To speak, or not to speak?

Address given on 12 September 2021

Reading: James 3: 1 – 12 & Mark 8: 27 – 38

I don’t know who selected today’s readings, but I do think it’s funny that that reading from James is set for the end of the first week of school term.
Just now, I am sure there are more than a few teachers” around the country, with vocal cords feeling the strain after the summer break, who are wondering whether his warning against becoming a teacher was sound advice, after all!

Both of today’s readings seem to be concerned with the power of speech – and whether to speak or not to speak.

The injunction against becoming a teacher is perhaps a warning not to set ourselves up as more than we really are – presuming always to tell other people what to do
or to direct their lives for them.

And in Mark’s gospel we have yet another instance of Jesus ordering those around him not to tell anyone
what they’ve seen and heard;
but then almost immediately he tells the crowds to nail their colours to the mast; that they must not to be ashamed to speak up – for him, and about him.

To speak, or not to speak, that IS the question.
And behind the various images that James uses,
to illustrate the power of speech, there are some human traits we might still recognise.

Those of you who are teachers and/or parents will almost certainly have witnessed the phenomenon of one and the same child appearing to undergo a complete transformation – depending on their audience.

The child who at home is noisy, argumentative, funny – but at school is almost silent.
The child who at home will only lift a finger to help after serious badgering – but at school, or in the youth club, just can’t wait to volunteer for any task that needs doing.

From the same mouth CAN come “blessing and cursing” – can come grumbling and enthusiasm – can come a withering put down and a warm encouragement – can come endless questioning or cool indifferent silence – all depending on context.

And that’s not always a bad thing.
It’s actually healthy, I think, that we learn to take account of both our situation and the people we’re addressing.
It’s more of a problem when someone doesn’t really understand what is appropriate – that the workplace is possibly not the right place the kind of informal banter they’d use with friends.

Part of that process of judging the right tone,
is noticing the mood of the person to whom we’re speaking: we know for ourselves that, when we’re tired or angry about something, we react to things differently than when we’re feeling energetic and upbeat.
And the slight hint of criticism, or correction at the wrong time – or a thoughtless comment which makes it clear that the other person is not really thinking about us –
can cause hurt which may run deep for years,
and may in fact never heal.

Our words once spoken cannot be taken back.

Happily, the opposite is also true –
a well chosen, well timed word of encouragement,
or kindness – can affect us just as deeply,
and can also last a lifetime.

Our own words are powerful things – for good and ill.
And, the day after the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York – we can’t ignore the power of speech to radicalise – to persuade others that extremism of one sort or another is a necessary path. Even without the reach of the internet, there are those with the power to manipulate through well-chosen words.

Very often the most susceptible to this kind of persuasion are those who feel that their own words don’t count for much. Those who think that their voice is always ignored are more easily persuaded to find other ways to get attention.

And I’m not just talking about Islamist extremists here, the same could be said of those from the “white working class” – who may find the attention and affirmation they crave within the more extreme and unsavoury political movements of the day: whether that be the anti-Semitic left or the white supremacist right.

The power of speech to give hope and encouragement can equally be harnessed to give false hope and to sow the seeds of hatred through misrepresentation of reality.
So, what on earth are we meant to do with that lot?!

I want to suggest four main pointers:

1 Speak honestly.
Yes the teacher may put on his or her “teachers voice” in front of their pupils, and those same pupils may well act and speak very differently with their friends, their family and their teachers. And that is fine provided they are really being themselves – not acting someone they’re not.

2 Judge your words carefully.
If we know that someone is sensitive about a particular issue, and about which we have something to say – we need to decide if we really DO need to mention it just now; and if we feel that we should, then at least prepare the ground gently and acknowledge the gulf that may exist between us.

3 Speak up, even when it makes you unpopular.
If we only say the things that other people want to hear, what are we actually going to contribute to the society we live in? And where is our own self respect?
If we really believe something, surely we must be prepared to argue for and defend it.
4 Challenge untruth.
From the distorters of religious belief to the zealous anti-vaxxers whose claims seem to get more preposterous by the day, we need to be ready to counter false information.
We say that the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.
The same could said for speech: the only thing necessary for conspiracy theories to gain credibility is for the people that know better just to ignore them,
and hope they’ll go away.

Finally, there’s another strand to all this –
which is the effect that our own words have on us.

When Jesus asked the disciples,
“Who do you say that I am?” – he wasn’t after a quick ego boost, he was making them face up to themselves,
and what they thought they were up to.

And as Peter blurts out “You are the Messiah”, he convinces both Jesus and himself, that he is ready to take on the harder truths that Jesus is about to reveal.

The words that we say affect us –
especially when we are speaking about ourselves, and the things that matter to us.

We recite the Creed week after week,
or perhaps day after day,
because the repetition of those words forms us:
over time we are changed by those words.

Even if that bold statement, “I believe”, may sometimes feel like more of a statement of intent, than of fact – a clinging to the life raft, when we’re struggling to believe – reciting those words together can encourage those around us, and help us to keep faith.

And, in better times, as we say those same words with confidence ringing in our voice –
they become an endorsement of all that we feel,
and of the life we’re experiencing.

There is a saying that “You are what you eat” –
but Jesus said it is not what goes in, but what comes out of us of our mouth that defines us.
It might be more accurate, then,
to say that “You are what you speak”
And so, let’s come back to the heart of today’s Gospel, and the very direct challenge that Jesus gives to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” – not just
“who do people say..” but “who do YOU say that I am”.

That surely is the most fundamental question for any Christian – and, for that matter, anyone who forms an opinion about Christianity.
What DO we make of this Jesus of Nazareth?

His question gives a very direct challenge to each one of us – think very carefully before you answer.

Words matter.