First Congregational Church of Gray, Maine
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12, 2021
Rev. Dr. Paul Anderson Day
Ministry with Children – Watch Your Tongue! James 3:1-12
Old Schoolyard Chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Updated Version: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can also hurt me.”
Jesus’s brother James wrote to people in the church to remind us to “Watch our tongues!”
The tongue is like a horse’s bridle (or a dog’s “gentle lead”), or a ship’s rudder.
The tongue is like a fire – burns! – or a wild animal – cannot be tamed.
We should not use the same tongue to praise God and curse our neighbor.
Instead of cursing someone, let us pray for one another.
The Good News: “Who Do You Say I Am?” Mark 8:27-38
I spoke with the children about James’s command to us to “Watch our tongues!” James actually begins the passage with these words, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect . . . .” How much more is that a warning to teachers and preachers!
For that reason, I begin every sermon with a paraphrase of Psalm 19:14, whether spoken or unspoken: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Amen.
Words matter. My mother raised my brothers and me with very strict rules about words; we were taught to avoid taking God’s name in vain, and using curse words, or any kind of crude, rude, or abusive language. “Damn” and “hell” were strictly forbidden, but even euphemisms such as “Darn” or “Gee Whiz” were frowned upon, though Mom would occasionally complain about those “Darn Yankees!” Ivory™ soap was advertised as 99 & 44/100ths % pure – but that didn’t make it taste any better!
Telling someone to “Shut up!” would bring a demand for an apology followed by our own quiet time out. A few years ago “Shut up!” was very much in vogue to express surprise or affirmation or even disagreement. Kind of the opposite of “Whatever!” For example: “You scored 100 on that test? Shut up!!!” I haven’t heard it much recently. – Thank goodness!!!
Imagine my shock, therefore, when I discovered the literal translation behind today’s Gospel reading — Mark 8:27-33
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And Jesus told them to ‘Shut up!’ and not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 Jesus said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and told him to ‘Shut up!’ about such things. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus told Peter to ‘Shut up!’ and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Clifton Black, professor of biblical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary calls this Mark’s “most verbally abusive passage. Three times Jesus or Peter tells the other to ‘shut up’ (epitimaō): the same verb that stifles demons and a gale (1:25; 3:12; 4:39; 9:25). Its first occurrence is smothering the disciples’ correct ascription of messiahship to Jesus. For the first and only time in Mark, Peter and peers recognize their teacher, but Jesus commands them to ‘shut up’ and say nothing to anyone. After Jesus plainly explains to them all that the Son of Man must suffer, Peter shuts [Jesus] up. Then, ‘Turning and seeing his disciples, [Jesus] shut up Peter . . . .”
Most modern translation committees are filled with diligent scholars who are also usually genteel and polite people. Naturally, they often subconsciously soften the sharp edges of the Bible’s language. Thus, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell” . . . Peter “began to rebuke” Jesus . . . and “he rebuked Peter.” But Mark uses the earthy speech of Galilean fishers to drive his narrative.
Dr. Black continues: “The language grates, not just because the stakes are life and death, but because Jesus upends everything we expect a messiah to be and to do for us. First-century Jewish messianic hopes varied, but none of them expected a messiah crucified by elders (lay leaders), chief priests (tall-steeple preachers), and scribes (biblical scholars). Writings like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and Qumran’s Damascus Document [one of the Dead Sea scrolls] dreamt of idealized rulers who would judge the wicked and restore Israel’s righteous. . . .
“One of the ways modern Christians sashay around this question is to trivialize the cross. Crucifixion was an instrument designed for its victims’ utter degradation and excruciating torture: capital punishment so vile that it appalled even tough-minded [Romans].”
Dr. Black points out that we trivialize the Cross when we wear beautiful gold, silver or jeweled crosses without a thought to its deeper significance. My friend and colleague Rev. Ed DeLong tells of one time when he was in a jewelry store at the Maine Mall. Two young women were looking over the various crosses on display. He overheard one of them say to the salesperson, “I want one with the ‘little man’ on it.” — Shut.Up!!!
Someone has suggested that in today’s world it might be more apt for Christians to adorn our necks with model “Electric Chairs” – or even more appropriate in these days of racism and the “new Jim Crow” – to wear little nooses like those used in lynchings!
I have a few crosses – and I try to think about their meaning whenever I choose to wear one — whether in the pulpit or in the grocery store.
1) Olive Wood from Bethlehem – Holy Land
2) Wood & Cut Nail – Eastern Nazarene College & Dr. Harvey Blaney
3) Nails – daughter’s Camp project
4) Navaho Copper – Native American faith & concerns for justice
But let us get back to Dr. Black’s main point: Mark’s “language grates, not just because the stakes are life and death, but because Jesus upends everything we expect a messiah to be and to do . . . .”
Jesus began with a question, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples reported back the various rumors – Jesus was John the Baptist brought back to life, the long-awaited return of Elijah, or some other prophet.
Jesus then asked the disciples the key question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded for all the rest, “You are the Messiah”—that is, the Christ. (Christ is not Jesus’s last name; it is a title! Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah – the Anointed One.) The term carried a lot of freight and expectations. So Jesus told the disciples to “Shut up!” and learn just what kind of Messiah Jesus is.
The Messiah Jesus would not overthrow the occupying Roman Empire by leading a rebel-army and establish a new theocracy, as many expected (and as we see the Taliban attempting to do in Afghanistan today). No, instead he would undermine all earthly authorities – the political, military, social, and even religious establishment – by giving himself over to death—and be raised again. His sacrificial love would set people free forever from sin and death itself.
As Jesus continued to teach – not just the Twelve but the crowd that had gathered as well – he invited them to follow him by taking up their own cross and walking the way of sacrificial love for one another. — Mark 8:34-38
34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
As Dr. Black noted, “First-century Jewish messianic hopes varied, but none of them expected a [crucified] messiah . . . . None of these messiahs handed their followers a cross to be shouldered en route to their own Golgothas. In no Gospel does Jesus say, ‘It is my responsibility to die for you, while you applaud my heroism.’ Instead: ‘The Son of Man is ordained by God to suffer, die, and be raised. And so are his followers. Are you coming?’”
The questions still echo today, “Who do people say Jesus is/was?” There are many opinions about who Jesus was – a great teacher or rabbi, a miracle worker, a rebel, a socialist, a healer, an enigma. The Church proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior and Lord, the Incarnate Word, the Son of God or God the Son, King of kings and Lord of lords!
Jesus still addresses the key question to each and every one of us — Who do you say that I am? Each of us must answer for ourselves. How we answer that question makes all the difference in our lives. You see, how I answer, “Who is Jesus to me?” or “What kind of Messiah/Christ am I willing to follow?”
When I go on Facebook or Twitter, I am asked if I want to “follow” a person or a page. If I click “follow” their posts will show up more often in my news feed. For some people, it seems, that’s how they choose to “follow” Jesus.
A colleague reflected on recent “Jobs Reports” from the Department of Labor. There are currently 10 million job openings in the U.S. and 8.4 million unemployed. We have 1.6 more jobs available than people who are looking for jobs. How can this be?!?! Well, let’s face it, there are some people who aren’t really looking for a job. Others are unwilling or unable to re-locate to take a job in another state. Some are over-qualified or cannot take a job that doesn’t pay a living wage. The most significant reason, however, is that they do not have the necessary skills for the available jobs. For example, there is a shortage of truck drivers; too few people have the needed training and licenses. And we do not have enough computer programmers and engineers.
My friend wrote:
Like the American economy, local churches have plenty of jobs, but we don’t have the people who are willing and trained to do those jobs.
I have to confess: the first finger of blame has to be pointed at me and other church leaders. For years, we measured success by attendance. My credibility as a pastor was validated by the number of people I could get to attend Sunday morning worship and other church events. So, we mastered the techniques and skills to drive up our attendance numbers. We became rhetorical magicians and ecclesiastical entertainers and we got pretty good at it. Attendance went up. We were experts at getting people to come to church and sit quietly. We mastered those skills and they seemed to work.
Until they didn’t. Attendance became sporadic. Then, it dropped all together. Of course, pastors blamed culture, but the truth is more painful. We got really good at driving attendance, but we were lousy at making disciples.
We are called not to be casual followers or “Jesus groupies” but disciples, following Jesus in the way of sacrificial love.
Jesus put it sharply, “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?”
Jesus asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” And then he invites us to follow him – with our eyes wide open – in the way of sacrificial love.
This weekend we are remembering the events of September 11, 2001. We remember and mourn the lives lost on that day, and in twenty years of war. And let us never forget the self-sacrifice of First Responders and servicemen and women who ran into danger rather than away from it—and saved countless other lives.
I was the Executive Director of the Bible Society of Maine. The months immediately after 9/11 saw a resurgence of national unity as well as a hunger for God’s Word. We distributed a special booklet called “God Is Our Shelter and Strength” featuring a picture of First Responders at the rubble of the Twin Towers on the cover. Church attendance rose – albeit temporarily.
More recently we have lost many more lives to a global pandemic and we have seen the same kind of extraordinary self-sacrifice from healthcare workers and other “essential employees.” Yet, we have lost that spirit of national unity and willingness to sacrifice for others. Sadly, many who bear the name of Christian have been more vocal about their own rights and freedom than about loving their neighbors.
Now more than ever the Church of Jesus Christ needs to be disciples — following Jesus in the way of self-sacrifice and love — and the Church needs to be in the business of making disciples. I have another cross —
5) Jerusalem Cross a.k.a. the Disciple’s Cross – the four crosses represent the wounds of Christ but also his call to take up our cross and follow him.
Scripture Reading Psalm 19:7-14
Note: Psalm 19 begins with a look at the way Creation voices God’s praise; the second part of the psalm focuses on God’s Word to us.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Note: This past week Jews observed Rosh Hashanah – literally, “Head of the Year” or New Year, for the year 5782, beginning the “High Holy Days” or “Days of Awe” through this Thursday, which is Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. The traditional greeting is “May you have a sweet year!” accompanied by apples dipped in honey. I wonder if that evokes Psalm 19:10 – God’s commandments are “sweeter than honey.”
After reflecting on the delights of God’s Word, the Psalmist recognizes that God’s Word also carries a warning against disobedience – and a promise of reward for those who “keep” it. Therefore, the Psalmist ends with a prayer for God’s help in keeping God’s Word.
12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.