A sermon offered at Eminence Baptist Church, Eminence, KY on James 3:3-12.
I have worked as the Spiritual Life Program Assistant at Cedar Lake for 1 year, as of yesterday. Enough about me, while here at Eminence Baptist, I feel compelled to let you know that I am a big fan of your pastor. He will probably not toot his horn, but I’ll say that his writings and his reputation provide a model for integrity and commitment throughout the Baptist denomination. For that and the invitation to speak this morning, I would like to say thank you.
Now after reading this passage over and over and over again, generally how I start this sermon writing process, I thought to myself, “Well, I guess that just about says it. Now, how do I fill the other fifteen to twenty minutes of the time in your pulpit?”
I must say that I appreciate clarity on behalf of biblical edification, but I would like room for at least SOME exposition on a topic! And there it is… my desire to ‘speak’ to the topic. See, I’m pretty creative in my fishing?
There is the key to what I will say this morning. I have been asked to come here today and ‘speak’ on the revelation of the Word of God Almighty, because that’s what preaching is. The power of words in our tradition is great. For thousands of years, Jews and then Christians have passed down the story of our people for the sake of teaching wisdom and teaching future generations about God’s identity and Truth. From the authors of Genesis who say that God ‘spoke’ all that is into being to the gospel message that describes Jesus as “ the Word that was with God and that was God”, our tradition of Faith has placed much emphasis on the power of words. Our words name all that is around us in such a way that we paint our perspectives and our thoughts for those listening to them.
Have you ever considered the power of it? The power God gave to you when you uttered yours very first word? You said “Mama” or “Dada” and someone who loved you, looked at you, and answered your need. How often do you thank God for that in a day’s time? I know I forget, probably because I’m too busy talking to somebody to remember.
Do you think about the person on the other side of your frustration when you call them an idiot? I know I don’t usually think about a ‘person’ in the midst of my highway blathering trying to get onto the Gene Snyder during rush hour. I just know “that guy is an idiot!”… And then I smile and nod my head politely when we end up side by side in the stop and go traffic. “Hi, thank you, thank you” with a friendly wave as he lets me merge.
Do you think about how words affect you? How do you respond when asked, “Who are you?” How do you answer? Generally, most people spew off titles, accreditations, and classifications to define themselves. What does this tell us about how we define who we are? There are words, generally understood nouns, adjectives, and verbs that are used to categorize the entire concept of our humanity to another person. Words better be powerful there!
I used to believe this was a simple task. You earn these degrees, build a façade of competence and then go through life fulfilling the vocational function that God has set for you. That perception was confronted early in my days at Cedar Lake. It was about two weeks after I began my work there that one of our residents wisdom helped kick my arrogant, know-it-all behind. He rolled his motor scooter into my office and asked my name… again… and my birthday… again; which, by the way, he now has memorized along with every other staff and resident at the place. He pointed to my diplomas, recognitions, and certifications and asked, “Katie, why you got all the pieces of paper hanging on your wall?” I answered that I had spent a lot of time and money on those pieces of paper and I liked them. He answered, “Why’d you do that? They ain’t even pretty.” I laughed because he was right, and God had spoken through his critique. See I’m privileged where I am, because the majority of our residents can detect a façade or condescension from a mile away, and they have no use for any of that. With my teachers, the residents, I learn to be me and have my words be truly representative of myself and of the God who calls me. You’ll be happy to know that my office is now adorned with my family.
We allow words, titles, and certifications to define us. Our story is sacred, every story. You see I’m in charge of ‘Spiritual Life Assessments’. Early on, it became evident that I look at such things in a ‘different’ kind of way. That seems to be a recurring theme in my life, but that’s for another day. So, I have spent the last year developing a way to ‘assess’ someone’s spirit. I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not about to sell my Cedar Lake pitch. No, not just yet, that’s for this afternoon. The assessment I came up with what God would have me work through with our residents. I tell their story and try and find ways to honor their story in their daily lives. Those who have been abused are offered gentleness and grace. Those who are proud are provided dignity at the highest level possible. I do this because everybody has a story. Everyone has a collection of words that describe their journey. It can be spoken, or shared on behalf of them, for the understanding of another. How we honor that is how we honor what God would teach through that story.
When I look at words that are used to describe Christianity, words that have become important in our political and social circles, they seem to overshadow God and I become very sad. I think and wonder how the media, the arts, and politics have perverted so many things that we hold sacred, or that others hold sacred. I look at how the same forces of publicity and technology inform us of the perspective of others and teach us empathy. I look at how stories on television and internet shake the fabric of cultures and households to the point that human beings no longer see human beings, but rather wrongs to right or vengeance to gain. I see all of these movements in the blink of an eye to my generation and the fragile generations of tomorrow and I am left without any words at all. All I have is to pray, without words. “Be still and know that there is God”.
What do you say? What words can be spoken to this world that has such a chasm of sanctity and profanity co-mingling throughout the same news broadcast? I think the best thing we can say to another person is “I hear you.” I think the best thing we can say in anger is “help me understand what is causing you to feel threatened.”
The solution to the world’s great hurt and discontentment is not that we should necessarily speak more or better, it’s that we should listen; to God and to the people in front of us. Jesus did. There are a lot of red letters throughout the Gospels. Aside from the sermons specifically set for teaching crowds, every red letter is framed well by an equally respected passage shown in black letters. Despite being the son of God, despite being the fulfillment of prophesies he was a good man. Jesus didn’t lead by telling folks about who he was. He didn’t lead by condemning.
When time and study permit, go through the scripture and try and figure out what percentage of Jesus’ interaction with others was filled with questions. It’s a lot. That’s how I see Jesus, I see his story. I see a guy born into nothing who had this incredible presence that changed the world. I see his compassionate conversations and healings of people he was never supposed to go near, much less bless.
I see a man who honored people and their stories. I see a man who loved the ones he was with to the very end, even the one who sold his life for 30 pieces of silver. I see the man who stopped Peter from killing a soldier with his sword and then healed the man who was going to lead him to his crucifixion. I see the story of a life with unmatched grace that would not be silenced by opposing forces trying to quiet what God would speak. I see a Savior that is so easy to love.
When I meet another person and listen to their story, I look for a reflection of that man, my Jesus, in them so I can love them too. It ain’t always easy, particularly when trying to merge on the interstate; particularly when it feels as though no one else is listening to you, but it’s the calling to life like that of Christ.
In the same way, we have to honor the impact our words have on others and on ourselves. We tell a story and help others know how to speak their stories too. We decide how the story we bring to this world reflects the image of Christ to those who know us. We have to be careful what we say to and about others.
There is an early Judaic parable about a man who had spoken ill of his neighbor and felt guilty. The man went to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I have spoken slander against one of my neighbors. I wish to take it back. Tell me how to take back my words.”
The rabbi gives him instruction. “Go and pluck three chickens and place a single feather on the doorstep of every home in town, then come back to me tomorrow. The man followed the instructions from the rabbi, placing the feathers dutifully on each doorstep. Early the next morning, he returned to the rabbi and asked for further instruction. The rabbi answered, “Go and collect each feather.” The man answered him, “I left a feather on every doorstep! It’s impossible to gather them again.” The rabbi said, “Neither can you undo the harm you have done with your words.”
Words are permanent because our memory helps to construct how we perceive every relationship we have. If you tell your child they are stupid, that is an adjective they will adopt for themselves. If you tell your spouse they’re lazy, their twice as likely to live into that adjective. Words like hate, stupid, retarded, and shut up are not allowed in my house. These types of words are never helpful in speaking the truth in love, so I do my best to limit my children’s exposure to them. I do my best to limit their use in my vocabulary at all. Mother Teresa said, “Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.” This world has plenty of darkness. I’m gonna do my best, and ask you to join me, in telling a story that helps us all find a little more light than darkness.