Monday, September 14, 2009
A Teachable Tongue
Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 20, preached on Sunday, September 13, 2009
I well recall being cautioned by a wise man who knew my penchant for speaking first and thinking later. “Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” It was a painful but important lesson. An open mouth is a bomb waiting to explode. And the damage done by an out of control mouth affects the speaker as well as the target. How much trouble do we get into because of our mouths? Idle talk, mean talk, angry talk, lying talk – is it no wonder that James warms us against an unbridled tongue. A tongue instructed by the Spirit and under control is a vehicle of faith and witness but apart from the Spirit that same tongue is a tool of all our demons and an instrument of our destruction.
You and I know well the damage the wrong words can cause. More often than not the worst damage is done by the whispered conversations than by voices in public. Even in a Christian congregation we struggle with rumors and whispers that have the power to undo much good and preoccupy God’s people from their appointed tasks of witness and service. Contrast that with the voice of the father in the Gospel lesson for today: “Lord, I believe! Help thou my unbelief.” Which words should be on our tongues? Words that degrade or defame or words that cry out to be built up in faith? It does not take a genius to figure that one out.
The words prompted by the Spirit and the words that our mouths were created to speak are words of faith. “Lord, I believe.” Only the Spirit can teach us to forsake these words that are weapons of destruction and exchange them for words that edify, that built up. We came here today first to confess the damage our mouths have done with words that we should not have spoken. How many of our sins just confessed have to do with words? And we asked God for more than just forgiveness but for a teachable tongue that, instruction by the Holy Spirit, may serve the causes of Christian faith and life. Today we come with the prayer that God will teach us what words are good and salutary and what words should not be spoken at all.
Today we will speak many words together. Some of those will be words of confession in which we claim as our own the faith the Church has confessed over many years. In the creed, for example, we add our voice to the voices of old to say “This we believe... in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This faith did not come naturally to us but the Spirit instructed us to know who God is and what He has done to save us. Today we join our voices together to speak as one voice “This we believe...” of creation and redemption, of the cross and empty tomb, of forgiveness, life and salvation.
Today we come to speak the words that ascend to the Father’s throne, in praise of what Christ has done, in petition for the Spirit to renew our faith in Christ, and in supplication for all those in need. The voice of our Amen is no small voice – it speaks of our confidence that God hears and answers the prayers of His people. Don’t ever take lightly what it means to add your voices saying “hear our prayer” to the petitions which end, “Lord, in Your mercy.” With our voices we ascend to the throne of God with all the burdens, needs, prayers, and trust we have. Even in prayer our tongues proclaim: “This we believe...”
Today we speak with voices that are raised not in anger but in witness. The hope that is within us is the hope that we speak about to neighbor and stranger, to family and friend. “This we believe...” That is the purpose of these mouths God has given us and this is the goal of our words. As Christian people we confess that we have betrayed this purpose, soiled our mouths, and abused out tongues with slander and hate, gossip and anger. Today we pray the Lord that this not be our legacy or our witness – not what is spoken in anger but what is spoken in love, not what is spoken in judgment but what is spoken in Christ. Lord, forgive us what we did say and teach us what we ought to say – words that make known Jesus Christ and tell the story of His death and resurrection that give us forgiveness and life.
In the Gospel lesson we heard the man also pray, “Help thou my unbelief...” With these words, the father who had seen his son suffer and be redeemed from that suffering acknowledge that the e journey ahead is still long and there will be many temptations along the way. “Help my unbelief...” We pray for an end to the battle in our hearts, to the forces of anger and dispute, to the voices of conflict and destruction. By this we admit we can not predict the future but we pray God to be there to reign in our tongues, to sustain the hope within us, and help us to speak faith, forgiveness, and life in Christ.
By these words we literally beg God to keep our doubts from stealing away our faith, to keep our fears from making us weak and to keep our tongues from speaking anger, bitterness and judgment. By these words we commit our cause to the only One who can control our tongues and change our hearts. “Help my unbelief” is a prayer for that grace in which we may stand, for the life of Christ to be stronger and stronger in us, and for the forces of evil, temptation, and deceit to become weaker and weaker in us and in our lives. As Christians it is enough for us to pray that the Christ who lives in us by baptism would grow ever stronger in us so that it is not me who lives but Christ who lives in me. That is what “help my unbelief” means and why these are the words we were redeemed to learn to pray.
Our mouths are indeed trouble makers – when they link directly to our hearts and minds without the Spirit to filter and direct our words, our mouths always lead us into trouble, writing checks we cannot cash, making promises we cannot keep, exchanging lies for truth, speaking out when silence is the better path, and giving voice to our anger when they should be giving voice to our faith. We need the Spirit to teach our tongues, to instruct our hearts and minds, and to give us the right words, the words of faith to speak. The language of doubt and sin, evil and selfishness – this language comes naturally to us because of sin. We need the Spirit to teach us the language of faith, the words of witness, the voice of hope, the powerful speech of service and love, the healing sentences of forgiveness and peace. We need the Spirit to guide out tongues to their appointed purpose – to proclaim Jesus Christ and the salvation He has accomplished, for each of us and for all of us. Lord, teach me to speak this always. Amen.