(Due to the Ironman Race on Sunday morning, we held Worship on Saturday evening.)
First Congregational Church
September 11, 2021
16th Sunday (Saturday) after Pentecost
Mark 8:34-38, James 3:1-12
“Our Achilles Tongue”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was a notation in the Record Patriot newspaper last week, from 100 years ago in Benzie County. It read: “Tony Richardson on Sunday left his father’s farm team standing unhitched in front of the court house and while endeavoring to eat some grass they pushed the Northway Hotel sign over. As one corner of the sign struck a horse on the back they started on a brisk trot down Park Street, but Tony, being quite a sprinter, over took them in front of J. Nasker's residence and climbed into the back end of the wagon rack, gathered up the lines, and stopped them after they had gotten under a lively run. There was no damage done. There were many anxious spectators.
It’s possible that Mr. Richardson could have been a marathoner or even triathlon athlete in pre-Ironman race days, but if he were really serious about competition, I’d peg him for a 50 or 100 meter guy.
Mark 8:34-38 New Living Translation
34 Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?[a] 37 Is anything worth more than your soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
James 3:1-12 The Message
1-2 Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.
3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
10-12 My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?
Thank you, Catherine. A pious woman with a rather sharp tongue, who professed to be a Christian but gossiped like an old hen--approached the minister of her church in London. She complained that the white stole which he wore with his pulpit gown was altogether too long and that this annoyed her greatly. She wanted permission to shorten them and had come armed with a pair of scissors. The pastor agreed, handed over the stole, and the woman snipped away with her scissors and then handed the garment back to the rector.
He said, "Now, my good woman, there is something about you which is altogether too long and which has annoyed me and many others for quite some time, and since one good turn deserves another, I would like your permission to shorten it.” Startled, the woman said, "Certainly sir, you have my permission to do so and here are the shears.” Whereupon, the pastor smiled and said, "Very well madam, stick out your tongue."
It is a fairly well-known irony that while teachers are generally revered, students are often advised not to become a teacher because of low wages. Noting James’ warning about teachers reputations and the smallest ingredient needed for a conversation to go south, mainly a person’s tongue, Mr. Philip Wise, from ministrymatters.com said, “The inability to control one’s tongue is the Achilles heel for teachers.
Some of you may share that situation with me, where you generally know now, what you knew probably more specifically - back then - about various and sundry pearls of wisdom. In this case, the Achilles heal is a tough band of fibrous tissue - according to webmd.com - that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone; the longest and strongest tendon in the body.
It’s also one of the most vulnerable tendons, not only because we tend to have less cushion on the back of our ankles, but because it has a limited blood supply along with high tensions. An Achilles heel can develop micro tears to large ruptures, in an instant or over time, through constant use or thickening while aging. And regardless of the magnitude, it’s impair can cripple a person for a fair length time.
And then there’s the back-back story, from Roman mythology, when Achilles was a baby, and it was prophesied that he would die at a young age. To ensure that this didn’t happen, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, took him to the River Styx, a river and a deity that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. It was rumored that the river had magical power to make a person invulnerable - invincible and impervious to danger or death.
As any mother would know - she said tongue-in-cheek - when you dip a child into any river, you can’t do it without holding on. So when Thetis dipped Achilles, she held him by his heel, which wasn’t touched by the water. It was his one area of weakness and vulnerability, and sure enough, it is thought that Achilles was downed by a wound to his heel or ankle, or torso, or maybe by poison.
The irony is that while one can rest an Achilles heel, one’s tongue never rests. Even after a day’s worth of talking, mixing food, swallowing, tasting and germ fighting, our tongue takes on night duty, pushing saliva into the throat to be swallowed, which is a good thing, otherwise we would drool all over our pillows. Except that some of us do that anyway, despite perfectly good tongues, so we’ll just leave it that tongues are so very different from an Achilles heel.
Then there’s Chuck Swindoll: "The tongue--what a study in contrasts! To the physician, it’'s merely a two-ounce slab of mucous membrane enclosing a complex array of muscles and nerves that enables our bodies to chew, taste and swallow. How helpful! Equally significant, it is the major organ of communication that enables us to articulate distinct sounds so we can understand each other. How essential!”
To me, it’s interesting that the tongue lies between the heart and the brain. And never has there been a more false statement than the one about sticks and stones breaking bones and names never hurting.
The gospel passage speaks of taking up our cross to follow Christ, should we determine to be a follower of him. The cross is yet again another of the ironies of following Christ. He asks us to welcome the poor and care for the grieving and children, to associate with not only the beautiful, and to love even the unloveable.
During a battle a soldier was frantically digging in as shells fell all around him. Suddenly his hand felt something metal and he grabbed it. It was a silver cross. Another shell exploded and he buried his head in his arms. He felt someone jump in with him and looked over and saw an army chaplain. The soldier thrust the cross in the chaplain’s face and said, “I sure am glad to see you. How do you work this thing?”
I hadn’t really thought of it before, maybe you haven’t either, that cross-bearing doesn’t refer to meaningless or even involuntary suffering that has to be endured. It was Billy D. Strayhorn, also of ministrymatters.com, who painted the distinction. “Suffering terminal cancer or AIDS is a horrible misfortune, but it’s not bearing a cross. To offer your cancer- or AIDS-weakened self by reaching out to others and helping them, that’s taking up your cross.” …. Bearing our cross is not making the best of a situation or circumstance. It is something we deliberately take up and bear.
Mr Strayhorn also told of a time that probably happened a number of years ago, about some women who lived near Washington D.C., who picked up crosses of care and to speak the language of love to babies born with AIDS. Because the babies didn’t get much attention, no one responding to their crying aloud, they began to cry silently, shedding quiet tears.
“Even though these children would die by their second birthdays, the women took a number of the AIDS babies home. The women would respond to the silent tears by holding and rocking the babies. Soon these unloved, cast-off AIDS babies began to cry out loud again. They had been spoken to in the only way they could understand. They had been spoken to in the language of love by women willing to deny themselves and take up their cross.”
One manner of melding together these two scripture passages is to take up our cross in paying attention to what we say and how we say it. Doug Bratt of Calvin Seminary, obviously remembers a comment from years before. “A classmate whom I’ll call Ray, incinerated my fragile psyche with one stroke of his powerful tongue. He took one look at my pants that were too short for my lengthening legs and sneered, “I guess Bratt’s getting ready for flooding.” It’s interesting that I hardly ever hear about people remembering a cutting remark that they made, while memories of receiving injurious comments of days gone by can pop to the surface in an instant.
I would venture a guess that I’m not the only one who has removed one foot from my mouth to insert the other - resulting in my own embarrassment and humiliation for lack of thought. Again, Mr. Bratt told of “A boy whom I’ll call AC , a member of the church I served when I was a new pastor. On one Sunday, in an effort to be funny, I jokingly said, “Here comes trouble” when he approached. But when I did that, I didn’t realize that AC had gotten into quite a bit of trouble. So my “tongue” lit the fire of reinforcing his negative self-image and, what’s more, hurting his parents.
I’m sure that on this day, filled with recollections of what we were doing or saying 20 years ago, that you may have re-heard words that were spoken in fear and uncertainty, particularly about a group of people that many of us didn’t know much about. It’s easy to brush away such comments, because we don’t know any of those people.
But, just for the sake of argument, suppose that one of “those” people - be they of different skin color or faith persuasion, political stance or understandings - suppose that one of your family members is one of “those” people. Or a dear friend who has suffered not so much a cross but an accident or different understanding of themselves, and that throw-away phrase come to mind - and you realize that you can stop it from inflicting pain on someone you love. Isn’t that the way God would have us treat all people?
I don’t think God is in the business of discouraging teachers or preachers, or making us paranoid mutes. It’s just that sometimes, we need to retrace our steps and words with apologies while other times we need to confront our urge to be smart with a silence that we know - inside - to be far more wise. And other times, just choosing a different word or phrase can build up God’s kingdom, rather than tearing it down. Let us begin our choices by offering them to God.
Holy and Loving God, we lift up the situations of the past weeks, should we have caused harm, and ask for your help in nudging us to help restore or heal in whatever ways that might happen. For those times, we ask your forgiveness and growth in our own souls and spirits. And for those times that will come to us in the coming week, guide us to be prudent and life-giving in our exchanges. For this evening, as our minds begin to prepare for the coming time of sleep and rest, enable us to recount the sensitivities and graces that came our way this day, that we may give you thanks for them. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.