Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ
grace and peace to you from the one who is the messiah. Amen
There are a lot of tongues in our lessons for today.
Both Isaiah and James mention that small but important body part.
According to James
the tongue is a slippery creature (pun intended)
“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.”
for such a small part of our body
the tongue wields disproportionate power,
like a rudder that steers a great ship
or a spark that sets a forest on fire
a word on our tongue has the power to build up or tear down.
James seems to find the tongue a mostly negative influence,
calling it a “restless untamable beast full of deadly poison”
James is concerned with the alignment of word and deed,
especially as it relates to Christians.
In the last couple of weeks in James
we’ve heard him call on believers to be doers of the word,
not just hearers
saying that faith without works is dead
now he’s turning it around,
just as what we do should reflect what we say we believe,
so should what we say
James is highly sensitive to hypocrisy
and to him it seems hypocritical
for someone to praise God in one breath
and in the next be horrible to another human,
one made in the image of God.
What we do and say matters,
because these actions reveal who we really are.
James says “Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?”
Trees are known by the fruit they produce,
and we will be known by what we produce,
it doesn’t matter if we call ourselves fig trees
if all we produce are olives.
It doesn’t matter if we call ourselves Christian
if we don’t say and do Christian things.
What we say matters because it reflects who we truly are.
And yes I’m am bold enough or foolish enough
to still believe and proclaim this
in an era where what people say
and how they say it
seems to matter less and less.
I maintain my belief that words are powerful
even more so when we don’t give them their due.
What we say matters.
Isaiah on the other hand
has a decidedly more positive take on the tongue.
In our first reading we hear the prophet proclaim
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
The prophet Isaiah has been sent to the people of Israel
living in exile in Babylon,
and removed from their home in the promised land,
all they have left are words,
the promise of God
that they will one-day return home.
God has appointed Isaiah to speak those words to the people
but the job of prophet is not simply speaking
but first listening to the word of God.
Isaiah praises God for the gift the teaching tongue
followed immediately by praise to God
for opening his ears each morning
to first listen to God.
and because Isaiah listens to God
he is able to stick to the job God has given him
even though he is mistreated because of his message,
the job of prophet is not only to sustain
but to point out the often uncomfortable truth,
the truth that people have more responsibility for their current misfortunes
than they’d like to admit
people who often get upset with the messenger
and go to extreme lengths to shut them up.
The life of a prophet is not easy
but because Isaiah is listening to God
rather than the people
he is able to be steadfast in his call
even proclaiming “the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;”
The shame that the people try to put on Isaiah doesn’t stick
because Isaiah is listening to God not the people.
Who we listen to matters.
Who we listen to,
even in the background,
forms our concept of the world and ourselves,
if we are not careful about who we listen to,
it will be the loudest often most negative voices
that shape our view of ourselves and the world.
Who we listen to matters.
The importance of all this speaking and listening
come to a head in our gospel for today
with Jesus questioning the disciples
“who do you say that I am?”
knowing that their answer
will reveal who they’ve been listening to,
who they’ve become.
The disciples have been with Jesus for a while now,
we’re about halfway through the gospel of Mark,
they’ve heard Jesus’ teachings,
seen him heal and do miraculous deeds.
Now Jesus takes his disciples of Caesarea Philippi,
and while this may seem like a minor detail
it tells us that Jesus is setting the scene.
You see Caesarea Philippi is an ancient place of idol worship,
a spring is located there in a cave
that, long before Jesus and his disciples wandered there,
was dedicated as a shrine to the Greek god Pan.
Later King Herod added Caesarea to the name of the place
to honor the Roman ruler Caesar.
Jesus takes his disciples
to a place where the prevailing culture
is shouting loudly,
the availability of other gods,
the bowing down to the Roman empire
and it is here he asks them two questions:
Who do people say that I am?
And Who do you say that I am?
What Jesus is asking the disciples with these questions is:
who have you been listening to?
And who are you because of what you’ve heard?
the disciples report what they’ve heard people say about Jesus,
John the Baptist, a prophet, Elijah,
figures out of the history of Israel
and when Jesus presses them for their answer
Peter opens his mouth-
he’s always the one speaking-
and he says “You are the messiah”
He gets the right answer.
And Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about him.
Why Jesus keeps telling the disciples
to keep his deeds and identity a secret is a mystery,
but it might have to do with what happens next.
When Jesus tells the disciples
what is going to happen to him,
the suffering, rejection, death
and after three days resurrection
Peter, who has just proclaimed Jesus the messiah
opens his big mouth again
and with the tongue that just uttered a blessing
rebukes him, tells Jesus he’s wrong.
What Jesus describes is not the messiah that Peter is thinking of,
the one for whom the Israelites are waiting is a King of the line of David,
who will come and throw out the oppressors
who have taken over the land of the Israelites
and bring them freedom to purify and restore Israel.
A dead messiah, no that’s not right Peter says
and Jesus turns and corrects him.
“Follow me, you’re upset because you’re listening to humans not God. you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Yes Jesus is the messiah,
but he’s not the messiah Peter or we want him to be.
We often talk about Jesus like he’s a magic genie,
someone who if we say the right thing will grant our wishes
solve our problems
and bring prosperity and freedom,
of course prosperity and freedom as defined by humans.
But if we listen to Jesus carefully
and watch what he does,
we find that what Jesus is most concerned with
is his quest to identify with the lowliest,
again and again he seeks out those outcast by society
and offers them what other humans have denied them,
healing, food, dignity
and for his troubles he will be rejected and killed.
This is the divine way.
And Jesus expects his disciples to follow the divine way.
what Jesus is saying when he talks of cross bearing
and losing and saving lives
is that if you are listening to God,
and you say that you follow God,
and you live your life according to the divine way,
you will get push back,
people will treat you like the prophet Isaiah,
but like the prophet Isaiah
you’ll be able to endure, stick with it,
because you’re listening to God
and not the people
and there is no shame in following the divine way,
it is the way of everlasting life with God.
Jesus knows that living in this way is extremely difficult,
that our sense of self-preservation will often overrule
our desire to follow God,
on the way to the cross Peter denies Jesus three times
and all the disciples abandon him,
Jesus knows that this will happen too,
and when he is raised up on the third day
who does he go to?
Because while the divine way is difficult,
it is also one of forgiveness,
and second chances.
No matter how many times we abandon him for ourselves
Use our tongues for both blessings and curses
Jesus will welcome us back
because Jesus is the messiah
according to the divine way. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.