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Words Have Power

Rev. Reebee Girash
Sun, Sep 16

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: James 3: 1 - 12

Words have power. Words have power beyond their dictionary meaning.

In high school the word honey had two different meanings and two different powers for me.

Honey, we love you – I heard from my parents. Honey bore the power of their care and concern, made me feel cherished and known. It was a word of blessing.

In my weekend job at the greeting card store, I heard: Honey, get me a birthday card for my boss. Honey bore the power of condescension, and false intimacy.

The prophet Isaiah says, “God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Isaiah 50:4)

A word could sustain the weary: if it’s the right word. If it’s offered with care.

Our Psalm this morning ends with a prayer that we might choose the right words, the words that will be acceptable in the sight of God. What words are acceptable to God? Words that heal, words that build up, words that are loving, words that are true, words that testify to God’s love and the saving hope we have in Jesus. Words that tell the hearer: you are God’s beloved child.

Howard Thurman shared this story of words, retold by Tom Long: “[He] attributed most of his own sense of dignity and vocation to his grandmother, a former slave, who repeated to her young grandson a message she had heard in worship. Over and over she told him, “You are somebody!” And on the days when his own children encountered the particular cruelties of a segregated playground, those words of his grandmother were the words he shared with his daughters: “You are somebody!” (adapted from pages 63-64, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, by Thomas G. Long)

That message - you are somebody - carried the power of dignity. That message was a blessing from generation to generation.


Now, James knows that words can be a blessing. He says our words can bless God. Along the way he even talks of a "word that has the power to save your souls." (1:21) But he’s mostly focused here on other kinds of speech. James calls us out: our words can curse those who are made in the image of God. The tongue is a fire. The tongue cannot be tamed. All through his letter, James plays on this theme.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (1:19-20)

Be doers of the word, James says, perhaps feeling that compassionate action is better than speech.

“All of us make many mistakes,” he says in our passage. “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity…”

I wonder, when it was that James let his own tongue get away from him?

What is he confessing here?

Whom did he hurt with his words, what slip of the tongue does he so desperately wish he could take back?

When James says all of us make many mistakes with our tongues, I hear him talking right to me and think of the careless words that have rolled off my tongue, even in the last few weeks. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands to see who else hears James speaking to you.

But here are two good words, words of hopeful grace, for those of you who can recall a careless or cruel word you have spoken, and those of you looking for a hopeful model of speech.

Last week’s Gospel passage showed Jesus speaking a careless word… and then, he fixed it. James, later in his letter (can you tell that James is like my Christian how-to-guide) says: “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (3:16) So that you may be healed.

Here’s the other good word: while James may want us to take a vow of silence, the rest of scripture and our tradition are filled with good words, spoken with blessing and love.

Good words are all over scripture.

In Psalm 19, the writer testifies that even “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” And the Psalmist, too, praises God’s law. The Psalm ends with a prayer that every word might be acceptable to God. Want words that praise God? Psalm 19.

In our faith's Creation story, God speaks the world into being – good words with awesome power – and John's gospel testifies; Jesus is the Word made flesh. Preacher Tom Long writes that the words Jesus spoke, the gospel-good-news, “[bore] witness to the God who loves and saves us, to our identity as children of God, and to the hope that can sustain human life.” (Testimony, page 29)

Walter Brueggemann writes “The words with which we praise God shape the world in which we live.” Chew on that. The words we use to praise God shape the world in which we live. What words do we use to praise God? And could it be that the words we use to speak God's love also shape the world in which we live?

This morning our newly baptized heard: you are blessed and beloved and accepted by God. Have all of you heard that good word, today? You are blessed, you are beloved, you are accepted. Hear it now: you are blessed, you are beloved, you are accepted. Honey, we love you. You are somebody.

Do you enter this sanctuary ready to speak God's love to someone?

One of the gifts of this congregation that I have already witnessed, is the gift of welcome and hospitality. It is remarkable the way you show forth God's love. But we are none of us perfect, not yet. Even in the midst of offering a caring welcome, I hear folks say, we strive to be more inclusive. A little warmer, a little more open. We want to build the beloved community and reflect the beautiful diversity of God's family. What can we do to make sure everyone who comes in here, and everyone who passes by those doors and everyone we meet, and everyone who looks at our website, even: knows. God loves you, we love you. You are somebody and you are welcome here.

So. It's no ordinary time. A moment to shift perspective and practice.

What if every Sunday this Autumn, everyone who came into this place, heard that good word before they left? God bless you, God loves you, God accepts you, you are welcome and beloved and accepted here. What if every Monday this Autumn, however you phrase it, you shared that message, with someone outside of these walls?

This fall in worship we're going to practice testimony. Folks are going to share their stories: in small groups, in the 10:00 hour, and in worship. Some folks will tell us how they heard a good word at a crucial time in their lives. Some folks will speak to all of us a good word.

That's Sundays. What if, in the season of no ordinary time, every day of the week, you turn the egg timer over and pray: God, help me use my words to bless someone today. Help me say something that makes her know she is your beloved child. Help me say something that makes him feel your grace.

Words have power, so we have to use them with care. James is right to ask us to bridle our tongues, to control the fires we could start.

This political season, human tongues have already set fires, and cut like swords. But we don’t have to. We can speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), as Paul writes, and “let no evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29, paraphrased)

It’s said that we hunger “for beautiful words, true words, healing words, thoughtful words, saving words.” (Testimony, pg 53) So let those be the kinds of words that come from our mouths. Honey, we love you. You are somebody.

One more thought. What if, in this season of no ordinary time at First Church, and as we walk in the world, we take extra breaths before we speak? What if we are slow to speak, and enter the cathedral of time by making time for silence, listening, gazing upon one another with love?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts together be acceptable in your sight, O God, for you are our rock and redeemer. Amen.

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