Speech is a thread that runs through all three of our lessons today. In the first reading, the young Jeremiah, summoned by God to be a prophet, resists the call saying that he is too young, and does not know how to speak. Then Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, reminds them that words without love are like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And finally Jesus, back in his hometown of Nazareth, observes that what a prophet has to say is seldom heard in his home town.
As we begin to move toward Lent (now only ten days away), we are today starting to pass out of that long liturgical cycle in which we have heard over and over again about the importance of the Word: the word spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel; the word made flesh, Jesus, her son; the word spread abroad in Jesus’ preaching ministry.
And at the same time, in our nation’s political cycle, we are about to move into the voting phase of the primary season. Leading up to tomorrow’s first caucuses, we have been drowning in a tide of speech: candidate debates, TV attack ads, endless analyses by pundits, op-ed pieces in the paper … Words have been in no short supply, and the flood is not likely to let up for a very long time! And yet the sheer abundance of words assaulting our ears may leave us a bit numb, perhaps with a sense that beneath them all there is a lack of real substance and leadership, such that they seem not to ring true.
So on this Sunday next before Lent, and a day before the first votes are cast, we might ask the question of whether we have anything to learn from our scripture lessons today about language itself, and how to use it?
One approach to engaging that question would be to go back in our mind to the very beginning, “in the beginning,” when God created heaven and earth. Do you remember how it is that God brings creation into existence? It is through speech: “God said, ‘Let there be light; let there be firmament; let there be the waters, and let there be the dry land.’” The account of creation in Genesis is insistent upon the idea that everything that is, came into being through an act of speech—God’s own speech.
So when the Genesis story culminates in describing humankind as being made in God’s own image, the implication is that we (like God), have the creative power of speech woven into the nature of who we are as human beings. The biblical vision of humanity is that speech—and its interior corollary, thought—is the way in which we know ourselves by expressing our selves. And through language, we have the power to create—to create community, to create relationship, to create meaning. Such speech is what most distinguishes us from the other creatures—whether it is in the form of the spoken word, or communication through sign, symbol, or sound. No wonder that Jeremiah is so overwhelmed when God calls him to speak the word of the Lord: what greater dignity, but also what greater responsibility, could there be?
So let’s take this biblical emphasis upon the creative power of speech, and reflect for a moment on how speech is used in our own experience of it. I don’t think I need to convince you of how speech has come to be used as a method of division and accusation in popular and political discourse. In this election season, we are all too aware of that already.
But the larger point, I think, is that the acrimony and hostility of the discourse going into this election are really only symptomatic of a creeping cultural diminishment in our use of language. It is astounding to read some of the vitriol that people feel entitled to post on the internet, about most anyone or any subject—religious websites such as The Episcopal Café not being excepted. We seem as a culture to have become habituated to the idea that we are entitled to say whatever we wish, whenever and however we choose to do so.
The question, though, is what are the consequences of such unbridled speech? If we remember that the biblical concept of speech is that it is a creative act, that would suggest that we need to pay close attention to the fact that what we say, we also create. When we express anger, we create anger. When we express hate, we create hate. Or on the other hand, when we express concern, we create concern. When we express love, we create love. Speech is productive, and as a result, the Bible consistently cautions us about how we use it, urging upon us a restraint and reticence in what we choose to say. As the epistle of James warns, “the tongue is a fire … setting on fire the whole of nature.”
So could it be, that the truest Christian witness in these days of rhetorical excess and unrestrained contention, would be to insure that our own speech is always measured, thoughtful, attentive, and controlled? There are, of course, times when the prophetic voice has to ring out clear and strong: but perhaps in these peculiarly volatile days, the words that God will give us, as God gave them to Jeremiah, are more likely to be the words of restraint and self-possession that come from truly loving our neighbor, rather than the anger and resentment that come from a self-preoccupied fear and suspicion of our neighbor. Perhaps that is what we as a church community are called to model: a discourse of justice and mercy that is more quietly put, and with more compassionate intent, than the current stridency of the political arena.
That, at least, is the message from Paul in that famous 13th chapter of I Corinthians, for as he reminds us, words without love are noisy distractions at best, empty platitudes at worse. For love is patient, and kind, not arrogant or rude. Words spoken in love are not irritable or resentful, but rejoice in truth. So speech worthy of being God’s children is never the language of bitterness and bile, but rather the language of respect and concern. As we shall sing in a few moments in our sermon hymn,
Lord speak to me, that I may speak
in living echoes of thy tone. …
O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord,
until my very heart o’erflow
in kindling thought and glowing word,
Thy love to tell, Thy praise to show.
(Frances Havergal, 1836-1879)
© Joseph Britton, 2016