Noise

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Isaiah 50:4-9a    James 3:1-12    Mark 8:27-38

If there is a common theme
across all of today’s readings,
it’s that words matter.

In Isaiah, we hear him say,
“The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may sustain the weary
with a word.” [1]

In James we hear,
“How great a forest
is set ablaze by a small fire!”
but it’s nothing like the fire
of the tongue. [2]

And in Mark, Jesus asks
his disciples and us
the most important question
of his entire ministry:
“Who do you say that I am?” [3]

In all of these passages,
it’s about the words we say
and how they matter
more than we can possibly know.

*     *     *

To the ancient Hebrew people
words had power,
and people knew it.

All those millennia ago
when God decided to create the universe,
how did he do it?
Words.
God spoke,
and things came into being.

So, it was built into God’s people—
written on their very DNA—
that words are incredibly powerful . . .
powerful enough to create,
and powerful enough to destroy.

In the Old Testament,
when you blessed someone,
that blessing was forever.
When you cursed someone,
it was irrevocable.

Words had power.

*     *     *

These days,
it’s not that this is no longer true;
it’s that we have forgotten.
Or worse,
we just don’t care.

In our current culture,
we are using our words
in faster, bigger, newer,
more inventive ways—
sometimes to bless one another,
but mostly to do great harm—
and yet we accept it as though
it’s just business as usual.

You almost have to get out of
the current cacophony of words
to realize the effect it has on you.

During my sabbatical
three summers ago,
I took a vow of silence
and lived in retreat
for three months.

No words coming in
(no Internet, no cell phone, no TV),
and no words going out
(unless I absolutely had to).

When I tell people this,
they inevitably ask,
“Wasn’t it hard
not speaking
for three whole months?”

The answer is no.

Leaving society
and all our words behind
for three months
was a welcome respite,
a detox,
a blessing,
a breeze.

It was coming back
that was hard.

From all the noise
at the topmost level
of our national politics
all the way down
to the pointless, selfish noise
we throw at one another every day,
it felt like the world was screaming
when I came back.

It felt like the world was on fire.
Why?
Because it was,
and it still is.

It’s just that we’ve gotten used it.

*     *     *

In his letter,
James says today
that our tongue
is like the rudder
of a ship. [4]

It may be small,
but it steers us
where we want to go.

That may be true,
but what good is a rudder
if you don’t have a compass?

This is like the stories you hear
about new pilots learning to fly
or new divers learning to dive. [5]

When you’re a brand new pilot
you cannot trust your instincts.

You may feel secure in your seat—
you may feel what you think
is the tug of gravity holding you in place—
but once you fly into those clouds
and lose sight of the horizon,
they say it’s alarmingly easy to become disoriented
without even knowing it.

Next thing you know,
you come out of the clouds
to find yourself upside down,
or worse, in a graveyard spiral toward the earth
all because you relied only on yourself
and not on the instruments in front of you.

Same thing with divers.
Divers who go deep into caves
know how easy it is
to become disoriented
and to lose sight of
which way is up.
You cannot trust yourself.
Your only hope is to watch the bubbles.
(Helpful hint: If the bubbles go ‘down,’
you’re headed in the wrong direction!)

Despite everything we believe
about how smart and self-sufficient we are,
we need something outside ourselves
to know which way to go. [6]

*     *     *

For you and me,
that thing is Jesus.

Jesus is our lodestar,
our compass,
our true north.

Jesus is our instrument panel,
our bubbles in deep water.

Or, to put it biblically and more simply,
Jesus is the way.

This has to be why Jesus asks the question
“Who do you say that I am?” [7]

In this world full of noise,
in this world full of anger,
in this world where talk is cheap
and we’re disoriented,
and we don’t know
which way to go
or what to say,
Jesus looks at us and asks,
“Okay, but who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s gets it right:
“You are the Messiah.” [8]

In other words,
you are the thing outside ourselves
that shows us which way to go
when we don’t have a clue otherwise.

The only catch is that
the way Jesus offers
is the way of the Cross:
the way of sacrifice,
the way of silence,
the way of love. [9]

It is not the glamorous way,
but honestly,
it’s the only way up,
the only way out.

All the rest is just noise.

*     *     *

Today and every day,
our lives are shaped by the words we say:
words with the power to bless,
and words with the power to destroy,
all in a world filled with people making noise.

But you know what?
I’ve come to realize that
those who make the most noise—
those who utter the most curses—
usually do so not because they are strong,
but because, deep down,
they are alone, afraid, and insecure,
and they do not know which way to go.

The grace for us today
is that we are not alone,
and we need not be afraid.

Help has come from outside ourselves
to show us which way is up.

Be calm.
Be quiet.
And follow the way.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Isaiah 50:4
[2] James 3:5
[3] Mark 8:29
[4] James 3:4
[5] Jones, Scott & Greg Strawbridge. “Die to Live.” Audio blog post. Synaxis: A Lectionary Podcast, 9 Sep. 2018. Web. 12 Sep. 2018.
[6] Ibid.
[7] John 14:6
[8] Mark 8:29
[9] Mark 8:34-35