FIRST READING Isaiah 50:4-10
4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. 7 The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9 It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. 10 Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and relies upon his God?
PSALM Psalm 116:1-9
1 I love the LORD, who has heard my voice, and listened to my supplication, 2 for the LORD has given ear to me whenever I called. 3 The cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow. 4 Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray you, save my life.” 5 Gracious is the LORD and righteous; our God is full of compassion. 6 The LORD watches over the innocent; I was brought low, and God saved me. 7 Turn again to your rest, O my soul. for the LORD has dealt well with you. 8 For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling; 9 I will walk in the presence of the LORD in the land of the living.
SECOND READING James 3:1-12
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 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. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 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. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
GOSPEL Mark 9:14-29
14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
THE TONGUE AS AN INSTRUMENT OF GOOD
For those of you who are fans of the popular TV show The Voice, you might remember the ads that ran a while back asking potential audiences, “What would you do if you weren’t ‘handicapped’ by sight?” For those not familiar with “The Voice” it is a talent show that keeps the judges in the dark, requiring them to judge all the contestants only on the quality of their voices. The judges’ backs are turned and they never see the performer. Power, poise, presence, emotion, intellect, excitement — it all has to be conveyed to the judges only by the sound of the voice — not by physical appearance or showmanship. The power to convince, convict, and control isn’t in the contestants hands. It’s in their tongues.
The power of the tongue has been a central theme, these past few weeks, as passages from James have been the focus of our second readings. And based on these assigned readings and our own experience, I think we all agree, that the tongue has tremendous power. As a muscle the tongue can lift up to 80 times its own weight. In fact, the tongue is the considered the strongest muscle in the body. And as our main communicative tool, we can lift others up or tear them down, we can bring someone to tears or make them laugh, we can ridicule or console, persuade or discourage. Our tongue is indeed a very powerful tool.
When read aloud, James’ words create a reverberating reminder of just how influential, and how potentially damaging, the sound of one voice can be within a community. James begins this week’s passage by cautioning his community that not many of them should aim to be “teachers” — that is, leaders who expound via verbal images and stories what the kingdom of God is called to be, in front of the whole community of faith. Only those who have managed to “bridle” their own tongues, to voluntarily put a bit in their own mouths, turning control of themselves over wholly to another master: only those individuals should take up the title of “teacher.”
“Teachers,” however they are defined, are those whose voices resonate and have influence far beyond themselves. Gang leaders in every city, who live the creed of violence and cruelty as the only way to garner authority and respect, are “teachers.” Adolf Hitler was a “teacher” for a generation of embittered Europeans. Osama Bin Laden was a “teacher” for a generation of embittered middle-Easterners. And more recently, those who desire to spread their hated of police officers and make them out to be some sort of enemy, have been the teachers to those who have taken law enforcement lives in cold blood. I shouldn’t have to say this but the message needs to change; all lives matter.
Every life is precious; black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, those of Middle Eastern descent and police officers. All are created in the image of God and all are important to God. Folks we need to let Nathan, David and all their fellow law enforcement comrades know we appreciate and respect what they do for us every day. But “badness” isn’t the focus of our epistle lesson. It’s the power of the tongue — the power of the persuasiveness that our words wield, that James wants to announce to his audience.
Is there anyone here today who hasn’t felt bombarded by that “power” over the past several weeks? As the 2016 campaigning season ramps up, political ads are assaulting our eardrums every day. Debates, debacles, and declarations are all at deafening decibels. There’s an increase of ugliness all over the airwaves. “Free speech”, which is one of the “hallowed” hallmarks of our political system is pushed and tested.
Free speech is the basis upon which open debate rests and wrestles. But the right of Free Speak has its boundaries. Language that is purposefully misleading, hurtful and divisive, laced with enmity and animosity, is not “free.” It costs us greatly. Words that are woven together in order to smear, spear and skewer are damaging and do nothing to build up the kingdom. The misuse of our tongue can inject what James calls “deadly poison” into the world and work against the witness of God’s love for all. It doesn’t matter if these words are coming from the “red” or the “blue,” vicious verbal attacks leave our souls with a black eye and our communal bodies with a bruised heart.
It seems that during every election cycle all the major candidates virtuously declare that they abhor negative campaigning and will certainly never start the mudslinging. And yet, it seems that every election cycle the sniping and snapping, the name-calling and nay-saying seems to get worse. Candidates use these tongue-lashing tactics because the number crunchers in their campaign headquarters tell them “negative ads work.” People, it seems, love to watch and listen to, tongues that taut the worst, tirades that tear down the other, testimonies to the atrocities of the opponent. Apparently, we feed on the inflammatory language, the bad news which seems to sell big. But as Christians we shouldn’t take part in spreading the negativity. Yes, as responsible citizens we have the obligation to research the facts and participate in our elective process, but we need to be careful to share only the facts and not be party to the spread of vicious misrepresentations.
This week’s James text challenges us, as Christians, to think about the toll such speech takes on the body of Christ. In fact, if James were writing this epistle today, he might challenge Christians to start a new mantra: “Negative Ads, Inflammatory Remarks and Distorted Statements, Don’t’ Work For Me.” A monstrous tongue sets fire to the spirit of love that is the distinguishing heart of a Christ-body community. Cheering on “tongues” that drip with “deadly poisons” doesn’t provide a benefit, rather, most of the time, it does more to divide. The power of the tongue cuts both ways. What I propose is that, we as Christians, need to cultivate a reputation for having wagging tongues, for being the greatest good news “gossip hounds” in our community. As members of the Body of Christ, we should be telling tales all over town.
Now when I say gossip hounds telling tales, I’m not talking about gossip in the traditional sense; you know this of course. We need to be gossip hounds of God’s good news in Jesus Christ. I see James’ warning about, not many should become teachers, as more of a challenge, than a word of caution. We all need to learn to be teachers of God’s word. Of course this means we need to take control of our tongue and to know God’s word ourselves. But more than that, our whole lives need to reflect the Word of God in us. What we say and what we do should all be a reflection of God’s word internalized. If we were to do this, we’d have no need to see James’ message as a warning. We’d have the needed bridle on our tongue, thus enabling us to reach out to others.
You and I are the community charged with ushering in the Kingdom of God, not grousing and grumbling about the state of the world. As Christians, we don’t need to argue endlessly over whether life is better or worse, whether the glass is “half empty” or “half full.” As Christians we have the privilege of drinking out of the firehose that is hooked up to the Living Fountain — great gulps of the water of life that renews and sustains us no matter what happens in this world. Our tongues should proclaim only the “good news,” the gospel, for this is the reality guiding our lives.
The French painter Emile Renouf (1845-94) painted a marvelous picture in 1881 called “The Helping Hand.” It depicts an old fisherman seated in a boat with a little girl beside him, perhaps his granddaughter, both their hands on a huge oar. The old fisherman looks at the little girl fondly and admiringly. Apparently he has told her that she may assist him in rowing the boat. From her face you can see she feels as though she’s doing a great share of the task. But you can also tell from the fisherman’s strong, muscular arms who is really propelling the boat through the waves. We can place ourselves in this picture: you and I are the granddaughter. It’s God who grants us the favor of the oars, the grace of propelling the ship of Zion through the high seas, the privilege of mission in a world where people are dying and drowning. But we must never forget who’s really the one at the oars.
We cannot perform our calling and mission on our own strength, but only as God works in and through us. When we forget the source of our power, we start to faint and get weary. We must remember that the “Voice” we speak must echo the voice of Christ. We must be “on fire” for God rather than our tongues setting fires of destruction and devastation. If our tongue is set ablaze by hell, heaven help us. If our tongue is set on fire by the Holy Spirit, the gates of hell will tremble. James’ call comes with it great responsibility, one we cannot turn from. You and I are the ones God has called, so we need to be in constant prayer and Bible study in order to be ready for whatever situation God calls us into.
There’s so much negativity in the world today. It’s a world wandering, without hope, without its moral compass and without the good news of Jesus Christ. You and I have been called to teach the world that there is a better way. As Isaiah wrote to a people in captivity; The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – God so too gives you and me the tongue of a teacher to sustain the weary, to share the good news, to speak the truth in love when needed. To fulfill our call as teachers we need to accept the responsibility to learn ourselves and pray, so that we can be the voice of hope in our community. We are called to be faithful to God, in prayer, to our study and to our call.
Today is Rally Sunday which marks the beginning of a new Sunday school year. Today we take the time to honor those who have faithfully studied, prayed and taught both in our Sunday school classes and during our Youth group meetings. As a congregation we say thanks to our teachers for your faithful service to our congregation. You have been and are instrumental in preparing all of us to be teachers, to use our voices in a world so much in need. Along with taking the time to voice our appreciation, we have another tradition here at Bethel, the releasing of balloons.
For the past several years on Rally Sunday, we each have taken a helium filled balloon that has a message inside and went outside and released it. These balloons carry a message from our church to the community inviting them to join us in worship. It’s a wonderful tradition. But there’s a problem. Too many people see this as an end of their call to be witnesses in our world. For far too many, once they release the balloon, they see their involvement as complete, no further action needed. I want to change that assumption.
Today I encourage you to see that balloon as a symbol of you being released out into the community. Instead of the balloon carrying the message alone, we too are carrying the message out into the world. We are to go, to sustain a weary world with a word; God’s Word. Even while the airwaves are filled with the negativity of the campaign season, we as God’s elect, are called to use our tongues to share God’s hope. We are being sent out to teach a hurting world, that it needs God’s love and redeeming grace, which is freely available to all who call upon His name. Yes, it might require us to speak the truth in love, but with prayer and study, we will be prepared to meet the need that God is calling us into.