The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 13, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
I have been thinking a lot about words this week. Children are back to school, working with words – reading words, writing them, spelling them, defining them. New beginnings and new words. I remember as a kid relishing the vocabulary part of the school day, getting to learn new and longer and more interesting words to use in my talking and writing. I read further and further ahead in books, learning complex words that I would then trot out in speech, usually mispronouncing them – something I now love hearing my own daughter do. (I try to correct her only sometimes.) More interesting words to speak and understand meant more interesting life, the elusive grown-up world I was curious about.
And then when I got older I learned about how some words have special power. Some words are ok to say and others aren’t, and it’s not just because your parents tell you not to say them. Words can be powerful simply because of who says them and where they say them – words that make up slogans in political speech, or words from a pulpit. I learned how hard it can be to say the words, ‘I’m sorry.’ How words like ‘Black Lives Matter’ can cause so much reaction. How the words ‘I love you’ can change things.
And I also learned how wonderful it can be to set words aside and be still. Our faith has a rich tradition of contemplative prayer, prayer that is not full of words but rather silence. I discovered how deep that silence could be when I spent a week in the Taizé community in France, three times a day gathering into the big church for worship together with about 5000 other people. The worship included a sentence or two of scripture, read in several different languages; several different chants of the same words over and over again; and long stretches of silence without any words at all. Being in that space with all those people, all in silence, was profound. So when I came back to the Anglican theological college I was studying at in England, the good old Book of Common Prayer worship, full of its rich words and deep tradition, just felt overwhelming – so over-the-top wordy, words filling up every space and crowding the Spirit out, it felt to me. Long scripture readings, long prayers, long verses to long hymns, words, words, words. It took me a long time to readjust. It was like coming down out of the mountains and living in New York City. Out of the deep silence that speaks and into the chatter that inflames and distracts – until I could again begin to understand the power of the words.
I’ve been thinking about all these words because our readings for today say a lot about words. Psalm 19 begins grandly, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.’ But then the psalmist goes on to be clear, ‘Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.’ No words and language, but declaring and speaking about God all the same. The letter of James today talks about the perils of teaching and preaching, how those who teach need to watch their words carefully. And James also talks about the words we use in our community as we talk to one another and about one another – making the point that our words matter, and what we say both reveals and shapes our souls. We all make many mistakes, he says, so we need to be careful with what we say.
Jesus also focuses on words in the gospel, asking his disciples, who do you say that I am? What words do you use to describe me? The disciples struggle to answer this, offering various words in response until Peter says, ‘You’re the Messiah!’ But when Jesus goes on to teach what his being the Messiah means, Peter says, no, you’ve got it wrong, that’s not what my words meant. And Jesus rebukes him, for what Peter is saying is coming not from God, but from his own confusion. His words reveal that he hasn’t really got it yet at all.
Words are powerful – and that power can go either way. ‘The tongue is a fire…a restless evil, full of deadly poison,’ James says. Words can do real damage: think of how propaganda can incite people to hate and kill, or of how malicious gossip can tear somebody down or make a whole community lose hope. We talk about ‘spin,’ about how politicians and others in power frame their words to create a certain outcome – but really, we’re all engaged in spin all the time. Our words matter – they make things happen. It wasn’t just God who spoke things into being at creation – we can all speak things into being with our words, whether we intend to or not.
Maybe as preacher I should just stop here, knowing the possible cost of the words I say. Sometimes it does seem that it would be better for us all if we stopped talking so much, or thought more about what we said before we said it. Often it feels as if instead of our wordy worship we would do better to come together and sit in total silence for an hour. And yet the delight of new and wonderful words, of language well used to share what is really true in our hearts, and of the rich words of our faith – all of that speaks deeply of God. Think of the words we use here today: the words from long ago, from scripture and in the prayers of our tradition – and the words we offer ourselves in prayers and in our greetings at the peace – all of those words make things happen. These words can open our hearts to hear God’s voice; they can give voice to longings and needs we have a hard time admitting ourselves. They can open us more to love, to and from God and to and from our neighbor. They can work on us without our knowing it – words heard today may pop up again in our minds in the mostly unlikely moments. (Which is why I do believe that children get more out of church than we think they do.)
So the words spoken here today can be a practice for us – like practicing vocabulary in a foreign language. Let the words of worship today carry you along; listen to them, say them, sing them, don’t agonize about them. You may not know what every word means or grasp what’s happening or believe exactly what you think we’re saying. You may mispronounce them. You may not be sure what words to speak to your neighbor when it comes time to share the peace, or whether the words others speak to you today mean anything significant. That’s ok. The words here today have power, spoken and unspoken – the words tell of love, and of the desire for community, and of an intention to move past what separates us. Not every word may be perfect – analyzed and parsed, it may not make perfect sense, there may be holes in the logic. The silence between the words may be worth more than the words themselves. And yet it all tells, or tries to tell, of the glory of God.
Try here, for this hour or so, to allow these words to wash over and through you and into you. Practice hearing and speaking the deep truth of who you are and who God is in you. See how it works, this syntax of faith. Even if you’re not sure what sense the words and silence are making here, they can change you. And the more you practice the words here, the more it changes your words in all of your life.
God speaks in many ways. The deep traditions of our faith, the words of Holy Scripture, the prayers of long ago and right now, the hymns ancient and new, the silence and pauses, the voices of our fellow worshipers – all of it offers another chance to hear God’s voice here in our community and in our hearts, God’s voice spoken for the world. Listen to how God is speaking here today; fill yourself with these words and this silence as fuel for your week. Listen so that in all you do, in all you say, God’s voice can be heard in the world. That we also may be an incarnation of God’s word for all.