A Sermon by the Rev. Craig Lemming
Sunday, September 12, 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, God’s Word of Love spoken in us. Amen.
I still remember the voices of the teachers, priests, and elders I loved most. The timbre, the pace, and the cadence of their diction are still so vibrantly present in my memory, it is as if they were speaking to me from an adjacent room. The words of their mouths created indelible imprints and shaped my heart and mind. This is why James the Apostle warns that not many of us should become teachers. The words of a teacher’s tongue are like fire: they have the power to create and the power to destroy. James the Apostle proclaims, “the tongue is a fire… no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”i This morning’s homily will turn the concluding verse of Psalm 19 into a question: Are the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts acceptable in God’s sight?
Like most of you, depending on the day or the hour, the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart are like the metaphors for the tongue that the Apostle James condemns: a spring pouring forth both fresh and brackish water; a fig tree yielding olives and a grapevine figs; salt water yielding fresh. And because actions speak louder than words, sinner that I am, I know that my actions often tell truths that don’t always harmonize with the words I preach. Thank God for the Confession! Thank God that, every day, we can admit to God and each other that our thoughts, words, and deeds fall short of the love we so desperately want to give and to receive. Thank God that, every day, the words of Absolution reassure us of God’s Grace expressed perfectly in Paul Tillich’s essay, “You are Accepted,” in which he writes,
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.” You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!ii
When we accept God’s Grace, every day, we stop scorching ourselves with the fire of harsh words spoken to hurt one other, and most of all we stop using blistering words to burn, brand, and brutalize ourselves. Most of us are scarred with third-degree burns of self-hating words with which we scald ourselves; internal infernos we can’t control or prevent from scorching those whose lives are closely linked with ours when our unconscious projections singe those who are made in the image of God – us and them.
Like Peter the Apostle in today’s Gospel, in one breath we proclaim Christ as the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Word of God’s Love made flesh, and just sentences later, like Peter, we rebuke the Holy One who calls us to do the hard and painful work of loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, every day. So often, like Peter, we want to rebuke, protect, sanitize, and deodorize Jesus, and make the crucified and risen Christ some abstract idea divorced from our own vulnerability, pain, and stench of being humans who are seeking to love, and to be loved, and to belong. But that’s the hard work God calls us to do in today’s Gospel, every day. Taking up Christ’s cross of love moment by moment, day by day, and deciding to do Christ’s will which is to love God, love ourselves, love our neighbors as we love ourselves, especially when life is so painfully difficult and our future looks so bleak. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves the ease of hateful thoughts, words, and deeds, and instead Jesus asks us to submit to his cross of love and choose to make every word of our mouths, every meditation of our hearts, and every day actions in our lives proclaim who it is we say Jesus is, and who it is we say we are.
Today we will pray our Collect for St. John’s and continue to become what the words of our mouths, the mediations of our hearts, and the actions of our lives say about God, ourselves, and our community of faith: gracious, loving, called to proclaim the love of God with joy by building up ourselves and each other in the knowledge and love of God, welcoming all people and serving God in serving others. We can choose thoughts, words, and deeds that set our hearts and minds on the divine things Mother Wisdom pours out on us and makes known to us, every day. So, I close with the words I adore from Womanist Ethicist and Theologian, Dr. Emilie Townes:
It is what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action:
the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk to hear what they are saying;
the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh ourselves through prayer or meditation;
the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives;
the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or
writing or thinking;
the everydayness of sharing a meal;
the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment;
the everydayness of joy and laughter;
the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
the everydayness of blending head and heart;
the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.iii
Let the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the everyday actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
i James 3:6, 8-10 (NRSV)
ii Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, The Scribner Library: Lyceum Editions (New York: C. Scribner, 1948), 161-62.
iii Emilie Maureen Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 164.