09/12/21 – Slips of the Tongue

SLIPS OF THE TONGUE

         (and other Foolish Errors)

September 12, 2021
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Prov. 1:20-33; Ps. 19; Js. 3: 1-12; Mk. 7:24-37
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

No doubt you’ve heard the saying: “Better to be thought a fool and remain silent than to speak out and remove all doubt.” It is most often attributed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain; however, I think the book of Proverbs deserves the credit. Proverbs 17:28 says: 28Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”

Proverbs is a unique book. It reads more like the old Poor Richard’s Almanac than sacred scripture. It is a collection of pithy sayings that seem more like common sense than divine revelations. There was some reticence to include Proverbs as Old Testament canon because God is not mentioned by name very often. But, if you read from start to finish you see these words of wisdom are unequivocally God-centered. Verse 7 in chapter one gives us the main point of Proverbs: 6to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. 7The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Although many a preacher has used the word “fear” to mean “terror” to frighten their congregations into righteous living, this is not the biblical definition of fear when it is used in reference to God. Fear means awe, wonder, respect which leads to obedience. Lady Wisdom is a personification of God’s wisdom. Following Greek tradition, wisdom is a feminine entity.

We began our scripture readings today with a passage from the first chapter of Proverbs in which Lady Wisdom takes on the role of a street preacher. She admonishes the people:  2“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” We hear echoes of that lament today in the words of doctors, public health officials, and even the President in speaking about vaccination for the Covid virus. Twice as many people died last week from the Covid virus than died on 9/11. Almost all were unvaccinated.

This kind of foolish denial of wisdom also applies to our disregard for the warnings from scientists about climate change and the natural disasters already occurring as a consequence of polluting the earth with fossil fuel emissions and other practices that put short term profit for a few over the preservation of the earth for all now and for future generations. Lady Wisdom warns she has had enough of our foolish ways. She is chastising those that refuse to listen to God’s word and go their own way. She claims we have avoided Wisdom’s call (Prov. 1:24-25), and the result has been calamity and disaster. Furthermore, even if we finally see the foolishness of our ways, it may be too late: “Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me earnestly, but will not find me, because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.” (Prov. 1:28-29).

This search for wisdom encouraged by Proverbs is to seek the meaning and purpose for life and living. Therefore, to despise Wisdom is the quintessential sign of foolishness.” It is the refusal to look deeply into the heart of things to discover what God has done to create the world and to order it for the benefit of all of God’s creatures. Once we have “despised” Wisdom, we have then completely cut ourselves off from any true understanding since no true understanding is possible apart from the “fear of the Lord.”

The author of James also encourages wise living. In the passage we heard today, James focuses on our verbal communication, which he refers to as “the tongue.” Words shape our common lives in all social spheres. We read words, write words, listen to words, and speak words. In our worship, we use words to reflect on and give voice to our faith. During worship we speak words, we sing words, we hear words from scripture, from preachers and liturgists; we speak and listen to God and to each other. Our words in worship draw us into the holy conversation God has initiated with us through Christ. These words bring us into the presence of the One who is the Word, giving us love and truth, and life. But James warns us, our words can be used for evil as well as good. It takes wisdom to choose our words carefully. Failure to discern the right use of words can lead to the calamity and disaster of which Proverbs warns.

Access to social media has revolutionized the way we communicate. Social media provides a forum for those who would otherwise have no voice in politics, culture, and commentary to speak. But the technological advances in communication have also increased the scope and power of gossip, slander, false advertising, and propaganda. There is an old folk tale that describes gossip with this exercise: ‘if you want to know how far gossip travels, open up a feather pillow at the edge of a cliff, then try to retrieve all the feathers.’ The internet has magnified the range of misinformation and hurtful speech. The retrieval of old internet postings has been the downfall of many. Hurtful words can leave wounds that fester for a lifetime. James likens words to fire – powerful and useful, but with the ability to destroy. James stresses the importance of speech tempered with wisdom and good intentions.

The famous author and preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor has observed: “Whether we mean to or not we create worlds with speech. Describing the world we see; we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according to the world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.” Thus, when our reality is created by myths, unsubstantiated facts, and outright lies we create our own universe of “alternative facts.” And, when we exist in grossly disparate worlds, we live in enmity with our neighbors. We drive a wedge between one another with meanly intentioned words by creating labels – words — that deny the dignity and humanity of others.

Turning now to our gospel reading, this passage is a major turning point in Mark’s gospel. He has been traveling all around Galilee. Now he is outside Caesarea Philippi and from here he will head toward Jerusalem for the last time. Here Jesus asks the pivotal question: ‘Who does the world say I am? And who do you say I am?’ He’s asking them for a word. Peter gives the right word in response: “You are the Messiah.” 30 Then Jesus tells them what being the Messiah and a follower of the Messiah means and Peter discovers it’s hard to find the good news in Jesus’ words: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

What Peter most didn’t want to hear is that Jesus’ disciples would suffer. Who wants to suffer? Yet, suffering is an inevitable consequence of being human. Jesus didn’t extol suffering as a badge of honor to gain favor in God’s sight. Suffering is not always redemptive. Jesus didn’t offer a free ticket to paradise to endure disease, hunger, oppression, and injustice. We can’t always fix suffering, sometimes we can just stand beside someone who is suffering and stick it out with them. To not judge, or try to fix it with “band-aid” words, or offer assuring words that promise that everything will be okay when we know it isn’t true.  But the pain we experience, or share does remind us of the crosses we have had to bear and may bear in the future. These crosses bind us together in our humanness. To love our neighbors is to embrace our shared humanity, including our pain.

Jesus’ talk of self-denial was about sharing ourselves, our love to be given out receiving the fullness of our lives in return. It’s hard to imagine the depth and breadth of this divine wisdom. The closest we come to understanding is by taking a leap of faith and doing. Our self-giving acts reveal to us in small ways what the great paradoxical mystery of our faith proclaims.

With Peter’s famous confession, he properly labels Jesus as the Messiah but does not yet know what that means. Peter has not yet seen the Messiah who forgave those who killed him, the one who betrayed him, the one who denied him, and the many who abandoned him. Peter’s confession isn’t the whole truth for him because he doesn’t yet know what it will become to mean for him after the resurrection, after he takes up Jesus’ cross and goes out into the world. The word, Messiah, only pointed toward the truth.

Jesus is challenging Peter to look within himself and to respond from his true self, nothing hidden or held back. Peter isn’t ready for that yet. He’s just starting the journey. We move forward in our journey when we put ourselves in a position to be confronted by Jesus, challenged by the Word to be the Messiah’s followers, by walking in his path, setting one foot firmly and confidently before the other. Peter discovered the truth of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah only once he walked the walk Jesus walked.

There are many scripture passages that proclaim Jesus with evocative labels, particularly in John’s gospel: God of God, Light of Light, God’s Word Made Flesh. But if we misrepresent God or Jesus by bigotry, self-righteousness, or judgment, then the words “Jesus is God” isn’t good news. People will wonder what kind of God anointed Jesus. If we shirk our responsibility to care for our neighbors in Africa, the Middle East or Haiti or Peoria then for what kind of mission did God anoint Jesus to fulfill? There is no accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior of our lives unless we continue to question: “What does that mean for me and for my church; what does my Lord want me to do today, here and now? Jesus asks: Who do you say I am? And then challenges us to ask: What am I being called to do?

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501