Proper 19B

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

September 16, 2018

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


On my second Sunday here, on the second Sunday of Easter, I told you a story that I want to tell again.

 It is the story of a game I remember playing as a young child and I believe children still play it.  We called it gossip.  The children are instructed to sit in a circle and the adult leader whispers into the ear of the first child a simple phrase.  Something like, Mary had a little lamb.  The children are then told in turn to whisper the same phrase to the next child, so that no one else hears it aloud, and then it is passed around the circle. 

When the last child hears the phrase, he is asked to say it out loud to the group.  Usually, the phrase has become distorted.  It comes out wrong.  Something like, Gary has a pickled jam.  This brings with it multiple meanings.  It is usually funny, the children giggle, thus making the activity a game, and, well, fun.  But it is also an exercise in experiencing first hand the dangers and immorality of gossip.

I used this analogy at Easter as a way to talk about how we get the message of the Gospel told. I want to use this example again today for a different reason - because sometimes we get it wrong.

The epistle of James includes the longest passage in the Bible about the role of speech in the life of a Christian. "We all stumble in many ways," says James; only the person who has "tamed the tongue" can claim Christian maturity.  It's not easy.  Humanity has tamed the world of nature, James observes, "but no one can tame the tongue."

I have been thinking all week as I lived with this passage about the feeling of having your tongue tamed.  For some reason what comes to mind most is that feeling of coming home from the dentist all numbed up where you can’t talk.  Again, we laugh, but this experience and those physical experiences like it: laryngitis, vocal fatigue, tooth aches or injuries, busted lips or those golden moments when we can’t remember what we wanted to say or the name of something or someone or someplace and when we have those experiences I wonder if it is not all the work of the Holy Spirit reminding us that sometimes we need to shut up!

I have been talking about listening a lot lately as your priest and here we are again with the opportunity to consider taming our tongues.  It may take talking less to listen more, but I want to invite you to consider some other benefits of a tame tongue. 

Silence is a great virtue. Silence and stillness were essential practices of the early desert mothers and fathers of the Christian Church. Like our mysterious passage from the book of Proverbs this morning, these monk-like Christians had books of sayings.  Here are a few thoughts on silence from them:  "It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learned to keep silence." (Poemen 37) "He also said, "The victory over all the afflictions that befall you is to keep silence.” (Poemen 147)  A brother asked one desert father, (Abba Poemen) “Is it better to speak or to be silent?”  The old man said to him,  “The man who speaks for God's sake does well, but he who is silent for God's sake also does well.”  And another said, (Sisoes 30)  "Even to the point of death, monks should control themselves so as not to speak."

In our own day, we have much to learn from those who live monastic lifestyles. The Quakers practice silence not just as a personal discipline but also as central to their corporate worship. They call it "expectant waiting."

Silence can mean the absence of speech and the cessation of words, but it's more than that (says John Chryssavgis in his book "In the Heart of the Desert.")  Silence "is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening." Silence is a way of dying to self, and self-denial is commended by Jesus in this week's gospel.  In silence we die to the need to justify ourselves, to be heard, or to condemn others.  If we could learn more about being quiet, we would be more able to take up our cross and follow.  And we’d likely have better directions because we will have been listening in our quiet.

A fellow from another denomination attended a Quaker meeting once.  He was exploring other faith traditions just to see the differences and sat down and waited while the Quaker’s sat in silence.  You know, that’s how they worship.  It’s lovely, really.  They sit for an hour or more and the only time anyone speaks if when or if they feel truly moved by the Holy Spirit.  I’m not sure how they discern that.  But this fellow sat there for a few minutes, you know how uncomfortable silence can be for the rest of us who are used to talking, singing and praying aloud a lot in worship, so this fellow finally whispered to the person next to him, “When does the service begin?”  His new friend simply replied, “When we leave here.”

I remember once, as a not so young child, our teacher asked us to gather in a circle for the gossip game.  We had played it many times by now and, for some reason we spontaneously held a quick huddle deciding as a group to get it right this time.  We cheered each other on to be careful, make sure you say the phrase right, listen carefully and as we played we were as silent as stones so we could each listen.  When the last child got her turn, she announced the same phrase the teacher had said at the beginning.  We cheered!  We had beaten the thing!  We got it right!  The teacher seemed disappointed that our effort might have left us with the impression that gossiping is O.K., but a greater lesson was learned that day.  We learned the lesson of the power of teamwork.  We learned of the power of community.  In coming together and paying attention, we had held onto the original word and shared it carefully with each other.  The difference was in the spirit of our shared value to “get it right.”

But there’s more to learn than just “getting it right” from today’s lessons.  This reading from Mark depicts a turning point in the gospel narrative.  Jesus has been healing some folks, mostly the blind and now he turns toward Jerusalem.  The phrase, “on the way” is used repeatedly the rest of the gospel to remind the reader that all of this leads to the cross.  As they head toward Jerusalem, he asks the disciples how people understand who he is.  Their discussion reveals that no one really understands him yet, but the disciples know that he is the messiah.

Unlike Matthew’s version, where Peter sort of gets the right answer and Jesus praises him, here Jesus just implores them to keep it a secret, for now.  In other words, “Shut up and listen to me!”

But Peter can’t listen.  He wants to fix the problem with his words.

The problem is that Jesus tells them about the coming crucifixion and resurrection but they can’t hear it.  To join him in choosing a cross would have made no sense at this point in time.  The cross to us is a huge symbol that reminds us of all the beauty and joy that we remember when we see it.  Which is why we have crosses everywhere.  But to these few first century Jews, the cross was a terrifying symbol of torture and execution.  It would be like telling us to all line up for the electric chair.  Dead men walking.

I can imagine that this confusing message would have had these committed followers confused.  And I can imagine that they would have wanted to argue and discuss and debate and try to figure this out with words, words, words.  But Jesus said, in essence, “Hush!”  Be silent.  Be still.  Listen to me.  Know that I am God and just follow me.  One day you will understand. 

I wonder if we can follow in this way.  Learn to listen more, practice faith, follow more than lead.  I wonder if we can come together as a team, as friends, as a parish, and help each other in this way, to die to the need to justify ourselves, to be heard, or to condemn others and to seek new ways to enter into the discipline of listening, the silence it takes to listen for the voice of God, the God who wants only for us to follow Jesus.  I wonder.

Just like the disciples, we want to tell the whole world the joy we have found in our faith in Jesus Christ.  So, we don’t do well at keeping quiet.  I repeated my story about the children’s game of goofing up when we whisper a pass-it-down message.  It seems it is more likely heard if we speak loudly.  I chose to tell that story on the Second Sunday of Easter as a metaphor for telling of the joy of the resurrection with images of Mary and the other women running down the hill from the empty tomb to tell the men.  The excitement we have in telling the good news of the Gospel of Jesus as savior, Jesus as the author of love.  There is good reason to shout out the Gospel!

But there is also good reason Jesus asks us to be quiet.  For if we are always talking we are not listening and if we are shouting out, even shouting out good news, we are liable to miss something.  Peter was missing something.  And the crowd was missing something.  And Jesus called out Satan in the mix.

John Mayer was missing something. And I’m not talking about his run ins with the paparazzi and gossip columns.  He doesn’t seem to care about that.  But in the lyrics to his top hit song about missing something, it is so obvious to me what he’s missing. I want to shout to him, “Hello! It’s God! It’s God that you are missing!” He lists all the possible happiness quotients in this song but seems for ever clueless that maybe some spiritual exercise would help.

Listen to these lyrics to see what I mean.  See if you relate to his list of things in life he enjoys and if you relate to his sentiment of feeling like something is missing.





Something's Missing

John Mayer


I'm not alone

I wish I was

'Cause then I'd know I was down because

I couldn't find a friend around

To love me like they do right now

They do right now

I'm dizzy from the shopping mall

I searched for joy, but I bought it all

It doesn't help the hunger pains

And a thirst I'd have to drown first to ever satiate

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

At all

When autumn comes

It doesn't ask

It just walks in where it left you last

You never know when it starts

Until there's fog inside the glass around

Your summer heart

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

At all

I can't be sure that this state of mind

Is not of my own design

I wish there was an over-the-counter test

For loneliness

For loneliness like this

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

Something's different

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is






A well slept


Opposite sex






Messages waiting on me when

I come home


What do you think it means?

How come everything I thing I need, always comes with batteries?


Dear John.  I think it means you have decided not to listen to God who calls to you from the depths of creation and beckons for you to come and listen. And if you listen you can hear the overwhelming beauty of God’s song of love.  And if you just have an inkling of faith you could be filled with hope, the hope that conquers all the blues you could ever sing of, the hope that conquers even death.