open mouth, insert foot

Oh Peter: Open mouth, insert foot. One might be inclined never to preach again listening to the reading from the letter of James and perhaps after this experience that might be welcome. I’ve always been quite taken with the Quakers and search out a meeting from time to time when possible. Real silence is impossible of course, however, quietness speaks a thousand words. Words used sparingly and carefully can only be a good thing. Preach the gospel at all times, said St. Francis, and only when absolutely necessary using words. And here we are using words. Language is designed for communication. What is it that we communicate? Do the ideas that we think always arrive at the listener or reader in the way we intend them to? I would venture to suggest almost never. What I write and say and what you hear can be two different things. Whether the truth is among them is yet to be seen. Simon Holloway wrote a book called: The words we use are black and white. And indeed most of them are. The book dwells on the miscommunication that often happens. If someone says one thing, but is taken to mean another, where do we go from there? Much of our language is binary and used to separate things from each other. It is useful language for everyday tasks. Black, white. Yes, no. Left, Right. Language that separates out one thing from another. Not so good for speaking of the kingdom. When Peter says ‘you are the messiah’, these words are loaded with connotations that are of a particular understanding to the communities. The messiah was the one who was to bring freedom from the slavery of their day and to return the nation of Israel to the land. It was understood in the context of Jesus that this meant freedom from the Roman Rulers under whom the Jewish nation were subject. Jesus seems to define this in a different way. For him this meant something different. The people were to be free from every form of slavery not just replacing one government with another or one leader with another for that matter. The Jewish authorities were the ones who were often in the spotlight of Jesus’ criticisms. However, the main object that Jesus preached to transform was the self. As Jesus moves from the country towards the city he focuses on the attitude of his disciples and those who have been following him prophetically challenging the whole of society.
I’m not a great fan of the city. Anonymous, cold, unforgiving, forgettable. I have friends who would disagree and say it depends how you speak about them and see them. We can love or hate cities but they are vital as places where we can argue with and challenge the power structures. The city was vital to Jesus as he brought his distinctive message to the centre of decision making. In the ‘courts and councils’ we too can make our voices heard, as ‘carers’, ‘co-creators’ and ‘stewards’ of creation.
Both Isaiah and James encourage us to consider how our words affect those around us. They speak of the responsibility to live well. Among the crowds of the city this becomes especially important and those who live in, pass through or encounter the commercial and cultural life of the city must recognise the sense of responsibility to live in harmony with the rest of creation. But I’m not sure that the city has caught on to this vision. Neither am I sure that I or we are in the best position to influence anyone else but ourselves.
So how do we live to be a positive influence? It is probably far too easy to become a negative one especially if our words might be taken to mean something other than we think. So I return to the words of St. Francis: Preach the gospel at all times but use words only when absolutely necessary.
Therefore, everything we do becomes a part of that distinctive life. Everything we do should speak the message of salvation. When we engage with that, it will truly be as taking up the cross, dying to one life and being reborn to another.

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