Saturday, September 12, 2015

September 13, Proper 19, You Can Do This 3: With All Your Voice

Heidelberg Catechism 99 & 101, Lord's Day 36, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” 

Good for Simon Peter and bad for Simon Peter. Good for him that he named who Jesus was, and bad for him that he named him in vain. He was the spokesman of the disciples and the first to name Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, “the name above every name” (Philippians 2).

But then he rebuked the Messiah, and so badly so, that Jesus rebuked him back, even naming him Satan, for Peter had echoed the devil’s temptations in the desert. Simon Peter is an example of the problem of the tongue, as set forth in our Epistle of St. James.

I’m sympathetic to Peter, because I have the same problem. With my tongue I bless and with my tongue I curse. With my tongue I pronounce the blessings of the Lord to you each week, and with my tongue I gossip and chatter and say dumb things. Some years ago I was a guest preacher at a big event, and I did well, and then at the reception a seminary professor told me an off-color joke, and then, when two of the parishioners came over to thank me for my sermon, I repeated the joke, and they looked at me dismayed, and then I was ashamed. I felt like Peter after the cock crowed.

Why do we do it? I don’t know about Simon Peter, but I know for myself that I’d never learned how simply to say “thank you” after a compliment, but I was brought up to deflect it. And I know that I like to come off as cool, or daring, or impressive. How often do we use expletives or vulgarity or profanity to make ourselves sound stronger and to puff our personas. Like Richard Nixon.

Because I was a child of Dutch Calvinists I was not allowed to say, “O-my-God.” That was to break the Second Commandment, and to use God’s name in vain. We couldn’t even say “Geez.” My mom said she’d wash our mouths out with soap, although of course she never had to. And because my parents were also American Evangelicals, the Second Commandment was extended to “dirty” words, and you know what they are. But my immigrant grandparents, while pious, were also earthier, and when I repeated a few Dutch rhymes that my grandpa taught me, my mother was embarrassed.

As I got older I did not want to be a puritan. I would rather be crude than a prude. I learned to enjoy the lingual tingle of the expletive and the passing power of vulgarity, masking my insecurities, and impressing other immaturities. Simon Peter, you stand for me. I was the speaker in my family, and an extrovert, and I sin more by commission than by omission, but how about you who are the quiet types, or who sin more by omission, how do you dishonor your Lord? I asked my brother-in-law about this; he is a very quiet man and a self-proclaimed introvert. He said, “You don’t have to say it to think it. I always apply this commandment to my inward thoughts.”

There’s a larger issue here on how we use God’s name. I heard a story on NPR about the Syrian refugees stuck in Hungary, and how private citizens were coming to give them aid, and one of them said, “We do this because we are Christians.” And yet the Prime Minister of Hungary said that they needed to stop all the migrants in order to protect the Christian character of Europe. For an opposite reason he evoked the Christian name. Was that in vain? How about if he really believes it?

I myself believe that our presidential candidates Huckabee and Cruz are using God’s name in vain — for their personal political purposes. But I am not competent to force that judgment because I cannot see inside their hearts — only God can do that, which is why God is the only one who can “hold us guiltless:” no one else can. To use the name of God rightly and to use it wrongly is so close. If you suddenly say, “O my God,” might that not be an honest prayer? When I’m at the stadium and over the loudspeakers comes God Bless America, and I don’t sing along because I think it’s vanity, still I am not competent to judge the guilt or not of the guy behind me who’s singing it loudly.

So the Commandment is calling us always to measure in ourselves is how much we fasten the name of God upon our own interests, no matter how good we may think our interests to be, and no matter how much the world might approve us doing it. We all accept it when our presidents – this one included – end their speeches with, “And may God bless America.” Is that God’s only job? We dare not say, “And may God direct America,” or “And may God judge America.” Those would be God’s jobs too. So when do we rightly use the name of God? Compared to dirty words or swearing or cursing that’s both more difficult to measure and more important. But I think it’s all one package.

Do you know any Native Americans? Or any Native Canadians? Have you noticed they usually talk more slowly than we do? Not because they’re stupid, but because their cultures took their words as sacred and powerful. But in our media culture, words are powerful and cheap. Donald Trump and Ann Coulter are both self-proclaimed Christians, and he gets empowered by calling people “idiots” and she gets rewarded for calling people “retards”.

It’s easy to talk that way. But I got a book by a Mennonite with the title, Never Call Them Jerks. I was convicted. So I stopped. It doesn’t matter how much of a jerk that person might be. It’s not for me to call it. That maybe-jerk is in God’s image.

So you might think it better just not to say anything. But you are in God’s image too. And the God whose image you bear is, from the beginning, in Genesis, a speaker. And also in Genesis, the first thing Adam did in the world was to name things. He did that as God’s image. You must name things. That is to be a human being. Other creatures have voices, other creatures sing songs and call out messages, but only human beings name things. You must name things. You must name them for what they are. You must speak up, and you must testify, and you must whistle-blow.

And you must praise God, and do it not only in privacy, but in public. Every time you mention God’s name, for whatever reason, that is implicitly an act of worship. Just to say, “O God,” or “O Lord,” that is a miniature act of worship, so, if you consider it thus, that every time you say, “O my God,” or “Jesus,” it is a quick act of worship, then this can enrich your life and also enrich the world around you. God has given you a voice, and you can love God with your voice, and with your voice you can love your neighbor as yourself, and with your voice you can also love your enemies.

But naming is not name-calling. And that depends upon your heart. Are you angry? Are you resentful? Or jealous, or bitter, or afraid? If you work on the condition of your heart, that will affect what passes through your mouth. The Lord Jesus talked about this in our gospel lesson two weeks ago. When it comes to dirtiness, it’s not really about what comes in or out of your mouth, or what goes out into the sewer, but what is in your heart. Or as St. James says, the freshness of spring water is what’s in the source. The problem of the voice and of the tongue is located in your heart.

You can do this. You can attend to both: “the words of your mouth and the meditations of your heart.” You can work on your heart and you can work on your voice, and they will harmonize. You will spare your voice from words that are cheap. When you critique, you will not do it to advantage your own interests, but in the interests of the whole. When you name things, you will name them rightly for the honor of the whole, and if you can’t, if you don’t know the whole story, then you can quietly wait for someone else to name them rightly.

And you can work on your heart. You will work on your anger and resentment and your jealousy and bitterness. You will work on your own inner reconciliation. That comes from simple maturity and growing up, and then also from the Christian practice of repentance and forgiveness, and then finally from the incredible power of humility and openness.

What you want is your own peacefulness and quiet confidence inside, so that when you speak, it’s for what-you-have-to-say and not from pressure of ambition or the crowd. You can do this, you can work on your integrity of heart and voice. And you want to do this, I know you do, which is why you are here today.

To name things rightly is an act of love. To name your neighbor with a name of honor is an act of love, as to do so with your enemy. To speak up for your neighbor is an act of love. To speak up when it is costly is an act of love. To use the name of God only and always as an act of worship is to love God with all your voice.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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