As usual, when I’ve fallen off the tracks of blogging, I can be relied upon to clamber back on the rails by posting a sermon. I was up today at the cathedral, at the end of a positively mad week of work (meetings, appointments, changes in plan, changes in room expectation, form-filling-out, et cetera). This week will be mad, too, in different ways: Teaching begins, Margaret and I will go offer our biometric features to the Home Office, more meetings, midweek worship for both the Kirk and the Episcopal congregation at the Uni, and so on — but I’m not preaching next week, so that’s a relief.
Today’s sermon came out in a rush in the preparation stage, but when I preached it I wasn’t sure how it went. A number of people offered favourable assessments, though, so it probably didn’t harm anyone. It proved difficult, wen I thought about James, to avoid giving a fascinating lecture on the intricacies of these verses — the curse of the commentary hanging over me. That, and the oddity of me preaching on a text warning against becoming a teacher (or preacher), combined to balk some of my compositional impulses.
Anyway, the sermon is below, in the ‘More reading’ section. Margaret and I are writing overdue notes to family and friends, and preparing our lectures for next week. The weather in Glasgow has turned markedly autumnal — not inappropriate for the season, but a decisive end to a never-fully-convincing summer. Three months till the days start heading back in the correct direction.
Isaiah 50:4-9a / James 3:1-12 / Mark 8:27-38
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There will be a lot of tongue in this morning’s sermon — a lot of tongue, and a lot of teaching, and even a bit of the gospel for good measure. While you would probably prefer not to hear about teachers’ tongues, our lessons this morning practically force them on our attention; and in this case, as so often, the matters about which we prefer not to think touch on some of the topics about which we most need to share a few words.
St James warns us about tongues this morning, about teachers’ tongues in particular. James identifies a series of problems with tongues: they’re boastful, iniquitous, evil, full of death-dealing poison, and liable to curse our sisters and brothers who are (after all) made in God’s image. All of these are bad enough on their own, but James takes particular notice of the problems of tongues because with our tongues we intertwine our selves, we bind ourselves one to another as social beings. Among all the ways we interact with one another — by touching, by seeing and being seen — our tongues, and likewise our pens and printing presses and keyboards, affect many people at once: dozens of people in the market place, hundreds of people in a congregation or theatre audience or lecture hall, thousands of people in an article in the press, perhaps millions of people in a recording on YouTube. As a small flame sets the whole forest ablaze, an offhand remark can carry and reverberate far beyond the bounds of the setting in which it was first spoken. As a stick of wood in a pilot’s hand can change the course of an entire ship, a politician’s tongue can change the actions and sentiments of a nation. The tongue is a small bit of flesh (or at least so it seems to a non-clinical observer — our medics will set me right after the service), but it boasts of great things.
And as St James emphasises, the problems with tongues arise even more forcefully among teachers — not solely schoolteachers and lecturers, but anyone who ventures to set other people right, be they preachers or government ministers, managers, judges, or even just mums and dads. When we use our tongues to assert our authority, saying ‘Believe me, this is so’ or ‘Listen, you’, we make ourselves accountable not only for our own frailties and errors, but equally for our influence on others. I’ve been preaching and lecturing for more than twenty-five years, now; that makes for several thousand people to whom I may have transmitted some malformed idea, some misconceived notion. And when our lesson says that I as a teacher will be judged with greater strictness, that judgment comes not because our Heavenly Judge bear a particular animus against teachers, but because we are judged first for our own transgressions, but then also for the errors we propagate through those who take up and pass along our bad ideas.
That alone should give us pause; every stern admonition, every hortatory flourish has to stand before God not only for its own soundness, but also for its effect on our sisters and brothers! But the stakes rise even further when we consider how often we use our tongues ill-advisedly to scold, to chastise, to rebuke one another — as though God’s calling to us to be a light to the world, a beacon to outsiders, were a license to bully everyone who doesn’t agree with us. Our privilege sometimes tempts us to treat that gift as a mallet for bludgeoning our neighbours. ‘We know the will of God, so you’ve got to live the way we tell you. We know the will of God, so you have to believe the precise doctrine we teach you. We know the will of God, so unless you join us we won’t treat you with dignity or patience or charity.’ We sometimes take a calling to teach, and use it as a license to tyrannise.
Yet both Isaiah and James warn us against yielding to that temptation. Isaiah knows that people will oppose and resist him, strike him, insult him, spit at him (and even pull his beard). James repeats over and over that we must speak honestly and openly, that we must not use authority or wealth against the interests of our neighbours, and most especially against the interest of our poorer, less powerful neighbours. James likewise urges us always to show no favouritism to the rich, but to take the side of the poor, the widow, the orphan; to support the underpaid labourer over against the exploitative manager; to beware the risks that come from assuming we have anything to teach others, when all of us make many mistakes all the time.
When our first lesson begins with Isaiah’s bold claim that ‘The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher’, he speaks above all as the Isaiah who comes to his vocation as a prophet, as a teacher, with a keen sense of his own unreadiness to take on that responsibility. From the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, from that exquisite and terrible scene in the temple when Isaiah laments, ‘I am a man of unclean lips’, to the closing promises of the last oracles in the book, Isaiah stresses that leadership, that teaching authority belongs not to the popular heroes with gaudy power, but to those who are rejected by the bystanders; Isaiah teaches us that the servant of God doesn’t connive, doesn’t conquer, doesn’t manipulate or dissemble, but faithfully, openly carries out God’s ministry of reconciliation, healing, sheltering, feeding, and of humbly speaking the good news of God’s truth. God has given Isaiah the tongue of a teacher, not to offer a tedious lecture series, not to give an end-of-year examination or to grade the people on a strict one-to-twenty scale, but so that Isaiah will ‘know how to sustain the weary with a word.’ Isaiah’s teaching vocation involves listening: ‘morning by morning God wakens. . . my ear to listen’; his teaching vocation involves suffering insult and abuse: ‘I gave my back to those who struck me’; his vocation means enduring powerlessness in the trust that God will vindicate him. This is the tongue of a teacher: the voice of one who has listened, the voice of those who have given up the expectation that they can get their own way, the voice of patience and faithfulness and remembrance and constancy.
We hear the tongue of the teacher most clearly when our lives and our words make visible and audible the way of Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to us with the good news that although trial and hardship beset us in our way, our trust in God will not ever be vain. The work of a power that rests on our own accomplishments is an ephemeral thing; it will wear out like a garment, moth-eaten and shabby. The clothes that a princess wears can be bought and sold, but her charitable work may last to affect the lives of many. The habit that a nun wears is as nothing, but her life of self-giving work may build a movement to relieve thousands among the poorest of the poor. The work of a power that relies on God for guidance and support itself partakes of God’s eternity; it reflects the image of the invisible God, it perpetuates the work of the body of Christ.
Relying on God is simpler in a sermon than in everyday life. James reminded us just last week that faith apart from action is barren. Our tongues can recite the Creed every week, we can affirm all the tenets of sound doctrine, but Jesus’ call to trust him is a calling to put our trust and faith into practice, to place our gifts at the disposal of others. In uncertainty and weakness, we gather together here, Sunday after Sunday, week on week, meeting with friends who are not ashamed to profess and to practice their faith in Jesus. Here our worship, our preaching, our communion and fellowship bring us together. Here we encourage each other, here we stand by each other, here we learn from one another how most wisely to enact our faith.
This is our teaching, this is our trust: neither dictating to others nor cursing neighbours made in the image of God, but growing in peaceable candour with one another, so that we can be honest with each other, speaking the words that need to be heard, voicing a word of truth that brings us closer to the source of our life.
The Lord God has given us the tongue of a teacher, if we will listen and learn. The Lord God has given us the gift of sustaining others, if we will endure. The Lord God has set the greatest power in the world at our disposal, if we will not claim that power as our own. As we are not ashamed to learn from and to follow a powerless servant in the way of the cross, as we relinquish reliance on our own brilliance and power, our wealth or our authority, we set free the power that transforms the cosmos and transforms us ourselves, that speaks through us with the very tongues of angels, changed from the ephemeral glory of a passing world to the everlasting glory of the Lord of Love and Truth.