Words Matter….a lot!
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Some twenty years ago during my campus ministry days I brought 13 Texas A&M students to Abiquiu for a spring break mission trip. We worked on projects for three days at Christ in the Desert Monastery and then three days at Ghost Ranch. What a contrast! At the monastery we ate with the community in silence, as is their custom. At lunch one of the brothers would read from a devotional book as we listened quietly. Not so at Ghost Ranch. A large group of Presbyterians was meeting there. In the cafeteria the sounds of silence were broken by the many and various voices of our brothers and sisters talking and talking. It was something of a shock to our system, acclimated as we had become to silence at our meals. One of my students observed, “You Presbyterians sure are a chatty bunch.” To which I replied, “I represent that remark.”
I am a chatty Presbyterian. And I suspect some of you are too. We love to chat and in most cases that makes us very approachable and likable. In fact, we love words, more the better. Maybe that is why Presbyterians call their clergy “minsters of Word and Sacrament”, emphasis on the word part. Now in our defense, let’s remember that the Bible, the book we revere and honor, is filled with words. I Googled it this past week to find out how many words are in the Bible. The answer? 783, 117. Lots of words. We like our worship service to be filled with words of Scripture, hymns, anthems, responses, prayers, and don’t forget the announcements. I asked Margaret to do a word count on our bulletin. Would you like to know how many words are in our printed bulletin (if you include the words of the hymns)? That would total 2201. Not to mention the sermon. Incidentally, the total number of words in this sermon is 1759. Words seem to matter a lot to us.
Now the Hebrew word “dabar” has two meanings. One meaning is a thing, an object. The other is word. In the Hebrew mind a word is a thing, an object, every bit as real as a brick or a feather. Words make an impact; they land on people’s ears like an object lands on our toes. Isaiah 55 reminds us that God’s word will not “return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In the Biblical vision, God’s Word calls the worlds into existence and makes and breaks empires. God’s Word calls Israel into existence and leads them by the words of Torah and the prophets. Ultimately, God’s Word becomes flesh filled with grace and truth in Jesus Christ, a very real human being indeed. God’s Word makes things happen.
The letter of James recognizes the power of God’s Word. James reminds us that we were given “birth by the word of truth” (1:18). We are to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21). God speaks to us in Christ Jesus and our lives are transformed. That is God’s dabar-a word that gives us life. The contrast here is with our words, that are often not so life giving.
James 3 outlines the problem of our tongue. James reminds teachers that their words have consequences. The tongue is a small object in the body, but it has great power, like the bit in a horse’s mouth or the rudder on a ship. The words of my mouth can be like a single match then sets on fire an entire forest. My words can be filled with deadly poison-in our social media age how we understand that observation! And here is the paradox of our words. With the same mouth we give praise and blessing to God then curse and demean our sisters and brothers. James ponders this paradoxical instrument for good and evil. Our mouth is like a spring that brings forth both fresh water and contaminated water. Mea culpa. So you can record this sermon today, but please don’t record all my words the rest of the week.
Throughout the letter of James, the problem of the tongue surfaces again and again. Were the original recipients of this letter plagued as they say with “loose lips”? Apparently so. This was a boastful group, arrogantly relying on their riches, thus making them “false to the truth”. Their boastfulness included saying things like this, “Today or tomorrow I will go to such and such a town and make money.” James reminds them to say instead, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” Our times are in God’s hands, not our own. James urges his congregation not to swear by heaven or earth or by any oath. Rather they are to let their yes be yes and their no be no. And they are not to say that they are tempted by God to do evil. Rather they are to admit that they are tempted by their own desires. Don’t blame God for what is happening inside your own heart.
James also notes how some are saying very tacky things. They are to bridle their tongues and not “speak evil against one another” or judge one another (4: 11-12). And when someone who is rich comes to their worship service, they are definitely not to say to the poor person, “Stand over there so our rich guest can sit at the place of honor” (2:1-4). And worse, if someone asks for help, it is not enough to say to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill.” That’s tantamount to saying, “Good luck!” without helping them to find shelter and food.
For James, there is much is at stake with our spoken words. When we pray we speak words to God. And James is convinced that our prayers must be spoken in faith (1:6) without selfish motives (4:3). James encourages us to pray to God in faith for relief from our suffering, calling the elders to come and anoint the sick. Further, James encourages us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (5:16). So that is how our words should be used-to help one another when we are sick and to confess together our sin and to pray for one another. James says to the community, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19). Simply wonderful advice in this era of political and cultural hostility.
So here is the contrast: the Word of God that builds up and gives life. And our words that can sometimes build up but can at other times tear down. The challenge is bridle this tongue so it speaks the truth in love, always seeking to build up and not destroy. The challenge is to make our words more Christ-like, more loving, more truthful, more generous.
James and Jesus agree that words matter a lot. Jesus in our Gospel lesson in Mark 8 wants to know what people are saying about him on the streets. He also wants to know what the disciples are saying about him. And Jesus must correct what Peter says about him-the words were right but the music but the meaning was all wrong. Peter’s confession that he was the Christ mattered a lot. From the beginning Jesus insisted that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. In fact, Jesus is certain that nothing is quite as important as the words he speaks to Israel. He makes this astonishing claim, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The words that astonished his first hearers continues to astonish us and claim us. So let these words sink into your ears, as Jesus said. Why? Because as Peter said, “To whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That is, if we have ears to hear! And don’t forget that Jesus spoke of the day of judgment when we will have to give account for every careless word we utter. So how much do our words matter? A lot.
Some years ago I did a study of three very different communities and the rules for their life together. I studied The Rule of the Qumran Community at the Dead Sea during the time of Jesus. Then I studied the Rule of St. Benedict, the first great monastic community formed in the Sixth Century in Italy. Then I studied the Twentieth Century Little Red Book of Mao Zedong, the guide book for young Communists in China. One a Jewish desert sect, the second a Christian monastery, the third a Chinese Communist cell.
Here was for me the astonishing result of that study-all three faced the exact same problem. All three reveal a problem with people talking out of turn, of putting others down, and disrespecting the words of the leader. In other words, each of these groups had a problem of the tongue. And the fact is that each group’s rule lined out serious consequences for these verbal offenses. So what was my take away? Whenever human beings are formed into groups-whether beside the Dead Sea in Israel or in the Monte Cassino monastery in Italy or a Communist cell in China-the tongue continues to be, in the words of James, a consuming fire, a deadly poison.
So what about us? How is it with your tongue these days? What could be more challenging that this, to discipline our tongues so that they speak only the truth in love! Nothing more, nothing less. And that at times we say nothing at all, but hold our tongue as hard as that may be. Ah the words we don’t speak may well be as important as those we do.
This, friends in Christ, is the great challenge of living in community-the words we say, how we say them, to whom we say them, when we say them, why we say them. As well as the words we don’t say. In truth, words matter..a lot!
So today I invite you to pray earnestly with the Psalmist yet again: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Amen.