Dirty Words sermon series – #1: The Word and the words

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament[a] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice[b] goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens[c] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
    Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;[d]
    do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series
#1 – The Word and the Words
January 4, 2014

You may know the name Ralph Stanley. Stanley is a legend in the music world. He’s a bluegrass and folk singer with a gravelly, haunting voice, and I hear he plays a decent banjo. One of Stanley’s CDs is a two-volume set. One of the volumes is called “Sunday Morning” and has songs about preaching and praying and God and such. The other volume is called “Saturday Night” and has songs about the “real” stuff of life, like working hard, raising kids, taking care of each other, and facing death.

Stanley isn’t the only one who sees a big difference between what we say on Saturday night and what we say on Sunday morning. Chances are a lot of people come to church on Sunday morning because of what they said on Saturday night! And yet, I would argue that the words we speak in the world should inform the words we speak in church, and the words we speak in church should transform the words we speak in the world. In this sermon series, we’re going to look at some of our “churchy” words to see how the world has co-opted and redefined them, words like “sin” and “salvation” and “religious”. We’re then going to seek to restore their biblical meaning and see how we can still speak these Sunday words with relevance and power on Monday through Saturday.

We all know the power our words carry. How many of us, when we were kids, would have rather gotten a spanking than a lecture? My step-father would say, “Kory Thomas, we need to talk,” and I’d say, “Wouldn’t you rather beat me instead?” At least the pain from a spanking fades, but the pain of hearing “I’m disappointed in you” would last a lot longer. We live in a free country where we are allowed to choose any words we want, and that choice is critical. Take the phrase “God hates…” The next word will have a substantial impact. The spoken word is not inherently good, but it is inherently powerful.

I was part of an informal conversation one day after church in Illinois, and we were discussing the upcoming elections. One of the group members, Henry, was known for his extreme political views and his willingness to share them with anyone in earshot. He unleashed a couple quasi-offensive terms to describe one of the candidates. When I spoke up and said, “Henry, I don’t think we need to use that kind of language.” He responded, “Well, it’s not like I called him the N-word.” But he didn’t say “the N-word,” he said the N word. Everyone just stopped and stared at him, and he said defensively, “What? It’s just a word.” The spoken word is not inherently good, but it is inherently powerful.

But along with the danger of words come their beauty and generative power. Remember in Genesis God said, “Let there be light.” God spoke the world into being. Words are the wombs from which rich symbolism and uplifting humor – and puns! – are born. Words have the power to create as much as they do destroy. Just ask anyone who has said the words, “I do,” or has heard the words, “You’re hired,” or has been told, “I love you.” Words are powerful, so we must be judicious in how we choose to speak them.

I used to teach a public speaking class at a community college, and in each class the students were required to give a speech in which they had to demonstrate something. I called this their deMONstrative speech, but several of my students made fun of me because they said I was pronouncing it wrong. They said it’s actually called a demonSTRATive speech, because they were demonstrating something. I assured them in a very gentle way they were wrong and would fail my class miserably and would probably go to Hell for arguing with a pastor. I told them their problem was they were putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle.

That’s what has happened with some of the words of the Christian faith. The culture around us has lifted them from the pages of the Bible and redefined them, skewing their meaning and putting the em-PHA-sis in the wrong place. The words, which have traditionally been an important part of understanding our faith, no longer mean what we want them to mean. Their fundamental nature and use has been changed. Words like sacrifice, obedience, sin – words that help us articulate who we are, what we believe, and what we are called do – have taken on predominantly un-Christian meanings.

The precedent for this linguistic misuse isn’t a modern phenomenon; it actually can be traced back to biblical times. Modern-day mis-users of God’s word are in good company. The disciples misunderstood Jesus so often in the gospels that you wonder if they were hard of hearing. Jesus compares the Jewish religious leaders with agitating yeast and the disciples think he’s reprimanding them for forgetting to stop at the store and buy bread. Jesus tells his followers he must die and then three days later be RAISED FROM THE DEAD in the GREATEST MIRACLE in HUMAN HISTORY, and Peter says incredulously, “Wait! You’re going to die?” If Jesus’ words were hard to comprehend when he was within earshot, how can we expect to preserve their meaning 2000 years later?

But the passing of time is no excuse for a lapse in attention to the meaning of our spiritual vocabulary. While the cultural context and methods of interpretation may change, God’s word is timeless and cannot be radically rewritten to suit every generation. A sin is a sin is a sin, whether it was committed in 15 or 1015 or 2015. We can try to dress up these words in pastel-colored adjectives to soften their impact, but at their core, the words of the Bible are still, as Hebrews says, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides the soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”

That’s why this time together each week is so important for us. Our conversation together in worship, the words we use, are crucial for us as we think about the power of words and the link between Saturday night and Sunday morning. We may not think there’s a connection. Maybe we would rather not let the two intermingle. “I’ll keep my Sunday words like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘Thy will be done’ right where they belong.” Let’s keep Saturday night and Sunday morning separate. We may be like comedian Flip Wilson, who said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Bystander. They wanted me to become a Jehovah’s Witness but I didn’t want to get involved.”

But Jesus, the Logos, the Word made flesh, got involved, coming to earth to speak to us words of hope and peace, and so we are called to also get involved by speaking and living the language of faith. We are called to pay attention to the relationship between Saturday night and Sunday morning so that we can bridge the language gap between the two. Preaching professor Thomas Long says that “perceiving the reciprocity between Saturday night and Sunday morning enables us to worship as people who have real lives and to live as people who are in worship relationship to God.” Worship is the language school of God, our dress-rehearsal for the drama of the Monday-to-Saturday world, where we learn to speak words that have the power to transform our lives and the lives of those around us.

That means when we leave this place, the words we speak stay with us and as we speak them, the places we go become holy places. Our homes become sanctuaries, our jobs become places of ministry. For example, when faced with an ecological crisis, we may not recite the psalm that says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that’s in it,” but we live out that language in our responses and actions. We may not repeat, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” but we say those words in how we treat the day and each other. We may not quote the prophet Micah, who says, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” but we speak those words when we seek to live them out in our communities. As we let the language of worship saturate us, as we let it permeate our own vocabulary, we offer the world a different language than the one of greed and destruction and violence.

This is not a small issue. We have some work to do to reclaim words like “obedience” and “suffering,” because those words have been real turn-offs in the larger culture when it comes to faith. “Those Christians, always talking about ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’.” But these words and many like them are essential to understanding our faith and how to live it out. The Bible is drenched with these words, so we should pay attention to what they originally meant when they were spoken by the biblical authors. We’ll tackle this problem like we’d tackle eating an elephant: one bite, one word, at a time.

When we worship together, we pray and we respond and we read scripture and we hear sermons so that all of us may be inspired by the Spirit of God to go out into the world and do what we talk about. Sometimes it is hard to take those words with us; it would be easier to leave them in the sanctuary. But it is up to us, you and me, to give them life. To make them come alive, to give those words true meaning, we must embody them, we must be doers of the words we speak and hear. When we show what it means to love, to forgive, to be gracious, we move beyond the limits of our language to the infinite reach of God’s love. In a world filled with words that tear down, we need more words that build up, that light up the darkness of our world. We speak and listen to those powerful words each Sunday. This is not the end of the conversation. It should only be the beginning.

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