A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the most powerful things we possess is our voice. This is why those who have power try and silence the voices of those who would rise to challenge them. Our voices are used to spread ideas, used to spread information, used to spread revolution, but can also be used to spread misinformation, to spread fear, to spread division. We are responsible for how we use our voices, responsible for the words that come out of them and the resulting changes to our community and world, whether positive or negative. We are especially responsible when we have a platform from which to use our voice. We are especially responsible when our role or position leads others to want to hear our voice. We are especially responsible when we are called to speak truth, even when that truth is damning of our own failings.
I certainly recognize this responsibility as a preacher in God’s church. I am before you, every week, to connect what we hear from the gospels to the reality of our lives here and now. I am before you to give voice to words on a page that have been passed down through 2000 years of tradition, study, reflection, disagreement, and prayer. And, I am responsible in this position to use the voice that I have been given to preach God’s word in a way that is accessible, welcoming, conversation creating, in a manner that brings all of us together to seriously think about our faith and the lives we are living as followers of Christ.
It is this power of voice, the power that James is referring to when he writes “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire,” it is this power of voice that must be harnessed, that must be understood, that must be respected. Our voice, our tongue, is used in both blessing and cursing. For James, this is contradictory. How can something so small be used to create such distinct realities? How can something that is an inherent part of our being exist in a state of constant contradiction? If we are following Christ, in word as well as deed, if we are doing the works with faith (for as we heard last week, faith without works is dead), then how do we use the power of the word, use the power of our own voices to share that word, to truly follow Christ, particularly when that word must come from a voice that in one instant can bless, and in the next, curse?
If I know anything, I know that the answer to this question is really hard.
It’s hard because our voice comes out of us and we are nothing if not inherently human in our creation. We use our voice to speak to those human things we desire. We listen to the voices of those in power, with privilege, with authority, use their voices to seek after human things with human understanding. It’s hard to think about anything else, really. We wake up each day wondering what the new day will bring. Will my boss, my coworker, my neighbor, my friend, my family member, yell at me again today? Will anyone use their voice to speak to my story, to see me where I am and acknowledge that today has been great, or that today has been a good day among many bad days, or that today has been a bad day but not as bad as they have been, or that today has simply been a day and that’s totally ok? Will I step up to use my voice to better the world, or will it be easier to not say anything so as not to draw attention and make it through another day? Will I continue to fight the good fight regardless of results?
I’m certainly not immune to this. There’s the classic example of muttering, sometimes louder than under my breath, while driving. If only everyone else was the expert, perfect driver like myself…
The challenge for me in using my voice is how I respond when I am passionate, when I am sure, when I have a firmly held belief that for me has no wiggle room, but is not universally shared. I have a tendency to make proclamations about those beliefs. I have a tendency to sound like I am speaking the gospel truth, even if its a human convention, a human understanding that I’m so passionately defending. In making proclamation about a belief, I use my voice of position, of privilege, of authority, to get my way, regardless of how others feel or understand the reality of what I am declaring. I find myself catching myself in these moments realizing that I am proclaiming rather than educating, proclaiming rather than fostering discussion, proclaiming rather than asking for help in discovering something new. I then have to back track, to overcorrect in some ways, in order to reestablish a safe space for opposing views and opinions to be expressed, even if they’re wrong.
Get behind me, Satan!
Peter is rebuked. We are rebuked. I am rebuked.
It’s not that Christ is trying to diminish the realities of the world we face, it’s just that what we are called into as followers of Christ is so much more than this. What we are called into as followers of Christ is so much more than this and asks so much more of us that it can feel silly to get caught up in these human things. Unless we are using our voice to spread the message of Christ, unless we are using our voice to speak to that message here and now, unless we are using our voice to call others into following, then we are focused on human things.
So we ask, how will we know?
How will we know that we are using our voice to follow, to speak truth to power, to challenge the systemic evils of our society, and not focusing on human things, even if they’re human things we feel deeply and passionately about? It’s simple. Are we denying ourselves to follow Christ?
Now, admittedly, this is a high bar to meet, but it’s not like Jesus leaves us low bars once we’ve decided to follow. The bar to gain forgiveness, to experience God’s grace and love, is so low it’s basically nonexistent. But once we’ve gained that forgiveness, grace, love, the bar to continue in following is exceptionally high.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Indeed, what can we give in return for our life?
There is nothing really. There is nothing we can give that makes us deserving of the eternal life that is on offer in following Christ, in embracing the love and forgiveness of God. We don’t deserve it. But, that’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t deserve it, and yet there it is. We don’t deserve it, and yet, if we turn away from our human things, our human understandings, our proper and silent voices, we get it anyways. And, if we can get it anyways, than anyone can get it anyways, if we simply show them the way, if we simply show them the path, by taking up our own crosses and following Christ on the path that has been laid before us. It is a challenge. It is a demanding and near impossible task. But, it is what we are called to do. And, from this, we can find that voice that has been given us by God to change this world into the kingdom of Heaven.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! We know the dangers those small fires pose. We know the damage done to the great forest. We know how long it takes to begin to see regrowth. We know that it will return, eventually, but at what cost? Our tongues can create these destructive fires in our lives and in our communities and in our world. But, fire can also cleanse. Fire can cause a rebirth. Fire can motivate and inspire. Our challenge is learning to harness the power of the fire, the power of our tongues, to give voice to following Christ, to prevent the wanton burning of the forest raging out of control, seeking to consume and destroy, because we cannot get out of our own way, because we cannot pull ourselves away from those human things which constantly pull at us, that constantly infuriate and confuse and distract us.
It is in following Christ, in denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Christ, that we turn away from human things and put our focus and energy into the divine. It is in following Christ, in denying ourselves, that we learn to harness our voice as a tool to bring others into the flock, to radically welcome, to spread the love of Christ to all, regardless. When we even try to do this, we begin to realize the power our voice has. It highlights the responsibility we have to use our voice to better ourselves, to better our communities, to better our world, so that we can come into community with one another, so that the kingdom of Heaven can be experienced, here and now.