Sermons

Sun, Sep 13, 2015

Words

Series:Sermons

Words––

where would we be without them?

 

According to the German-Swiss author––

Hermann Hesse––

“Without words…there could be no concept of humanity”.

Indeed, how could we truly understand each other without words?

How would we convey meaning or sense?

Without words there could be no history…

no philosophy…

no theology.

Without words there could be no poetry or literature.

I mean can you imagine a world without George Bernard Shaw…

George Orwell…

Jane Austen…

Dylan Thomas…

or William Shakespeare?

Without words, our experience of life would be greatly impoverished––

because words can convey such beauty and grace.

Words can enable us to communicate what we cannot otherwise express––

our feelings, our hopes, and our deepest longings;

our joys and our fears;

our sorrows and our regrets.

But, even more than that, as sociologists point out…

words shape our identities.

Words shape and give substance to our thoughts…

and they can also limit our thoughts and our experience of our world.

Words change us.

They can be such powerful things––

able to inspire and to motivate…

stirring people to perform amazing feats…

to break down barriers…

and to conquer brave new worlds.

Think of…

a Winston Churchill calmly reassuring war-time Britain, “We shall not flag or fail”…

or a Martin Luther King jr thundering out, “I have a dream”.

 

But, for most of us, in our every day lives…

our words seldom reach such heights of beauty and grace.

They seldom have such power or impact.

Rather, our waking moments are spent stumbling and bumbling our way through words.

And I don’t just mean making mistakes of grammar or pronunciation.

For most of us, in our every day lives…

words are a source of confusion and misunderstanding.

The things that come out of our mouths––

don’t always match the intent of our hearts.

They don’t always live up to the sentiments that they are meant to express.

So often, opening our mouths simply gets us into trouble.

Many a relationship has been damaged by a careless word or two––

a thoughtless comment said at the wrong time…

or said in the wrong way.

A moment’s verbal indiscretion can end a promising career…

ruin a reputation…

wreck a budding romance…

damage a friendship…

or land you in court or even in gaol.

How often does an innocent word come back to bite us?

If we’re honest…

most of us have experiences of opening our mouths and not engaging our brains.

At some time or other…

most of us simply open our mouths to change feet.

 

The author of the book of James seems to recognise that too…

“All of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle”.

All of us make mistakes in speaking.

All of us get tongue-tied.

All of us suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.

All of us make momentary verbal indiscretions.

It’s part of who we are as human beings.

It’s inevitable, given the uniqueness and the complexity of each person…

and the fragility of each human interaction.

But that isn’t really our author’s concern in our reading this morning.

He’s not really interested in verbal mistakes…

or indiscretions…

or slip-ups…

or misunderstandings.

Rather, his concern here is with something much more insidious:

“No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison”.

His concern, here, is with words that are intentional and malicious…

with words that seek to harm…

with words that seek to pull down…

with words that seek to damage and destroy.

And don’t we hear plenty of them.

I mean, turn on a talk-back radio station…

or watch one of those awful American television talk-shows…

or read what people write in the comments sections of online newspaper articles…

and you will encounter the outpouring of anger, spite, and ignorant bigotry…

in all of its ugliness.

 

But we do it too, don’t we?

All of us, and each one of us.

We use words to hurt or to harm on occasion––

sometimes in subtle ways.

We will throw in the one-liners or the sarcastic put down…

perhaps in an effort to be funny…

but also in an attempt to make us look good…

to feel superior…

to attract attention…

or to bolster our weak self-image.

But let’s be quite clear about it––

so much of our humour is at someone’s expense:

poking fun at someone’s misfortune…

ridiculing the way that they look…

or the way that they act…

or the way that they speak.

We have probably all heard them or perhaps even told them––

“Abo jokes”…

“Blonde jokes”…

“Irish jokes”…

“Poofter jokes”…

“Sexist jokes”––

they are not harmless, they’re insidious.

They betray and reinforce latent prejudices…

because names and images do matter.

Our choice of language and metaphor is never neutral…

and neither are its consequences.

 

We use words to hurt and to harm when we engage in gossip;

when we criticise others behind their backs;

when we peddle in private information––

in an effort to make ourselves feel important or powerful…

to pull people down…

or simply to get back at them.

So often we use words to criticise or condemn…

to belittle or brow-beat…

to deceive or destroy…

to intimidate or inflict grievous wounds.

We use words to block and to spoil and to control…

to prevent things from changing…

to stop people from growing…

to impose our own agendas or beliefs on others.

We use words to limit people’s perception of what is possible…

to destroy their hopes and dreams…

to limit their freedom…

to deny their humanity.

As the author of James points out, with our tongues…

“we bless the Lord and Father, and…we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

And he’s right, isn’t he?

There’s a fundamental inconsistency.

How can we praise God, while pulling each other down?

How can we speak in God’s name, while we are calling each other names?

 

Words are powerful.

They can convey such beauty and grace.

They can inspire and motivate.

They can build up.

But words can also convey such ugliness and spite.

They can denigrate, deflate, and destroy––

even within the church…

perhaps especially within the church.

So as people of God…

as followers of Jesus Christ…

perhaps, sometimes, we just need to be quiet;

to close our mouths;

to still our tongues;

to acknowledge that words can be dangerous;

that we do say things to hurt and to harm, rather than to heal;

that we don’t always say what we mean or mean what we say.

And, maybe, changing that means we need to follow God’s example of word-enfleshment––

of powerfully and vulnerably taking a risk…

putting aside words…

and demonstrating who we are…

and who we intend to be––

by showing and living what needs to be said, rather than speaking…

and thereby speaking louder than words.

As St Francis of Assisi once exhorted us:

“Proclaim the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words”.

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