Words Are Also Works

September 18, 2018

Texts: James 3:1-12

           Mark 8:27-33



“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” – James 3:10



Holy God,

We have come here this morning,

Hoping to hear your Word among so many other words

that demand our attention.

Free us from all distraction in this sacred moment of meditation:

Give us attentive ears and receptive hearts.

In Christ and through Christ, we pray. Amen.


          “Crumbs of grace,” this is how a colleague of mine calls those small God-given gifts that fall right into our hands when we least expect it. Of course, we might not have this inspiring language of faith if a woman, who was neither Jewish nor Christian, had not turned Jesus’ offensive words into an opportunity for the widening of God’s grace. The Syrophoenician woman, as she is known in the Gospel of Mark,[1] is one of the very few people who faced outright rejection in her encounter with Jesus. To her desperate pleading on behalf of her daughter, Jesus said, “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.” The woman does not argue with Jesus even though she has been insulted and compared to a dog. Instead, she finds in her heart the words that will remind Jesus of the real breadth of God’s love and grace. “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get the crumbs dropped by the children?” Those words of a woman and a mother stopped Jesus on his rather exclusive religious tracks and opened his eyes to the possibility that God is on the loose in the world, dropping little crumbs of grace that heal the human heart, change human minds, set free the human spirit and nurture faith in the human soul.


          I am deeply grateful for this language of crumbs of grace the Syrophoenician woman gave to Christianity. These undeserved and unexpected gifts have sustained my faith and my ministry. In fact, just last Wednesday, one of those crumbs fell into my time of reflection and sermon preparation. I was working on my sermon when Tink Taylor called the church office and I happened to pick up the phone. Tink was completely unaware that I was searching for a meaningful story to connect James’ concern about the human tongue with our experience with words in the Church. As we were chatting, Tink told me a story that fits beautifully with today’s sermon. You may not know this, but in his 20’s Tink worked as a State Trooper for a while. One day he responded to the call from a Catholic church where the Christmas figurines in the nativity set were disappearing mysteriously. Tink was surprised to find out that the priest – and remember this happened about 60 years ago – never locked the church doors. “You leave the church open for anyone to come in, perhaps even the thief?” Tink asked. And Tink never forgot the good priest’s words: “Our doors are open, especially for the thieves.”  


          All these years later, those words spoken by a parish priest still color Tink’s understanding of the mission of the Church. During our phone chat, I asked Tink if he would be willing to be on a small task force that will prepare our church to welcome a young man who has been convicted as a sexual offender. He will be release from a federal correctional facility next year after spending 10 years in prison and he is hoping to come back to worship in this church, which he considers his home church. Tink’s answer was another crumb of grace I received last week. He said, “The church doors ought to be open, especially for registered sexual offenders.”


          Words are powerful and words have power! This is the message James hoped to instill in the hearts and minds of the followers of Christ. For a nascent religious movement that had no set rituals, no temples or institutionalized hierarchy, no universally accepted religious symbols or Scriptures, both the written and spoken words mattered tremendously. Words were the only means of preaching the Gospel. The Early Church depended on the words of the apostles, deacons, and teachers to pass on the ethical, moral and religious teachings of Jesus. As the apostle Paul put in his Letter to the Christians in Rome, “…faith comes by hearing, and hearing the Word of God.”[2] But words, even religious words, even the Word of God, James points out in today’s reading, are taught, preached, and spoken by men and women who make mistakes. This is the reason for the warning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.”


          We can hear James’ Jewish accent in these cautionary words. In the Judaism of the time, teachers, who were often the rabbis at the local synagogues, had a sacred bond with their pupils. Their position of authority gave the rabbis a special status in the life of their students. They were the ones who were trusted to speak in God’s name. They brought the Torah into the lives of their disciples. And while most rabbis were fully aware of the privilege their role conferred to them, they also knew they had to be vigilant because their words carried disproportionate power to both nurture faith but, if misused, their words could also crush the gift of faith God has dropped in every human heart.


          Think for a moment about how those off the cuff words the Catholic priest said to Tink so many years ago still inspire him today to imagine the Church as an inclusive, loving, and brave faith community where even convicted sexual offenders are welcomed and encouraged to seek God’s grace, love and forgiveness. And yet the same church that gave that priest this vision of a church with open doors is also the institution that has been slow to address the never-ending cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. Pope Francis has expressed shame and sorrow over the reports of more sexual abuse of minors in the United Sates, but little has been done to match the Pope’s words with actions. In the meantime, hundreds of people have left the church, disgusted by the legacy of sexual abuse cover-up, unsure if they will ever trust another priest again, and lost on their journey of faith.


          Many people still say that words do not matter until action sees the light of day. I am sure most of you still remember that childhood taunt that goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” The truth though is that the words you hear and say and write and read and e-mail and post on Facebook and tweet are as relevant as your actions. James goes as far as to say that our words serve as a barometer of our character and true beliefs. Words may appear insubstantial and immaterial, but they can have a lasting impact on our lives, our relationships, our choices, and on our faith. Words often reveal our feelings, our beliefs, our mental state, and they often say something about who we are at the deepest level. James reminds the Christian community that words, which quite often slip so effortlessly off our tongues, can empower, heal, bless, reveal the truth and build up but they can also discourage, wound, curse, deceive and destroy. Who hasn’t spoken sharp words when angry or sent a hurtful e-mail before pausing to think about the consequences of your words? How many times words of friends and loved ones have encouraged us to be our best selves and a thoughtful handwritten card has reminded us that we are loved?


          And words are fickle too. “With [the same tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” James knew that all of us in the Church speak with a divided tongue.


          Peter, always the impulsive and passionate disciple, is the epitome of the power of words and the conflicted nature of our speech. In today’s Gospel lesson, he is the first disciple in history to make one of the most powerful statements of faith ever heard in the long history of the Church. When Jesus inquires of his twelve followers who they think he really is, Peter leaps at the opportunity to put into words what has been in his heart: “You are the Messiah.” But as soon as Jesus began to speak about what awaits him in the near future, Peter takes him aside and rebukes Jesus. Peter had been too enthralled with the idea of a Messiah that would incite a revolution, drive the Romans away, restore the national pride of the Jewish people, and sit on the throne of David that he couldn’t accept Jesus’ words about suffering and death. The same disciple, who utters world-changing words of faith, now tempts Jesus to give up his calling to be the suffering Messiah.


          In his Letter, James makes no attempt to deny that it is challenging to control the tongue. He offers no cure to the double-tongued nature of people of faith like Peter, you and me. But James doesn’t let us off the hook either. Time and over again, he insists that Christians have to do everything possible to control the words that roll off of our tongues and to discipline our speech. “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.”[3] If you are truly religious, “bridle the tongue.”[4] “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”[5] “Do not speak evil of one another.”[6] These are some of the practices James invites the Christian community to take on in order to tame the tongue and choose our words more carefully, because in the end our words are also our works.


           Frederick Buechner once said, “to say something is to do something. I love you. I hate you. I forgive you. I am afraid. Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.“[7]


          Like many of the first followers of Christ, James came from a Jewish background where “word” and “action” were inseparable. To say something in the Jewish culture James lived was in fact to do something to yourself and to your children, your spouse, your family, your neighbor and to your community. The Hebrew word for “word” – “dabar” – means both word and deed. It conveys both the power of the spoken word and the use of muscular power to carry out an action. Words for James are quite literally works.


          In the Christian tradition, to say something is always to do something. To speak is to act. Words are also works. We never really think too much about our words, but the words we choose and how we speak create a reality around us. Our words can include and embrace, or exclude and push away. They can heal and lift up or they can tear down and humiliate. Our words can force people to live in fear of rejection or they can create community. What we say can affirm and celebrate the dignity of every human being or it can reduce people to labels like “illegals” or “registered sexual offenders.” Our speech, our tweets, our e-mails and our Facebook posts can be filled with poison that only spreads anger and intolerance or they can create a reality that inspire people to invite each other to widen the circle of God’s grace.


          This morning, James speaks to the Church once again and reminds us that you and I have a mandate. We are responsible for the words that slide off our tongues, because our words are also our work. Our faith in Christ becomes visible in and through the words we choose to say to one another. Our speech can offer the Church and the world new possibilities and even summon a world of grace and peace into being. But James warns us to stay attentive, because our words and works of faith are constantly threatened and opposed by the many words and works of exclusion, hate, violence, and death.


          During the height of Apartheid, Senator Robert Kennedy delivered a speech at the University of Cape Town entitled “Ripple of Hope.” Some historians say that was Bobby Kennedy’s greatest speech. Speaking to a large majority of black people who were not free to speak for themselves, Kennedy said, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and… those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”[8]


          I believe James hoped that the words we, followers of Christ, toss into the pool of history will always be the kind of words that create ripples of hope for humankind. James invites the Church today to keep speaking words that will send forth tiny concentric rings that will move outward, spreading the Good News that our tongues can be used to empower, heal, bless, strike against injustice, and keep the church doors open to every human being, especially to those of us who struggle to discipline our tongues so that our words may be good works of life and faith.


          May it be so. Amen.


[1] Mark 7:24-30 & Matthew 15:21-28.

[2] Romans 10:17

[3] James 1:19.

[4] James 1:26.

[5] James 2:12.

[6] James 4:11.


[7] Frederick Buechner. “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC,” p.96. 

Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.

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