by Mark Swanson
Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations, Associate Director of Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice
I seriously considered preaching on the appointed text from the Epistle of James this morning, if only for the challenge of it. What can we do with a passage like this: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." That almost seems a call to close down the seminary – for what are we, if not a training-ground for teachers of various kinds? The apostle James is keenly aware of the danger of too much speech. He goes on to share his wisdom in this passage, about the tongue:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity;
it stains the whole body,
sets on fire the whole cycle of nature,
and is itself set on fire by hell.
With scripture passages like these, one can perhaps understand the holy men and women of Christian tradition who took refuge in silence. For example, Abba Arsenius of the Egyptian desert, an austere and intimidating saint, once explained his monastic vocation as follows: "I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent." Perhaps he's right, and silence is best. And perhaps I had best shut up right here and now.
And yet, even Abba Arsenius was sought out by disciples and visitors who begged him to "say a word": "Abba, give us a word, that we might be saved." And just so I'm led to wonder: Are such words possible?
The Apostle James might cause us to doubt it: "the tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity." But I find more hope for all of us teachers and preachers in yesterday's Old Testament text, the so-called "Third Servant Song" from Isaiah chapter 50. There the unnamed Prophet confesses:
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a disciple,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Here we are not speaking about a tongue which is "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (as St. James would have it), but a tongue given by the Lord God. It is not arrogant, but the "tongue of a disciple" (following the Hebrew against the NRSV, which changes the expression to the "tongue of a teacher"); and the result is not a forest fire, nor a flood of words, but "a word" that gives strength to the weary.
And the Lord God does not only give a tongue:
Morning by morning the Lord God wakens –
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear …
Mark Swanson - September 18, 2006
The Lord God gives the ear of the disciple as well as the tongue of the disciple. Here is one way in which the tongue is kept in check: any word spoken by it is grounded in and shaped by attentive listening, a hearkening to God and to God's people that is daily renewed by God's own ephphatha, "Be opened."
The Prophet's vocation is not a comfortable one:
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
Trusting in the Lord God, the unnamed Prophet remains unashamed in spite of every appearance of shame; for it is the Lord God, and no other, who will bring vindication:
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who justifies me is near.
And just so, the one who has been justified can exult. In almost a mocking tone, the Prophet challenges the adversaries to a court battle:
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together!
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me! [Bring it on!]
It is the Lord God who helps me.
Who will declare me guilty?
Finally, the Prophet adds a dismissive word about the adversaries – one that is usually omitted from the pericopes read in church:
All of them will wear out like a garment;
a moth will eat them up.
Here in the Servant Song we find what the Apostle James had us searching for: a God-given tongue that speaks words of comfort and hope. It is paired with a God-given ear, in a disciple who speaks without shame – and accepts without shame the vulnerability into which he or she is plunged by that very word, in the confidence of God's own help and vindication.
How shall we receive this text?
In the first place, receive it as a gift to you. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost – and upon you in your baptism – is the spirit of prophecy; every time that I have said "the unnamed Prophet" in the past couple of minutes, you may insert your own name. You and I have been called to prophesy; and God has a tongue to give us, and an ear, so that with hearing renewed morning by morning, we may speak a Word to the weary.
In the second place, the New Testament gives this Word a name: "the Gospel." The unnamed Prophet's shout of confidence, "I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who justifies me is near" rings in the background when in Romans, chapter one, St. Paul confesses: "I am not ashamed of the Gospel."
And a third point: Christians have always understood the Servant Songs to find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ: Christ is the Servant – who had an ear to hearken to the one he called Abba, Father; who had a tongue to speak words of forgiveness and healing and new beginnings; who accepted the vulnerability into which his vocation led him, even unto torment and death; but who was, in the end, vindicated, who came through shame unashamed. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Servant Song; but in fulfilling it, he also transforms it. In particular, in Christ we see nothing of the fierce exultation that we heard at the end of the Isaiah passage. That is the extraordinary message of the Gospels' stories about Christ's post-resurrection encounters: there is no gloating in them, no challenges to a court case in which the outcome is predetermined, no glorying in the discomfiture of those who betrayed him. What we find in a story such as that of Christ's encounter with the three-fold betrayer Peter, for example, is face-to-face encounter, reconciliation, and renewed vocation. Christ's word to Peter was not a word of fierce triumph, but rather: "Feed my sheep."
I am finding much in all this to ponder, on this week in particular. On Thursday we at LSTC shall inaugurate A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice; the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago will take a major step towards making "interfaith" one of its marks. Some of you may be wondering: Can we, in this institution of a confessional Lutheran church body, do such a thing? I ask myself the same question! But I think we can – in the light of the Servant Song as transformed by Christ.
As Christians living in a world of many faiths, we are not ashamed of the Gospel. We are ready to accept vulnerability on its behalf, and to bear our witness outside of places where everyone has been socialized into the language of Zion. We will bring our best theological formulations into places where they may well be met with incomprehension or even distaste – and will do so as disciples, ready to learn. We trust God to take from us arrogant, fiery tongues, and to give us disciples' tongues, tongues that comfort the weary and give hope to the perplexed. We trust God to give us disciples' ears, ears that rejoice to hear evidence of God at work in the lives of those we encounter. We look to God to give us a Word, knowing all the while that God has the last Word … and that this is cause – not for gloating – but for trust and confidence.
Isaiah 50:4-9; James 3:1-12