The tounge is a fire

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 19—Year B; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 – Video

Well, the Letter of James takes us into the belly of the beast this morning. Strap in, this is going to get personal and uncomfortable.

James starts off well, well maybe not for a lot of us at St. Luke’s so closely tied as many of us are to education. Here’s how he begins: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.Sorry all you teachers.

But then it gets better—For all of us make many mistakes. That’s good. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Okay, that’s not going to be most of us, but we’re not trying to achieve perfection anyway, right? But then James takes this bridle metaphor and goes a little crazy with it.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

And by member, James means part of the body. But James doesn’t stop there; oh no, he’s just getting cranked up.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

It’s like James’ brain is doing this rapid-fire word association thing—you can just see all the neurons firing—and he’s making all these connections.

The tongue is a small member…small fires lead to forest fires…the tongue is a fire…the tongue is a member placed among all of our members as a world of iniquity—it stains the whole body…one member affects the whole…one spark can start a fire that grows into a big fire, affects the whole forest…back to fire, fire, oh, it sets on fire the cycle of nature…oh, and it’s set on fire by hell, hell is hot and fiery…cycle of nature, oh, every species of beast and bird, reptile and sea creature, they can all be tamed and have been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue!tame takes us back to bridle, and we’ve closed the metaphorical loop; we made it!

And then James gets downright philosophical, almost existential.

With [the tongue] 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. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

James is pondering one of the more confusing and painful aspects of human existence—with the tongue we bless and with the tongue we curse, from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. How can this be? James laments, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so…If the source is good, how can both of these things come out of the mouth?”

Has James gone over the top here? I don’t think so. In fact, for about three weeks now I have been feeling that urge to give my election-cycle pastoral counsel, mostly prompted by how venomous the rhetoric is out there right now. We have to understand how this works if we are to maintain humanity in the midst of this season because James is right—the tongue is a small member, but it can start a fire, and that fire can consume everything in its path.

And it starts so small. A joke here about this political candidate, a joke there about that political candidate—just blowing off a little steam, just relieving a little frustration, a little pent-up political pressure. Right now, if I say the name Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or the names of any of the other 16+ candidates, words or images will come to your mind, and some of those words will be about personal attributes, and some of those words won’t be kind, some may even be derogatory. And then you hear a joke in your circle of like-minded friends or co-workers, or on late-night TV, or a joke gets posted on Facebook, and you do that thumbs-up thing—you “Like” it—and then you repost it. And never mind the awful things the candidates are saying about one another, we’ve just started our own little fire in our part of the world.What starts as just one little joke, in the words of James, curses someone who is made in the likeness of God, and that energy spreads like wildfire.

And as we know from wildfires raging out of control, these fires consume everything in their path; they are devastating; and they hurt. And these fires started by the tongue, these wildfires hurt because we can’t ever talk about a member of our body, as in the tongue, without also remembering that “body” is the image for our corporate existence.

We are members of the Body of Christ—we are members of one another. What starts with one member affects the whole—what starts with me affects you, what starts with you affects me.

And when we participate in these fires, we are all diminished. We diminish the candidates, we diminish the process, we diminish whole swaths of brothers and sisters we don’t even know, and we diminish our brother or sister sharing the pew we are sitting on who may have a different perspective, AND we diminish ourselves because we have violated our solemn baptismal vow—foundational to the way we follow Jesus—“to respect the dignity of every human being.”

When we strike a spark to start one of these fires, or when we fan its flames, or when we pour gas on it, we have to look deep into our own heart and ask ourselves why? We all make many mistakes, James says as much, but I also think James is right—this stuff doesn’t spew from a good source. So, when we participate in this stuff, we have to look deep in our own heart and see what is not right. What in us wants to diminish that other person who is made in the likeness of God, beloved of God no less than I? Our culture tears people down for sport, but that is not the way of Jesus.

Oh, he’ll tackle hard issues with the leaders of his day, and he’ll use strong language, but he was also willing to set down and dine with his opponents. It’s an election season, we’ve got to participate. We’ve got to dig deep down into our values informed by our faith and let them inform how we approach every issue of policy. And we’ve got to have that order right-side up—faith is the spring that issues forth into policy; policies don’t dictate faith. Now, faith can certainly issue forth in different policy approaches—a spring can end up flowing into different streams—I’m just pushing us to consider what’s informing what.

I’ve shared this before—like every Presidential election cycle to be precise—but it bears repeating. The moment where this all changed for me was when my seminary Christian ethics professor looked me dead in the eye and said, “Cyndi, I don’t care what you say as a Democrat, what do you say as a Christian?” And I realized in that moment that I had to rethink every single policy position that I had starting from the place of my faith. And that work has occupied me ever since, and it’s made things a whole lot more complicated. It’s a bear when you have to be ethically consistent and coherent within your positions and ethically consistent and coherent withthe life and teaching of Jesus. All those people and concerns that occupied Jesus, these have to be in our hearts and in our minds as we engage the political process. We can’t separate out our faith and politics because in Jesus everything holds together. He didn’t divide out sacred and secular, political and religious, ordinary and holy. Everything for Jesus was holy and consecrated. His whole drive was toward wholeness for everything and everyone—that’s what salvation means, and anything that was a barrier to that, he took on.

Policy matters, and as people of faith, we should be in the rough and tumble of policy debates, but may we use our tongues in Isaiah-fashion, like the tongue of a teacher and, as James suggests, know that as we do, we will be judged with a greater strictness. May we use our tongues like Isaiah and sustain the weary with a word. May we use our tongues as the psalmist did and call upon the LORD. May we use our tongues tolift up our supplications, for ourselves, for our town, for our county, for our state, for our nation, for the world. May we use our tongues to bless those who are near and those who are far. May we use our tongues to sing and praise and raise up hearts that are bowed down. And, oh my gosh, UniZulu Chorale, you have taught us what a tongue set free can do.

You have taught us how a tongue trained to praise can spark a joy in another’s heart so deep that we didn’t even know that much joy was possible. You have taught us how a tongue trained to cry for freedom can bring that freedom about, not just in a pie-in-the-sky way, but at the most foundational, structural levels of society. You have taught us how the tongue can kindle a fire that can sweep across a whole community and make them one. We saw it here Friday night when 350+ people were singing and clapping and moving, sometimes not together, but moving nonetheless, as ONE.

We cannot thank you enough for showing us what the tongue can do. You have shown us the goodness of your hearts and reminded us of the goodness in ours. We are one body in Christ, and what you have done has affected us all.

Brothers and sisters, in this election season that will be with us for the next 15 months, may we drink from THISgood and pure source. May we call on the Lord GOD to bridle our tongues. May we exercise every bit of restraint that it will surely take not to participate in the restless evil and deadly poison that so many tongues are unleashing. May we be ever mindful and not strike that first spark, may we not fan flames, may we not pour gas on fires already raging. May we resist the urge to curse [any of] those made in the likeness of God, which is everyone.

Instead, may we remember this last week that we have had with our friends, now family, from South Africa, and may we use our tongues only to bless. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 13, 2015