Close Your Mouth, Sally

Rural Arkansas is filled with all kinds of characters, but one of my favorites is named Sally. Sally puts together a funeral potluck like you’ve never seen, and she is the most devoted preacher’s wife and grandmother I’ve ever met. But in spite of her hill country propriety, Sally has trouble fixing her facial expression when she’s shocked, or even less than pleased. A mantra developed in her family: “Close your mouth, Sally.” Sally and I have very little in common, but this vice we share. Our mouths can get us into trouble.

We all have this struggle to some degree. It’s such an essential part of the human condition that our scripture takes up the matter. Our passage from the letter of James today is a frank and honest meditation on the way that our mouths, our voices, can be wonderful tools of the Kingdom and almost simultaneously land us in messes of all sorts. He says, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

And yet we see this struggle with speech played out all the time. How quickly we go from celebrating a baby’s first words to asking the same profane youth, “you kiss your mama with that mouth?” How quickly we oscillate between extolling the internet’s gift of global interconnection, and utilizing emails to accuse and condemn those in power.

And in the United States in 2018, even though we cherish our freedom of speech, it sure does feel as though no one is actually free to speak without fear of public condemnation. This conundrum that James is struck by, wherein we can’t seem to use our mouths for good and good alone, seems to be just as prevalent today as when he wrote his letter. But when we turn to our Gospels for an answer, we are met not with a comforting solution, but with a challenge.

Our Gospel passage for today has several of the most most quipped one-liners from all of scripture. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said “get thee behind me Satan,” when someone offers me dessert I’d be a rich woman. But this week, two lines stood out to me: “he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him,” and, “take up their cross and follow me.” As I pondered my own struggle with using my voice for good and good alone, I couldn’t help but think about how these two lines from the Gospel might be related.

First, Christ’s strict order for the disciples to keep his identity private. I’ve always assumed an eschatological explanation for what we call the Messianic secret. Surely a big reveal was part of Jesus’ grand plan, and he didn’t want it ruined. But in light of James’ meditation on the gift and curse of our tongues, I’m starting to see it in a different light.

When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, he doesn’t quite get the response he wants. Peter calls him the Messiah, but for Peter, and for all the disciples and Jews who had been clinging to the messianic hope for centuries, a Messiah was a warrior king. But this is not at all how Jesus came to save, and this is not the message Jesus wants spread.

I am reminded of how my mother warned me not to use profanity or any off-limits words around my infant brothers, because they might repeat them, and weren’t mature enough for context. And then, when Christ begins to talk about what lay ahead in Jerusalem, Peter shushes him. It seems as though the disciples simply aren’t ready to proclaim the Gospel. And Jesus uses much stronger language to put them in their place than, “close your mouth, Sally.”

Richard Hooker, founding Anglican theologian and no relation of mine, once said about God, “He is above and we are on earth, therefore it behoveth us to make our words wary and few.” I am struck by the way our scriptures for today seem to be encouraging us to do just that. I am also unnerved, because that is no small task.

Keeping our mouths shut is one of life’s greatest challenges. We are constantly tempted to speculate, to lie, to boast and to slander. And we repeatedly fall prey to unintentionally misusing information, bearing false witness, and spreading fear and doubt. If you’re anything like me, the hardest apologies you ever make are for things you’ve said that hurt others.

This brings me back to the second line that stood out to me from today’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus does not offer any affirmation or consolation when Peter misunderstands the purpose of a Messiah. Instead, he tells him openly that the road for the Messiah is about to get really difficult, and those who want to be saved have to join him on that same road, take up their own crosses, and head towards a crucifixion.

Now, crosses look different for each of us, and they change as we change. The immense difficulty in being a Christian takes on many forms. Speaking for myself and my own struggle, the cross I take up to follow Christ has the words, “Close Your Mouth, Sally” engraved across the top. I am in need of reminders to use my voice for the kingdom and not against it. And I suspect I’m not alone.

We all want to put others in their place with vocal authority. We want to make ourselves look great with self-praise. We want to alleviate our anger by yelling. We want to curse. We want to gossip. Like the disciples, we want to use our voices in all kinds of ways that bring temporary joy or relief from suffering. We want to offer quick fixes and announce who’s in and who’s out.

But the truth is that our mouths can be dangerous, and our words require constant care and consideration. As followers of Christ, we are called to use our tongues to bless and not to curse, and for many, this is the hardest cross in the world to pick up, precisely because it’s so easy to ignore.

Now, not to try and toss in the Old Testament reading at the end of a sermon in an obvious way, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the powerful image of wisdom as a woman in Proverbs. I think it rounded out today’s powerful message about the wisdom and determination required to navigate the sensitive territory of communication in the Kingdom, and reminded me that discerning right speech is an ongoing practice. Sometimes we’ll need the help of friends and family to remind us to close our mouths, to help get thee behind us Satan, to help us take up our crosses.

The road ahead is never easy for followers of Christ, because we have been called on the greatest way of life imaginable, that of the Cross. I invite us this week to consider the crosses we take up and the words we use, and how they lead us all into the Kingdom. Amen.

Hannah Hooker