17 September 2006
Talking about it
When my sister was a little girl, she was given a setting of duck eggs, and hatched three ducklings out of them. You know what ducklings are like, cute little fluffy things, and she used to spend hours after school each day sitting and petting them, and stroking their fluffy down. And, do you know, when they grew up and got their feathers and became ducks and started to lay eggs - at least, the two ducks did, the drake didn't, of course - they would still jump on to her lap for a cuddle whenever they could! She had tamed them. Imagine what it looked like, a great big white farmyard duck sitting on a schoolgirl's lap! Most odd. They were her tame ducks, and it was a great tragedy when the fox got them. She did get more ducks, but she didn't tame them. They weren't her pets. She didn't give them names.
St James reminds us that almost anything you can think of can be tamed, but the one thing nobody can tame is the human tongue.
I wonder how many of us, during the past week, said something we afterwards regretted? I know I did! And the awful thing is, there is so nothing you can do about it if you offend someone, or upset them. You said what you said, and even if you didn't mean it, you can't call the words back. You can't unsay them. You can apologise, of course, and explain you were speaking in anger, or something, but you can't actually unsay it.
In our Gospel reading, St Peter was being a problem to Jesus by trying to say that he wouldn't allow him to be killed in Jerusalem. I mean, you can imagine, can't you - if you knew you were going to be put to death, probably desperately painfully, and someone said "Hey, don't worry, I'll never let that happen to you!" you'd be tempted, too - just as Jesus was. I don't think he was angry with Peter when he said "Get thee behind me, Satan!", just nearly unbearably tempted. Mind you, Peter wasn't to know that what he thought was being helpful wasn't.
That happens, of course. After all, if someone asks you whether their bum looks big in this, you don't answer "Yes"! I hope.... Or fail to praise a small child who is showing you their painting! Neither response would be helpful. Peter thought he was being helpful and supportive, but it turned out he was being neither. It happens.
But what we say can have seriously far-reaching consequences. Think of a forest fire, St James said in our epistle today. Just a tiny spark can set a whole forest on fire, endangering human lives and livelihoods, as we can so often see on the television news. And think how easily a rumour can spread, and damage someone's life or livelihood.
I wonder whether you remember, some years ago, a rumour swept through a community that someone living there was a paedophile. The mob gathered and threw paint on his house and generally made the person's life miserable - but it turned out that, far from being a paedophile, he was a paediatrician, a children's doctor!
And there's an issue at my parents' church at the moment - I don't want to go into detail, but suffice it to say that thanks to someone bringing up a problem in someone else's past, the whole church has been badly upset, to the point that the vicar has walked out on them....
What we say matters. St James says that if we can control what we say, we'll be pretty much perfect. After all, he points out, our tongues do tend to control us, like a rudder controls a ship, or a bit controls a horse.
Hmmm, who was it said that a perfect Christian is someone who could sell their parrot to the town gossip? Or, indeed, ask the town gossip to mind their baby! I'm sure many of us have been embarrassed by our children repeating what we have said - I know my parents were caught out when my brother, as a baby, told a visitor that the cat was called "Damn' cat!" and indeed, I had a similar experience when my daughter was small, and suggested that "Damn!" would be a useful expletive for someone who'd dropped something and gone "Oo-h..." and left it at that. Just as well it was something that mild!
And even while preparing this sermon, I had occasion to look for a biro that I could have sworn had been put away where it ought to be, but there it wasn't. So I was all set to accuse poor Robert of having moved it - which he hadn't at all, because there it was, I just couldn't see it for looking! Luckily he wasn't there at the time, or I might have accused him of moving it!
So it's not just what we say in public, but what we say in private, too. Perhaps almost especially what we say in private. After all, if our private lives don't match up to what we profess to believe, what does that say about our faith? Doesn't do to be praising God in Church one minute, and yelling at one's husband or children the next.... no matter how much they might deserve it! It's like, St James says, a spring producing both salt and fresh water at the same time, or a fig tree bearing grapes, or a grape-vine bearing figs. It simply doesn't work out!
Jesus told us, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we must not be angry with someone in a destructive way. Remember: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgement'. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool", you will be liable to the hell of fire."
Jesus took that sort of thing very seriously indeed. If you have upset someone, you absolutely must go and do something about it. You can't just say "Oh well, they'll get over it!" Even going to worship isn't as important as putting things right with someone you've hurt: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." Jesus, you may remember, had a lot of hard things to say to those who felt that it didn't matter what they did in their private lives, just as long as they got it right in public worship.
I've often said that these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when we are asked to look at whether what we say we believe matches up with what we actually believe, whether what we do here in Church on Sunday actually makes any different to what we do at work on Monday. For many of us, of course, it does. For most of us, it probably does some of the time, but not all of the time.
So what can we do about it?
Isn't this, really, one of the Fruits of the Spirit that St Paul talks about? The fruit of self-control. In many ways, I think, it's the most important fruit there is - but then, perhaps I only say that because I often struggle with it! One of the ways in which we Christians can show that we are Christians is that we are self-controlled, that we don't fly out in a temper, or repeat gossip, or talk about people behind their backs.
But, like all these things, we can be forgiven, and we can change. It is a fruit, and you remember how Jesus told us that the way to show fruit in our lives is to abide in Him. We don't need to strain and struggle, we just need to submit ourselves to God and, explicitly, the submit the things we are struggling with, like self-control, or an iffy temper. This is, of course, easier said than done, as we're far too apt to grab it all back and lash out, before we remember. But, thankfully, we aren't required to be perfect, we're only required to want to be!
I just want to leave you with this story, to help us all remember how important words can be. This is from a children's story, but there are other versions of it. A girl, Eileen, is jealous of another girl, Peggy, and starts to spread rumours about her, that might have been true, but, in fact, weren't. Peggy has a position of some responsibility in her school, and that responsibility is undermined by the rumours going round. Finally, someone from outside comes in and proves that the rumours about Peggy are totally false.
Eileen is very upset, and wonders what on earth she can do. Then a friend invites her out to tea, and, knowing what has gone wrong, asks her to help with plucking some chickens for the family meal. "But I really don't want feathers blowing round my garden, so please try very hard to put them all in the sack." But no matter how hard Eileen tries, some of the feathers, especially the small, downy ones, blow away. She runs after them, but finally they blow out of the garden and are scattered on the winds.
So the adult friend points out to her, very gently, that her words are like the feathers - once they have escaped, they can't be recaptured. The damage has been done.
All poor Eileen can do is to apologise to Peggy, and hope to be forgiven. Thoughts unexpressed may fall back dead but even God can't kill words after they're said!
Incidentally, forgiving someone is just as important as apologising to them. If someone should upset you by what they say - or in any other way - I do hope you are as quick to forgive as you can be! When you are angry, it's all too easy to say things about someone else that you don't really mean. And, of course, when you are angry, you can't really forgive - but you can bite your tongue and not feed your anger, but let it pass so that you can forgive.
I'm just thankful we don't have to do it completely in our own strength, but that our loving heavenly Father will help us and enable us! With God's help, and with the help of Jesus, the Word of God, we can put a bridle on those tongues of ours. Amen.
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