words

Schoolgirl smiling

This is a sermon preached on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at First Presbyterian Church, Wayne, Nebraska.

The scriptural references are:
Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

A recording of the sermon is available here.


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The challenging prologue from the Gospel of John chapter one melds together the temporal and the external existences of God. The Word, as we understand God the living Word, is God’s self-expression to all of Creation, and the story of this self-expression does not remain as something we created, rather something that always existed from before creation. John’s gospel furthers the story of the Word, “and the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God did not stay distant, remote or isolated; rather, in Jesus, God chose to live with humanity in the midst of human weakness, confusion and pain. Confessing that the Word “lived among us” means affirming that there is a link between the incarnation of Christ and our own humanity. John’s gospel story introduces faith and human response into the story of the Word[1] that we encounter today through the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark.

The letter of James was written to Christian communities in the diaspora, and therefore utilizes local customs and idioms to reference the Gospel message. A theme of the letter is works alongside faith, and our text today urges readers to be slow to speak and quick to listen, as well as being doers. James has an intimate understanding of life in and with Christ and counsels readers accordingly; he calls for full adherence to the Christian life and faith. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. Understanding his audience while remaining true to his Christian beliefs, the writer uses metaphors do describe “word” in two scenarios: seeds, birth, growth, implanting, and law, which also means life. Jewish law requires an action response to hearing, thus James reminds the readers that because they have been established with the life of Christ, they must then fulfill that life with actions. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.

Similarly, Mark’s gospel message today presents Christ rebuking the Pharisees for offering lip service and not fulfilling the Word with their lives. This text falls in between the two multitude-feeding miracles of Christ in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is eating with his disciples when the Pharisees notice that they have failed the simplest of holy-ritual tasks: washing their hands. (I can see my mom pulling the bottle of hand sanitizer from her purse as I speak.) To the Pharisees, Jesus and his crew are not following the traditions of the elders, which is unthinkable. I can imagine how Jesus feels at this moment, probably wishing they would just let the group eat in peace, but he responds, rebuking their obsession with rituals, traditions, and requirements over a life in and with the Word.

All three of our texts today reference words…

  • Psalm 45: “I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.”
  • James 1: “he gave us birth by the word of truth,” “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak,” “welcome with meekness the implanted word,” “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers,” “bridle their tongues.”
  • Mark 7: “this people honors me with their lip,” “teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Looking at these comparisons, we see easily the importance of the Word of Life. Christ loved us and offered himself to God for us, therefore we can live in love because he first loved us. We must welcome this Word of life and truth as a precious treasure, since it can save our lives. But, having been saved, we must respond to the word incarnate with gratitude and action. To whom much is given, much is expected.

When we fixate on the things we control, we lose sight of God. A group of what was considered some of the most righteous people of the time approached Christ to discredit his leadership by calling attention to his religious failures. Only, the failures were theirs. Their focus was on human precepts and human tradition. Christ named them, and us, aptly: you hypocrites. We need to hear Jesus’ teaching just as much as his followers, disciples, and the Pharisees needed to hear his words a few thousand years ago. Having been gifted with life everlasting and the incarnate Word of Life, it becomes our responsibility to keep traditions, laws and rituals from allowing ourselves and others to live more fully in communion with God. We need to offer less lip-service and more life-service.

As one of Christ’s closest companions, James was a keen observer of life. He studied human nature both apart from and in concert with Christian beliefs. He paid close attention to details of everyday living. James knew that words affected the way humanity relates to one another. He believed that words enlightened others to our motivation, intention, belief and emotional life. Professor Archie Smith notes: “our emotional life grows from our earliest relationships with others and with the God who is Other.”[2] To James, a life in the Word (Christ) meant that a life of words became less important. Smith continues: “We use words to express ourselves; to convince and convict ourselves and others; to describe, name, blame, or label things; to win arguments; to sell an idea or object; to lecture, to expound a point, explain things into our out of existence, persuade, condole, console, counsel; to announce, denounce, deceive; to ask someone to marry; to declare war and make peace; to sentence someone, diagnose a condition, analyze a problem, deliberate or negotiate a deal. We cannot get along without words. Words can alarm, harm, uplift, inspire, degrade, or silence someone. They can reveal our inner thoughts.”[3]

Bite your tongue! On March 7, 1850, Senator Webster stood in the Senate chamber to stake his career, his reputation, and perhaps the nation’s future on the success of a speech that he hoped would unite moderates of all sections in support of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay’s proposed “Compromise of 1850.” He began his “Seventh of March” address accordingly: “Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States. . . . I speak for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.” He contended that it was pointless to argue about the continuation of slavery where it already existed, as it was not going away, or to worry about extending slavery into the arid lands of the southwest, where plantation agriculture stood no chance of flourishing. In his three-and-a-half-hour speech, Webster asserted that slaveholders were entitled to the protection of their property, and he urged strengthening of fugitive slave statutes. Notice of his speech made its way back to Massachusetts by way of the new telegram technology, and it spread across the nation like wildfire as the text appeared in newspapers.

By June of that year, Senator Daniel Webster had resigned his seat in congress and historians refer to his speech as “the speech that lost a Senate seat.” It was said that his speech slammed into New England with the force of a hurricane. Many there believed that he must have cut a deal with southern leaders to win their promised support for the presidency. Horace Mann called it a “vile catastrophe,” that Webster, who had walked with the gods had now descended to consort with “harlots and leeches.” Ralph Waldo Emerson cried, “‘Liberty! Liberty!’ Pho! Let Mr. Webster, for decency’s sake shut his lips for once and forever on this word. The word ‘Liberty’ in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word ‘love’ in the mouth of a courtesan.”[4]

In a conversation this week I was reminded that there is always an element of truth in our words, whether they are words of anger or words of humor. When something comes out of our mouths, we have thought it before. Even if we insist that we’ve not thought it, somewhere in our subconscious the words that escaped our lips have resided. The conversation was about an apology, but the words “I’m sorry” and “forgive me” didn’t exist in the apology that was offered. Instead, the apology consisted of phrases like “that’s not really my personality,” or “I would never do anything to.” My friend and I came to the conclusion that as much as we’d like to believe the words presented in the apology, the truth of the matter is that the harmful things had been done and said, which means that there is an element of truth to them. Somewhere, at some time, for some reason, the offender had thought painful thoughts and acted on them toward the offended.

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that they are focused on the wrong types of words – they focus their time and attention and religious life on the words of the elder’s traditions and not the Words of life that sat before them eating a meal. They missed the message – and it was within an arm’s reach. James reminds us to go and do, to be living words, for when we plant our life in the words of the law of liberty, and persevere, we will be blessed. We are already blessed, but we receive the gift of joy in the perseverance toward a life implanted in the Word of God.

Politicians like to use words. So do preachers. And professors, and writers, and lyricists… numerous professions are built upon a foundation of language, with these being some most proficient in weaving portraits or developing thoughts or casting visions for the masses to read, hear, believe and adopt as their own ideas. Students spend a four-year college career studying language nuances. Authors spend months on end editing their craft utilizing “word magic” as they complete works. Researchers study audience reactions to individual words and phrases. Advertisers use focus groups to test-run their campaigns. Words. They bring joy. They empower. They convict. They make you stop and think. They break your heart. Words wash over you in a way that no other can. They uplift. They carry meaning.[5] Words also destroy. The can make or break an individual, organization, or community. When we don’t choose our words carefully or thoughtfully enough, the verbiage can be disparaging, harmful, tactless and even career ending, as Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster experienced in the spring of 1850.

It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. We’ve heard that saying before, at least I have. A. Lot. The verses of Psalm 45 shared earlier today are actually words of a “royal psalm” and this particular one was written to a king on his wedding day. The king is blessed by God for his role in leadership, so the words of the psalm can reference both the earthly king and the heavenly king. They are words of affirmation, words of reverence, words of praise. These words point us toward a reverence of our God, or Lord, our Savior, the Incarnation for us. While we respond to the word in the flesh with appropriate actions, we most-importantly respond with gratitude in praise and worship. In her book Finding Words for Worship, Ruth Duck states: “words are an important part of worship, as a complement to dimensions of worship involving movement, the visual, music without words, and silence. Finding words to express praise, prayer, and proclamation is worthy of loving and reverent care.”[6] Keeping a mind of loving, reverent care and gratitude for a life in the Word, let us focus on the words of the hymn we will next sing and make them a life prayer for today. And if you can carry them with you, make them a life prayer for tomorrow. And the next day. And every day after those days.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace…
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

May the God of Creation, who authored the words of life, tether our hearts to Jesus Christ so that we may always sing God’s grace through the power of the free flowing spirit who gives us breath.

And may we always be grateful for the Incarnate Word who, knowing we would replace him with ourselves and our ways, offered himself up to God in our stead, that we might welcome with meekness and thankfulness the implanted word that has saved our souls, and live accordingly.

To God be the Glory, now and forever. Amen.


[1] O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreters Bible, Volume IX: Luke, John (Abingdon Press, 1995), 519, 525.
[2] Smith, Archie Jr., “Pastoral Perspective on James 1:17-27” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4 (Westminster John Knox, 2009), 16.
[3] Smith, 16.
[4]http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Speech_Costs_Senator_His_Seat.htm
[5] http://walkingemmaus.com/2013/10/01/31-days-music-with-meaning/
[6] Duck, Ruth C. Finding Words for Worship: A Guide for Leaders (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 1.

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