The Power of Words

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here: 

In mid-January, our Adult Education Classes will begin a study and discussion of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Re-reading Eliot made me pick up other Eliot, and I reread one of my favorite Eliot works, the play, “Murder in the Cathedral.”

As many know, “Murder in the Cathedral” retells the story of the power struggle between the 12th century King of England, Henry II, and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Becket’s feast day is this Tuesday, December 29, the anniversary of the day in which he was killed in Canterbury Cathedral. In the various historical and legendary accounts, it seems as though Thomas dies because of a word. A word misplaced by the king. A word mis-spoken. A word mis-heard. Though tensions between Thomas and Henry had been brewing, the story is that a word (or a few words) said in frustration by the king were interpreted by the king’s men as a desire to have Thomas killed. A “word” killed Thomas Becket.

Words matter. They can and do hurt. A little girl thinks she is ugly, does so only because someone has called her ugly. A little boy thinks he’s dumb, not because he is, but because someone has called him dumb. Words shape us. If we were to look back over our lives, I’m sure we could recall times when a word has stuck us as a weapon almost, and it has hurt. Perhaps just as painfully, in a spirit of confession, I bet most of us could recall a time when we’ve used words as weapons and hurt others.

Words can hurt, but words just as surely can heal. A well-chosen and well-placed word can offer encouragement, hope and life. I remember well the morning of my ordination to the priesthood. There were seven of us to be ordained. Our families, friends, and parishes had all gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We were already nervous when the Canon for Liturgy asked all of us seven to meet the bishop in a side chapel. We immediately wondered if someone’s paperwork had not come through, or if there were some scandal brewing that no one knew about. Every conceivable problem went through our minds. And then the bishop came into the chapel.

Taking a deep breath, he prefaced his remarks as you might imagine—commenting on the gravity of the day, the ontological change about to take place in our souls, the life for which we would be responsible for living in the future, and then he said, “So, I have something to say to you that I hope you’ll remember. Be nice.” Just a couple of words—well- chosen words that I complete fail at remembering or living out—but words I aim for.

It is no coincidence that our Biblical account of creation happens by a word. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God said, Let there be this, and let there be that, and after each thing was created, God spoke a single word again: “Good,” God said, “It’s all very, very good.”

The Word was busy, shaping and making and proclaiming and blessing. The Gospel of John picks up on this power of a word to create. “In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “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. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….And the Word became flesh.”

When John speaks of the “Word,” the Greek term he uses is Logos, and Logos meant more than just a word, more even than all words put together. Way back in Greek philosophy, in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus said that the Logos “governs all things.” And yet, the Logos is also present in the everyday. Later, the Stoics took up the idea of the Logos and used it to mean the principle that orders the universe. So when John uses Logos, or Word, he’s using a term that would have worked as a kind of hyperlink, culturally. To say that the Word was with God and the Word was God, and then to say that this Word, this ordering principle of the universe is completely summed up in Jesus of Nazareth, John was pulling together a lot of different ways of understanding the world. He was describing in his context, what it meant for God to be born in the world. John used a word to bring together different worlds.

While Jesus was born once in the event we celebrate at Christmas, he is also born again and again in our own lives and in our world wherever we make his love known. One way we can bring Christ into our world in through our words.

Just as we know words can hurt, so, through the love of Christ, our words can take on
additional power to heal, to love, and to lift up. Guided by the Holy Spirit, our words can do much more than simply offer kindness, though in our world, that is no small thing. But even more, informed and influenced by the Spirit, our words can offer life and love to those who may have forgotten how such words even sound.

As we look toward a new year, I’m hoping to watch my words very carefully. I’m going to be praying that my words might help and heal rather than criticize or tear down. I invite you also to think about your words, pray about your words, and may God guide us all to speak truth, to speak for justice and to speak in love.

May God be in our head, and in our understanding;
God be in our eyes, and in our looking;
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking;
God be in our heart, and in our thinking;
God be at our end, and at our departing.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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