THE TONGUE OF THOSE WHO ARE TAUGHT
Sermon delivered on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity the 13th September 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Isaiah 50: 4-9a S. James 3:1-12 S. Mark 8: 27-38
Isaiah 50:4. The Servant depicted in the book of the Prophet Isaiah claims, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught.”
The three readings today all refer directly or indirectly to the tongue and its discipline or indiscipline. In today’s idioms we would be more likely perhaps to refer to the conversation or media comments of a person. We are being shown that something that we often take rather for granted, what we speak, write or type may have an influence for good or ill far beyond what may have been intended.
There are many examples of cases in which the tongue has seemed to illustrate only too clearly the strictures of St. James, when he refers to the tongue as a fire. “The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members (he says), staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.” In the Greek there is something of a pun in what he says here: the tongue sets on fire the course of “g_enesis” (from which we get our word genesis), but itself is set on fire by “Geennes”, in English Gehenna or Hell. The Satanically inspired loose comment, in other words, can start all sorts of terrible things going. This makes me think of those times in the Soviet Union or China when some loose word could put you into the power of an informer - indeed in Maoist China, through fear nearly everybody was acting as an informer on his neighbour. In the Cayman Islands it must be said that the power of the undisciplined and irresponsible tongue, or perhaps pen, for years used to damage people's standing in the councils of the Immigration Department. We have had examples of cartoons in metropolitan newspapers giving rise to riots and murder, and even a cartoon in a newspaper here giving rise to the threat of a demonstration. Whatever moral fault might be attached by some to the reputed start of such a matter in the cartoons may be wholly overtaken by the moral enormity of the reaction. There are those domains in which untutored and uninformed voices sometimes hold sway, causing pain and damage to individuals and whole communities. Conversely, St. James says that if any one is taught well enough to make no mistakes in what he says, he has his whole self under control, like a horse with a bit in its mouth, or like a boat being guided well by the will of the pilot through the use of a small rudder.
In biblical thought, then, the spontaneous expression, which is given inordinate value and praise in the modern world, may only too likely come from evil rather than good. The good word or helpful, uplifting speaking in our Old Testament Lesson is described, on the other hand, in terms of something that is taught. Certainly every teacher loves it when something that he or she has spent time and effort teaching comes naturally to the pupil and is apparently expressed with a degree of spontaneity. Our Scriptures, however, confirm that spontaneous expression is not intrinsically a good thing. The important thing is that what is expressed be good and right. For that to be the case there must be direction from beyond the speaker; there must be teaching from a good source. A radical humanist may, of course, dispute that, and may say that humanity must draw from its own moral resources. The pupil, he might say, learns not from the teacher, but from his own reactions to or interpretations of the teaching. But run along that track for any distance and you are close to saying that the baton of knowledge or insight can never be handed over from one mind to another, or even from God to man. The Scriptures as well as the assumptions underlying the use of schools in human civilisation support the view that the good thought, word or deed comes by a process of teaching - by God Himself, or through human agency.
Our Gospel today shows St. Peter acting spontaneously - and unadvisedly, as we should rightly say - when Jesus teaches the disciples that He must suffer and be rejected and killed by the authorities, and then rise again. Peter's spontaneous rebuke of Jesus earns him a greater rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!” For Jesus sees, in St. James' terms, a tongue being set on fire by Gehenna. The unrebuked tongue of Peter could set a fire to the calling of both Jesus and His disciples, whom Jesus was teaching. Peter was not right to imply that what the Lord was saying was foolishness, indeed he was very wrong indeed. So Jesus then warns all the disciples that if they would continue to follow Him, then they should expect to encounter a cross of their own, in addition to encountering His cross. To persist in the following of Jesus we have to draw on a wellspring of resources that goes deeper than a surface spontaneity. We have to follow what we are taught from a resource that runs deeper than our own spirit. For it is usually not “spontaneous” to be willing to lose one's own way of living for the sake of a greater good - but this is what Jesus teaches his disciples to be prepared for, when he invites us to “lose our life” for His sake and the Gospel's. Then, He says, we will truly not have forfeited our souls.
In these days of information explosion through the media and the internet, circumstances that are of course far different from what St. James encountered, we could add to “the tongue” its electronic equivalent, the keyboard. In addition we have twittering and tweeting, which would seem to imply an ever greater value being placed by our age upon spontaneity. The loose talk in the blogs of our time often suggests that the church is dangerous and to be avoided in times of critical decision-making over the course of the country or the economy. It is said, loosely, that the church is too powerful, and that what it says is intended to oppress and persecute people. There is some religious language that is indeed dangerous because of its defects, because of its wrongness – but not because its character is religious. And that’s the point. True discipleship, which is a life’s work for every Christian, must always be something that is being taught, and from a verifiably good Source. With what is thus taught, rather than from spontaneity, the church is mandated to engage in the issues of the day.
Our Old Testament lesson implies too that if we want to have the sort of tongues, if we want to speak the kind of words, that will lift up the depressed and refresh the weary, we need to have not merely human spontaneity, but a “tongue that is taught”. This should be encouraging to us as we seek to progress in our discipleship. It is not by our own natural efforts and personalities that we can make a genuine difference to people's lives and the world around us. The words that will make that difference will be from tongues - or pens or keyboards - that are taught. And as it is said elsewhere in Isaiah, our Teacher is very near us, and when we call upon Him, He will hear and come to our aid. We will have the words of eternal life and point people to the incarnate Lord, who was crucified and rose again. But it is when we do not allow our tongues to be taught, allowing them to run along on their own steam, that they show themselves to be the instruments of the enemy.