The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. (Isaiah 50:4)
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. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (James 3:1-12)
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." (Mark 8:27-29)
Did you notice today’s gospel reading contains what must be one of the earliest recorded public opinion polls?
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks.
And the disciples rattle off an impressive list: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other – presumably famous – prophets. The general public knows that he’s someone special, but they just can’t seem to figure out exactly who he is. They’ve seen him do signs and miracles, but haven’t quite figured out yet that he’s the Son of God – something that they will only come to understand fully at the cross.
And then, he follows up his informal public opinion poll with (if I can coin the term) a personal opinion poll: “Who do you say that I am?” This is when Peter, always the first one to speak up, declares “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
It is the heart of what it means to be a Christian: being able to say about Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” This is a loaded statement, if you think about it. Calling Jesus the Messiah means identifying him as the one who came to earth, lived, died, and rose again for our sake, that we would be redeemed and made righteous before the God who created us in his image and loves us. Jesus and the cross are at the center of our faith, and so the whole of our Christian faith and life is bound up in this one simple statement: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Now, I’m going to guess that there aren’t many times in any given day – or week or month or year, even! – that you are asked, point-blank, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” And I’m going to guess that in your lifetime, you haven’t really had the opportunity to say, flat-out, “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” in those exact words. Perhaps at a confirmation interview, but outside of that, not so much.
But what if confessing Jesus as the Messiah wasn’t limited to using those precise words? I would suggest that with every word that comes from our mouths, we choose whether or not to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
It has been a heated week in politics. People have had strong opinions and emotions surrounding the president’s address to children in schools, and people have had strong opinions and emotions about his recent healthcare address. And election season, while almost a year ago, is still easy to remember – the news stories and the blogs and the television ads representing the whole spectrum of thought. It has also been a heated few weeks in the ELCA, with faithful Christians speaking on all sides of the issues discussed and decisions made at the churchwide assembly.
Throughout all of these conversations and debates, there have been many people who have thoughtfully engaged the issues at hand. They have offered up their thoughts and opinions with humility. They have listened to others. They have engaged their hearts and minds and have been willing to be vulnerable enough to have true conversation, even – or especially – with those with whom they disagree.
But throughout all of these conversations and debates, there have also been plenty of people who have chosen the opposite path, hurling insults and attacks at those with whom they disagree. They choose to spread half-truths and self-righteous words. They have spoken out of fear and anger and hate, calling names, spreading stereotypes, and closing their ears to all but those with whom they agree.
Perhaps at some point in your life you learned the playground taunt “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But we know, don’t we, that this statement is untrue. Having someone make fun of your clothes or hair or height or weight on the playground hurt more than the dodgeball ever did. Words can wound us and cut us deeply, and can often do more damage than sticks and stones.
In James we have a timely reminder that words are powerful. James likens the tongue to the rudder of a ship or a bit in a horse’s mouth – small things that are driving forces. The power of our words lies in the fact that they both reflect and drive that which is in our hearts.
Is it funny to anyone else that on Rally Day, the day we do Sunday School teacher blessings, we hear the words “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness”? This isn’t so much a criticism of or threat to those in the teaching vocation, but rather it is an exhortation for all of us. We each become a teacher whenever we open our mouths, because – whether we realize it or not – people will be influenced by that what we say, whether it be words that build up the kingdom of God or words that do harm.
“Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” James says, and “with it we bless the Lord and Father and curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Out of the same mouth we pray and we call people names. Out of the same mouth we encourage our friends and belittle our enemies. Out of the same mouth we praise the Lord and we speak ill of those on the opposite side of the aisle, or on the opposite side of the argument. Out of the same mouth we confess Jesus as Messiah and we sin against our neighbors.
It is Holy Cross Sunday – a day where we honor the cross of Christ and take heed of his words to us: “if any were to become my followers, they would deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” It is a day to remember that we have been saved and marked with the cross of Christ, and it is a day to commit ourselves to discipleship. It is as redeemed people that we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. We proclaim “you are the Messiah” because we have first believed in him and been transformed by him. Christ acts within us and urges us toward his attitude of peace, love, and unity.
As Christ-followers, one of the aspects of taking up our crosses and following him means taking care with what we say and how we interact with other people who are fellow children of God! When we speak to and about one another, we do so remembering that we are all both sinners and saints, children of the same heavenly father, no matter whether we agree with or disagree, whether we find one another interesting or boring; whether we find one another charming or annoying, whether we are shown patience or not!
For we confess Jesus as Messiah when our speech builds one another up, when our words are patient and true and humble, when we speak encouragement and peace, when the things we say promote unity in faith. We confess Jesus as Messiah when, as it says in Isaiah, we “sustain the weary with a word.”
I find that phrase to be extraordinarily beautiful: to sustain the weary with a word. What might our lives look like if we sought to sustain the weary with a word?
It would mean saying “I understand” and “I forgive” more often. It would mean keeping in check not only those things that we say in public, but also the things that we say in private and the things we mutter under our breath. It would mean taking seriously God’s Word and letting it shape our words.
As children, many of us were probably told not to talk with our mouths full. No matter how important or exciting the words we wanted to share were, we first had to finish chewing. Sometimes, once we’d swallowed, our words were still relevant and exciting and worthwhile. But other times, after we’d taken the time to chew and swallow, our words seemed less important, or conversation would have moved on, or we’d realize that we’d forgotten what we were going to say. Chewing and swallowing forced us to pause before we spoke, and we’d inevitably think about what we were going to say before we spoke.
We come to the table to eat and drink together, to taste the wine and chew the bread. We come to eat, and to pause while we feast at Christ’s table. Come today, and resist the urge to speak with your mouth full. Receive Christ at this table and let him fill you, renew you, and transform you. Let the food of Christ be that which helps us think before we speak, so that we can sustain the weary with our words, and declare with Peter and all the disciples, “You Lord, are the Messiah, the Son of God.”