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Sermon preached by the Reverend Malinda Johnson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 16, 2012

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

Use your words. I remember when my kids were in pre-school, whenever a fight broke out, or someone was having a meltdown or something, the teachers would invariably say to the afflicted child: “Use your words”.

It seems this is a lesson young and old alike have learned well, and with all the blogging, tweeting, texting, IM-ing, youtubing, video-sharing…well, you name it; basically, with all the indiscriminate broadcasting of every possible thought someone might have no matter how mean-spirited or inane, I wish we could go back somehow and seriously qualify that old lesson: use your words…but use them carefully and sparingly.

Some things really are better left unsaid. Or as a judge once told me, after dismissing a ticket which I nevertheless wanted to argue because I thought it was unfair I got it in the first place: “Ms. Johnson, please. Sometimes silence is best.”

In today’s Epistle from James, we’re told emphatically to use our words carefully, to watch what we say, because the very act of speaking can set the world on fire…though not necessarily in a good way. James employs many images to make this point. For instance, the tongue is compared to a very small rudder guiding a very large ship, reminding us that it’s a relatively small part of the body strong enough to do surprising things.

But then most forcefully of all James cautions: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…” the mere flicker of which can bring about both great blessing and great evil. Just look what happened this past week with that anti-Islam video. It has caused wide-spread rioting and offense, not to mention death and heartache – havoc wreaked by one, single ill-considered expression of ignorance and contempt. Indeed the tongue is a fire that can quickly rage out of control.

Now, in the gospel reading we heard from Mark, this warning about the enormous power of words to harm as well as heal, to curse as well as bless, is related specifically to the proclamations we might make as followers of Jesus. I was telling Father Lang recently that I think every ordained person — or every leader in any denomination of the church, let’s say – all of us should have to take one vow and one vow only these days: first, do no harm. (Amend the Prayer Book Examinations to read: Will you promise first and foremost to do no harm? I will, with God’s help…)

Though I may be preaching to the choir here, if we can’t model love more consistently (love as opposed to conformity or blind deference and “respectability”); if we can’t teach, preach and model nothing so much really as radical hospitality after the example of Jesus; then at least Christians the world over might be about the business of doing less harm – which, the more I think about it, is no small thing.

So yeah, OK, we got it: words can be used as weapons, even weapons of mass destruction, that’s increasingly clear. But what’s that got to do with today’s gospel and the seemingly benign challenge of naming and claiming Jesus as savior for ourselves? More specifically, why does Jesus get all bent out of shape when his disciples identify him in a variety of ways as the answer to their prayers?

Well, one fairly common interpretation of what’s going on here is that Jesus is resisting being pigeon-holed or labeled because, of course, God can’t be reduced to any role or identity that we might so easily grasp with language or anything else. Maybe so. Still I wonder if what’s really going on in this story is more basic even than that: maybe Jesus is just insisting that it’s not helpful for even his closest followers, never mind the rest of us, to over-stamp anybody else’s experience of God.

When Jesus famously asks, “Who do people say that I am?” and his disciples give him a bunch of different answers back, Jesus doesn’t argue one bit or clarify any misconceptions that might be out there. He just tells them not to tell anyone else anything about him regardless.

It is God’s prerogative then and now to show up in people’s lives any old way God chooses. Plus, Jesus clearly wants us to understand from the outset that being saved by love, no matter how we slice it, is rarely as easy or risk-free as we might have it. It’s hard enough, as Paul warns too, simply to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

The trick here is to invite people into a life of love without micromanaging exactly how that experience looks and feels. There’s a world of difference between an invitation and manipulation, between saying: “Come on in, the water’s fine!” and saying: “Come on in, but you must be wear a certain suit and swim in a way we deem acceptable, and don’t call the water we’re swimming in a lake or an ocean because it’s really a babbling brook and if you can’t agree to all this…well, you’re not really welcome after all.” In a nutshell, how we invite others in — how we share our faith, how we “use our words” in God’s name especially – these things matter hugely because words can easily be used not only as weapons but as straight-jackets as well.

The pianist Arthur Schnabel once said with regard to the study of great piano literature, “As far as my knowledge goes, nothing in the world has ever grown from the exterior to the interior…Love has to be the starting point…It is one of my strongest convictions that love always produces some knowledge, while knowledge only rarely produces something similar to love.”

Love has to be the starting point for us, too, as Christians, especially in our teaching and preaching nowadays; and if we begin with love, we just may find out that there’s no place else we need to go or get to from there. Amen.

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