What you say matters. What you don’t say matters. How you say, what you say, matters as well. In the last two weeks as we have faced the North Korea crisis and the events in Charlottesville, we have heard so much about “Fire and Fury” and “Both Sides.” Words that tell part of the story, but words that also shape the story as it unfolds. I find myself compelled to listen, but also repulsed by what is being said and done. I am fearful about the consequences words might bring to bear for our nation. As I was taking Cooper back to San Jose State, he told me about a picture he saw online wondering which might happen first: WWIII or Civil War II.
Words Matter! Yes, the words of a president can change the course of history, but your words matter as well.
Before I relate God’s holy words to our lives today I want to pause to look at the historical context of our passages. In Isaiah God is doing a new thing- restoring Persia after exile, redefining Israel’s relationship with foreign nations, with foreigners. Does this sound familiar? God is calling for justice, as God gathers the outcasts of Israel. In Matthew, Jesus is reframing the teaching of dietary laws that Jews needed to keep to be kosher and reminding them that it is not what goes into one’s mouth that matters, but what comes out! Jesus says, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart… evil intentions, murder, adultery, false witness and slander.” Right now, it feels like we have many things that are coming out of peoples’ mouths that really belong in the sewer.
So much can be said about our words. Be mindful about what you say, your words have power to hurt and to heal. Even small comments, or words said in jest, can have a big impact. Think before you speak, because your words influence. A member recently told me about reminding her daughter that if she does not want her child to swear, then she, as a parent, cannot say swear words. Little ears have a way of listening and repeating.
As we think about words, there are three things I would like us to consider, and hopefully do: check your own prejudice, stand up for what is right, and ask God for mercy.
As we think about our words, I ask you to check your own prejudice. You might say I can’t do that because if it is one of my beliefs how can I see that it might be prejudice. This can be hard, but I think if we start with ourselves we will get farther than spending our time saying how awful other people’s prejudices are. Our nation is polarized by events and ideologies. This week in Charlottesville, white nationalist marchers chanted, “You will not replace us.” They were expressing their fear of immigrants and other nonwhite groups taking over “their” country. This soon disintegrated to “Jews will not replace us.” Hateful words that I cringe to even say from the pulpit. What I do say proudly from the pulpit are words from Nelson Mandela who reminds us, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” That can only be taught by words and actions. But hurtful words are being said, and some healing words are not being said.
I came across an article about humility saying a prime characteristic is that humble people are teachable. They ward against confirmation bias. This is when, “if we agree with something we read, then it must be remarkably well written. If we don’t then it must be fake news. Humble people confront these natural tendencies by going out of their ways to consider different perspectives. Where might I be wrong, and how can I learn from the other?” (Christianity Today, 8/17, p. 83).
We need to be humble and to check our own prejudice. We cannot insulate ourselves to our own thoughts, by only listening to news that supports our view, calling other information fake news, or stop listening to challenging words. If we do these things we have stripped words of their power and are in danger of becoming polarized ourselves. Our nation was built on discussion of free thoughts, not tyranny of singular beliefs.
Jesus checked his own prejudice. When the woman came to him for help for her tormented daughter, first Jesus was quiet, then he said I have come only for the lost sheep of Israel, showing his personal belief. When she persisted, it starts to escalate, and Jesus compares Israel to the children and the foreign woman and her daughter to dogs. But the woman was able to use her words to change Jesus’ heart. She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat from their masters’ table.” Jesus checked his prejudice- his belief that the Son of Man had only come for Israel. He humbly acknowledged that there could be more to this than he originally thought and then he changed course. By his words, he affirmed the woman’s great faith and healed her daughter!
Secondly, use your words to stand up for what you believe. God said, “maintain justice and do what is right.” This does not mean become your own vigilante group. Remember the context. Jews are returning from Babylon, mixing with the people not worthy enough to exile, the low wage workers. The haves and the have-nots of society have to learn to get along together again. Sound familiar. This is also a time when God is expanding the invitation of who is included in house of prayer; into the community. Foreigners, meaning non-Jews and even eunuchs (v. 4-5), are now included. When you see an injustice, stand up for what is right. This might mean writing a letter, signing a petition, going to a rally, or just standing beside someone who needs support. As you do this, be looking for what God is doing in the situation, not what we want to accomplish. Remember God is always doing a new thing. You are to look for God’s saving acts in the world and fight for them!
Finally, use your words to ask God for mercy. The woman who approached Jesus shouted, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” She was acknowledging her need for God’s grace and expressed her faith in the Son of David to grant it to her. She was not an Israelite, but she sought God’s mercy just the same. People have asked God for mercy for centuries saying and singing “kyrie eleison.” This Latin petition for mercy comes from the heart and seems easier to say that Lord forgive me. Say that with me, kyrie eleison, so that you have a beautiful phrase to seek God’s grace. Whisper it to God as you seek God’s forgiveness; kyrie eleison.
In addition to asking God for mercy saying kyrie eleison, we also get to ask each other for forgiveness. Recently I spoke out of turn and I hurt a member’s feelings. I felt awful about it. So I found a moment alone with this person and offered my heart-felt apology. Graciously my request was accepted. My thoughtless words had caused the problem, and my sincere apology made it right. Words do have the power to hurt and to heal. I encourage you to take an inventory of your day, and if you owe someone an apology, to make it a point to speak with them. God could be doing something new in your life through the gift of mercy. But we are responsible for apologizing, for acknowledging our mistakes, and seeking forgiveness.
Our world is filled with competing words and ideas right now. Almost too much to stand. But let us rest in God’s providence to work through this situation and help guide us to God’s purpose. Let us join with God as we check our own prejudice, stand up for what is right and seek God’s mercy. Amen.