Kevin Strickland: Words Matter! Words Have Power!

Words matter! Words have power!

As a child, I played the game "Telephone" (maybe some of you did as well) where you would whisper something into your neighbor's ear, and then they would pass it down the line, and the last person would say aloud what they heard. The original message rarely made it to the end of the line.

The childhood game demonstrates something about living in the world with others. Whispered rumors can grow like wildfires. They can move from the lull of a whisper to the loud noise of fear that keeps us from living into the person God has called us to be.

Even the old mantra, which gives me a good eye-roll, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Whoever came up with that was never a middle schooler. I don't know about you, but I have not practiced much on trying to figure out if the sticks and stones part is true about breaking bones, but I have had more than my fair share of words that do the opposite of that saying.

Words matter! Words have power!

Words that hurt worse than that broken bone. Words that sting. Words that make you question where a person's motives are and wondering if they love me as much as they say they do; then why do they say the things they do?

But you know we all have been on the flip side of that equation too. We have been the ones who have not always said the kindest things to those we have been called to love or even like for that matter.

As Paul reminds us in our second lesson from Romans for today: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:8, 10)

Maybe all of us need to walk around with a mirror that has those words printed all over the front of it? Or maybe Siri or our iPhones could buzz us right before some hurtful, rude, uncaring word comes out of our mouths? Gosh, that would be a lot of buzzing around the world and in the church, huh?

What I am reminded is that we don't live in a bubble, or by ourselves, or in some insular world. We live in community. We live as the body of Christ. Matthew's gospel reminds us that when wrong has occurred or hurt has been done, to go and point out that fault (hurt or wrongdoing) with that person. Matthew goes on to tell us if that doesn't work then to have that conversation with a wider audience.

Matthew in describing the behavior of when a member of the church sins against you. But we know that church then, and I would argue now, is not the brick and mortar where people just gather; it is the ecclesia. Church then and now means to be the "called out ones." Called out into the community of creation, so when one suffers, we all suffer.

Called out to remind the world, the church, those hurt by organized religion, and ourselves; what Jesus gave as a promise of great comfort in our text: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus is there among them. Jesus is here among you.

Jesus is here among you and among them. Often people associate "being" the church with "going" to church. If this global pandemic has showed us anything, sometimes, all that is necessary to be the church, to do church, is to call on Matthew 18:20 and take Jesus at his word. And oh dear ones, how better off we would be as people if we practiced what we preach, knowing that in our words and our actions, Jesus is there among us.

"At the same time, Jesus showing up is not always good news, at least for some. The promise of Jesus' presence, "for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," is comfort only insofar as you are comfortable with Jesus being that close. And I suspect some of us, if we are honest, don't always want Jesus in such immediate proximity." [Karoline Lewis, "God Is with Us" sermon blog from Working Preacher, September 3, 2017.]

Words matter! Words have power!

In a world where vitriolic speech is spewed in the form of tweets from national leaders, human beings beg for a better life and are labeled as less than or unworthy. We know that words matter and words have power.

In a world, where black and brown bodies are targeted, underappreciated, undervalued, underrepresented, and killed. We know that words matter and words have power.

In a world where women have words used to harass them in their workplaces, we know that words matter and words have power.

In a world where LGBTQIA+ persons struggle for a place at the table or safety, or validity from their own church bodies. We know that words matter and words have power.

In a world where young people between the ages 13 and 21 are some of the highest statistics of suicide, we know that words matter and words have power.

Instead of asking, "What would Jesus do?", maybe we should be asking, "What would Jesus hear?" or "What would Jesus think?"

Perhaps it would help us live out more fully what Paul wrote, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

As Karoline Lewis points out,

Immanuel is not always the God we want - this God who insists on staying close, persists in being in the middle of what we do and say, especially when it comes to those things we do and say in God's name. There are many ways we can imagine who God is, but when who God is ends up also being where God is, well, that's theology best left in our theology books, gathering dust in our libraries. Because a God whose primary identity is that God is? Well, that's a God we won't be able to pin down, systematize, and control. Immanuel is often far more difficult to confess than we are willing to admit. No wonder Jesus will then have to make this promise again. "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." [Karoline Lewis, "God Is With Us" sermon blog from Working Preacher, September 3, 2017.]

Words matter! Words have power!

Because of that, speaking words of love and truth and truth to power also comes in the form of speaking words of forgiveness. There is this great scene in Angela's Ashes, where Frank confesses all of his life's sins to the priest. The priest tells him: "God forgives you, and you must forgive yourself. God loves you and you must love yourself. For only when you love God and yourself can you love all of God's creatures."

Loving ourselves, forgiving ourselves, using words that honor and uplift ourselves; those are the things we have to do first, and then we begin to fully live into and love into the whole community of Christ and his body within our neighbors. Not easy work, but heart work. It is work that frees us from being burdened.

Delighted, loved, and called into a new beginning; we in the church hear and proclaim words that matter and know that words have power. In Holy Baptism, we remind and are reminded that God has called us by name and delighted in us. We who the world or politicians or others would insult, deface, or defame; we know different. We hear that just as Israel receives a new name, the Christian does too - beloved child of God - the one in whom God delights.

We in the church know that words matter and words have power. Words that transcend ordinary people into children of God, that give thanks over bread and wine for Eucharist sharing, stories of saving acts and acts of love to be shared and given for all to receive; the outsider, the Gentile, the tax collector, you and me.

So, what does it take to quell those whispers and still that fear inside each of us? To speak to those voices and to that fear and say, "I have trusted in you, O Lord; you are my God"? It takes the promise that amid our greatest fears or fiercest opponents, God hear us and speaks a louder voice of love - I am here among you!

Words matter! Words have power!

So dear friends, may we speak words with God's power to a world and a people in need of reminding that God delights in us and calls us God's own forever. Amen.

Let us pray.

God, who spoke and continues to speak your word of love to us, may we put those words of love into action as we love our neighbor as ourselves. May we know that our words matter and that they have power. May that power be for the fulfilling of your law of love and not for our own gain. We pray this in the name of your son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.