Sermon for 16 September 2012: A time for silence and a time for talk

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 16 September 2012: Year B, Proper 19

SERMON
Texts: James 3:1-12
Mark 8:22-30

A time for silence and a time for talk

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament contains the words of a philosopher who advises us that there is ‘the time for silence and the time for talk’ (Ecclesiastes 3.7). But knowing when to speak, and when to remain silent, is something we seem to find harder and harder. Some people seem surrounded by talk all the time- the TV is on in the house all day, and when they are not talking on their mobile, they are texting or emailing. But others, perhaps, have too much silence. There are too many people- many older people, for example- who spend their days alone, with no-one to talk to. No-one seems willing to break their silence- not their family, not their neighbours. Between those two extremes the rest of us try to live. We need silence, in order, as we say, in order to hear ourselves thing. Silence helps us to listen to our conscience, or even to God. But the silence of the lonely is heartbreaking. For we humans are social animals, and our souls shrivel when we don’t get the opportunity to interact with other people, face-to-face. Daytime television is no substitute for a friendly face- a friend, a family member- who really is interested in you and concerned for you, and who really means it when they ask ‘How are you doing?’

Yet speaking can also be fraught with danger. In our reading from the letter of James, the writer suggest that not many people should become teachers in the Church, because teachers have to watch what they say. And James develops the theme so that it applies to all Christians. He has what is almost a diatribe about how we use our tongues: we can control a horse by putting a bit in its mouth, or steer a ship with a wee rudder: ‘So it is with the tongue; small as it is, it can boast about great things’. This little part of the body can do a lot of good- or wreak havoc. James has a vivid metaphor to describe what the tongue can do:

Just think how large a forest can be set on fire by a tiny flame! And the tongue is like a fire. It is a world of wrong, occupying its place in our bodies and spreading evil through our whole being. It sets on fire the entire course of our existence with the fire that comes to it from hell itself. We humans are able to tame and have tamed all other creatures- wild animals and birds, reptiles and fish. But no one has ever been able to tame the tongue. It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison. We use it to give thanks to our Lord and Father and also to curse other people, who are created in the likeness of God. Words of thanksgiving and cursing pour out from the same mouth. My friends, this should not happen!

Or as another Old Testament philosopher wrote in the Book of Proverbs: ‘Be careful what you say and protect your life. A careless talker destroys himself’ (Proverbs 13.3).
‘Blether’ is one of my favourite Scots words. Usually, having a blether is a good thing: a mother speaking to her daughter, getting all the latest news about the grandchildren, for example. When we blether like that we strengthen the bonds between us, keep our relationships in good repair, share our burdens with one another. But as a noun, the word is often a term of disapproval: ‘She’s jist a blether’ you say about someone who loves to bring you news, but whom you think is unreliable. The blether is on the road to ruin, said the Philosopher- they soon lose their reputation, and, what is worse, they can cause destruction that really is like a forest fire.

It amazes me how often Christian people seem to lack the wisdom to keep their tongues under control. Some Churches are often hotbeds of gossip, which people try to justify by saying that they are interested in their Christian brothers and sisters. Yes, we need to talk, and sometimes an innocent blether is not a bad thing. But it needs to be wise talk- talk which encourages, rather than knocking each other down. And it is certainly the case that when Christians very publicly fall out with one another, that is not a good advertisement for the Gospel! This is hard for us today, for we live in a world in which gossip surrounds us. A whole industry exists- magazines, TV shows, newspapers (so-called) whose diet is gossip, scandal, innuendo, smear, rumour. It affects entertainment, sport, politics- and it has become so prevalent that we hardly notice it any more. Indeed, enough of us enjoy for the newspapers and magazines and TV shows which produce it for them to be highly profitable. Only every so often are we capable of being shocked- for example, when it turned out that the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler, or last week when the full extent of the police cover-up after the Hillsborough disaster became clear. Part of the industry which has developed to feed the love of gossip are the intrusive photographers. Fifteen years ago, when Princess Diana was killed in a car which was being chased by paparazzi photographers, many newspapers said they would never us photos take by the paparazzi again. They were liars- the couldn’t resist it. And the great British public were hypocrites, because fifteen years on from Diana, our fascination with celebrity gossip is as great as ever, and we are still buying this stuff.

It’s interesting to me that this passage from James is linked by the Lectionary with a two strange incidents in Mark’s Gospel. In the first, Jesus comes to Bethsaida and encounters a crowd looking for a miracle- the people beg him to touch a blind man. Some of these people are no doubt motivated by compassion- they want Jesus to help this poor man. But I wonder if some of them are motivated by the excitement of it all. He’s healed people in other towns- will he do the same here? We’ve heard that Jesus can do this sort of thing. Grab the blind man, and let’s see a miracle. I imagine that whatever the motivation, it’s a frightening time of the blind mad, as he is pushed and jostled to the front, unable himself to see all that is going on, but aware that he is the centre of attention and being brought to this teacher and miracle-worker.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels. Mark never wastes a word. And so I think it’s important that we notice that Mark tells us that Jesus does not immediately heal this man. As the blind man is jostled to the front of the queue, as Jesus is surrounded by this crowd of excited villagers, looking for their miracle, Mark gives us a moment of real tenderness and understanding: ‘Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village’. Something similar happened in the passage we read last Sunday, about the deaf-mute man in Tyre. There, too, people were begging Jesus to lay hands on him: ‘So Jesus took him off alone, away from the crowd’.

Jesus shows such great compassion and understanding here. The crowd do not matter; not does it matter to Jesus that he should be seen doing a miracle. Here is a man who needs help, and so Jesus takes him away, privately, to a quiet place. He carefully makes sure that the man is healed- at the first attempt, the cure doesn’t quite seem to work- the man can see people, but they look like trees, he says. Carefully, gently, caringly, Jesus goes to work again, and this time he can see clearly. Yet Jesus tells him, ‘Don’t go back to the village’. Why ever not? I imagine that Jesus has a real concern for this man. He doesn’t want him to go back and be treated like a freak show: ‘Here’s the man Jesus cured!’ It could be that he was a beggar who went from town to town, so it wouldn’t matter where he went. Best, perhaps, to go somewhere where nobody knows him, where he won’t be a local celebrity- ‘The man who used to be blind’- and he can get on with a normal, quiet life.

You’d think that Jesus would have used his miracles to advertise what he was about, like those faith healers we sometimes hear about who do their cures in public amid frenzied crowds. But that is not the way of Christ. Jesus’ approach puts the individual first; he puts his patient’s dignity and privacy before all else. Much of the most caring and life-changing things which happen on Christ’s name are things that happen out of the public gaze. Someone takes flowers to a housebound person; an elder visits a parishioner in hospital; a parent sits down to talk to a troubled teenager. All of these things, and much else, goes on in our congregation, unsung, almost unnoticed- although not by God. Did not Jesus say,

When you give something to a needy person, do not make a big show of it, as the hypocrites do in the houses of worship and on the streets. They do it so that people will praise them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. But when you help a needy person, do it in such a way that even your closest friend will not know about it. Then it will be a private matter. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you. (Matthew 6.2-4)

This is the opposite of our cult of celebrity, which even convinces ordinary people that they should put their lives in front of the camera when simply for entertainment purposes. Years ago I was got a phone call from a TV company asking me if they make a programme with people who were preparing for weddings for me. I told them to get lost. Mind you, somebody said to me the other day, ‘I keep seeing you in the news’- well, it was the time of the year for the Kirking, and I am not ashamed to milk the occasion to get as much good publicity for the Church as a possibly can. There is a time to speak, and time for silence; a time for publicity, and a time for doing things quietly. The trick is to know which is which.
Jesus was a very public figure, with a reputation. Who do people say I am, he asks, and Peter says he is the Messiah. This is the Gospel- this is the truth. Peter, for once, gets ten out of ten. And then that strange command from Jesus: ‘Do not tell anyone about me’.
We hear a lot about how we should share the Gospel and tell people about Jesus. But here Mark is telling us that Jesus ticked the ‘no publicity box’. Why wouldn’t he want people to know that he was their Messiah, their saviour? Scholars have puzzled over this passage for centuries. Perhaps it was simply that Jesus understood the philosopher, who said that that there is a time for everything. Jesus knew when was ‘the time for silence and the time for talk’. This was a time for silence.

‘It’s good to talk’, as the BT ads used to say. But sometimes it’s better not to talk, and not all talk is good. God forgive us for not keeping our tongues in check- for the damage we’ve done to others, to our own souls, and even to the Christian cause, when we have failed to resist the temptation to talk when we the wise thing to do would have been to keep silent! And when we do speak, may our words not be ill thought words that cut others like a blade, but canny words which are like balm to heal and to help. St Paul once wrote this about gifts of God’s Spirit:

We are to use our different gifts in accordance with the grace that God has given us. If our gift is to speak God’s message, we should do it according to the faith that we have; if it is to serve, we should serve; if it is to teach, we should teach; if it is to encourage others, we should do so. (Romans 12.6-8a)

God give us the wisdom to know when to be silent, and when to talk. When we do talk, may God grant us wisdom so that our words will be encouraging, truthful, and positive words!

Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo