Speaking of Tongues
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NY, NY
September 16, 2018
Texts: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I never went to any kind of Bible or Hebrew school when I was a child, so much of my early biblical education came from movies, in particular big, blockbuster Hollywood epics like Samson and Delilah, Ben Hur (that’s how I learned about the New Testament), and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Cecile B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments.”
There is one line in that movie that I would like to highlight because it has much to do with our readings today. Surprisingly it doesn’t come from the mouth of any of the lead characters, like Moses, or Nefretiri or Rameses. Instead it is spoken by a supporting character, Bithia, the Pharoah’s sister, in response to another line spoken by yet another supporting character, Memnet, Bithia’s Egyptian servant.
Let me set the scene briefly. Memnet does not like it one little bit when Bithia finds Moses floating in a basket in the Nile River and secretly adopts him as her son, not even telling her father, the previous Pharaoh. Memnet realizes that this floating baby boy is the newborn son of Hebrew slaves and she considers it an abomination to raise a Hebrew slave in the royal palace. Moses of course grows from that baby into Charlton Heston, biceps and all, and he wins fame and the next Pharaoh’s favor as a war hero. He begins wooing the throne princess, Nefertiri, and that’s when Memnet, the only one apart from Bithia who knows that Moses is Hebrew, threatens to cause trouble. Watching Moses and Nefretiri flirt with each other, Memnet says to Bithia: “Now the flame that you lighted burns close to the throne.” Bithia, knowing that Memnet is threatening to expose Moses says: “Your tongue will dig your grave, Memnet.”
“Your tongue will dig your grave.” Obviously this is a threat – Bithia is saying, “You open your mouth the way you’re thinking of opening your mouth and you tell my secret, and you will die. But you can decide to keep quiet, and then there’s no danger, you’ll live. The power of your life and your death is in your tongue.”
If you know the movie, Memnet does expose Moses as Hebrew, and in fact she does die shortly thereafter. But the few words that she utters: “Moses is the son of Hebrew slaves,” have enormous consequences. More important than Memnet’s death is the effect that her words have on Moses, on the enslaved Hebrew people, and on the history not only of the Jewish people but the world. Moses leaves the palace and return to his fellow slaves, eventually liberating them from Egyptian slavery, then leading Israel on the Exodus across the Red Sea, through the wilderness for forty years, and into the Promised Land. All of that is the result of a few words spoken by the tongue of an Egyptian house servant.
The Letter of James is the definitive statement in the Bible on the power of the tongue, and the message is surprisingly similar to the one from the movie.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.
We often say that the eyes are the mirror of the soul, but I and I think the Bible would argue that the tongue is a much more reliable indicator of the state of our soul than our eyes – whatever is in our soul will eventually emerge through our speech, by way of our tongues.
All we have to do is look at the current state of our culture and our political landscape to realize that James had it exactly right: the dismantling of the foundations of our democracy is being accomplished primarily through words, what we are doing with our tongues (and when I say that I am including all language, including tweets, Facebook posts, lies masking as truth, false news reports as well as spoken words; it’s all part of the same point). We are indeed digging our collective grave with our tongues.
Words have tremendous power, creative power, both for good and for ill. We see it at the very beginning of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, when God creates heaven, earth and all that is the known universe by speaking it into existence. The prologue of the Gospel of John even calls God the Creator “The Word” – “in the beginning was the Word.” We even see it in our own families, where what we say to our children shapes their lives either by encouraging them and building them up or discouraging them and destroying their self worth – if you tell a child how much you love them they will grow up feeling loved and appreciated, but call a child “stupid” enough times and they will come to believe it, often for the rest of their lives.
Furthermore, words usually precede actions, even policies. We have seen this recently in our society where the past months and years of anti-immigrant rhetoric have led to violence against immigrants and recently, the separation of families, children taken from their parents, where all involved have been traumatized even if the have been reunited, and we know that it is a near certainty that many will never be reunited. None of that would have been possible without the invective, the language, the words that preceded and triggered these actions.
But words, powerful as they are, are not enough. Even if we speak truth, if we speak words of life and encouragement and healing and reconciliation, that may still not be enough to build God’s kingdom unless our actions live up to our words. This is where we meet today’s gospel from Mark. This gospel passage is often referred to as “The Confession of Peter,” referring to the moment when Peter responds to Jesus asking him “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the Messiah.” This is Peter’s big moment, his epiphany, his realization that his teacher is also his Lord and Savior. It all takes place in Caesarea Philippi. When we visited the Holy Land earlier this year, we all saw an enormous statue in Caesarea Philippi of Peter confessing Jesus as the Messiah; we all took selfies by it.
But I have always thought that the confession of Peter should never be viewed alone, but always side by side with what follows just seconds later: the rebuke of Peter. Now you never see a big statue of Jesus rebuking Peter by yelling at him to “Get behind me, Satan!” but we should have that statue standing next to the one of Peter confessing Peter, because this gospel is proof positive that you might believe the right thing and say the right thing, but still have trouble doing the right thing. In other words, we have trouble practicing what we preach.
Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but he then presumes to tell the Messiah that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when Jesus teaches his disciples that he must suffer. Many of us are still afflicted with this very same misapprehension today, that faith in Jesus means immunity from trouble, humiliation and suffering. This core misunderstanding of what Jesus’ “messiahship” means is what has convinced many folks who today profess to be Christians to seek out leaders, both political and religious, who promise them – always falsely – that the world can be remade into one that it is safe and comfy for them, never mind what it does to anyone else.
The error of this is shown by Jesus’ own actions when Peter tells Jesus that since he is the Messiah, he must choose to follow a path of comfort and safety. Jesus doesn’t hesitate for a second before pushing Peter away, and strongly rebuking him. Even more telling is that in a short time, Jesus will then turn and embrace Judas instead of Peter, allowing Judas to kiss him, because Jesus’ actions match his words and his calling, while Peter’s do not. At least, not yet.
My sisters and brothers, we all know how to talk a good story, using our words for building ourselves up as the arbiters of righteousness and truth, but often we don’t walk our talk, in a way very similar to Peter’s confession and immediate stumble. Do we really welcome all children of God into our lives, even into our church? How often do we recite the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and then get confused, even furious when what happens is not to our liking? We think that the world is getting out of God’s hands when injustices grow and gains not only in our country but across the world slip backwards, when that job is ours, not God’s. We think that our lives should grow in increasing comfort, but we forget that we were not created for comfort. Rather, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the purpose of lives is to do God’s will, come what may.
The Apostle Peter eventually does realize this, long after Jesus himself suffers and dies in exactly the way that Peter told him he should do everything in his power to avoid. Eventually Peter too, meets a similar death, crucified for confessing Jesus as the Messiah, but requesting to be crucified upside down so as not to claim equality with his Lord.
Church, what will we confess? What will we do with our tongues? Will we destroy all the good in God’s kingdom with the fire of our tongues? Or will we set the world ablaze with the tongues of fire that fell on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the fire that saves the world? We can create or destroy with our tongues, dig our graves or build God’s kingdom. The choice is ours.