Words matter

A sermon at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A


Words matter. Language matters. Throughout our history, human communication has taken place increasingly through language, through words. Since God paraded the animals before Adam so that the human could give them names, we have named and labelled every new idea and thought and sub-creation that has sprung from our inspired imaginations.

Words have power: God’s words spoke creation into being. On the other hand, our language fell apart and lost itself to translation among the crumbling ruins of our original vanity project, the tower of Babel. But then, the Word of God, Jesus Christ spoke salvation into a fallen world.

Words are not the only means that we have of communication, of course. A wise man once told me that while humans have acquired more and more language, our communication skills have not necessarily increased in proportion. We see that whenever diplomacy devolves into war, wherever walls are created in place of bridges. We see that in the caveats around online conversations: that it’s hard to read tone through a backlit screen; that when the softening effects of body language are lost, words meant to unite us can devolve into division.

Maybe you, as I, grew up with the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We all knew it wasn’t true; the ones with bravely trembling lips and the bullies who drew the lie out of us. Words have power.

The language we use between ourselves and God matters. The language we use for one another speaks volumes about our ability to love our neighbour, our enemy, to recognize the image of God, the dignity of every human being. The language we use for God speaks comfort, or judgement, or awe, or longing, or all of the above. As James wrote elsewhere, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5b-6a) Where it has scalded, Jesus says, go and heal the hurt with soothing words. While at its best, we may cry out, “O for a thousand tongues to sing, My great Redeemer’s praise” (Charles Wesley).

Language matters, Jesus agrees: If you insult or defame your brother or sister or sibling, you are wounding the image of God within them, you are destroying something important and potentially irretrievable.

Even reading Jesus’ words, through layers and levels of translation, interpretation, copying and curation, miles and millennia away from the originals, we find ourselves brought up short, wondering what in heaven and on earth he might have meant.

He cannot, we feel, have really been recommending the removal of eyes and limbs (or tongues) for the good of the soul. Becoming less than whole for the sake of holiness just doesn’t ring true. When one of my children was in third grade, several centuries ago, their teacher threatened the class that if he caught them penning words except in cursive, he would cut off their arms at the elbow with a rusty pair of scissors. It took a while to convince an eight-year-old with a very active imagination that the teacher was not telling the absolute truth, even though it seemed obvious among adults; but if even wicked teachers would not chop off their students’ lazy or clumsy or undeveloped hands, how much more will your Father in heaven, or Jesus, the good teacher, have mercy on your wandering eye, your hasty mouth, your itchy hand, to paraphrase something Jesus said elsewhere?

But if we are able to extend the grace of hyperbole, exaggeration to those instructions, why have we, as a church, in other times drawn that grace back when it comes to the instruction about divorce? How do we decide what is hyperbolic and what to take as the letter of the law? Always we are making choices about interpretation, how we hear the words that are cast our way; and the less context, the less human contact we have around them, the easier it is to lose in their translation the undercurrent, Jesus’ underlying love, the tone that tunes all of his gospel to us, for us.

Jesus, at the end of this portion of his sermon, argues ironically for simplicity of expression: Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No;” but we can hardly leave it there and sit for the rest of our service in silence, can we?

You asked me here today to talk about Jesus, but also to talk about liturgy, and especially its language. The language of our common prayer, like any other, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is interpreted and echoed by ritual and response, by the experiences and echoes that we bring with us from the breadth of our lives. It is run through the simultaneous translator device of our memory, of conversations we have had with those whom we love and with whom we argue. It runs up against the fences of our tradition, and the open gates of our imagination.

R.S. Thomas, twentieth-century Anglican priest and poet, said once in an interview that,

… in any case, poetry is religion, religion is poetry. The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet …; and when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity, and when one discusses Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects. [1]

John Keble, nineteenth-century priest, professor, and poet wrote a century or so earlier that,

If we suppose Poetry in general to mean the expression of an overflowing mind, relieving itself more or less indirectly and reservedly, of the thoughts and passions which most oppress it: … – if this be so, what follows will not perhaps be thought altogether an unwarrantable conjecture; proposed, as it ought, and is wished to be, with all fear and religious reverence. May it not, then, be so, that our Blessed LORD, in union and communion with all his members… may it not be affirmed that He condescends … to have a Poetry of His own, a set of holy and divine associations and meanings, wherewith it is His will to invest all material things,” [2]

Material things, that is, such as words spoken by tongue and teeth, breath made solid by meaning, Word incarnate.

Words are not the only way that we communicate or pray, but words do give shape and structure to our prayer, to our knowledge of God and of one another. Words name reality and shape our imaginations. We cannot use them as idols, nor can they bring us all the way to the realm of God – the Babel story taught us that. Where words fail us, may the Spirit intervene with sighs too deep for words. Where they have hurt, may we be given words to heal. Where we find the words to worship in spirit and in truth, may we join with a thousand thousand tongues to sing our Redeemer’s praise. But our words are not only one concrete way that we speak to one another and to God in love; they are at least one instrument of God’s creating and saving grace to us. Jesus, the very Word of God, has taught us that much.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:1-4)

[1] A 1972 BBC interview with John Ormond was broadcast April 1972, and its transcript published in Poetry Wales; accessed here as quoted by William V. Davis, in R.S. Thomas, Poetry and Theology (Baylor University Press, 2007), p. 43

[2] John Keble, On the mysticism attributed to the early fathers of the Church, “Tracts for the Times” Vol. 6, no. 89, p. 144, accessed via Google Books 2/13-15/2020

Image: “Adam Naming the Animals,” from the Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Sister Haggadah’), 14th century, British Library collection via wikimedia commons. Public domain.

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