We swim in a sea of words most days. Talk radio, news stories, tweets and posts, they’re almost never-ending. And yet in spite of the deluge, do the words we hear or the words we speak actually bring about change? Do they matter?
A sermon based on Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-2 and Mark 8:27-38 (all of which can be found here.)
Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we come to know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen
I begin speaking today at my own risk. James makes it clear that those of us who feel the call to stand in front of others in order to elucidate Scripture better be careful. I am reminded of the words of Annie Dillard who penned, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … [C]hurches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk). She recognizes that it’s not just hazardous for me, but for you as well when we come together to worship the living God. So caveat orator et auditor; let the speaker and hearer beware.
Because we get it, don’t we? We know the power of the tongue. While we are inundated with words in our culture—care to hear anymore about “deflategate” or Kim Davis, that clerk in Kentucky?—we still know they mean a great deal. And it doesn’t take much, as James reminds us. A little bit in the horse’s mouth can control it entirely. A tiny word can spark great devastation. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Speaking of the harm small things can do, there is nothing quite so devastating as a carefully placed interrogative. Here is how it works: after someone has praised another person in your presence, telling you how much that person’s example of faith has meant, you cock an eyebrow and say, “Oh?” That is all it takes to introduce doubt. That is all it takes to lay a match to the dried twigs at the base of a redwood tree.” Caveat orator. Speaker beware.
The problem of course arises in thinking we know more than we actually do. We might see ourselves as experts on everything and anything—and by God we only need to pull out our iPhones to prove we’re right, because as Abe Lincoln said, If it’s on the internet, it must be true. Proverbs however reminds us that we’re not quite all that. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice… How long will you love being simple?” How long will we ignore the call of wisdom and follow after the other voices in the marketplace?
One of those voices shouts that we are singularly more important than everyone else. We have that je ne sais quoi that makes us better than the guy down the street who clearly does not have it. We have the great car and wonderful home, and that picture perfect family and we’ve arrived in our careers. These things all make us better—because when it comes down to it it really is a competition, right? That’s why those reality shows thrive. Why just watch a cooking show when you can see a panel of judges nitpick an entree that could be served in a 5 star restaurant? Or watching people sing or dance, it’s so much more enjoyable when there’s a clear loser, right? And that carries over into almost everything we do, because we need to know how important we are. We need to know we’re the best
The other voices are like that: we can achieve power and happiness and success if we only work hard enough. Individualism and pursuing whatever makes us happy and finding success, those are the voices that come at us in our 24/7 world saturated with words. But that is not the voice of wisdom; that is not the voice of God.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Denial of self and humility, those are hallmarks of true wisdom. And when it comes on the scene we immediately recognize it and even laud it. Take Pope Francis who this week called for all Catholic parishes in Europe to take in a refugee family from Syria. Some 4 million Syrians have fled the civil war in their homeland, and those reaching Europe number well into the 100s of thousands. The Pontiff said, “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe host a family, starting from my diocese of Rome. The two parishes in the Vatican will welcome two families of refugees.” This comes from a man who continues to live in the guesthouse on the Vatican grounds where he’s stayed since he arrived for the conclave that elected him forgoing the papal apartment. He regularly engages with the homeless and the poor in and around the Vatican. His call grows out of his living the gospel, of listening to the voice of wisdom.
But it isn’t just ecclesiastical types who show this humility. Last year Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma Thunder was named the MVP of the NBA. When he gave his acceptance speech, it was, as one reporter put it, “one for the ages.” (See this article by Jeff Caplan) Speaking from his heart without notes, Kevin thanked each of his fellow teammates giving an anecdote about each one telling how they make him a better player. He showed appreciation for the staff that work with him every day. He gave thanks, of course to his coaches and the owner. Then he said this, “And last, my mom. I don’t think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later, I came out. The odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be here. We went from apartment to apartment by ourselves. One of the best memories I had was when we moved into our first apartment, no bed, no furniture and we just sat in the living room and just hugged each other. We thought we made it.
“When something good happens to you, I don’t know about you …, but I tend to look back to what brought me here. You woke me up in the middle of the night in the summer times, making me run up a hill, making me do pushups, screaming at me from the sidelines of my games at 8 or 9 years old. We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street. You put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.” (Read his speech.)
There’s someone who has learned how to tame the tongue. That’s someone who has learned to hear the voice of wisdom and will live at ease and without dread. You might think that you can’t do things like this, that you don’t have the stage of either the Pope or Kevin so it wouldn’t matter anyway. But I can tell you with certainty that both of these men were like this long before they got to the places they are today. Jorge Bergoglio made his own food in his tiny apartment back when he was a cardinal and rode public transportation to work everyday. Kevin never thought he’d make the NBA or even play in college; instead he aspired to be a rec league coach.
It does matter greatly how you live, because it won’t do you any good to gain the whole world and lose your soul. It won’t matter how much you possess if you lose the essence of who you are. And if the essence of who you are doesn’t lead you to joyfully make this world a better place for others, then you haven’t truly found out who you are or what you’re called to do.
If that’s the case, spend some more time listening to wisdom. Pull out a crash helmet and open up your Bible. Pray. Ask God to help you tame your tongue and mold you into someone who embodies Christ’s image. Deny yourself and put others first. Care more for them than you do for yourself. And when you do that, little by little your calling will emerge, your tongue will be tamed and you’ll uncover the wisdom that comes from the Almighty. Amen