Words are powerful
(Here is my sermon from yesterday in response to Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11. You can find the entire service at www.stephenlc.org).
Martin Luther is quoted as saying that you are not only responsible for what you say, but also what you do not say. Important words on a day like today. One that should humble any preacher who ascends to a pulpit after a horrific event. Silence on a day like today is not an option. I would be committing pastoral malpractice and violating my ordination vows if I remained silent today.
Words are powerful. Very powerful. And they have consequences. Words have the power to create, to name, and to claim. Sometimes what they create is deadly and destructive. And what they name is dehumanizing.
Just ask someone who is LGBTQ+ how words have impacted their life. Or maybe ask a black man or woman about some of the words that have been used to describe them. Do you think they aren’t affected by words? And that’s not counting the words that have been used to forge policies and laws that have devalued so many people over the centuries.
Words can cause people to end relationships, quit a job that they needed, and words have caused separation and division in church bodies. Words have perpetuated hatred and violence.
Words can be deadly – causing wars and conflicts that cost people their lives, their health, and so much more.
Make no mistake, words uttered from a number of people in positions of authority and influence, including the President, those closest to him, and sitting Senators, riled up a crowd on Wednesday and turned them into an angry mob that stormed the US Capitol, causing great tragedy. Words like “Let’s have a trial by combat,” and that the crowd needed to “exercise combat justice.” Words like “we’re coming for you!” and chants of “Traitor” from the crowd for various officials. All done with the co-opting of Christian symbols and signs with words like Jesus Saves on them, all the while waving the Confederate Flag. The contrast in those messages could not be starker. This is not what Jesus is about. Words have consequences.
Beyond the physical damage to the Capitol building, greater damage was done with the death of five people, including a Capitol Police Officer trying to defend the building and our elected Senators and Members of Congress and their staff. And we can’t even begin to know the long-term damage that has been done to our system of government, our reputation as a beacon of democracy, and the long-held healthy traditions of peaceful transition of power which have marked this nation as one that others could look up to.
There are no words that can defend these actions or the words that were used to incite people to such action. There are no words to justify them. There are no words that excuse this. There are no what about isms. There are no words that can or should deflect from what happened.
But we should remember, words are powerful. The words that we use to respond to such tragedy are just as important as the words used to create the chaos. What words will we use, individually, as a community, a church, and a nation? Words that only blame and punish? Or words that look much deeper knowing that what happened didn’t just arise last week, but has been building for a long, long time? Do we use words to futher separate and divide and push people away from society an into the arms of those who feed on fear and anger? Or do we use words that seek to humanize ourselves and those caught in the bondage of fear and hatred?
It was with a word that God created. God spoke and it came into being. The entire creation story plays this out. That’s how powerful words are. We hear God say, “Let there be light.” And it happened. And there wasn’t even a functionary there yet to provide that light. Did you even notice that about this passage? Day one – the creation of light. Separating light from darkness. But it’s not until day four that the sun and the moon are created. Light comes into existence because God spoke words. God didn’t need anything else. That’s how powerful words are. Or maybe better and more accurately said, that’s how powerful God’s words are.
And God’s word didn’t stop at creation. We hear more in our Gospel today. It’s the baptism of Jesus. We hear about Jesus going to the Jordan. The story is almost a match with the creation story, if we hear the words. We’re told that the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep in Genesis. In other words, it was a watery chaotic mess.
In the Gospel, Jesus goes into the Jordan River – certainly not the cleanest water you’ll ever find. In a way, it was a watery chaotic mess that Jesus plunges into. A step back of sorts. The Word made flesh goes into the watery abyss. The word that was there at creation – the original watery chaotic abyss. The word that separated the light from the dark. The word that creates.
The baptism of Jesus is a preview of his crucifixion and death. He is submerged into the chaotic abyss – a symbolic form of death. And then emerges up out of the water – a symbolic type of resurrection. And it as that moment that the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends on him like a dove. And we hear the word of a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” With a word, Jesus is labeled and claimed. Powerful words – Son. Beloved. With you I am well pleased. God’s words are powerful.
Which is why the liturgy is full of words – words that matter and are powerful. It’s why our faith is grounded and shared with words. Words that literally change lives, congregations, communities, and nations. Words have the power to do that. God’s words have the power to do that.
Words are powerful. Ask anyone who has ever stood at the altar and said two little words – I do. Your life has forever been changed because of these two simple, small words.
In confession and forgiveness, we speak words that acknowledge the truth about ourselves and the systems we are a part of. The confession isn’t just a bunch of words we say quickly and without meaning so that we can move on with the worship. No, the confession is vitally important. It comes at the beginning because the confession gives us words to acknowledge the sin that has a hold of us and that we cannot free ourselves from. The confession gives us words to acknowledge that because of this sin, we are separated from God and others. How can we possibly go on with the rest of worship, hearing God’s word, taking in Communion, the body and blood Jesus, if we are separated from God and others?
The confession is about us emptying everything into Jesus. About acknowledging with words our sin and brokenness – both individually and corporately. And with words we hear the most amazing news – that we are forgiven and set free. Those are powerful words. They aren’t my words. If they were, they wouldn’t be powerful. Forgiveness is God’s word. That’s why it is powerful. That’s why confession is important.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s horrific events, I heard this phrase said over and over again – “This isn’t who we are.” No, it’s not the ideal of who we are, that’s for sure. It doesn’t match up with what we claim in our American creed and ideals. But it is very much a part of who we actually are if we are honest with ourselves and willing to confess the sin that we are held in bondage to. History shows that this is a part of who we are unfortunately. The very same paintings in the Capitol Rotunda that was overrun by the angry mob depict this part of our history albeit in a romanticized way. This isn’t the first angry mob that caused death and destruction. This isn’t the first riot. This isn’t the first time that nooses have been erected at capitals in our nation. Angry mobs have a long history in this nation.
Usually the targets are African American, or Asian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Mexican, or some other ethnic group. Confession isn’t easy. In fact, confession can be downright painful. Because we are being forced to look in the mirror and we don’t like what we see. Nor should we. But if we don’t acknowledge and confess that what happened on Wednesday is a clear sign of how our nation is in bondage to sin, then we’ll never heal. We’ll never move on. We’ll never recover. We’ll never reach those ideals that we claim – good, healthy ideals that we should want to move towards.
Can we confess that we have serious sins in this country and in the American church? Long, deep seated sins that hold us in bondage and that we have never dealt with, let alone fully acknowledged? This is what confession is about. And that’s not just true for the nation, but also for Christianity in America. We’ve never really dealt with racism in this nation or in our churches. I think we are too afraid to and we don’t know how to. Can we at least confess that we are scared?
We’ve never really dealt with white supremacy or white nationalism in our nation or our churches. Can we confess that we don’t know how?
We’ve never really dealt with the rabid partisan polarization that has seemingly taken the place of religious faith to the point that if one is not pure enough in their loyalty to party, they are cast as enemies to be destroyed. Can we confess that this is not healthy, does not end well, and does not match up with what it means to follow Jesus?
We’ve never really dealt with economic disparities and systems that keep people in the bondage to poverty – both in our nation and in our churches. Can we confess that we are worried about what a change would mean for us, our money, and our ways of life?
Or are we too afraid to let go of these sins that are drowning us in a watery chaotic abyss? Do we actually believe that God can free us from these things?
Until that confession happens, it doesn’t matter what words we say or what ideals we espouse. We’ll be held in bondage and cannot free ourselves. And as a result, we will not hear God’s word clearly. We will not fully share in fellowship of a meal whose purpose is to form community around Jesus and his ways. We will not be sent out because we won’t hear Jesus’ mission for our lives and our community. Sin will keep us separated from God and others. We shouldn’t want to be separated from God or others. We should desire union with God and community with others.
Words are powerful. They change lives, congregations, communities, and nations.
God’s words do that. In a short bit we’ll hear God’s words in the consecration of the elements. It is one of the most humbling portions of worship – to speak God’s words when the bread and the wine or grape juice are lifted up. The elements become the Body and Blood of Christ – the word made flesh. The words of consecration aren’t my words. They are Jesus’ words. Spoken on the night he was handed over and killed. They are powerful words that change not only the elements, but us, and our church, and our community. God’s words do that.
And it is God’s word that we hear in baptism. Baptism is water and word taken together – God’s word. It is taking us into, through, and out of the watery chaotic abyss and hearing God’s word that marks us and changes us forever – that pulls us out of the chaotic abyss of sin and death. These are not my words. They are God’s words. That is why they are powerful. That is why they change people’s lives.
In baptism we acknowledge who we belong to. And with words we renounce ways not in alignment with God. This isn’t new. We’ve done this many times before. We are asked Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them. Do you?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you away from God? I renounce them. Do you?
What happened on Wednesday was not in alignment with God and God’s ways. It was not what it means to be a follower of Jesus. All you have to do is look at the tragic results. I renounce what happened on Wednesday.
Words can build up or destroy. God has always been a God who brings order out of chaos – all with a word. Jesus’ way is about being a peacemaker in the midst of chaos and confusion – all with a word. Jesus is the word made flesh. And no matter what happens. No matter how many destructive words are spoken, words that dehumanize and degrade, words that separate and destroy. No matter how many of these words are uttered, they will never be as powerful as God’s words. They will never be able to create anything. They will always be an attempt to reestablish the watery chaotic abyss. And those ways will fail.
But God speaks. And order comes out of chaos. God speaks and life is established and sustained. God speaks and we are marked as children of God, a part of God’s family. God speaks and we fully share in fellowship of the meal together in community. God speaks and we are sent out to proclaim this good news to all. God speaks and things change. We change. Our churches change. Our nation changes.
Words are powerful. And words have consequences. Words lead us either to death or life. God’s words are powerful. They lead to life. Thanks be to God. Amen. Amen. Amen.