September 13, 2009, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Year B, Proper 19
Isaiah 50:4-9a, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

One day Socrates, the great philosopher, came upon an acquaintance who ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.”

“Triple filter?”

“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“No,” the man said, “actually I just heard about it and…”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

“No, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, even though you’re not certain it’s true?”

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.

Socrates continued. “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter—the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really…”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True, nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”

The man was defeated and ashamed.

This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.

James, in his own way, is also a great philosopher, though he speaks in a more colorful and theological style. His reference is always the love of Christ and our task as followers of his which is to imitate him as best we can with self-awareness and intention. As highly verbal creatures he calls us to confront that most basic of actions that we often engage in without thinking—talking.

Talking is rich in metaphorical meaning. It goes all the way back to the start of things. In Genesis we hear that God speaks the world into being. Speaking is a creative act. It is a powerful act. It is an act of relationship. And it is an act of forming identity.

In the story of creation the word that is spoken, the wind that blows over the face of the waters is the Spirit of God. The Gospel of John opens with the story of the Word becoming flesh, a renewing of the creation that God made and holds in being. That word is named as Jesus the Christ and a light that the darkness could not overcome. That word is what caused all to be and is life.

In some Native American traditions the power of word and speech is revered and accordingly used sparingly. There is the practice in some places to speak to the corn as it is sown, a ministry of the women. They speak to the corn as it is planted, as it sprouts and grows, calling it into becoming and growing as a force of life for their people. Such an act is not superstitious or unfounded. Science has proven the intuitive wisdom of this. Plants spoken to with love and gentleness thrive; plants that are spoken to harshly or treated brutally shrivel and die.

James is reminding us of the power of words, of speech. Speech has the ability to effect events, to shape realities, to steer a course of action. But our speech unlike that of the divine is tainted. Our tongues deal out not only life, but death; blessings and curses. Our speech is more powerful than we know. The evil of the tongue is not that we can speak, but that we use it so carelessly! We are victims to pride and ego, flinging words around carelessly and enjoying their power yet avoiding an awareness of how easily they are a force for destruction and harm.

Gossip, prejudices, distortion of facts, spin…all these are the consequences of a tongue not tamed to Goodness, Truth and Usefulness. All these are small things that can result in massive destruction and impact. Just think of the outright lies and distortions being spoken to undermine a rational, reasoned and thorough conversation about substantive reform, or public health care option. One senator yelling “you lie” has sparked a firestorm, and a distraction. If the stakes weren’t so high it would almost by comical. As it is, tens of millions of people’s lives and health are hanging in the balance.

Or at a more personal level we know the power of words in shaping our perceptions. When we are teased or made fun of we are marked by those words. They create a bit of the fabric that is our self-identity. Children who are called stupid or ugly believe it. It is their reality. And for some it turns into a destructive fire that consumes them and those around them.

James calls those of us who are Christians to remember how powerful our tongues can be. And while I suspect he would affirm all that Socrates said, he takes it further. It is a creative act. It is an act that binds us to God and to each other. It has real impact on who we become and what happens around us. It is theological in that it is revealing of who we are and what we are meant to be. Does our speech reflect the grace and love and forgiveness of God? Or does it play to our own purposes? Or even worse, does it play into our sin, which seeks to hurt and dominate and control others? Does our speech violate a fundamental truth: doing unto another that which we wouldn’t want done to us.

What do our words create? That is the question. It is a spiritual question and a spiritual reality. To tame our tongues to the law of love, to tie our words to only the good things that come forth in our hearts, is to make manifest the love and grace of God. As long as our speech pollutes the world with the things from within that contaminate us, we are still spiritual infants. We are harming our own souls at the same time we inflict pain on another. It is creating something, but not for good. But there is Good News in this. I think that the more we come to know our own souls as vessels of the creative light and life of God, residing within and around us, the more we grow out of the need to hurt or judge or control. If we can touch that light, we let God work in us and we see ourselves in a new way. We heal and let go and grow into an ever-increasing realization that to love another is the same as loving self is the same as loving God. We can grow in understanding without having to diminish another. We find new ways of accountability without vengeance and how to live with each other without dominance. But it all starts within and with the energy, the creative life of our words that pour forth from our tongues.

It is also a move towards humility. For when we speak of faith in God or our own religious path or the nature of the divine our words so quickly become weapons. My version is right and yours is wrong. I am saved and you are not. But to do so is to curse another is it not? And is it not the heights of arrogance to claim that one person or one group of people has the whole story on God? Even Jesus never claims that! Do we have a revelation? Yes. Is it true? Yes. Is it the totality of the nature of God? No, for it is imparted to and through we frail, limited creatures, which are really quite small. However, when we connect with the creative light within we touch the holy and find that it is more than we can ever put in to words. This is common of all mystical and spiritual events. And therein is our clue. Our faith has allowed us into the holy of holies and it is a place beyond words. We can only share it in part and listen when others share their way into that same space. How much more than we when teach or share our faith are we to do so in a way that blesses! How much more must our words be a spring of fresh water that invite without force! We can share our faith with a firm conviction, but always in a way that finds room for the other’s experience without condemnation or judgment. For it is from those we least expect that we often run smack into God’s ongoing revelation. See the Bible for multiple examples. And we can only fully experience God’s ongoing revelation when our tongues are harnessed for good, usefulness, truth…and life.