Revd Karen Kouseff sermon September 2015

Sermon for Trinity 15, 13th September 2015 at South Wonston & Barton Stacey

Proverbs 1.20-23, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-end

"Not many of you should become teachers", says James in today's Epistle, "for we who teach" will be judged harshly [...] and "all of us make many mistakes".  So I'm a bit inclined just to stand here quietly and invite you to reflect for 10 minutes on what God might be saying to you today... After all, as Abraham Lincoln said: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

However, it does say "Sermon" in the service book and the definition of that is a talk, serious speech, discourse, or exhortation - so here goes.

In fact the whole epistle of James is something of an extended discourse on how to behave properly as Christians.  The extract we heard today deals in a rather vivid way with the subject of the tongue, or rather, the spoken word.

James says that the tongue is a tiny part of the body and yet it has huge power to influence the direction of those who hear it, like a tiny rudder controlling the direction of a great ship, or a bit in the mouth of a mighty horse.  It must be carefully controlled, because, as with a flame, a small spark can make a huge fire that can get quickly out of control.  The tongue is a small part of God's gift to us in creation, but it must be used wisely and for good effect.

As Christians we are indeed people of the word - in three senses.

Firstly, words of creation and blessing have been spoken by God from the very beginning of God's story (Genesis 1.3 ff).  God spoke all creation into being, saying "Let there be light," and there was light, and then God's spoken command brought into being the sky, the earth, the seas, the stars, the sun and moon, the plants, birds, fish and animals  -  and humankind.  And God saw that they were good, and blessed them.  We exist because in the beginning God spoke us into being.

Secondly we become Christian in the act of following Christ, the Word (capital W) made flesh.  Remember that famous beginning of St John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God" (John 1.1), referring of course to Jesus, the one sent to make God better known, the one predestined to be God's greatest blessing on all creation. In following Christ we are following the one who shows in human form what God is like. We follow both the teachings and the example of the Word made flesh.

Thirdly, as we continue on our journey of faith we are taught and nurtured and sustained by the written word of God, that is the Bible. 

So God has given us the possibility and ability to participate in God's word: this is something that creates and sustains relationship, both between us and God, and between us and one another. 

At a deeper level we participate in the Word, capital W, by sharing in the divine life through the fact of Jesus sharing our human one: this is something that gives our life purpose and hope. 

In today's sound-bite culture, the power of the well-chosen phrase is arguably greater than ever.  The cleverest users of social media are those who can express a powerful opinion or piece of news in less than 140 characters.

The irony of course is that in the mouths of human beings, the gift of speech can so easily be abused or misinterpreted.  Words can be used to wound instead of heal, to hurt instead of bless, even to destroy rather than to build each other up. 

And the power of technology is such that, through social media, words and pictures can be communicated around the world in minutes, for good or for ill. Witness the dehumanising effect of the words chosen by some journalists and politicians to describe the current refugee crisis - calling people a "swarm", creatures of "the jungle", lessening the seriousness of their plight by calling them migrants rather than refugees.

The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is thought to have been coined by a journalist in the early 20th century, and we've seen the truth of this just last week.  I'm sure you saw the picture of poor little Aylan Kurdi, the refugee boy washed up on a beach in Turkey: that picture became the loudest and most eloquent voice and succeeded in changing the debate in a way that words on their own could not have done.

Words are very powerful, James says, so if you are wise you will be careful how you use them.  The tongue and the power of speech are part of our gift from God, designed to be used for the purposes of blessing God and blessing one another, echoing the way that God's word blesses us. In fact, James says, if we truly love God we should be incapable of using our speech to wound or hurt. We can't bless God but curse people - who are made in the image of God.  He uses another word-picture to make his point:  a fig tree can't produce olives; a grapevine can't grow figs. We have to be one or the other.

So in the end it comes down to identity - the words we use reveal who we really are. Who are we? Creatures of God's word who speak God's blessing? Or do we use words to harm?  "All of us make many mistakes" admits James, but he urges us to control that unruly tongue: we must pay constant attention to who we are and who God has made us to be.

In the Gospel reading Jesus asks Peter, "Who do people say that I am?" (Mark 8.27).  It becomes clear that people aren't quite sure - they think he might be Elijah, or John the Baptist, or a prophet. So he asks Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter answers "You are the Messiah", a conclusion he has come to based on all that he has heard Jesus say and backed up with actions.  Poor Peter, we who know the rest of the story can't help remembering that later occasion when, to save his own skin,  he denies knowing Jesus at all, not just once but three times (Mark 14.66-72).

Being able to say "Jesus is the Messiah" is just the easy part - for Peter and for us. The issue is that if we really believe it, we have to man what we say and back up our words with actions - speaking words that bless and build up, and taking up our cross and following him.   Following Jesus surely means, among other things, following his example of speaking up for those on the margins without a voice, of speaking forgiveness and mercy to those judged harshly by the worldly voices.

We are called upon to proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation - not just to live according to its values but to talk about it, and not just to talk about it but to proclaim it.  Proclamation has an air of confidence and certainty about it; it is loud and unashamed, like the image in our first reading of Wisdom like a woman crying out on the street corner, raising her voice to be heard above the foolishness of the world (Proverbs 1.20).  It's a voice that needs to be heard.

Words and communication have a power of transformation; they hold a means by which God, working through us, can change both ourselves and the world around us.

That's a mighty power that each of us has the potential to unlock. How are you going to use it?