Sunday, August 12, 2018
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The late great pianist Arthur Rubenstein, who spoke eight languages, once came down with a very stubborn case of hoarseness. At the time, the newspapers were full of reports about smoking and cancer; and as an avid smoker Rubinstein decided to go see a throat specialist. Rubinstein wrote: "I searched the doctor’s face for a clue during the 30-minute examination, but it was expressionless. (And then) he told me to come back the next day. Well, I went home full of fears, and I didn't sleep that night." The next day there was another long examination and again an ominous silence from the doctor. "Tell me," Rubenstein said. "I can stand the truth. I've lived a full, rich life. What is wrong with me?" To which the doctor replied: "You talk too much."
If you ask anyone who knows me well, they will tell you that I, too, love to talk. I love words and not just the ones that come out of my mouth. I love words spoken, sung, and written. I love them in all kinds of languages. I love them because they give expression to the deepest feelings of the human heart. Words help us shape and understand and record the human experience. Words connect us to others across chasms of time and culture and space.
And words can be holy. Words can have tremendous power. In the book of Genesis, it is God’s word that called creation into existence. “And God said: “Let there be light and there was light.” The Gospel of John calls Jesus the Word of God, declaring that “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” The writer of the book of Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit; joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
We Protestant have taken these teachings about the power of words to heart. For us it is the preached word that is the center of the worship experience. Right or wrong, everything builds up to the sermon with its ability to shape the lives and faith of those who hear.
And for those of us who preach, the Bible carries a special caution. The book of James says that not many people should desire to be teachers in the church because teachers will be judged with greater strictness. Why such gloomy foreboding? – Because words have life and energy and power. They can do a great deal of good – but they can also do a great deal of harm.
We can all tell stories about words that have hurt us, and sometimes very deeply. And most of us can tell stories about how our words have hurt others. There are some things I have said in my life that I would give almost anything to take back; words spoken without thinking; words spoken as a weapon, inflicting maximum pain. But as a kid in one my of confirmation classes years ago put it: “Words are like toothpaste – easy to get out but impossible to put back in.”
In the epistle lesson of the day, Paul gives the church in Ephesus some practical advice on words that hurt and words that heal. The Ephesian church was divided between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. And as the church grew and started to encompass more and more Gentile converts, the divide between the two groups became stronger and stronger. The argument that divided the Ephesians was whether or not Gentile converts had to observe Jewish laws of circumcision in order to follow Christ. And in their zeal to convince one another about that they are the ones who understood God best, words were spoken in that ancient Turkish congregation that hurt – and hurt deeply. And if you have ever been involved in a church fight, then you know how hurtful angry words can be, especially in a place where people claim to be known by their love.
So Paul, writing from prison, reminds the Ephesians of the incredible power of their words. And then he gives them some very practical advice. He says, among other things: “Speak the truth, but do it remembering that your are eternally connected to one another. Don’t lie or exaggerate about one another. It’s OK to be angry, but don’t hold a grudge overnight. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths. Instead, use your words to build one another up.”
Then, in the midst of these practical exhortations, Paul’s words seem to morph, as they often do, into the mystical. And he makes a most incredible claim about the power of positive words: “Do all these things I am telling you”, he writes, “so that your words may give graceto those who hear.”
In Christian theology, grace is the freely given divine favor that comes to us from God. But in a striking affirmation of the power of our human words, Paul claims that we can bestow the grace of God on each other by the words we speak. Our words can heal broken hearts. Our words can give grace and light and peace and strength to those who need it most. Our words can literally change the course of a person’s life.
I know this is true from my own experience. There have been many people along the road of my life, who by their words have encouraged me to become the person I am. They haven’t just spoken nice words. They have spoken God’s words, words full of grace and hope and love in the midst of my confusion or despair, and often they have spoken them at just the right moment. And I can also remember times when my words have been the purveyor of grace, when something I said encouraged someone who was ready to give up, or enabled someone to see another way forward. Grace-filled words are one of the most important ministries any Christian can have. And they are especially important in this world so full of hateful, bitter, and angry words that rain down upon us from every direction.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood something of the power of words. Because of his active opposition to Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis and executed in the waning days of the Second World War. Now a person who is thrown into prison, especially when trying to do good, has every reason to speak hurtful, angry words. But Bonhoeffer continued to speak words of grace in the midst of great difficulty, because that is precisely when words of grace are needed the most.
It is said that in his last days, Bonhoeffer used to walk the narrow corridors of the Flossenberg prison visiting the cells, speaking to prisoners and encouraging them, laughing and joking with them, singing hymns and praying with them. No longer free to travel as he wished his spoken words became his primary means of ministry. Bonhoeffer wrote: “God has put his word into our mouths in order that it may be communicated with others. The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs that friend again and again and again.”
In the Old Testament book of Job, Eliphaz, one of Job’s comforters, pays him a tremendous compliment. He says of Job: “You have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have kept people on their feet.”
In a few moments, we’ll all walk out these doors. And in the hours and days until we meet again next Sunday, about 95,000 words will spill out of our mouths - words with the power for good or for evil. The world is already chocked full of fearful, hateful, judgmental words. For God’s sake, let’s not add to the burden! Instead may it be said of all of us, and of this church, that our words kept people on their feet.
Let it be. Amen.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together, pp.11-12