The Importance of Words

Words are important.  I’ll say it again … words … are …important.  In some ways, our culture tries to convince us otherwise.  We obsess over YouTube videos … we covet our Snapchat photos and Instagram posts … and we can’t wait to see what our celebrities are doing through Buzzfeed and TMZ pictures and postings.  Some days our media offerings feel more like one huge worldwide gossip column.

And it’s not just celebrities and the vultures that circle them … I cannot believe the things that some of our politicians offer as observations on the news of the day, either.  In the car last week, I heard a sound byte from a politician in the Midwest who is seeking election in November, that I could not believe I was hearing.  I believe he was a state attorney general, and since I was driving, this is not an exact quote, but it is pretty close.  I heard him say, “I am serious about this election.  Voters will simply need to understand that I will be unable to fulfill my duties as attorney general for the next three months, because winning this election is all that matters this fall.  And I think I actually spoke out loud to my car radio, “Are you kidding me?  Did you really just say that?”  He could not possibly believe that he could realistically consider discontinuing his duties as state attorney general for three months during election season.  But according to the NPR reporter, they represented the politician’s attempt to convey his commitment to getting power and control into the hands of the right political party in the 2019 year.  Our words and important … they matter … for good and for ill, sometimes.

The lessons we have read today from our lectionary also suggest the same thing.  We read about the positive and negative effect that words can have, and the power those words possess to shape relationships.  We are shown that they can serve good or evil … that they can be faithful or sinful … and that they can grow from the Spirit God has placed within us, or can arise out of the sin that seeks to corrupt that very Spirit of God.  In every case, words embody power and potency.  Our First Lesson from the Isaiah prophesies, proclaims to us that words have the power to sustain the weary.  The words are spoken by the person that biblical scholars christen as Second Isaiah … the second of three prophets whose words are recorded in the book that bears the name of possibly the greatest prophet in the Old Testament tradition.  Second Isaiah prophesied to the people of Israel who had been taken as political prisoners by the Babylonian army and exiled in Babylon far from their homes.  Two generations of Israelites died in Babylon and hope was thin for those who thought they would never see their homeland again.  But into that environment, Second Isaiah spoke a prophesy of hope – a reminder that God’s word has the power to sustain the weary and keep hope alive – as long as spokesperson can be found to speak that Word of God.  “It is the Lord God who helps.”  Therein lies our hope.

The words in our Second Lesson from James bring a different spirit of potency.  They are harsh words, spoken by the writer who sought to help those Jewish-Christians who were scattered throughout the Gentile world, by encouraging good works and faithful living.  But unlike the words of comfort that came from Deutero-Isaiah, James is much harsher.  Hear a few of his words again:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Was that clear enough for you, or should I unpack it a bit?  If you are unsure, those last seven words are the giveaway on how the epistle writer views hurtful words — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  Our world offers us the truth of that statement virtually every day in the news and in our relationships.

Then, in today’s Gospel Lesson we see both the good and the bad … and both come from the words of Peter.  That disciple, whom Jesus called “the Rock”, starts off well.  He utters a confession that over the course of time has been labeled the Great Confession, for the clear and focused way it points to Christ as the source of our life and salvation … “You are the Messiah” Peter proclaims.  If you have been around the Church awhile, you will remember the old format of this Confession from Matthew’s Gospel: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  But then, mere moments later, in response to Jesus’ reminder that the real direction of his ministry lies in Jerusalem, and the heart of that ministry requires his death, Peter tries to denounce that statement by rebuking Jesus with his own words.  And Peter receives the name of the one who has been the classic opponent of God’s will throughout Scripture … Satan … a name that literally translates as “the one who opposes.”  Yes, our words and important … they matter and they always have.

And that in itself is where I find my struggle.  Because we live in a world where words are rapidly losing their texture and nuance.  If I name myself as a member of a particular political party, then I am immediately labeled as an endorser of everything and anything that party espouses.  If I say that I am born again, then many will presume that I am connected to one of the adult baptism fundamentalist denominations of Christianity.  It feels as if that great biblical image of “being born again” is language that I can no longer safely use.  If I raise a concern or even just a question about one of the hot button social topics of our day, then I run the risk of being seen as a sympathizer with everything that is wrong with the world around that topic.  It seems to me that at times our words have been taken hostage, and are now used more as weapons than they are as vehicles for substantive communication.

As I reflect on this attack on words of truth, I find myself thinking about the parents of our baptismal candidates this morning … Hunter, Lincoln and Amber’s parents.  You are asked to make promises this morning on behalf of your children … promises that at their core, state that you will teach your children to know and to love Jesus.  And you are reminded that such teaching has the best chance of success when it occurs within a community of faith, when you accepted responsibility for these promises found in our baptismal liturgy …

Live with your children among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer. 

Those are easy promises to make on the day of your child’s baptism … they are challenging promises to fulfill over the next 12-14 years.  Because you will not get much help from the world in fulfilling those promises.  These are not necessarily words that are cherished by the culture in which we live.

And that is OK … because our culture is not responsible for these promises … you are … I am … we all are.  We are called by Christ to answer the same question that Jesus asked of Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”  The world in which we live is not equipped to answer that question … just as the world in which Jesus lived was not equipped to answer that question.  We who have been marked with the cross of Christ, are the ones to whom these particular promises are entrusted … and we are the ones who are challenged to answer that question for ourselves … and for our children until they are of an age to be able to answer for themselves.

We may not be able to silence all the silliness that masquerades as truth on our airwaves … we may not be able to quiet all the voices that speak hate and which promise harm to others in a broken world … we may not be able to insure that the truth God has now revealed to the world for 2000 years will take root in every heart … every soul … every mind on earth.  But then, that is not our responsibility … that is God’s responsibility.  Our responsibility is to speak the truth as God has spoken it to us, in ways that match up with the actions and choices we offer to the world in which we live, as evidence that we see ourselves as God’s children.  So that those with whom we interact, at least have the chance to meet Jesus in the truth of our words … and in the life we live as a thank offering to the God who has made us all.

In Mark’s version of this story of Peter’s Great Confession, Jesus wasn’t quite ready for this great word of hope to go prime time.  Because Jesus first had to die and then rise to life again, for this message to have potency and power.  But that dying and rising has been a reality now for 2000 years.  Prime time is here now, folks.  So let’s get talking … whether you are a parent of a newly baptized child of God … or a Sage who has been speaking this word for the more than 60 or 70 years since your confirmation … or a 2nd grader who just loves Jesus … or a person caught in the cross-fire of hundreds of different messages that bombard your phone and your email inbox and your ears.  Let’s get talking about this Messiah who has saved us.  Amen.

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Rev. Craig Ross

Senior Pastor

The vibrancy of life here at St. Peter’s makes my service on our staff a joy and privilege. Visitation, teaching and preaching are the ministries that feed my pastoral identity, as together our staff and lay members share in our missional calling … Building a community of faith by God’s grace.

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