Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Preachers and teachers need prayers like that one, taken from the final verse of Psalm 19. I remember my preaching professor in seminary telling us that the high pulpits in many churches should serve as a reminder to preachers of the magnitude of the task that we are called to. When we approach one of those pulpits, and make our way up the steps, we should do so in fear and trembling, he said, praying that God will give us the words to speak.
Our pulpit here is not so high, not like the one I saw years ago in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva where John Calvin once preached. It has a full spiral staircase with about ten steps to climb… plenty of time to think about what the preacher is about to do… plenty of time to ask for God’s help. But even as I make my way across from the lectern to the pulpit here on Sunday mornings, I’m praying something similar because I know that words matter, and I know that I’m human and I can’t always come up with the right ones on my own.
The Book of James warns us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make mistakes.” Most people have pretty high expectations of sermons and lectures and speeches. I know I do when I’m a listener. We expect to be informed. We want to be encouraged. We hope to be inspired. And we definitely don’t want to get bored!
It’s not just about the words though. Preachers know that too. The delivery matters as well… whether we come off as arrogant know-it-alls, or whether we are preaching with humility and sincerity. And if we don’t practice what we preach, or at least try to practice it, then our credibility goes out the window. They call us hypocrites who lord it over others, but do not practice the faith ourselves.
Over the last couple of days I spent some time at the InterChurch Health Ministries Parish Nurse Training Program. A group from St. Andrew’s including Laura, our Pastoral Care Nurse, three members of the Pastoral Care Committee, and I are beginning our second year of the Parish Nurse Training program. And one of the sessions that we had yesterday was on the topic of communication.
The session was led by a psychologist with lots of training and experience in counselling, and the principles he was teaching were readily applicable to our experience as friendly visitors, as health counsellors, and as spiritual supports. We were encouraged to think critically about our use of technical language – whether religious language or medical language – that may or may not be understood. And we reviewed techniques for active listening that will assist us in hearing and caring for people appropriately.
It was a good reminder to me that our words really matter. And not just in preaching and teaching. Our words matter in one-on-one conversations, in phone calls, and in the content of our emails or text messages. Because, as James warns, our tongues have great power. We can use our words to cause pain or shame or anger. Or we can use our words to bless, to heal, and to encourage. “This ought not to be so,” James laments, but “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
The same mouth that praises God on Sunday morning swears at the neighbourhood teen who painted a tag on the back fence. The same mouth that whispers, “I love you” to a child before bed utters demeaning words to a poor employee at work. The same mouth that prays for strength and healing for a sick friend passes on gossip about the acquaintance who is supposedly having trouble in her marriage. The same mouth that preaches about being quick to listen and slow to speak snaps defensively when a criticism comes her way. This ought not to be so. It’s like a spring that pours forth from the same opening both fresh and contaminated water. But it is the reality of our human condition.
Years ago when I took my first counselling course, I was nearly overwhelmed by the pressure of thinking what to say and what not to say. In those early practice sessions, I remember being terribly nervous that I was going to say something inappropriate. And so, while the person was speaking, I was thinking about what I might say next. While they were sharing their feelings or their problem with me, I was worrying about how I was going to respond.
And so, the most important thing that I had to learn was not any of the specific counselling techniques. It was quite simply the priority of attentive listening. I had to stop thinking about and worrying about what I would say so that I could truly listen to what was being said to me. And that is something that I need to keep practicing all the time.
This week’s Gospel text is one that I’ve read and studied countless times before. But in studying it this week, side by side with the warning from James about the power of our tongues, I noticed something new. The scene takes place about half way through Mark’s Gospel when Jesus decides to check in with his closest followers and find out how people are understanding and reacting to his ministry. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answer him, “John the Baptist, and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
So most of the people aren’t understanding who Jesus is, but what about his own disciples, his closest companions? “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks. And seemingly without a moment’s hesitation, Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” So Peter, at least, knows that Jesus is the Christ, the one they’ve all been waiting for, the one who will save the people of Israel and bring about the new kingdom. Even today we hope to share Peter’s confidence and his assurance as we profess our own faith.
But the line in the text that we sometimes ignore is Jesus’ response to Peter’s profession. The Gospel records, “And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Huh? Aren’t we supposed to be preaching the good news? Aren’t we supposed to be opening our mouths to proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord? But Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
One classic interpretation assumes that Peter’s answer is correct, but that others in the community are not ready to hear it. Jesus is likely pleased that Peter understands his true identity as the Messiah, but he doesn’t want Peter blabbing about it too wildly because that kind of claim could get Jesus into trouble a little sooner than would be helpful. Jesus has a lot more ministry yet to do, and if Peter starts telling everyone that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus might get arrested and killed before completing his work. “Be quiet about this for now,” this Jesus is warning, “Let’s not get everyone too riled up before we have to.”
But one commentator I read suggested an alternative interpretation: When Peter calls Jesus “Messiah” he may have the right title but the wrong understanding of what the title means for Jesus. If this interpretation is correct, Jesus may be warning Peter not to go off half-cocked with his grand proclamation of Jesus’ Messiahship. Jesus may want Peter to spend a little more time listening before he starts preaching or teaching what he thinks he knows.
And then Jesus began to teach his disciples “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This, of course, was not the kind of future that Peter had in mind for a Messiah, and so he objected: “Suffering and rejection and death? Don’t say that sort of thing! You’re the Messiah, you’ll be triumphant!”
“Quiet, Peter. You need to listen. You need to try to understand me.” And Jesus continued to teach them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Later on in the Gospel, Jesus will send out Peter and the others to teach and to heal in his name. And after his death and resurrection, he will send them out in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.
So Peter is transformed. He changes from a man who says such wrong things that Jesus shouts at him: “Get behind me, Satan!” He changes from a man who was ashamed and scared enough to say, “I do not know the man” to those who later asked about his connection to Jesus. He changes from a man who spoke misguided and self-centered words to a man who spoke the words of God, who preached to the people of Jerusalem of the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ so that their lives too could be transformed.
The tongue is a powerful thing. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” May God give us wisdom to listen carefully both to one another and to Jesus our Lord. And may God guide us and our words as we open our mouths to profess our faith and to tell the good news. May we learn to speak God’s words of blessing, of truth, and of hope with humility and sincerity.