Monday, September 18

Sermon September 17 Proper 19

Learning How Not to Speak
Have you ever said something and then wished you could take back what you said? Or have you ever promised I will do such and such and then failed to follow through? Or have you ever said something that deeply hurt another person even a close friend? Have you ever speak a word that cheered someone up? Or have you found your words to turn someone’s life around for the better? Have you ever had someone tell you that your words meant a great deal to him or her? I know I have experienced all of these, and if you can relate to any of the above situation or all of them then you know the power of words and of the tongue, as James says. And our Gospel today gives us an example of what James is talking about. We can all I think sympathize with Peter in our Gospel.

Today I would like to talk about learning how not to Speak, about learning to be silent before God. In our Epistle reading today James presents us with a problem, a problem that is often at the center of issues in our churches and in or own individual lives and relationships, problem that is highlight by the above questions. Our speech can one moment be used to build things up and the next moment tear things apart. We can be destructive when we hope to speak the truth, and when we seek to calm a situation and avoid saying what actually needs to be said.

This week I worked in a show room at the Merchandise Mart for the Casual Furniture Market. I was there to keep the show room looking clean and always set properly. So, I basically wandered the show room all day picking up trash left behind arranging pillows and making sure chairs were in their proper place. This meant that I was in a position to over hear the conversations of the company’s reps to the buyers they were showing the furniture. The show room is a noisy place, not only was there the constant din of Reps selling the furniture, but there was also the music that seems to be nearly ever present in our culture- walk into any shop or restaurant or cafĂ© and there will be music. We are without silence in our culture. Not only that I noticed that most reps as they took buyers through the show room spoke continually during the whole show pausing at key moments to make sure that the buyer did not have a question about this or that piece or line of furniture. This need to talk continually became even more evident as lunch was served each day and certain reps would stay with the buyers as they ate lunch and would talk to the buyers the whole time. It was clear that this was a tactic even if an implicit one: the buyer was preferably not to be given time to reflect on what was presented and what was said about the furniture, most of which was empty things like “It is no longer enough to have a four chairs and a table rather now you need a large coordinated set.” Or “ The attitude of fine outdoor living is well accepted by consumers…” And other less intelligible phrases that I cannot remember. I noticed that the Rep who failed to talk through out the entire time often was followed by buyers who when he or she was not looking would roll their eyes and give each other meaningful looks, while those who talked incessantly were followed by compliant buyers nodding their heads and asking equally inane questions and usually ended up signing a contract for orders by the end of the tour of the show room. Silence and reflection had no place in the show room, in fact to allow the buyer to stop and think was to loose the contract, to loose the sale. Now admittedly the best reps, talked in such away to ensure that they would find out what the buyer wanted and needed, and clearly some reps had long term relationships with the buyers, but the relationship was built upon this speech filled game that was ever shifting and without reflection or silence. The tongue was allowed to run wild and say ridiculous things for the sake of a sale. This is not a new observation but we live in a noisy world and a world full of words and speech, a world of careless pointless weightless words.

Yet if I am tempted to think as a preacher and pastor that this noisy careless speech is new our Gospel today should disabuse me and us of such a notion. What we find in our culture is simply an expression of a humanity that is always speaking about what it knows little or nothing about, we talk to convince ourselves we know what is what. This is what is happening in our Gospel, Jesus acknowledges that there is much noise about him; the news wires are a buzz with the latest headlines about this crazy Galilean who has large crowds follow him all over Palestine. We are at the turning point in the ministry of Jesus, he is turning to Jerusalem and the Cross, he needs to prepare as much as is possible his disciples for the true meaning of all this noise. So he asks a report on what are the current opinions, knowing his disciples are as much caught up in the buzz that is around Jesus as everyone else. Then He asks the disciples; well then you my followers who do you say that I am. You’ve got to love Peter I imagine he is kind of like the kid in Sunday school always ready to answer with the good answer, always the first one to raise her hand, the one the teacher has to say now let someone else answer. Peter like that kid gets it right. Now here is the strange thing Jesus says shh, to his disciples in the midst of all the noise about Jesus, now that they know the truth, they are not to speak of it, they are to be quiet to sit with the truth, their not supposed to sell it, to put the truth out there in the market place of ideas as if it’s simply a competing view among all the other words about Jesus. But Peter like ourselves I think can’t quite keep quiet, he’s got it figured out, and when Jesus continues to speak, about his death, Peter knows the Sunday School answer and is quite sure the Messiah doesn’t die like that, and he rattle’s off to Jesus all the reasons why what Jesus just said isn’t true. Jesus not being a Sunday school teacher, Says that not only is Peter speaking what is not true but is in fact speaking for Satan. Peter’s mind is still with the human noise about Jesus, the buzz, the glamour of celebrity, and not the truth he spoke perhaps just moments before. It’s as though Jesus looks to Peter and says “didn’t I tell you to be quiet, listen for a change, set your mind on God, not on what will sell, what looks good to the crowds.” So Jesus then speaks further to all and says, “ Look, as long as you try to look good keep up an image with all those words you will loose your life, give up yourself. What does it really matter in the end if you could create all the noise and buzz in the world so that you have all you want but in the end loose you’re very self. Listen to my words, be quiet loose yourself in me, and then you will know true life. Stop for a moment, remove yourself from your words that can acclaim me as messiah whom I am and then deny what God intends in the next breath!”

Peter so clearly shows us ourselves. He is so eager to speak and so easily speaking out of both sides of his mouth. We all, like Peter, are far too ready to speak, as James so clearly points out to us in today’s text. It appears though that James gives us a clear sense of our problem and a clear sense of what should be and what perfection is but no clear solution to our predicament when it comes to our words. Upon hearing James words we are left with the question: how do we control our tongues, how do we speak truly and consistently? How do we avoid the pitfall of Peter? How do we avoid our speech being both an instrument of God and of Satan? Careful attention to James reveals that in stating the problem he has given us the solution. James offers these clues to the problem of our tongue. First if possible we are to avoid being in a position where we must speak, in his exhortation to avoid being in a position of the teacher. Second perfect speech is to have our whole selves body and spirit in check, like a tamed horse, like a ship with a functioning rudder and pilot at the wheel. Third control of our tongue is possible. Fourth we must recognize the power of our words and be aware of this power at all times. Lastly we cannot control our tongue and this reality is what leads us into a contradiction so that our own speech betrays us. To borrow a phrase from Derrida the trick is learning “how not to speak!”

Benedict in his monastic rule warns against idle chatter, and he is not alone in this exhortation. Various commentators throughout the history of the Church have seen James exhortation on the tongue and speech as an exhortation to keep silent. We might ask why has there been, throughout the historic Christian tradition, this advice not to speak? (quotes from commentary pp 37 and 38: pg 37 Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary of Arles, pg 38 Bede.) We see from these three quotes that it is not speech itself, or our tongue, but speech that is not aligned with the will of God. In a sense we have the sort of reversal found in Jesus words about losing and gaining our life: to learn how to speak we must first learn how not to speak, that is how to keep silent. The reason for this is that it is ultimately only God who can provide us with the pure heart and the pure source of our speech.

So, how do we learn not to speak so that our speech can be true speech in line with our life in God? First we must admit we don’t always know how to speak and that at times our words harm when we intend them to heal. Peter did not intend to counter God’s will in confronting Jesus, and yet his words were of Satan. Second we need to recognize that learning not to speak is seeking discernment in what to say and when to say it, through submitting our speech to God. This discernment according to the long tradition of the church comes in silence. We learn to speak in the practice of being still before the Lord, as the Psalm enjoins us. Third we must become acquainted with the practices of keeping silent, known as meditation or attentive prayer. The point of these prayer practices is not to speak to God but to listen, to attend to the presence of God. This is done by seeking to be alone and quiet, to practice letting go of our own thoughts that run through our heads, and escape the noisy market place of the world.

There are many techniques for doing this and some like Thomas Merton concerned with the attitude more than the technique wont even speak to the how of Christian meditation, for unlike Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism the technique is secondary and is never to be our focus. But keeping in mind the possibility that concern for technique can be a form of noise that keeps us from true silence, I want to before I conclude this evening with present two ways of being silent, which themselves can be combined if one wishes. The first is the practice of controlled breathing. It is important to sit in a place where you can have an object of focus, a candle and icon or cross or crucifix, or if you have neither of these have a candle and choose a word of theological significance, like Jesus, Christ, God, Love, Trinity, etc. Sit upright in a chair with your legs on the floor before the candle and Icon or Cross or crucifix (you could also stand to do this). Focusing on candle and Icon or crucifix begin to breath deeply and exhale, let your thoughts simply role over you, let them pass by as if you are a rock and they are a rushing stream, do not chase after them, let the presence of the light and the icon or the word direct you to be open to God’s presence. The aim is for your thoughts to cease and for you to be filled with the Spirit of God. A word of warning this is more difficult than it appears. If you have never attempted this exercise before you will probably find that still your mind is nearly impossible when you begin that it takes long practice of this exercise before you attain true silence before God. But remember we live in a noisy world we are taught to expect noise and that silence is a sign of something being wrong, and as being something of discomfort, we are implicitly taught to never be still and silent.
The second technique I want to offer to you is the contemplative repetition of what is known as the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, again say this prayer slowly, before a candle and Icon or cross or crucifix and let these words sink in to the depths of your soul passing by all thoughts and concerns, focus on these basic words let them wash over you like water in a gently flowing stream washing you, carrying you on their current into the presence of God. This prayer can be combined with breathing meditation.

When undertaking these practices one should remember that we are learning how not to speak meaning we are leaning how to be in the presence of God, so that we may live in him and speak truly in our relationships and in the world. The point is to become one with Christ that our speech is no longer our own. We are seeking to place our speech under the guidance of God the Spirit. If you have other ways of attaining this end there is nothing in the faith that says you must do this technique of prayer and meditation, but we are all called to have the mind of Christ to allow God to be in our speech and to have control of our tongues, we are all called to be in some way silent before God, to still ourselves and our thoughts. Also, I encourage you not to attempt this alone, if you have never attempted any such practices before. Let Tripp and I know that you are attempting this for the first time, let someone you trust also do it along side you. The reason for this is that as we come into the presence of God we also face our true selves and the sin and flesh that even though we have committed ourselves to Christ hangs on. We need help in facing ourselves before God. Tripp and I do this by meeting regularly with a Spiritual Director. Talk to us about having a Spiritual director, none of this is intended to remain outside of relationship and the Church. We are on the journey together even as we seek to meet God in Solitude.

Ultimately for the Christian, for the one who is in Christ we are to give up ourselves, our opinions our desire to speak and make our mark in the world, in order to be transformed by Christ and conformed to the image of God, which is Jesus Christ. If you find that I hesitate to stand before you and simply give you my opinion this is why, my opinion can be widely varied and over time even contradictory. When I sit here before you and preach I come to you as a teacher of God’s ways not my own. As such preaching is the practice of learning not to speak ones opinion, so that what I say may truly be fresh water to this congregation. Our worship here should be an aid to your learning not to speak, a place where you can sit in the presence of God. What is spoken, what we sing, the music we use should not be so much noise of opinion, but should be the practice of being in the presence of God, at God’s very throne where angels and Archangels and elders ever sing God’s praise. This is the holy silence, that speech that is filled with the power and presence of God, where we loose ourselves so that we may gain our true self, which is in Christ. If our worship is simply noisy, if it seems to be mere words we should examine our worship! So much that passes for Christian worship is full of sound and words and power, but little of the still small voice, of that silence that calls us to give up ourselves to God, so that we may be truly God’s. Our speech our tongue, our opinions our prayers of our own making can as often as not get in the way of our being in Christ, of our practicing the presence of God which should form and guide all we do and say.

I encourage you to learn the discipline of silence, to wait on the Lord, to be still, to listen to God, rather than always trying to speak to God, or trying to assert your opinion about God or the faith. This being silent this letting ourselves go in the presence of God is the only way according to the tradition to have our tongue controlled. James and the church tell us that if we wish to speak consistently and without contradiction, we must first learn how not to speak.
Amen