groups we’re involved in, but other groups and if necessary put them first.
Will you this week have an instructed tongue, a tongue like that of our Lord, which knows the word that sustains the weary? Will you know what to say, or when to say you don’t know what to say? Don’t be paralysed into silence because of fear your tongue will start a fire. Just ask who your words are serving. That’s a good test but it’s no guarantee we’ll always get it right. It may however mean we’re better at sustaining each other. Go and speak in love and truth, trusting that your words can bring health in ways you never knew – and may never know.