'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
Now above the
cross, the trophy,
Sound the loud
Tell how Christ,
the world’s redeemer,
As a victim won the
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.