Well hello, St. James’s. It’s great to see all of you and great to be back together as our 9:00 family. I hope you all have had a wonderful summer. I know that I have. In fact, I want to tell you a story about something that happened to Melissa and me near the end of the summer. It is really Melissa’s story to tell but she shared it during her homily for the opening chapel service at St. Christopher’s. Some of you have already heard it, and there was even a story like it in Friday’s Times Dispatch, so I apologize for being redundant, but I think it is a story worth sharing.
A number of weeks ago, Melissa and I were watching TV one evening when the home phone rang. On the caller ID it read that the call was from an “unknown” number which usually means it is some kind of a robocall or other type of solicitation. So we didn’t answer it. When the answering machine kicked on we didn’t expect anyone to leave a message but we heard this voice saying: “Uh, hello, I’m calling for Melissa Hollerith. My name is Jordan and I’m calling from the White House …” Well, Melissa and I looked at each other with puzzled looks and she jumped up to answer the phone.
Okay, now bear with me, I have to back up to June 26 when President Obama delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was among those gunned down in Charleston, SC by Dylann Roof. Melissa and I both saw the broadcast of that service. As clergy, we were impressed by the President’s words – his theology, his tone of reconciliation, forgiveness and justice. As a priest who has had to speak far too many times to people gathered together to mourn a tragic death, I was impressed by what he said and how he said it and I knew it was not easy. Most of all we were touched by the President’s risky move to end his homily with the singing of Amazing Grace. It was a powerful moment and Melissa and I talked about for some time afterwards. At one point, Melissa said to me, “I am going to email the White House and tell the President how moved and grateful we are for what he said under such difficult circumstances.” Being the cynic that I am, I immediately told her that she would be wasting her time, the White House gets thousands of emails everyday and her message will only disappear into some digital black hole. But she insisted she was going to do it anyway.
Now, fast forward to the phone call. When Melissa picked up the phone, Jordan introduced herself and said, “I am one of the event planners on the White House staff and I am calling because the President was very moved by your email.” (I swear; I am not making this up.) “The President asked me to find a suitable event here at the White House that we might invite you to attend.” Well, I could see Melissa’s face and if her mouth could have hung open any wider it would have touched the floor. Jordan continued, “We were wondering if you and a guest would be willing to join us on the morning of September 23 on the White House lawn to meet and welcome Pope Francis to the United States?” Isn’t that an amazing story? Melissa’s going to meet the Pope and I get to be her guest! It goes to show what can happen when we take the time and the effort to share our words of gratitude and appreciation. It shows what can happen when we speak up and let someone know when their actions have touched us and blessed us.
In our Epistle this morning, James writes about the blessing that our words can be to others. He talks about the power of the human tongue, the power of our words to either bless or curse. “The tongue is a fire,” he writes. “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 curse.” He warns his readers of the danger of the human tongue, its destructive power and its creative possibility.
These words from James are dramatically played out in our Gospel reading for today. Jesus and his disciples have taken a break from their traveling and they are resting near Caesarea Philippi. This is the midway point in the Gospel of Mark and the disciples have been following Jesus for some time. They have seen his miracles, they have heard his profound teaching, the have watched him love and care for others in extraordinary ways. Jesus takes this pause in their travels to test them. He wants to know if the disciples have discovered the truth about him. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks them. They respond that some believe he is John the Baptist back from the dead, a prophet, or maybe even Elijah who is prophesied to return to earth and herald the arrival of the Messiah. But then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Here we have a great example of the power of the human tongue that James talks about in his epistle. Peter, alone among the others, speaks up and takes a tremendous risk and says, “You are the Messiah.” There it is out in the open, Peter dares to speak the words, Jesus is more than a great rabbi, more than a prophet, he is the savior, the one they have all been waiting for. Jesus must have been relieved to here Peter say those words. He must have been gratified that Peter had the faith to say such a seemingly crazy thing.
But no sooner does Jesus begin to explain that the Messiah must lay down his own life, that he must suffer and die, then Peter uses his words, his bold tongue to berate Jesus for not being the right kind of Messiah. Jesus can’t suffer and die, Peter tells him, he’s the Savior, he has to defeat to Roman occupiers and restore the Kingdom of Israel. But Jesus knows that this kind of earthly power is not the will of his Father. He recognizes in Peter’s angry rebuttal the Devil’s temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the earth and he tells Peter – “Get behind me, Satan!” In one short passage Peter uses his tongue to bless and to curse – to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and then to condemn him for not being the right kind of Messiah.
Do we realize the power of our words? Do we take the time to share our words of gratitude and appreciation with others in order to bless them, in order to build them up and encourage them? Even when those words seem as inconsequential as one email among thousands. Do we go out of our way to say to the people in our lives – thank you, I appreciate you, I am grateful for your friendship, I value your hard work, or even – I love you? On the flip side, do we understand how devastating and destructive our words can be when we lash out and say cruel things, especially to those people who love us? Because when you love someone, that love makes you extremely vulnerable. Therefore, when someone you love lashes out with words intended to hurt, those words can cut to the bone. More importantly, once you’ve said something you can never take it back again. You can apologize, but you cannot unsay it. And I have seen it in numerous marriages over the years, including my own, words intended to wound leave scars that never really go away. As James reminds us, we have to learn to tame our tongues.
My brothers and sisters, as we begin the program year, as we return to Sunday school, Bible study classes, mission trips and all kinds of ministries, never forget that your Christian witness lies not only in the good work you do for Christ but also in the words you chose to say and not say. Are you bold enough to speak against the friend when he or she makes the racist comment or do you chose silence as the safer alternative? Are you willing to push your comfort zones and go out of your way to welcome the stranger? Do you have the confidence and the comfort to say to those outside your church family – “My faith is important to me, I am a follower of Jesus Christ and I would love to share with you what I have discovered through my faith.” How many of us have even the courage to have this conversation with our own children? Lots of people are always surprised when they learn that only about 50% of our members make a pledge to our life together. But most of those same people see this as a problem I am supposed to fix. How many of us are willing to say to our brothers and sisters in this church – I make a pledge to support the work going on at St. James’s and I hope you will too. Imagine what we could accomplish if that was a more regular topic of conversation?
Never forget that the primary thing we do as a Christian community is to come together and use our voices to praise God in worship. We begin the service with – “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and we end every service with “Thanks be to God.” Using our tongues to sing God’s praises is a central part of our faith. As we kick off another program year it is my hope and my prayer that we can praise God not just on Sunday morning but in every part of our lives and in every part of our day. That we can honestly say with the Psalmist – O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. Amen.