'Martin Luther tells us that we are to use God’s name in every time of need to call upon, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.'
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12, 2021
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
It all begins with a spark. The great wildfires in California, in Oregon, in Idaho, these conflagrations that destroy property and consume forests and kill human beings, begin with a spark – perhaps lightning kindling dry brushwood, or with a careless or intentional act by a human being. From a small spark, it gets out of control – and who knows how to bring it into control?
Twenty years ago, it began with a spark. It did not begin with plans or planes. It began long before September 11, 2001, with someone saying, ‘This is intolerable; we must do something about it.’ And from there, it all came: the ‘declaration of holy war,’ indeed, the idea of holy war – the concept of killing the innocent to punish those who were conceived as guilty, and the recruitment of the impressionable with promises of heaven if only they would help in the act of murder. Twenty years later, the fire still burns in our hearts; the memory of those who died and the illness, trauma, and fear in the lives of those who brushed death themselves and who lost loved ones that day. In the lives of Afghanis who had their lives turned upside down, and now upside down again, and all those who were collateral damage, whether our soldiers or their civilians. And all began with a spark, a word of the tongue, set on fire by hell.
St. James warns Christians against the tongue – it is a restless evil, he says. He does not warn us against planning acts of terrorism – rather he warns us against blessing God and then cursing others. It should be a logical impossibility – and yet it happens all the time. And once we loose our lips against a friend or an enemy, we cannot control the fire that is started. We must live with the consequences. Best not to speak at all rather than to speak carelessly and thoughtlessly and with evil intent or in an evil spirit.
So, St. James, on the tongue. We are taught to keep our lips pure and free. But there is more to say about the tongue, that is, about the words of Jesus. For he is the one of whom Isaiah prophecies: The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher; that I may sustain the weary with a word.’ In the Gospel lesson he teaches the disciples that he, whom they proclaim as Messiah, must suffer and be rejected and be killed and on the third day rise, and that those who follow him must be ready to suffer with him that they may rise in glory with him.
And a teacher must know when to speak gently and when to speak firmly. For Peter, the idea of Jesus being rejected and suffering and dying does not square with his idea of Messiahship – not to mention he does not want someone whom he cares about to go through it. How often our advice to those we care about is diluted by our desire to not see them suffer – as if suffering were something that could be avoided in life? But Jesus rebukes Peter openly and says, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Does this mean that Peter is Satan? Of course not, but the words he speaks are satanic – they can be used to dissuade Jesus from completing his vocation. And so Jesus’ words are meant to shock into recognition. And perhaps Jesus can see the shadowy figure of Satan – whispering into Peter’s ear, putting words into his mouth, and so he casts Satan out as he did in the wilderness.
James warns us about the use of the tongue to sow the fires of dissension and destruction. Jesus teaches us his vocation to suffer, die and be raised, and calls us to suffer with him, taking up our own crosses and following him. And finally we are called to use our tongues in the way that glorifies God. Psalm 116 says,
I called upon the name of the LORD,
‘O LORD, I pray you, save my life.’
Martin Luther tells us that we are to use God’s name in every time of need to call upon, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God. Psalm 116 tells the story of one who has called upon God and has been answered, who thanks God for what God has done.
Our hymns this morning have praised God for all he has done for us:
O, that I had a thousand voices/to praise my God with thousand tongues!
For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies/
Christ our God, to you we raise this our sacrifice of praise!
We are called upon to confess what God has done in Christ. Even as Peter said, ‘You are the Messiah,’ we say:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the ending of the fray!
Now above the cross, the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay;
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,
As a victim won the day!
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
‘Til all the world adore his sacred name!
Finally, we are called to use our tongues to build each other up and not tear them down, to forgive and bless others and not to curse them, to teach each other what Jesus has said to us and done for us.
The tongue is a fire and can start terrible conflagrations, and yet by God’s redemption, we may use the tongue to bless God and our neighbor and tell of the victory Jesus has won through the cross.