Words are powerful. The Hebrew people knew how powerful they were.
Creation itself begins with a word spoken. When we open our Bibles, on the first page it says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light; and there was light.”
God speaks life into being. God speaks a blessing.
Later on in Genesis, in chapter 27, think of the blessing that the old, somewhat blind, Isaac gives under false pretenses to his youngest Jacob instead of to his oldest, Esau, to whom the blessing actually belonged. With the scheming help of his mother Rebekah, the blessing that Isaac proclaims on Jacob cannot be taken back. What is said cannot be unsaid.
In the letter of James, the author writes of the tongue – our primary instrument for communication from the age of about 2 years old when we learn how to speak. We spend most of our lives talking.
In exaggerated writing style, the tongue doesn’t come out looking all that well. Small but mighty, it gets negative press. James likens it to a small fire that can set a forest ablaze. He writes that it is untameable, full of deadly poison. We can tame a dolphin or a lion, but we can’t tame the tongue. With it we bless the Lord and with it we curse those made in the likeness of God.
Here, James is echoing what Jesus taught us earlier in the lectionary about what defiles a person or makes them unclean. Nothing by going in can defile, but what comes out of the person, what comes from our hearts and mouths breaks relationship with God and with one another and defiles.
James wrote his letter for Christian communities in general, as a way of instruction in moral and ethical behaviour. But more importantly, he writes of how faith changes, shapes, and informs how we live; that faith is really about living and doing faithfulness.
As modern people, we too know words are powerful. They have the power to lift up and the power to break down. And all of us, have spoken blessings or received them. All of us, have spoken curses or received them too.
This past week, the kids have just started school again. Some of them have switched schools, some have gone off to university or college, some are back on familiar ground, and we here start our learning component again with Sunday School, Confirmation, and adult education.
This past week, I did not have a stellar parenting moment as our household adapted to the routine of school once again. I admit that I got quite frustrated with my oldest son, when one morning he tried to close his backpack and the zipper broke. Out of frustration because I had just bought the backpack at the end of the school year in June, and because we were running late, which is the norm in our household, I got what my kids like to call preachy.
I’m sure you can imagine it – as my son pulls on the zipper and it comes completely apart, my voice gets louder and with exaggerated words of blame I speak directly at him: “Why do you have to cram all that stuff in there all the time?” “Why can you never be careful, I just bought that bag?” “Why do you always leave everything for the last minute?” On I went, thinking that my words could change the situation of the broken zipper. Or more honestly, make me feel better in my frustration and self-righteousness. That is, until my son spoke some words of truth to me.
In his teenage wisdom he said to me, “Why are you acting like I am the thing that is broken and not this cheap backpack?” His words made me stop. And apologize. And give him a hug. And start over.
It was the cheap backpack. It was not him. But my words were directed at him, and they conveyed the very message I never want to give my children – that there was something inherently wrong with them; that they needed fixing.
I have had worse moments as a parent and these words ring true for me: “For all of us make mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect… We bless the Lord and curse those made in the likeness of God.”
In our gospel reading, Peter, who we know is one disciple who probably would do well to hold his tongue from time to time, proclaims Jesus as the Messiah – “the anointed one” whom the Lord sends to save those that are lost. When Jesus responds to Peter’s bold proclamation with his own understanding of what kind of Messiah he is, Peter uses his tongue to rebuke Jesus. Peter does not want to hear that Jesus is a Messiah who will suffer and die and be resurrected. It doesn’t make sense to him and he cannot understand what Jesus means by the cross.
I read with sadness, and repeat this story with sadness, of Pastor John Gibson Jr. John was a beloved professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. On August 24th, he took his own life at the age of 56. His wife, Christi, found his lifeless body in their garage. She said, the hardest thing she has ever had to do in her life is call her two adult children and let them know that their father was dead.
John Gibson knew of the hackers who got into the Toronto-based Ashely Madison website. It’s a website that offers discreet extra-marital affairs with the slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.” The hackers threatened the company to either take their website off the internet or they would divulge confidential information about the people who used the site. John’s name was on that list.
In his suicide note, he wrote of his depression and the shame he felt associated with the struggle of his addiction and his online behaviour, citing Ashley Madison. His wife said, “He talked about depression. He talked about having his name on there, and he was just very, very sorry.”
His students and co-workers describe him as a “great” teacher, a favourite among the students and staff at the seminary, always willing to help out someone else, to fix broken cars or flooded homes. But, in his anguish, he must have wondered if those same people who loved him, liked him, respected him, would they have done the same once they knew?
John would have known that his name would have been all over the internet, people potentially and probably leaving comments about his hypocrisy, his faith, what kind of a person he really was. He must have wondered if he would he have received understanding. Would he have lost his job? Would his marriage have survived? Would anyone have offered him words of kindness, compassion, or forgiveness? Tragically, he took his life before he could find out.
But these are some of the words his wife spoke about him: “What we know about [John] is that he poured his life into other people, and he offered grace and mercy and forgiveness to everyone else, but somehow he couldn’t extend that to himself.”
For all of us make many mistakes. Take up your cross and follow me.
The reality is that there is piece of John in all of us. A part of you and me, that believes we have to be perfect. A part of you and me that thinks there really is no redemption for us when we fail or lose our footing. A part of you and me that believes that forgiveness and grace and mercy are meant for someone else, really. Sadly, when we pretend that we don’t struggle, that we don’t sin, that we are somehow perfect, then we aren’t doing ourselves or anyone else any favours.
My son’s truth aside that morning with the backpack, we are all, in fact, the broken. Not just my son, or John Gibson, all of us. And our lives, even our faith, reflect it. James’ letter meant to teach those early Christians, and us, that the gift of our faith spills into the rest of our lives, how we act and speak and live. James was not saying that our words or our deeds save us, that would place our hope on us and not where it truly belongs.
I’ve used this before and I will use it again, Luther wrote this about faith and life: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road…”
On this road of life and faith, all that matters is that we hold on as much as we possibly can to the very Word that our lives depend upon; we hold on to God’s promise to us in Jesus, the One who was crucified and broken. For you. For me. For my son. For John. All that matters is that we grab onto this gift of grace that sets us free from shame and despair and death, so that we can live, fully and whole.
The very last chapter of the Bible, on the last page of the book of Revelation, speaks these words: “It is I, Jesus… I am the root and the descendent of David, the bright morning star…The Spirit and the bride say, “come.” And let everyone who hears say “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift.”
Pr. Katherine Altenburg