Sermon for December 1, 2019: Words Matter (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5

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Every week in Grace Notes, our online newsletter, we post a Scripture of the Week. This week it was hard to choose, as today’s readings contain some of the most beautiful – and quotable – lines in all of scripture. These words have been used to comfort, to arouse, and to extol. Sadly, some of them have also been used to enrage, exclude, and to judge. Many of us were raised with the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – but the fact is that words can hurt; words do hurt. Words have tremendous power – especially words of Holy Scripture.


In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published a book called, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” This book suggested that individuals could use affirmations such as, “Picture yourself as succeeding; Minimize obstacles; [and] believe that you receive power from God” to ensure success and happiness. This book was extremely popular and continues to influence many powerful individuals in this country. Peale presented his “positive thinking” method as both psychological and theological, inserting biblical quotes throughout the work to demonstrate what he saw as its consistency with religious (specifically Christian) thought. Theologians like Edmund Fuller did not agree with this. Fuller cautioned readers “not to believe Peale just because he was a minister. He wrote that Peale’s books have no connection to Christianity and that they ‘influence, mislead and often disillusion sick, maladjusted, unhappy or ill-constructed people, obscuring for them the Christian realities. They offer easy comforts, easy solutions to problems and mysteries that sometimes perhaps, have no comforts or solutions at all, in glib, worldly terms. They offer a cheap ‘happiness’ in lieu of the joy Christianity can offer.”[1]


Isaiah would agree. In today’s Hebrew scripture, he speaks of God’s word – God’s vision. Note that Isaiah does not simply hear the word; he sees it. “God shares the word with God’s people, and they not only listen to the word, but also ‘behold the word.’”[2] Isaiah understands that God’s words are not just representations of ideas, but real promises – promises that, in God’s time, have already been fulfilled. Believing in God’s word depends not on the power of our own thinking, but in recognizing the power of God. This is what allows us to hope – to wait patiently and expectantly for the time when the people will study war no more.


But when will that time be? In his letter to the Romans, Paul suggests that it is imminent. “In the early years of the Christian movement, believers lived with a sense of real anticipation. The promises they read in the Hebrew Scriptures seemed tangible; the reign of God and all that it meant for cosmic ‘regime change’ seemed close at hand. When they prayed (daily), ‘Thy kingdom come…they were looking forward to that happening within their own lifetimes.”[3] But this did not happen – and it has not happened in the two thousand years since, which has led many people to give up on God’s promises, instead believing that they will be fulfilled by earthly power and pleasures.


That’s what happens when we think too much about ourselves – when we fail to recognize that God’s words do not refer to individuals, but to communities. “God’s word, indeed God’s law, is not the exclusive right of any particular people, but is ‘spoken’ for all who stream toward the mountain of God.”[4] But we have to go together. If we wish to see God’s promised future, we must move as a community toward God’s holy mountain – and that means living in love as Jesus did. It means we can’t go until we are willing to take everyone who needs God along with us.


It requires vigilance. In this noisy world in which we are bombarded by messages telling us that it is okay to exploit others; that it is not our business to defend those who are not like us, it is easy to get confused, but Matthew’s gospel is very clear; we must be ready, for our savior comes when we are least expecting him. And we get ready by acting like him; by seeking to see him through our actions toward others. “One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned.”[5]


We have scripture to tell us how to act, how to be bearers and examples of the word – but with different spiritual and secular leaders telling us different things, how are we to separate out God’s authentic word from those constructed by humans for human purposes? The answer is actually quite simple. As our Presiding Bishop says: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” God’s word, both in vision and action is always about love – our love for God, God’s love for us, and the love God wants us to have for one another.


This is at the core of how Jesus told his disciples to talk to God when they asked him how we should pray. The outline for prayer that Jesus gave them – which we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” – begins with an address to God …, continues with petitions which ask God to act in a way which would achieve his purposes, and then has petitions which ask for God’s help.”[6] It is a practical prayer, which reflects God’s desire for his creation to get everything we need to do her will. It also, and more importantly, reflects God’s love for us.

Knowing what we mean when we are praying is important, as is all of the language we use to talk to and about God. We must continually assess the way we talk to God if we want to understand God- if we want to know when something is truly God’s word or if it has been corrupted and co-opted by human beings for human gain. It is part of how we can stand ready, living in hope rather than fear as we await Christ’s return.


Because words are important, the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer retranslated the Lord’s Prayer from the biblical text. Part of what they did was to address a theological misrepresentation in the existing Prayer Book: the scriptural phrase “lead us not into temptation.” As Christians we believe that God would never willingly tempt us to do wrong, so the phrase was changed to “save us from the time of trial,” which is consistent with our belief that as human beings we experience trials, but these are not tests from God.


Small textual differences like these not only remind us but demonstrate to others what we believe – whether our words identify God as merciful and loving or judgmental and cruel, whether the words we use in speaking to God imitate Jesus’s compassion and generosity, and whether they encourage us to act out of fear or faith. This is why we have decided that the people of Grace should be afforded the opportunity to say either the more accurately translated 1979 version of the Lord’s Prayer or continue to recite the more familiar version. That’s why both versions are printed in the bulletin. I encourage you to take this opportunity to consider not only how you speak to God when reciting this familiar prayer, but in all of your words of worship and praise. During this season in which we prepare to greet the Word made flesh, let us pray that our words accurately reflect our willingness to receive the God of hope, promise, and love. AMEN.’


[1]Edmund Fuller, quoted in “Wikipedia,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Positive_Thinking