Jesus and the disciples were traveling along the road when he asked them a question: Who do you say that I am?
We heard how Peter spoke out, “You are the Christ!” … but we also heard how merely moments later, Peter began to speak again. He was wavering in his faith, resisting the reality that was setting in, unwilling to believe what Jesus was saying about the work of the son of Man. With the slip of his tongue in protest, Peter went from being the man with the answers to being stumbling block sent straight from the devil.
Our words matter. They reveal who we are. They can be used for healing or chaos. As James writes in his letter to the people of God: A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it!
All of the carelessness of our speech, James embodies in our tongues. He compares it to the rudder on a ship or the bit in a horses mouth. Our tongues guide our futures, direct our paths, and lead us… whether we want them to or not!
If you don’t believe our tongues are important – talk to a politician. They know, perhaps better than anyone, how every single word you utter can be taken out of context… or how the off-hand remarks you make can come back to haunt you.
If you don’t belie
ve our tongues are important – ask Ben Bernanke. In coded terms and subtle turns of phrase, the entire global market reacts to the words that roll off of his tongue.
Our tongues are muscles – and the strongest muscle in our body at that. In fact – a man once lifted a 24 lb. 3oz weight using ONLY his tongue. But for being such a strong muscle, it is also extremely flexible.
But one interesting fact I learned about tongues is that out of all the muscles in our human body – the tongue is the only muscle not connected on both sides. Think about it… our biceps connect at the shoulder and elbow, our calves do work through tendons connected to the bones in our legs. In fact, the work of a muscle is to contract or release and thereby move our bodies.
But the tongue is only connected at one end. With the other, it is free to roam. Free to do great good or fantastic harm. In fact, our tongue is the only muscle that can get into trouble all by itself. Like a flame of fire it is wild and unpredictable and can easily get out of control.
As The Message translates the passage: you can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.
But really, when you think about it… just like the rudder of the ship is controlled by the captain and the bit in a horses’s mouth is directed by the hands of the rider, our tongues are not autonomous creatures… they are a part of us. They are directed by us. And it is our minds and our hearts that the words of our tongues reveal.
We heard this morning a rather challenging passage of scripture from the book of Proverbs. Lady Wisdom, the Spirit of God personified, is standing in the middle of the street calling out to the people. Unlike last week’s verses from Proverbs – which are the familiar short and pity sayings, today we hear a rather dramatic warning to those who will not listen.
Lady Wisdom seems to be distressed. No one is listening to the voice of God and she is just about ready to give up all together. In our General Board of Discipleship helps for this week, they write: “So she changes tactics, from calling people to wisdom and the fear of the Lord to making sure everyone knows the ruin they are heading for if they do not start paying attention.”
As parents or aunts or big brothers – certainly you have tried that tactic yourself. When the children don’t answer when they are nicely asked, you pull out the big guns: You had better do it right now OR ELSE!
We could read this whole passage from Proverbs 1 as a great big “OR ELSE” from God…
But what are we being warned about? What have we done so wrong?
As the last two verses tell us:
Waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
But those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster. (NRSV)
Our Lord doesn’t want us to be wayward and complacent, going this way and that, controlled by nothing but the whims of the world and our hearts desires.
God wants us to listen to the Word, listen to the Spirit that speaks in our hearts. God wants to guide our thoughts and actions. Our meandering and wandering to and fro is dangerous to our souls.
Like the rudder of the ship needs a strong captain, like the bit of a horse needs a discerning jockey, so our tongue… and the brain connect to it… needs some wise direction.
The problem is, on our own we are wayward and complacent and that tongue isn’t going to tame itself.
As Lady Wisdom stands in the intersection, crying out, there are three particular groups she calls upon to respond and repent and receive the wisdom and the grace of God. I think that these are three traps that we all have fallen into from time to time… but if we see them and understand them, perhaps we can also avoid them and turn back to our Lord and Savior.
The first of these traps is ignorance and naïveté.
Too many of us are wandering about aimlessly because we have never stopped to look at the map. We haven’t opened our bibles. We don’t spend time every day in the word of God. And because we don’t know the Word… we haven’t passed on that saving Word to our friends and family and neighbors and children.
This is one of the most biblically illiterate times in the history of the United States. In many cases, we can’t fault people for not doing God’s will – or for not knowing how to listen to God – because they have never been taught.
To use another sort of metaphor of the tongue – they are like children who are starving. They do not have good food set in front of them, if any food at all.
What goes into our bodies past our tongues is not healthy and so why are we surprised when it does not lead us in good directions?
The best remedy for the trap of ignorance is to seek out knowledge and to share it. Once we realize how hungry we are… how much we have been missing… and how much abundance of knowledge and wisdom is at our fingertips… we will realize that we never need to starve our souls again.
Sometimes, it is difficult to find a place to start when you didn’t realize how much you didn’t know. This year, on Wednesday nights, there is a bible study that is doing an overview of the entire bible. Each week they will cover the story of one book of the bible. This is an excellent place to start for those of you who are looking for your first taste of bible study!
The second trap we fall into is cynicism.
When our cynical sides come out, we doubt that God’s word will have any impact on our lives. We look out on all the problems of the human race and we have little hope that things will change. Sometimes, we even begin to be skeptical about God.
We read the scriptures that are before us and laugh – yeah, right, like anyone is actually going to live that out… like someone could actually choose to abide by the rules and regulations and lifestyle the bible proscribes. It’s just good poetry, words to make us feel better, nothing more.
If the ignorant were starving children, then the cynic is a picky eater. They move around the items on their plate, but only eat a small amount. They complain about what they get and want something else.
And so our faith is cold and stale, picked apart and unbalanced. We do not delight in the law of the Lord, but look upon it as a burden that is getting us no where. We let the pain of the past dictate our future.
Katherine Kehler wrote: the only cure for cynicism is to cultivate a habit of thankfulness. Thoreau wrote about reviving his senses by walking. In fact, as Wen Stephenson writes about Thoreau in his article “A Walk and a Talk” he says that the remedy for cynicism is action, engagement, awareness of this moment that is around us.
In many ways – thankfulness and engagement are two sides of the same coin. We need to open our eyes and see the gift we have been given. We need to live into this moment and cherish it with our whole lives.
Whether you walk through nature, or feast with friends around a table, or spend time in God’s word – look upon each moment as a chance to encounter our Lord and Savior and give thanks for what you find there.
The final trap we fall into is pride and the refusal to learn.
Our pride tells us that we can do it on our own. Our pride makes us believe that we don’t need anyone or anything and we are fine just the way we are. We turn away from advice, scoff at help, and stubbornly stand still.
In fact, this is one of the primary things James writes about. We cannot see our own faults because we are so focused on who we think we are and where we want to be. We let the desires of our own heart rule the day and shut the door on anything that is contrary to those desires.
We may not be starving children or picky eaters, the prideful are the ones who have a plate of good and delicious food set before them and stubbornly refuse to eat. They don’t need it. They aren’t hungry. They are just fine on their own.
But without the word of God to nourish us and give us strength, our own devices quickly fail. We stumble and fall.
Humility is the only thing that will tame a prideful tongue. Our boasting brings us low when reality sets in. We get to decide whether that humility is on our own terms or if we are destroyed by our own smugness.
Humility means that we ask for help. Humility means we admit that we need to grow. Humility means recognizing that we were not meant to go it alone and finding a group to study with, friends to lean on, and a God to depend upon.
Pay attention to me FIRST, Lady Wisdom calls from the streets…. Then relax – you are in good hands.
Good hands indeed. James tells us that the wisdom from above is pure. It is gentle and reasonable. God overflows with mercy and blessings. And in a community that is healthy and robust and depends upon God for direction, your tongue will be anchored in the life-giving Word.
After all, our friend Peter found. As much as he stumbled and faltered with his words… as much as he let his own pride and doubts get in the way of God’s work… he was not abandoned by God. And when the Holy Spirit poured into his life, the Apostle Peter found the right words to say every time.
The good news is that Lady Wisdom is ready to pour out her spirit upon us. If we let go of our ignorance… if we shed our cynicism… if we abandon our pride… we will find direction in God.
Amen and Amen.