Taming the Tongue

September 13, 2015   James 3: 1-10   Mark 8: 27-33

Rev. Catherine Purves


     I think everyone here knows what Facebook is.  Is there anyone who doesn’t?  Most of us probably have some idea of what a Blog is and what Twitter is.  I realize that I’m something of a dinosaur, but I don’t have a Facebook account, or a Blog, and I’ve never in my life Tweeted.  I do send and receive emails and I can text on my phone which means that I made it to the 20th century at least.  But this tendency to send every thought, picture, and experience out into the wide world with no filter seems strange to me.  No one stops to reflect on who will hear or see it, or how they will receive and process all of this endless information.  I don’t think that is something that we should just accept as the pace and practice of modern life.

     A few weeks ago, my husband Andrew was speaking at a little church way out in New Brighton, PA.  He was giving a talk about cancer and faith.  It is a very personal and frank discussion, and Andrew names his doctors and talks about his own harrowing experiences with the disease.  Before he spoke, the minister asked if he could record the presentation, and Andrew said yes, thinking that it would just be for that particular congregation’s use.  This week he discovered that it had somehow made its way onto the Pittsburgh Seminary Facebook page.  (I didn’t even know that the Seminary had a Facebook page.)  Several people came up and told Andrew that they had watched his talk, and that they were telling others to view the posted video.  It is in danger of “going viral,” as they say. 

     Is there no such thing as a private word or thought anymore?  I guess everyone just assumes that everything is for public consumption, and can be made available on Facebook, or Blogs, or Tweets, or Websites.  People seem to feel completely free to say or write the first thing that pops into their heads and to have it spread abroad for all to see.  There is no restraint or control, and these practices are so commonplace that well-meaning people don’t even seem to perceive the danger in what they are doing.  In this day and age which is so dominated by the use of social media, our two texts for this morning are definitely counter cultural. 

     James warns us, “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”  He almost seems to be anticipating our age of social media as he compares the tongue to a small fire that can set a whole forest ablaze.  The tongue is like a bit and bridle that can direct a powerful horse, or like the small rudder of a boat that can turn a huge ship.  We must not underestimate the power of the tongue, for good or ill.  And the irony of this is not lost on James.  “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” he says.  “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”  “My brothers and sisters,” he warns us, “this ought not to be so.”

     Are you ready to take responsibility for what you say or write or tweet or post?  Do you think before you open your mouth?  Do you realize the power that you are wielding every time you speak?  Are you aware of the good you can do with a carefully chosen word, as well as the damage you can do with an off-hand comment or a thoughtless word of gossip?  James recognizes that we would have to be perfect to never say or write or text the wrong thing.  And no one is perfect.  So your tongue will get you into trouble.  Small though it is, it is difficult to tame.

     And how do you un-say something once it has been said?  Can you ever really take back a hurtful comment that has been thoughtlessly forwarded on email to the one person you didn’t want to see it?  Once something is posted on your Facebook page, the damage is done.  James was concerned about this 2,000 years before the age of social media.  Surely, we have to be even more careful and self-controlled today.

     Of course, we are all good Christians.  And we would never intentionally try to hurt someone by what we say to them or what we communicate via the internet.  But the danger of this instant speech is that it is so often reactive, based on immediate feelings and not on careful reflection.  You don’t have to have your own Blog to fall prey to this.  Speaking without thinking is a problem that is as old as humankind.  Our reading from Mark’s Gospel gives us a classic example of this.

     Usually, when we read the familiar story of Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ we give him credit for a deep insight that the others had not yet achieved.  Then when he proceeds to reject the idea that Jesus will have to suffer, die, and be raised we are forced to lower our opinion of Peter’s understanding of the situation.  In fact, both of his outbursts reflect his irresistible tendency to speak first and think afterwards. 

     If Peter had had a Facebook page, there would have been countless photos on display there – of Caesarea Philippi, himself, Jesus, and the crowds.  He would have immediately posted the other disciples’ answers to Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?”  He might have turned his own answer into a Tweet, “You are the Messiah.”  He would not have thought much about what he was saying or doing.  No one does when they are adorning their Facebook page with quotable quotes and their latest travelogue of pictures. 

     Of course, had he been in a position to do all of that, he would have been disregarding the stern warning of Jesus who ordered them not to tell anyone about him.  One reason for that warning would soon become clear.  None of the disciples really knew what they were talking about.  They hadn’t thought it through.  They didn’t understand in any real way what it meant to say that Jesus was the Messiah or the Christ.   Their tongues were running wild.  Their minds were not engaged.

     The second half of the story more than proves that this was the case.  Again, we see Peter reacting rather than thinking and speaking before he understood what he was saying.  Jesus had started to teach them about his necessary suffering and death.  Good disciples should have been quietly listening and taking notes, not jumping to conclusions and reprimanding their master.  Peter’s unthinking rebuke of Jesus showed that he was not setting his mind on divine things, but on human things.  He had his instant opinions, his cobbled together theories, and his emotional reactions to what Jesus was saying.  And they would be all over the internet in minutes.  The plain truth of the matter – what Jesus was trying to teach his followers – was, apparently, of no interest.

     We live in an information age.  All you need is a smart phone to find out anything, or so we seem to believe.  And then we can use the phone, or our Facebook page, or a Blog, a Tweet, or an email to speak without thinking, jumping to conclusions, reacting without reflecting.  We can even use a phone that isn’t smart, or a quiet word of gossip to a friend, or a note sent by snail mail for goodness sake.  It makes no difference.  And when we do that, we may well be propagating errors, saying things that we won’t mean tomorrow, and we might easily mislead or hurt others.  The tongue is not easy to tame, and it can get us into a whole heap of trouble.  Let us take seriously James’ warning.  Let us not behave impulsively or unthinkingly like Peter.  And let us take responsibility for everything that we say or post, tweet or email.  Think before you speak.  Remember, once you say something and share it, it can’t be unsaid.