Guarding the tongue

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on Sunday 13th September 2015 at St Mary’s Garsington and St Giles’ Horspath.

Readings: James 3:1-12; Mark 8: 27-38.

On Wednesday the bells of Oxford, including St Mary’s and St Giles’, rang out to celebrate the Queen’s remarkable achievement of being the longest reigning British monarch in history. During all that time she has become known for her deep faith, unswerving commitment to duty and her diplomatic skills that are the envy of the world. Rarely do we know exactly what it is the Queen says or even thinks herself. As David Starkey, the popular historian comments, ‘the Queen has perfected the art of talking without saying anything’. As such she has become an icon of restraint that still reminds us of our Edwardian if not Victorian relatives not so long dead.


Where the Queen is often inscrutable this is not something which can be said of the Duke of Edinburgh who, conversely has become world famous for his gaffes. Here are just a few of them:

On seeing an exhibition of “primitive” Ethiopian art, he muttered: “It looks like the kind of thing my daughter would bring back from her school art lessons.”

The Duke famously proclaimed: “British women can’t cook”.

While on an official visit to China, he told a group of British exchange students living in the city of Xian: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty–eyed.”

In Cardiff he told children from the British Deaf Association, who were standing by a Caribbean steel band: “If you’re near that music it’s no wonder you’re deaf”.

“People think there’s a rigid class system here, but dukes have been known to marry chorus girls. Some have even married Americans.”

On approaching his 90th birthday: “Bits are beginning to drop off”.

Sometimes I wonder if the Dukes’ gaffes are not so much inappropriate comments as playing the fool to the Queen’s silent correctness.   But I guess at one time or another we have all put our proverbial foot in it and said something which we have only later wished we could take back. Only yesterday David Cameron was caught on mike ahead of a speech in Leeds, saying: “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else, we didn’t realise they hated each other so much.” It was all taken in good Yorkshire humour but I am sure we can recall other moments of careless or thoughtless speech which has cost political lives. Luckily our faux pars do not make headline news and are invariably forgiven as graciously as the Duke’s and David Cameron’s are. But today our readings invite us to cultivate an attitude of self-awareness about what we say. Do we live out through our lips what we believe in our hearts or do we get caught out by careless words.


In our gospel reading we have an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples which is all about speaking. The passage opens with Jesus asking his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Now, I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus is asking this question to check out how his celebrity profile is going but more to invite the disciples to report the gossip of the crowds, and they tell him what is the word on the street, the careless talk around town, when they say; ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’. Jesus doesn’t leave it there instead he goes on to invite his disciples, those who have followed him and heard his words and seen his healings to give voice to what they have come to believe about him. Peter’s statement is very different from that of the crowds, it is a declaration of faith and expresses more about Peter as a disciple than it does about giving Jesus a title: ‘You are the Messiah’. Peter’s words can be likened to Thomas’s same memorable declaration when he sees the risen Jesus: ‘My Lord and my God’. Or the centurion’s statement of awe at the foot of the cross ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’. In each case the individual’s declaration gives words to their inner faith but it also voices profound truth so that The Word himself is incarnated in their speech.


Such is the power of the spoken word, but as the letter of James warns us, the tongue can be an instrument by which we not only ‘bless the Lord and Father’ but also ‘we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.’ The author of the letter of James is voicing a very ordinary human inconsistency which we see acted out by Peter. I often wonder whether the argument Peter gets into with Jesus about his teaching on suffering is as a direct result of having had this intense moment of expressing his faith and insight in Jesus. It’s often in our moments of seeming success that we are most vulnerable to careless talk. Because in a sense that is what Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is, a careless reaction which comes from not listening to Jesus’ teaching. Instead he has been too quick to voice his opinion over and above that of Jesus’. As with so many rash words, they can be well meant and I am sure that there was that tone of love and outrage in Peter’s voice, but the reaction it calls from Jesus silences him at once.


I am sure that many of us, if not all of us, can relate in some way or other to this story from Mark. As disciples, just like Peter, we are also called to reflect an awareness and self-control over what we say. As one of the desert fathers wrote probably reflecting the letter of James: ‘Do not let your mouth speak an evil word: the vine does not bear thorns’. So we are called to be consistent in our speech, so that our words are life giving and incarnating of his Word. When we are tempted to carelessly follow the crowd then is the time to dash our thoughts against Jesus’ rebuke and keep silence.


In the Disney film Bambi the little rabbit Thumper must repeat the lessons he has learnt from his father, just before he opens his mouth in a thoughtless word his mother prompts him to repeat ‘If you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all’. It may be childlike but it’s not a bad saying to have in our heads when we wish to truly live out through our lips what we believe in our hearts. Amen.