I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.
The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well. Allow me to read it 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. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it 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 (James 3).
Nathan Parrish, a friend of mine and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said that one Sunday after worship, he asked a father how football practice went that week for his son who was playing Middle Football for the first time. He said that his son came home after the game Thursday night really upset. He said that the coach said that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”
He asked: “What do you mean?”
Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”
Laura Johnson, the former pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, North Carolina, an area that has been devastated this weekend by hurricane Florence, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”
The message starts early, and it is pervasive. The words are heard in school and in many churches. Through patriarchal language, through the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, the insinuation is made that men are somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, as women are pushed to a more subservient place in the church.
Words indeed have great power.
This is why alarm bells should go off in our moral consciences when we hear people with power use words like “infestations,” “animals,” “aliens,” “dogs,” and “illegal,” to describe groups of people. Words have power to degrade, demean and dehumanize those made in the likeness of God. Adolf Hitler knew this when he referred to Jews as “rats” in Nazi Germany.
As we read this scripture in James, we can realize that James is making a fascinating connection between speech and creation. In verse nine, we reminded that we were created according to the likeness of God as revealed in the first chapter of Genesis. James is making the comparison that as God created the world with speech, we, like God, also have the power to create with our speech.
In verse seven we read that the “beast and bird, reptile and sea creature” are tamed by humans. This echoes Genesis creation account where human beings are given the power of speech to name all of the living creatures. James reminds us that the first and most important gift distinctive to humans is this power to name, this power to create language. James is saying that with language and speech we are given to power continue God’s own creative activity in our world.
The truth is, with speech and language, we possess a world-creating power. New Testament scholar Luke Johnson put it this way: “the world as it emerges moment by moment from God’s creative energy…is reshaped and given its meaning by human language, whose symbols enable us both to comprehend the world as meaningful and to interpret it.”
Thus, I believe a very important question for us is this: How are we as the church creating, how are we reshaping and how are we giving meaning to our world with our language?
What about when we say: We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?
When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” There was a great book written nearly forty years ago that many churches that are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”
The Bible clearly says…
Whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous, especially when I hear it from politicians who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. They want to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land.
While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!”
Love the sinner and hate the sin.
These words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.
If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?
When we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some reward instead of some punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”
And then there are the classics:
God has God’s reasons.
God does not make mistakes.
God will not put any more on us than we can bear.
It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.
This language has probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any other spoken words. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, if God send this hurricane, if God is sending these flood waters in my house then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”
I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to follow Jesus while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we we do that, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers.God is not seated on some throne far removed from the creation sending hurricanes to North Carolina or blowing up houses in Massachusetts. God is not pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.
Our language has the power to paint a Christ-like portrait of God, and our language as the power to paint an anti-Christ portrait of God.
Our language has the power to create a world where people are oppressed and cursed, and our language has the power to create a world where people are treated with equity and are blessed.
Our language has the power to create a world that dishonest, deceitful, and despairing, a world that is mean, cold and dark. And our language has the power to create a world that is honest and sincere, a world that is kind, empathetic and hopeful.
Let me illustrate this. Joyce Williams was a member of one of my churches who used to always greet me with the following words: “I love you Jarrett Banks.” She would always say it just like that. When she passed away, almost everyone who knew her said the same thing, that she would extend the same greeting to them: “I love you…” and then said their first and last name. So, that is how we concluded her memorial service. I had everyone who was present to turn to the person next to them, introduce themselves if they did not know them, and then say, “I love you,” followed by saying their name.
Let’s do that this morning.
Let us pray.
O God, help us all to realize that like You, we have the power to create worlds with our words. We thank You for this gift, but ask that you help us to always remember that with this gift comes a great responsibility. As Your sons and daughters, may we use our language to create a world of peace, justice, love and respect. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
There is a word that I always use at this time to invite you to share the meal from this table. That word is “all.” Sometimes I even define that word by saying, “all means all.” It is my hope that this simple word, all, is helping too create a brand new world: a world of acceptance, a world of grace, a world of inclusion, and a world of love. May we prepare to live in such a world, to eat and drink in this world, as we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion.
COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION
Go now into the world remembering that 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.
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
So go and speak only wonderful words of life that point others to the love and the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And may the love of God, the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.