Gospel: Mark 27-37 1st Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a 2nd Reading: James 3:1-12
Last week on our camping trip, we woke in the middle of the night to pouring down rain. We were prepared with our tarp over our tent and our food and utensils packed safely in the car. In the morning it was still pouring, so we went out to breakfast and then to the 70 millimeter film The Sound of Music. I've seen the Sound of Music 8 or 10 times and I know most of the words to the songs. But it really wasn't until I saw it this time that I connected with a deeper message of the film. You probably all noticed this a long time ago, but sometimes it takes me a while to catch on. What I noticed was pull in Baron VonTrapp between the values of this world as represented by Baroness Schrader and higher godly values as represented by Maria. The Baroness was so attractive and rich. She is who everyone would expect he would marry. She was powerful. But she was cold and unloving. She was planning to send the kids to boarding school.
Maria, on the other hand, represented God's values. She had learned as a postulant in the Abbey to “Find out the will of God, and to do it.” She was poor in money and fashion, but she was focused on God's will and values, and had a lot of love to give and she told the truth, even when the truth was hard to hear. She told the Baron about his own children and reunited the family into a good balance where they began to enjoy each other's company and to communicate. She would not have been the expected choice for him to marry.
This struggle of the Baron's was one he was fighting in his political life, as well. Should he do what everyone else expected him to and follow the violent values of this world or should he follow his own heart and his own values? In the end we can see that if he had married the Baroness, perhaps he would have turned his back on his own values and become an officer in the Nazi military, but because he married Maria, because she was always strong and outspoken and true to her values, he knew he had to be as well, so, of course, they fled Austria.
Maria was not known for holding her tongue, if you remember the film. She often got herself in trouble because she was so outspoken. Our readings for today, are all about the power of speech and the words we say, but also the difficulty in controlling our words.
Speech is powerful. Words can hurt us so deeply—scar us for life. Things our parents said to us or that children said to us when we were young still echo through our minds. We remember the sting of criticism or the elation when we were praised. One can “sustain the weary with a word,” according to Isaiah. But also a rumor can spread like a forest fire, according to James, and cause mass destruction. Worse than anything that has ever been said to me, is the memory of things I have said without thinking. I once told another pastor who had just started to grow a beard that he looked like a homeless person. He didn't choose to take this with humor. I once asked a person how far along she was, when she wasn't pregnant. But the same thing has happened to me, and I was standing in a donut shop, so I have to forgive myself this human mistake, and it was a long time before we got donut again!
I am proud to be an introvert. I process my thoughts internally in quiet. I enjoy being by myself and having time to think things through. I get in less trouble that way. When I was a kid, I was so introverted, when I had to make a phone call, I would write down everything I needed to say, and really psych myself up, because it was so overwhelming to me. I still sometimes write out whole scripts of what I need to say when I am stressed, so that I feel prepared and don't just shut down. Although I am an introvert, I have entered a profession where I have to do quite a bit of public speaking and be social. Maybe that is part of what attracted me to being a pastor, is that I have to force myself to interact more and I do get a lot out of meeting people and hearing their stories. Of course, introversion and extroversion are more of a continuum than all or nothing. As the pastor, with a seminary education, with a visible leadership role, people sometimes look to me to tell them what to think or say or believe. I might have some context for some reading from the Bible that might be helpful, and I try to offer that, when I do. But for me, I see my role more as helping people learn to express what they think and believe and to discuss that with each other. As I look around a room, say at Bible Study or a meeting, I am figuring out who has more power in the room and who has less, who has spoken the most and who the least, who might have a story to share that we haven't heard yet. Usually, I am one of the most powerful in the room, so it isn't time for me to share more. I get tired of my own stories, I want to hear from someone else. As a more powerful member of the group, it is a better use of my power to keep quiet and let other people talk.
In the Sound of Music, Maria ends up talking a lot and Baron Von Trapp very little. My guess is that this is a reversal of what the Baron was expecting. He was used to giving orders and being in charge. He was the most powerful. But Maria had a rudder that was directing her. She was heading toward stormy seas by butting heads with the Baron, but she had values that needed to be upheld and she knew they would lead to a happier household if she held firm. She went through that storm and came out the other side. She said what needed to be said, the truth, and she let the family decide how that would affect them. The Baron could have chosen to stay the course, but he let her affect him. The more powerful one stayed silent as the less powerful one spoke on behalf of those who had no voice at all, the children. And because of that, a household covered in a shroud of grief, emerged with new life and new relationships and new communication in which love was shared and life flourished.
How can we tame our tongues? If we have a truth that needs to be told, how can we tame our tongues to tell it and how can we tell it, so it can be heard? If we talk too much, how do we know and how can we shut our mouths? If we are introverts, how can we get ourselves to share a little bit more? If we like to gossip, how do we keep that in check? If we tear down other people with our words but worship God, how do we get our mouths and hearts to be consistent? How can we waken our ears to be better listeners?
Maybe the confession of who Jesus is will remind us of who we are. Maybe when we are more grounded in who we are as children of God and know that we are safe within that framework, we don't have to be afraid, which is where a lot of forest fires of gossip and misunderstanding start. Maybe if we understand communication better, we can use it better to listen to those who never get a chance to share their story. Maybe practice makes perfect and that's why we keep on coming here to practice each week. Sometimes we offend each other. Sometimes we have completely different styles. Sometimes we keep the communication superficial. Sometimes we just can't seem to work together. But we keep working on it. And we keep practicing listening. We hold periods of silence within worship to provide time to listen. We listen to different pieces of music by the choir or Karen. We listen to each other's prayers. We try to respond in helpful ways. And we try to tame our tongues to match what God has placed in our hearts, so that what we say matches our values, and use our power to give voice to the voiceless.
Peter is walking with Jesus in Caesarea. There are some ominous clouds on the horizon. The authorities are trying to trap Jesus. He's already in a lot of trouble. But Peter is starting to get it. Jesus is the Messiah. Peter finally says it. He looks at Jesus to see if it is true. It is. Peter has confessed what he knew in his heart. He stands in the presence of God. But Peter doesn't understand about God's values. God is not going to try convincing everyone with words or violent strength or even self-defense of who God is. God is showing in vulnerability who God is. God's values are in sharing power and love and life, not destruction and weapons and force. Those must be our values, too. When we are powerful, we must share that power by listening. When we are less powerful, we must share our stories of being persecuted and suffering, not to whine, but so that the world knows we are all out of synch with God's values and the world can change for the good of everyone.
When I was in Nicaragua, I remember one Sunday School lesson with the kids, they were asked, “What is prayer?” And these elementary school kids answered, quite profoundly, “Communication with God.” I don't know that I could have summed it up so simply. To pray is to communicate with God, both talking and listening. When we communicate with each other, we know that God is with us, listening. Our communication with one another might be characterized as prayer, especially when we share something deep and profound and real. Some have argued that the Earth is God manifesting God's self to us in all God's complexity. And some have said that Earth is now trying to communicate something urgent to us. That is, that Earth is ill and her illness is caused by human action. There are things we can do to provide healing, not only for Earth and the creatures that are dying off, but for human kind, the Earth creature that God made on the 6th day that suffers greatly because of the ill health of our home planet. Perhaps the cry and groan of the earth is a kind a prayer, a communication with God, asking for our most deep listening yet, to hard truths about death and resurrection, about giving something up for the sake of the healing and thriving of all life on Earth. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed, the powerful one sharing power with us and showing us how to share power with others so that all might thrive, teaching us to bite our tongues so that others can tell their stories and remake ourselves and this world more in line with God's values of life and love for all.