Monday, September 14, 2009

The Tongue

Isaiah 50.4-9, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38

A few years ago I was sent to see a consultant at the Leeds General Infirmary because I had lost my voice. She was prodding inside my mouth with a thing like the back of a tablespoon, trying to see the inside of my throat. "Can't you stick your tongue out any further than that?" she asked. "No," I said, "That's as far as it will go." "Really?" She was a bit surprised, so she lifted up my tongue and then exclaimed, "Hey, look everyone! He's tongue-tied!" The students and junior doctors in the room crowded rounded to see. Someone opened a door and called out to the nurses, "Come and look at this!" And I thought, "Fantastic! I'm a freak show!"

Apparently, tongue-tied people are very rare nowadays because if a baby is tongue-tied the paediatricians cut the tie in the first few days of life to help them breastfeed better. But that never happened to me, and I had to make the best of it. I never was much good at breastfeeding, my mother says, and that's not the only thing I'm not very good at. Rolling my "Rs" isn't possible, for a start.

Tonight's Bible readings are all about the tongue. "The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher," says the Prophet in the New Revised Standard version of this passage, "So that I may... sustain the weary with a word." And the writer of the Letter of James is actually obsessed with tongues. First he describes how a bit is placed on top of a horse's tongue to control the way it moves - and then goes on to compare sailing ships to horses. The wind filling the sails drives a boat through the water, but it is the tiny rudder which - like a tongue - decides which course the ship will steer. And then, finally, he says that the tongue is a burning fire sent straight from hell, a world of iniquity staining or polluting the whole body.

That description of the tongue could sound a touch hysterical, were it not for the example of Peter, who just goes to prove why the tongue can be so dangerous. Peter tries to put his Master straight about some disturbing ideas that he has begun to share with the disciples, but Jesus rounds on him and says, "Get behind me Satan!" Here it seems is a tongue which really is 'a restless evil, full of deadly poison.'

We do have to be careful, don't we, what we say? Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words do also hurt and - for most people - it's easier to speak rashly and harshly than it is to inflict actual bodily harm. So a loose tongue can do a lot of damage. As the Chinese proverb puts it, words are like a kite whose string has been broken. Once they are gone, they cannot be recalled. We can apologise for their effect, but we can never undo what we have said.

A while ago someone was speaking to me in a stressful situation. They were feeling ill, I think, and their temper got the better of them. In no time at all they were calling other people - their colleagues - lazy, dishonest, deceptive, prejudiced and even unchristian. I advised them to consider their words because, as I pointed out, if later they felt differently they would have a lot of explaining to do.

'No one can tame the tongue,' says the writer of the epistle, '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. [But], my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.'

Let's try to be positive about tongues, though. What about the words of the Prophet with which I began? 'The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher.' Is that actually a positive thing? I think back to some of my teachers, and their ability to use biting irony or even simple ridicule to belittle their pupils, and I'm not sure that it is. But the best teachers, of course, could maintain order without resort to shouting or unpleasantness. Their enthusiasm for their subject, and their ability to communicate, made us ready to listen to them and to learn.

That's the sort of teacher whom the Prophet has in mind when he talks about the tongue of a teacher sustaining the weary with a word. He is, in fact, thinking about God's own infinite ability to teach and guide us. 'Morning by morning God wakens the Prophet to listen, and he has not been rebellious, like a naughty child, instead God opened his ear to learn and he did not turn back from what God was calling him to do.

That's not because God's teaching was soothing or easy to follow. The Prophet found himself being called to give his back to those who were striking him - presumably that means allowing himself to be flogged or beaten instead of running away or turning to fight, and that's what the Revised English Bible assumes with its translation, 'I offered my back to the lash.' Worse still, the Prophet had to endure people pulling out strands - or even clumps - of his beard, as well as insulting him and spitting in his face.

Not that this is uncontrolled aggression from a bunch of bullies or psychopaths. The antagonists of the Prophet seem to have been softening him up, or trying to extract a confession, ready for a show trial at which they expect him to be disgraced or put to shame, so that his opinions will be neutralised and will count for nothing any more. But the Prophet was so sure that God was on his side that he resolved to set his face like flint and wait confidently for a not guilty verdict.

So here we have a poem about God's tongue, the tongue of the perfect teacher, preparing his weary servant for a harsh experience, but promising to exonerate him and clear his name before the court of public opinion.

Who were these opponents who were trying to destroy the Prophet's reputation? He was probably an exile from his homeland, living in modern day Iraq. Were these members of the Iraqi regime - then called the Babylonian Empire - trying to prevent him from raising false expectations among his fellow exiles? Were they members of the Jewish community in exile in Babylon, who didn't share his optimism that God was about to change the course of history and who wanted the exiles to keep a low profile? Or is he describing - in poetry - the collective experience which the whole exiled community had gone through when they were snatched from their homeland and marched into captivity?

Christians, of course, cannot fail to notice the striking parallel with the trial of Jesus. Had he read and been inspired by this poem when he began to prophesy to his friends that God's representative, The Son of Man, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and only then - after three days - rise again?

James reminds us that only God can fairly be described as a perfect teacher, and he warns that teaching and preaching for that matter, is therefore a risky profession because those 'who teach will be judged with greater strictness' than those who do not presume to tell other people what to do or how to behave. But in the end, after his rant about the evils of an unguarded tongue, he comes around to much the same way of thinking as the Prophecy. What matters is that we are true to our calling. If we are meant to be a spring or a fountain, we should produce fresh water. If we are meant to be an olive tree, we should yield olives. If we are meant to be seawater we should taste salty.

If we came across a spring that produced brackish water, or olive trees that yielded figs, or saltwater that tasted sweet, something would clearly be very wrong and we should have to treat that situation with extreme caution and suspicion. It's the same alarming situation which we face, says James, when someone says one thing but does another, or says conflicting things. In those circumstances we have to ask ourselves what's really going on. Has the person who is doing this lost their direction, or have they been corrupted by false motives?

Jesus rebuked Peter for losing his way and then went on to explain to his startled disciples that being true to the inner teachings of God's Spirit is all about behaving like the Prophet in the poem. Just as the Prophet was not rebellious, and did not turn his back on suffering when this became part of his calling, so - as Christians - we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

However, this call to suffering is not about becoming holy doormats, and refusing to resist any bully who happens to cross our path. It doesn't mean that we must accept pain or misfortune as an inevitable part of the Christian life. The call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and - if necessary - forfeit our lives is explicitly a call to do this only when it it is necessary for Jesus' sake and for the sake of the gospel. Which brings us full circle, back to the need to listen carefully - like the Prophet - for God's guidance and calling. Unlike Peter, we must set our minds resolutely on divine things, not human things.

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