Throughout the readings for this weekend, we have been admonished concerning speaking of things we know little about; closing the distance between our heads and our hearts. Much of what we have heard, however, clearly states that the distance between our heads and our hearts encompasses our tongues which get in the way of our ability to truly root our lives in love.
As we just heard in the last verse of Psalm 19, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The use of this prayer in connection with preaching begs us to wonder if even our proclamation of God’s word needs God’s forgiving, gracious blessing.
For me, however, it is the New Testament readings that give clear lessons on building up or tearing down God’s world. In James, we are reminded of the power of the tongue. As some of you know, I work with children with learning disabilities at the Discovery School at Four Corners in Greenfield. I am well aware of just how frequently I miss the mark when I am teaching a new concept to these kids. They let me know. And I know that in this time of COVID how important it is to build these kids up and help alleviate their fears. I am blessed to work with many people who take this challenge seriously, and we all try very hard to get it right. But James also assures us that while teachers are held to the strictest of standards, no one gets it perfectly right. We all make mistakes, and only a perfect human could completely control their tongue and life. Only Jesus always has the right words all the time. Jesus is the truth, and James’ letter is the message of an early preacher trying to help his flock understand the real importance of not just knowing the truth, but living it.
The distance between the head and the heart seems to be a theme in James. The head understands the idea of Jesus and his care for others, while the heart is responsible for the actions born out of the idea once it truly takes root in the heart and the soul. In between is the the tongue - the stumbling block between the head and the heart. As Eugene Peterson says in his translation of scripture, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything — or destroy it!” And again Peterson tells us that when the tongue runs wild, “With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image.” It seems pretty unlikely in this excerpt that the heart will have a chance to create actions to match the the blessing given by the head. This reading clearly shows that while the tongue is a very small organ, it carries enormous power for either good or evil.
Most of us have probably seen this in our lives. Either in something we said or something said to us. Almost nothing makes me feel worse than saying something without thinking and watching another human being deflate before my eyes. That is the kind of destruction our tongues can do. And it takes time, repentance and true love in our hearts to try to mend that pain and rebuild trust. How much more amazing is it to watch what happens when we exercise the love God has put in our hearts to build someone up?
I worked with a child once who seemed to be at the bottom of everyone’s care list. He was not sweet and lovable in the traditional sense. In fact he was more like a porcupine with quills ready to eject. I was bothered by the sense that he had given up on himself, largely because he thought everyone had given up on him. I watched him for signs of things that might excite him, and one day at recess I got my clue. Someone flew down Rt. 112 in a sports car that was bright red and very fast. His eyes lit up. I said, “Hey, do you know what kind of car that was?” And he was off - he gave me the model, the year, the kind of engine and the power it had. His eyes were alive and he seemed confident and clear. I picked up a book on cars over the next weekend, along with a couple of magazines on classic cars and fast cars. He was shocked that I had gotten them for him. I told him that he would need to read articles to me, and explain some things I did not understand. I explained that he was much smarter than I was at understanding how cars work. It seemed like I was watching him grow and transform before my eyes. We used car examples in math and we read car articles and wrote car stories in English. This was a child who needed someone to boost him up instead of tear him down. He needed to feel loved and appreciated; to feel like he was special and important. It was my job to show him how special he was, as we are all special in God’s eyes. I got a chance to ‘build him up in love.’
In the gospel, again the power of words is evident. First, when Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” But even more powerfully when, as we just heard, after Jesus has been teaching his disciples quite openly about what is to come, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Then, he calls the crowd to join his disciples, and he makes it clear that his way is not for the faint of heart. As Peterson writes, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat, I am…Self sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” While words are important, the gospel helps us see how important the corresponding actions are.
In our Bible Study, the third reading of the scripture is followed by the question, “What does God, in this reading, make be want to do and/or be?” This is an action question. This is the question where we ask ourselves to be accountable; to be willing to walk our talk; to understand that just saying that we are moved, or that we see God in this reading is not enough. We are asked what we are willing to change in our lives or ourselves, or what we are willing to do in order to follow God’s will for us more clearly. I asked myself that after reading the gospel. What God makes me want to do and/or be was pretty clear. God makes me want to be the be the best lover of His creation and people that I can be. I feel blessed to be working with children who need me. They are easy to love. But I also feel blessed to work with Steve in Emmaus Companions with folks on the margins. Sometimes they are less easy to love, but I always feel better when I spend my God-given love unconditionally.
Jesus does not give us an out. If we listen to his words, we must answer with our actions. He tells us to follow him. That is not a command to sit at home and read the bible, or even to just come to church on Sunday and go home feeling virtuous. We have a great responsibility in our lives as followers of Jesus. Are we willing to walk our talk? Are we willing to spend the love that God has put in our hearts?
And this brings me back to my opening thought from Ilia Delio, where she says that Teilhard held that God is at “…the depth and center of everything that exists. . . . Our nature is already endowed with grace, and
thus our task is to be attentive to that which is within and that which is without—mind and heart—so that we may contribute to building up the world in love. Every action can be sacred action if [it] is rooted in love, and in this way, both Christians and non-Christians can participate in the emerging body of Christ. . . .
Our lives have meaning and purpose. . . . We either help build this world up in love or tear it apart. Either way, we bear the responsibility for the world’s future, and thus we bear responsibility for God’s life as well.” (See footnote 1)
At the end today’s service, when we hear Heather say, “This service has ended. Now let ours begin.”, my plan is to go forth and spend God’s love lavishly on everyone I meet. What is yours?
1. Ilia Delio, The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey 1 (Orbis Books: 2021), 41–42, 43
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