By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
There is a common thread throughout the readings today: the consequences of human speech. In the Gospel reading, St. Peter finds out that speaking out of turn and rebuking the Son of God is not a good idea. St. James, in his letter, warns of the cosmic dangers of an unbridled tongue. And Isaiah rejoices that “the Lord God has given [him] the tongue of a teacher, that [he] may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
Now, when I was a child, I learned a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I have read that a version of that saying dates back to the year 1862. Another, much more recent saying I learned in my youth, went like this: “I’m rubber. You’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!” Of course, neither saying is true. Words can, and do, hurt people. And verbal assaults do not, in fact, just bounce off their victims.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear how St. Peter erred most grievously by rebuking Jesus for speaking about his impending death. Peter spoke, when he should have held his tongue. If Peter had spoken out of pure love of the Lord, Jesus’ reaction might have been different. But Jesus implies that Peter was motivated by human shame at what he perceived to be “defeatist” words. Peter warrants the rebuke that he receives. Even so, it must have hurt to have his master call him “Satan” in front of his fellow disciples. It’s a difficult story for us to hear, I think. And it should give us pause. How often do our words offend the Lord? And what rebuke do we deserve?
Stepping back one reading to the Letter of James, we find a warning: Mind your tongue! The context seems to be that a great number of people are clamoring to speak and teach in the church. St. James warns his readers that public speakers are held to a higher standard and that most of them are not ready for the job. He starts out by noting the great power of human speech. And he compares the tongue to the bridle on a horse or the rudder on a ship. The point of both metaphors is that human speech can have disproportionately monumental effects in the world. And in St. James’ rather pessimistic opinion, more often than not, the effects of human speech are as destructive as a forest fire. James marvels at the fact that the same tongue that blesses God can also curse one’s neighbor. He finds this duality utterly unnatural. And he despairingly concludes that “no one can tame the tongue.”
In former days, the unbridled speech of a public speaker was limited to the people within earshot of the speaker. Nowadays, anyone with a Twitter account can broadcast their bile worldwide. But even in the first century, before the advent of mass communications, St. James was warning his readers that uncontrolled speech has cosmic repercussions: it sets on fire the whole “cycle of nature.” And he attributed the origin of all wrong speech to none other than Hell itself.
So what can we do? How can we bridle this untamable tongue of ours? Well, we can’t—at least, not on our own. The first reading today from Isaiah hints at the solution to this existential problem. Isaiah writes, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I many know how to sustain the weary with a word.” No, we cannot tame our unruly tongues, but God certainly can. Prophecy and teaching are gifts of the Spirit. Likewise, so is verbal self-control. And it is a gift that we all should pray for daily!
Pray that God will guide your speech. Pray for the power to muzzle that sharp word before you speak it. Pray for the ability to discern when you have crossed over from genuine concern for a brother or sister into the realm of gossip. Pray for the wisdom to delete that sarcastic comment on Twitter before you click the Tweet button, or to reword that angry e-mail before hitting Send.
I don’t know if St. James was right about the cosmic import of human speech. But we can all see what uncontrolled speech has done to this nation. We have a President who can’t stop Tweeting nasty attacks on his critics. We have cable-TV pundits from both political parties fanning the flames of national disunity, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The so-called “blogosphere” is aflame with hate speech of every kind. And agents from Russia and Iran are actively spreading disinformation on our social media platforms.
We may not be able to control the words and actions of those folks, no matter how much we would dearly like to. But we can do something about our own words and actions. At least, we can…with God’s help. In the Collect of the Day, we prayed to God, “Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” Let us make an addendum to that prayer: “O God, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our tongues.” Amen.
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.