Words that Destroy, Words that Build Up

photo courtesy of Mark A. Paulda, gettyimages.com …. sermon for the third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Nehemiah 8 and Luke 4 ….

David Brooks is a journalist whose work has appeared in publications like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. You may have seen or heard him on any number of television or radio news shows. An editorial he wrote a few weeks ago caught my eye, not because of the particular politician he happened to be criticizing, but rather because of the way he conducted his analysis. He measured a candidate’s political statements against the virtues generally considered to be essential to the candidate’s professed Christian faith. Brooks argued that if judged by public presentation, then this particular candidate is a stranger to the Christian virtues of humility, mercy, compassion, and grace.[1]

Now, if we were to engage in a lengthy discussion of this topic, some might argue that Brooks cherry-picked public statements to fit the purposes of his argument, or that he doesn’t understand the full scope or depth of the candidate’s positions as they relate to Christian virtue, or that the statements or behaviors of other candidates also might reflect little evidence of Christian virtue. Still, I would say I value David Brooks’ analysis because he believes that words are more than smokescreen and obfuscation. He assumes that public statements are weighty and important in determining a person’s integrity. On one side of history, Brooks sees conservative support of free markets balanced with a spirit of charity, compassion and solidarity. On the other, he sees fear-driven, apocalyptic speeches, marked by long lists of enemies and vows to obliterate them, sowing bitterness and hatred.

Brooks reminds me that words have power: one set of words can tear down, while another set of words can build up. The wrong words can destroy, the right words can promote positive change, and not just in the realm of politics.

Today’s gospel reading records a visit by Jesus to his home congregation. He is invited to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The words he chooses are few, but powerful enough to inspire and guide the world-changing ministry that he launches that day. Jesus believes that the kingdom of God is breaking into human history through his presence and his words.[2]

We witness the transforming power of words in our reading from the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. There we find the Hebrew people rebuilding Jerusalem. After a long period of oppression and desolation, the people are recovering their lost traditions. Ezra brings with him from Babylon the Book of the Law, probably what we know as the first five books of the Bible.[3] When Ezra and the Levites read and interpret it, the people weep. They weep because the long lost word of God has been found, and, with it, a purpose to invigorate their lives, and a power to constitute their community.

The right words have power to light up our minds, shape our souls, and determine our destiny.

Some theologians say that many mainline churches have lost their sense of purpose because, like Ezra’s community, they have forgotten their story, the “right words” that define their existence. Thirty years ago, Yale theologian George Lindbeck made a statement that I still find compelling. He said, “There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use (our story). To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”[4] The right words well learned have power to light up our minds, shape our souls, and determine our destiny.

You may remember a story I’ve shared that is handed down to us from the Second World War, a horrible story, but powerful for its contrast of good to evil.[5] In one of the synagogues, before they torched it, soldiers found a rabbi sitting in his study, working on his sermon for the Sabbath. To utterly humiliate the old man, they forced him to take off his clothes. They had him stand up in his pulpit naked, clad only in his rabbi’s kippot (head covering).

“Say something in Hebrew for us,” they taunted. “Yes, preach to us, preach what you were going to say next service. Preach!”

The rabbi began to speak in a language that none of his tormentors could understand: “bore’sheeth bahrah eloheem ayth hashamayim we’ayth ha’aretz.” “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He spoke words that Israel often used to define to whom it belonged.

In that moment, says commentator Will Willimon, power shifted from the soldiers to the rabbi. By speaking the word, the rabbi was cooperating with God to reframe reality. He was affirming his belief that not even torture and death could defeat the creative power and ultimate triumph of God’s word.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” If you can see the world as the rabbi saw it when the Nazi soldiers taunted him, then you can begin to understand its wisdom.

Too often, the baser tactics of political discourse find their way into the midst of Christ’s Church. As I ease out of the role of presbytery moderator, I’ve been attempting to mediate a dispute that raged at our Presbytery Gathering right here on November 14. It’s not a stretch to say that most people involved are frustrated and tired, and that the temptation has been great to speak with angry bitterness, prideful judgment, and lack of compassion. Instead, we’re trying to listen for God’s Word within our words, to dialogue about our misunderstandings of one another, and to work toward solutions that benefit the common good. For if we reduce our standard of behavior to conform to the lowest common denominator, then our organization will no longer be worthy of the name “Church.”

I imagine it’s like that for some of you, too, in the situations in which you find yourselves. Sometimes, love is a moral choice, a difficult choice because it’s a call that runs counter to powerful feelings welling up within us. And we have to remind ourselves that the worst fate of all is to fall victim to hatred.

Never underestimate the value of the Church as a keeper of sacred tradition, weekly immersion in and daily meditation on the stories of faith, and words that shape, transform, and heal. Some people think that churches have outlived their usefulness, but I’m not convinced. Some people think that if churches fade away, then other organizations will pick up the slack. But I’m not so sure. There are many organizations that benefit the world and its people. A community of faith like this one is unique in providing the spiritual rationale, motivation, and inspiration that allows all charitable work to continue. The right words have power to light up our minds, shape our souls, and determine our destiny. The Church is the keeper of the Greatest Story Ever Told, the right words that provide meaning and purpose, that are ancient, and good, and true.

“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep …. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

[1] David Brooks, “The Brutalism of Ted Cruz,” The New York Times, 12 January 2016, A27, accessed online 13 January 2016 http://nyti.ms/1mSbi92

[2] N. T. Wright, “The Mission and Message of Jesus,” in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999, p. 37.

[3] Jacob M. Myers, Ezra/Nehemiah, Vol. 14 in the Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1965, p. 153.

[4] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-liberal Age, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984, p. 34.

[5] William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 29 No. 1, p. 13.



~ by JohnH1962 on January 24, 2016.

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