I preached this sermon this morning. It was our "welcome back" Sunday--the start of the Sunday School year, and there was a picnic afterwards. The scripture texts are James 3:1-12 and Psalm 19. Comments, as always, are welcome and encouraged!
When I was in college, I took a course called “Language and Culture.” We explored language from an anthropological viewpoint, and looked at how language shapes society and vice versa. One term I particularly remember studying was “Ground Zero;” I took the class in the fall of 2001. We also studied a linguistic phenomenon that traces its roots back about half a century, but has really established itself in our lexicon and culture during the past 20 years or so: political correctness.
To be politically correct is to use the right words, ostensibly in an attempt not to offend anyone. I have often heard critics of political correctness say, “They’re just words. It doesn’t matter.”
I have heard the same argument used to try and discourage the use of inclusive language in church. “Well, when we say ‘He’ for God, we don’t really mean that God’s a man. It’s just a word.”
“They’re just words.” Are they? Are the words we choose to use really so insignificant? After all, “actions speak louder than words,” right? And “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Right?
What about what James is saying? James seems to think differently; he stresses how important words are. In his somewhat strange exposition on taming the tongue, he stresses that though a small part of our body, the tongue wields a mighty power. “The tongue is a small member; yet it boasts of great exploits.”But how big? James writes that great forests are set ablaze by a small fire, and the tongue is a fire…but really, how big a fire can we start just by speaking? Well, I’d like to suggest that the words we use have tremendous power, and like James says, we need to choose whether we use our mouths for blessing or cursing.
The Psalm that Ken read a few minutes ago celebrates God’s creation, God speaking the world into being. This world is shaped by God’s words. We exist, as one writer puts it, “in God’s spoken world.”
Now, last week, when I did “The Box” with the children, Harmon put in a mirror, and I reminded everyone that we are all created in God’s image. During our prayer, I mentioned that as images of a creator God, we, too, are creators.“Day to day pours forth speech,” the Psalmist writes, “and night to night declares knowledge.” God speaks, and the gloriousness of the world is created.
Like God, we create worlds with our words. We speak worlds into being. Author Dan Clendenin writes, “With our words we name the world and each other, and at least in some sense our naming creates a genuine reality. Once our speech and narratives take hold, they can have tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. They can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down.”[i]
Words can hurt. I remember when I was a little girl, if my younger sister and I argued, I knew there was one word I could call her that would just devastate her, that would make me win the fight. I knew its power to hurt her, and I only used it when I felt I “had” to. To this day I regret it. I’m sure she remembers it just as well as I do. How many of you remember words you said, or were said to you from many years ago—for good or bad? Maybe one teacher called you an artist, and it was her voice you heard as you took the risks to create. Maybe one kid called you a loser, and you still struggle with feeling like an outcast.Of course, there are those words that are so powerful in their hurt that I wouldn’t even consider speaking them aloud, not even to talk about them. The damage that has been done with them is too deep.
So let’s go back for a moment to the use of inclusive language in churches. At my seminary we called it Pentecost language, in celebration of the understanding that occurred between all the people from different places. Why use Pentecost language? Why does it matter if we call God “He” all the time? Because by using exclusively masculine language, we speak into being a world in which the feminine is forgotten, made second-class, or simply not “the norm.” To use Dan Clendenin’s terms, we are excluding rather than embracing.If we look at James again, we see he particularly addresses those who would want to be teachers. Teachers are in positions of power, see. If we equate that power with privilege, we see again how this applies to our own lives. Just as teachers must be even more careful of what they say, so do we who are in positions of privilege in this society and this world. Because historically, it is those with privilege who get to choose the words, and therefore choose what the world will be like. And when I say privileged, I don’t mean “rich.” Some examples of the privileged: white, male, employed, housed, living in the northern hemisphere, Christian (in our country anyway), heterosexual, English-speaking, healthy. Just to name a few.
So how do we speak of others, particularly those less powerful and less privileged than ourselves? Do we speak a world which recognizes and affirms our common humanity, the unique reflection of God that we each offer? Or do we throw out a label, relegating them to be “other” than us? Do we allow them to name the world, to speak a reality into being?
Of course, one of the consequences of political correctness, and one of the dangers of James’ warnings is that people can get so worried about offending someone, of not saying the “right” words that they don’t speak at all. This is particularly true in race relations. The people with privilege, white people, often don’t know how to talk about people who aren’t white. Are they Black, African-American, or Afro-American? Hispanic or Latino? People of color or minorities? (Just a hint: ask, and don’t expect everyone to give you the same answer). We don’t want to offend, so we don’t talk. We act “color-blind.” We think everything is all hunky dory and wonder why people still bring up “race issues.”Ok, well, words can create worlds, but not speaking the words does not make reality go away. James doesn’t say “the tongue can do evil, so don’t speak!” He warns caution, but we shouldn’t be so cautious that we forego the good for fear of the bad.
My senior year of college, I started a program called “Courageous Conversations.” I wanted to create a safe forum for tough conversations about race and culture and other touchy subjects. One of the guidelines was that it was ok to say “ouch.” This allowed people to speak openly and honestly, and if someone said something hurtful there could be a response as to what it was and why it hurt (instead of just “don’t say that!”)The morning before my first meeting, I received a call from another student. The campus concert of a popular reggae artist had been cancelled by the administration after protests from the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) student organization about some lyrics in one of his songs. The student wanted to know if I would change the topic of my meeting. I agreed on the condition that it would not specifically be about the concert, but instead on the general topic of conflict between different minority groups. He agreed.
That night, about 75 people showed up, not only from my school, but from the college across the street, and not just students, but administrators, faculty, and staff, including the dean of students. The conversation lasted two hours, and there were a lot of “ouches,” some raised voices, and even a good amount of tears. But people were able to speak, and were heard. It was tough, and not everyone heeded James’ warning, but understanding arose. If people had kept quiet, the conflict would’ve festered and created more hurt and destruction.
So how do we find the courage to use words for good, to speak into reality a world of love and justice and reconciliation? Where do we get the power to allow blessings to flow from our mouths rather than curses?
To explain I need to come down from the pulpit.
We, and many other congregations, hear it every week. Pastor Mike and I offer a prayer before we preach, the prayer that ended today’s Psalm. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” We ask God for help. How would the worlds we speak be different if we said this prayer every morning before one word passed through our lips? If we stopped for a moment before a conversation?In our worship planning meeting this week, John reminded us that the Psalms are not “lessons,” are not really meant to be just read. So, in deference to him, let me suggest you might sing this prayer as well. The groups “Sweet Honey in the Rock” sings a version of “Waters of Babylon,” which includes this prayer.
I’m getting over a cold, so I will do my best to share the Psalm 19 portion of the song with you. I’ll sing it through once, and then I invite you to join in as you learn it.
Let the words of my mouth
And the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in thy sight, o God.
[i] Clendenin, Dan, “Taming the Tongue,” The Journey with Jesus, http://journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20090907JJ.shtml, accessed 12 September 2009.