The Little Things

Mark 8:24-37James 3:1-12

The little things can make a big difference.

Did you know that Chamblee is a magical place? There’s a sign just down the road that says it all. If you head down Peachtree, just on the other side of the town’s “Welcome” sign, there’s evidence of this magic. It’s not there all the time; only at night when the sun goes down and the neon lights our way. Right there on the side of the building, beaming bright red for the world to see: “Elf Storage!”

You can imagine how excited I was to see this not long after we bought our in Chamblee. Only the most magical of towns has a surplus of elves! The creeks flow with chocolate syrup; the trees join branches, dance, and sing; pixie dust floats in the air! What a place of joy this must be! Leprechauns abound, a mythical world come to life, a place where Elf Storage is a primary need for day-to-day life!

You can also imagine my disappointment when I passed the sign in the daytime. The mystery was solved, the myth came crashing to the ground. There is another “S” on that sign with its neon burned out. It is not Elf Storage, but Self Storage.

The little things can make a big difference.

There are times when it seems like we concern ourselves with the unimportant details of life: coke or pepsi; toilet paper under or over the roll; paper or plastic. We form worlds of philosophical importance around these issues, but they’re not all that grand: it’s just caramel flavored sugar water; the paper is usable either way; and if environmental stewardship is all that important, you’re probably better off bringing your own bags.

And then there are those moments where the small things actually do make a world of difference: the simple politeness of a “thank you” or “please.” I’m reminded of the old Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner who commented on the weight that small words carry, speaking about the Ten Commandments. “If it hadn’t been for the power of that three letter word ‘not,’” he says, “They’d be tearing it up in Valdosta tonight!”

It is the little things with which James concerns himself in our second lesson this morning. We’ve been reading this letter for the past few weeks, learning something about the apostle himself and his ministry among the poorest of the poor. We have noted his focus on consistency between faith and practice: if you believe something, you should live it out. In the third chapter, he expands on that theme, lifting up to us a peculiar problem in human existence: the tongue.

We have this tongue, he notes, which is quite small in the grand scale of things. But it can cause a world of trouble. Like the bit in a horse’s mouth or the rudder on a large ship, if put to service in the right direction, the tongue can be of great benefit. But it can also take us off course, lead us astray.

And James wasn’t speaking to those outside of the community, or even excluding himself from the focus of his concern: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” And there it is. The tongue is, in a sense, a neutral instrument. It is neither destined for good nor ill. If we curse those made in God’s image, James seems to be saying, we might as well curse God’s very self. The tongue, our speech, our words, make us into hypocrites.

We can see this hypocrisy there even among Christ’s own disciples. In our gospel text, Jesus and the twelve are on their way toward Caesarea Philippi at the foot of Mount Hermon, a place known for its worship of the Greek God Pan and the current emperor. And on the way, Jesus asks the disciples what the crowd is saying. What’s the buzz? Word is clearly getting around, but is it the right word? As the disciples share what they’ve heard, the words echo with those of King Herod not long ago: this Jesus must be a prophet; or the prophet Elijah himself, expected to return and usher in the Messianic Age; or perhaps it’s that wild John the Baptist come back to life to haunt us.

“But who do you say that I am?” It’s clear that the crowds have only gotten part of the message. What about you, my closest friends and followers? What do you think?” Peter speaks up for the twelve, getting it right: “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” When this story is told in the other gospels, it is here that Simon’s proclamation earns him his name: Peter, the rock. In Mark, this detail is absent. Instead, Christ goes on to tell them exactly what that title Messiah means: are you ready for this? It means rejection, suffering, and death.

We can imagine the disciples’ hearts sinking. They’ve hooked their rising star to this up and coming teacher, who turns out to be the Messiah himself. And now, we hearing what that means: if it means rejection, suffering, and death, for him, what about us? Peter, who has just demonstrated his tremendous faith and wisdom, the one who has just praised this holy one, now takes him aside and rebukes him, as if attacking a demon. With our tongue, we both bless and curse. The church is not immune, James is not immune, Peter is not immune, we are not immune. We are all afflicted by this deep-set hypocrisy within us.

What are we to do? James makes it clear that this inconsistency is a problem. Nature outdoes us in this regard: fig trees don’t bear olives, grapevines don’t bear figs, springs don’t contain both salt and fresh water. He points out the tension within us. But where’s the advice? What can we do to reign in and steer this little thing called a tongue?

There’s a story that comes from the Middle East about this. Anton was a deacon enlisted to serve with a priest in a small village. And Anton had a well-deserved reputation as a foul-mouthed young man. He told dirty jokes, his speech was laden with obscenities. He was, otherwise, a gentle soul with a deep faith; but his tongue belied his love for God. Fr. John the priest came up with a solution. He told Anton to put a pebble under his tongue. And when he was tempted to fall back into his old ways, he would then feel the pebble and be reminded of his obligation to resist the temptation.

It worked! Week after week, month after month, Anton kept the pebble in his mouth. He’d start to tell a joke or say something off-color and he’d feel that pebble against his teeth and stop.

Epiphany came, the Christian feast which celebrates the visitation of the three kings to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. And it is the practice of the Arab churches that the priest visits every home in the region to say a prayer of blessing for the place and the family. Fr. John and Deacon Anton set out early in the day, visiting every single home in the village. It had been hours and they had walked for miles. They were on the crest of one hill, getting ready to head back home, when they heard this voice: “Father! Father!” It was coming from the crest of another hill. They descended down into the valley and up the other side, scrambling their way along. It was Im George, the oldest woman in town. Father John and Deacon Anton proceeded with the prayers, grateful to finally be finished with the long day. They went back down in the valley and back up the other side.

When they had almost reached the village church, the voice came again: “Father! Father!” It was Im George. They made their way back down and back up, barely able to hold their heads up, drenched in sweat, thoroughly exhausted. Im George met them at the door to her house: “You forgot to bless my chicken coop!” Father John turned to Anton and said, “Alright, Anton. Spit out the pebble.”

There might be little tricks we can do to help keep our words consistent. But James doesn’t offer any particular advice here. This isn’t an Ann Landers’ column. There’s no suggestion of pebbles or mental imaging. Instead, the words linger as those of conviction. We are called to consistency. But we live instead with an insistent inconsistency.

Like Simon whose faith elevates him to the name of Peter and whose rebuke of Christ brings him low to the realm of Satan, we live in this tension in our every day lives. The thoughts might not make it to our tongues, but they may sit in our hearts, the ones that curse those made in the likeness of God.

And that may be as fitting a place to end today as any. Rather than a conclusion that solves our problem, wrapping it up in a neat little package, maybe it just needs to sit there with us for a while. After all, James, didn’t try to pull all the pieces together or offer some kind of resolution for our hypocritical tongue. Instead, his words hang in the air, seemingly intentional in their lack of closure.

Instead, though, today we will end with the words of Christ. An invitation that he extends not only to Peter after his error or just to the disciples, but to the whole crowd. This invitation is extended to us today, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow him. Unlike a pebble under the tongue, this is not a simple word of advice to resolve our inconsistent speech. Instead, we are invited to take ourselves from central place in our lives and to turn that place over to God. And in doing so, in voluntarily taking up our own cross, we will show our willingness to risk it all for the sake of the gospel’s good news. We may still bless and curse, yet we will know more fully who we are and whose we are, and that this hand of mercy is extended to us even, and perhaps especially, in those little things that lead us astray.

sermonsMarthame Sanders