Note: We plan to resume the streaming of our services in October.
Proper 19 (24), Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
12 September 2021
In 2008 our family went on a holiday to Eastern Canada. We used our points to fly into Ottawa, travelled by train to Montréal, and Québec City where we picked up a rental car and our camping gear we had shipped by Greyhound.
We spent five days in Ottawa and thanks to the Bloc Québécois which had refused to agree to the early suspension of parliament, we were able to attend a session in the House of Commons.
The debate seemed a farce. Some asked serious questions but were met with answers utterly irrelevant to their question, the speech of others yet was shaped by the soundbites the evening news required, and sure enough, back at our hotel, we saw replayed exactly those exchanges we had identified earlier as delivered with no other intention than to make the news that day.
BTW, the journalist Andrew Coyne sat in the press gallery not far from us and, making eye contact with us, rolled his eyes at the spectacle below.
Ed Fast was our MP. It was his first term in parliament and he was a very gracious host. When asked about the session of parliament we had attended and the lack of sincerity and productivity we had witnessed, he suggested that the real work was done in committees anyway. I cannot say that I found the answer satisfactory.
Church council met this week on the night of the English debate. I did hear some of the debate on the radio on my way home.
The problem with much political speech is that we talk past each other and not with one another. This concerns not only politicians but also every citizen in their expression of their political views. Sarcasm, name-calling, presumption of motives, ad-hominem attacks, and in internet forums outright name-calling is part of our modern discourse. Not so long ago when we looked south of the border we felt pretty good about ourselves, but the toxic discourse has become part of our culture as well.
James speaks as a teacher of the church, and yet James speaks to all when he speaks of what the tongue is capable of, blessing the Lord and Father, and cursing those who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)
From our own experience we know the regret over things we have said and are unable to make unsaid.
Such experiences remind us that our speech is not only about words, or about convictions we carry, or our right to free expression, but about community. When we speak our speech will affect the communities of which we are a part. And when we speak carelessly, or lovelessly, or without precision, our speech will have an effect on our life together. And if we are concerned about the growing ideological divisions in our society, we do well to recognize that our speech has much to do with it, because speaking about one another, or shouting at one another (even in a proverbial sense) is not the same as speaking to and with one another.
Wendell Berry writes in 1979, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.”1
Of course, James is speaking to the church, and yet, he is not suggesting that the speech and conduct of followers of Jesus should be different outside of the church. One commentator suggests this about James, “Speech is evaluated in relational, indeed, covenantal terms: human speech and action should be normed by the speech and action of the God who has involved himself with humans.”2 As James says in chapter one, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (v.26)
James makes his point forcefully and his speech is clearly shaped by his experience, even though we know no details. But we who can speak of arsonists in the proverbial sense need little persuasion.
Where is the Good News then? And this is a question that is often asked of James, and the reason Luther had little regard for the letter. Had Luther had a higher regard for James, some of what he said may have been less inflammatory. I think of what Luther said about peasants and Jews.
To answer the question about the Good News in our passage we may want to turn our attention to the first verse of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John describes Jesus as God’s Word, the Word that at the beginning went out from God and created the world. God spoke, the world became, and see it was good, it was very good. Jesus is the Word through which all things came into being, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:3-5)
Our Gospel for this day is Peter’s confession in Mark. Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as the Messiah is quickly followed by his refusal of Jesus’ path of salvation. Peter had not yet understood that in Jesus God is revealed in all God’s glory. (John 14:9)
And that is the Good News of the passage, staying close to Jesus, which involves the life of the church, of the Christian community, allows the Word through whom all things were made to dwell in us and to transform us and our speech and thoughts, and the way we relate to one another.
Father Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov suggests that we must make ourselves responsible for the sins of the world. I am not entirely sure how to understand this. It has been a long time since I read the book. But if we claimed such responsibility, we would certainly acknowledge how we all are connected, we would no longer speak of us vs them, and we would have compassion for those who think and are different.
May the Word of God dwell in us richly and through us make visible to the world a glimpse of God’s reign.
1 Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, in Standing by Words: Washington DC: Shoemaker & Hoard 2005, page 14, quoted in Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2009, page 7
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday 1995, page 264