This sermon was presented at Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference) on Sunday, August 24, 2014. The revised common lectionary texts for Year A, Proper 16, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost were Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20.
I think sometimes we underestimate the power of words. We teach our children to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” To tell someone to “put your money where your mouth is” is to say that financial support is more useful than spoken support. To say that someone is “all bark and no bite” is to say that that person only talks, but never acts. To say that someone talks the talk but doubt that person can walk the walk is to doubt that person’s ability to act.
It’s funny, though. The very existence of phrases like these, the way that we repeat them over and over until they accrue meaning greater than the sum of their parts is evidence of the power of words. Repetition of the sticks and stones expression can bolster the confidence of a child being teased. All bark and no bite diffuses the power of someone else’s aggressive speech. Put your money where your mouth is and walk the walk challenge someone else to act directly. And really, if you’ve ever been bullied with words, you know that words have the power to inflict pain. They can leave lasting scars on our souls that inform the way we see ourselves, the way we interact with the people closest to us, and the way we live in the world.
When I was looking over the lectionary scriptures for today, I was struck by two things. The first was the sheer quantity of references to speech acts via forms of the verbs say, sing, call and answer. The second thing that struck me was what speech acts accomplish. They create relationships, and they guide the way we inhabit those relationships
In verse three of Psalm 138, the psalmist says, “On the day I called, you answered me” and this answer had the power to bolster the psalmist’s “strength of soul.” Throughout this psalm, speech creates a relationship between God and the people as speech and song connect the earthly and the divine. And in this psalm, the speech is reciprocal. God answers, the kings of the earth hear the words of God’s mouth, God’s name and word are exalted. In the same way that relationships among people depend on communication, our relationship with God depends on speaking and listening in prayer and meditation.
In the passage from Romans, verses six through eight list eight gifts: prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, diligence, and cheerfulness. While each of these eight can make use of speech, three of them (prophesy, teaching, and exhortation) depend on speech to be accomplished. More than just valuing the power of speech in the work of the church, though, Paul puts words to work for him. With a particular sort of speech act, an extended metaphor, he shapes the way that members of the church interact with one another. We are, he says, members of one body, and each member has its function. This passage is reminiscent of first Corinthians chapter twelve in which Paul gives this body metaphor greater depth. “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” Human beings are often challenged by difference. We don’t know what to do with it; it makes us uncomfortable. This metaphor teaches us to value the contribution of each member of the community as we value the contribution of each part of the body.
In the gospel passage this morning, Jesus challenges the disciples to think about the power of words, names in particular. He asks, ‘Whom do you say that I am?’ And they answer, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Now, Jesus, of course, knows exactly who he is, but in this conversation with the disciples, he is checking on whether what they say aligns with what he knows. Because Jesus knows that what people are saying about him shapes their relationship with him. To identify Jesus with John the Baptist or one of the prophets is to connect him to the past. To name Jesus as one of the prophets is to affirm the status quo, to continue an ongoing cycle of prophesy about a future not-yet-arrived. Peter’s answer that Jesus is the messiah, however, identifies him not as a reincarnation of one who has come before, but as the incarnation of Old Testament prophesy. A prophet is not the messiah. To name Jesus as the messiah is a radical act that announces that the future is now.
All this thinking about the power of words has been timely for me. A friend and I have been engaged in a good-natured ongoing debate about the relationship of language and thought. Namely, whether our words and grammar inform the way we think or whether the way that we think informs the words that we have and the grammar that organizes those words. It’s been a lively debate for us and a sometimes contentious one among professional linguists. I come down somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that language is a rigid structure that prevents us from contemplating ideas for which we have no words, but I do think that our habits of speech become habits of thought, and habits, I’m sure we can all agree, once established, are difficult to change.
Change is possible, though. As with Peter’s radical act of naming Jesus as the messiah in the gospel today, our speech acts can shape the way we experience relationships in our world. The passage from Romans uses beautiful words to create a vision of a harmonious body of different people, and this is a vision we are familiar with within the church. When we are doing well as a church, the body welcomes a variety of members and values their individual contributions.
Words, however, also have the power to devalue the people with whom we come in contact. One only has to listen to the news to hear this in action. Conflict and violence can on occur when the aggressor views the victim as less than human. This is true in cases of personal violence like assault, murder, and rape; in cases of ritualized violence like political campaigns; and in cases of armed conflict like those in Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iraq right now.
I’m not going to make any judgments about who is right and who is wrong in any of these conflicts. I am going to challenge you to pay closer attention to the way you hear them described, though. Language that compares people to animals, language that labels people evil or bad, language that treats people as objects dehumanizes those people.
When we use dehumanizing language we participate in the violence, we perpetuate the conflicts and we are complicit in the tragic piles of bodies that result. What would happen, though, if we took a radical step like Peter and changed the way we talk? When we change our language, we expand Paul’s metaphor from the church family to the human family. When we change our language, we recognize that all the people we share the earth with are members of the body and each of them has a contribution. When we change our language, we take the fist step toward beating our swords into ploughshares.