Monday, January 10, 2011

What if We Meant What We Said?

"What if We Meant What We Said?" is the title for my sermon this week.  It's been on the drawing board for several weeks, but somehow seems more timely than I ever could have imagined.

Originally, I intended for this message to challenge us as followers of Jesus Christ to remember what we said we'd do when we became a part of the Body of Christ.  The month of January has often been used in my particular tradition (United Methodism) as a time for covenant renewal... or, as they say in the military - "re-upping."  In renewing our covenant with God and one another, it's helpful to remember the words that were used to define our covenant.   

Too often, we relegate those faith questions about "renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness" and "rejecting the evil powers of the world" to the realm of tradition or ritual.  In other words, we answer those questions because everyone before us has always answered them and the asking and answering is actually more important than the content itself.  So, my plan was to ask: What if we meant what we said??  What does it look like to actually do this renouncing and rejecting rather than just give a traditional nod of assent?

But, then Saturday, January 8, 2011 happened.  An assassination attempt on a member of Congress...the slaying of a federal judge, a nine year old girl and  4 other innocent bystanders... and the maiming of over a dozen more by gunfire.  The immediate reaction from both ends of the political spectrum labeled the amped up rhetoric of recent campaigns as the 'identified patient' in our dysfunctional system of communication.  Some argue these kinds of actions are to be expected when our politicians and commentators use cross hair targets to identify opponents and phrases like "lock and load" or "reload" to signify readiness for attacks on those opponents.

When confronted with the potential danger of such words, some argue, "They're only words."  In a world where we are flooded with words - in print - on digital screens - or broadcast - we're tempted to think - even asked to think - they have no real power.  This whole debate reminds me of the old apocryphal story about a bar located next to a church.  The good Christians in the church had long prayed for God to destroy the evil bar next door.  One stormy summer night a lightning bolt struck the bar and burned it to the ground.  The owner of the bar then sued the church for their prayers whose words had brought the destruction of their property.  The church argued the words were "just prayers."  At this point the judge observed that the owners of the destroyed bar obviously believed in the power of prayer while the members of the church did not.  Words may have power, but it seems we only want to be held accountable for our words if they don't do anything.

What is the power of words?  Do they really shape your mindset and reality?  As a follower of Jesus - the Word become flesh - I've got to believe words have an ability to shape our lives.  In many Christian traditions, we have become aware of the limitations arising from using gender exclusive language metaphors for describing God or by using language that is not gender neutral in describing humanity.  This non-inclusive language and its effects prove, to some, the power of words and that we, on some levels, mean what we say whether we want to or not.  Our words are the tools that both describe and determine our reality.

Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said, "We become what we behold.  We shape our tools and our tools shape us."  When our "tools" urge us to "target" those with whom we disagree or to "reload" when readying ourselves to attack those targets we are shaped whether we want to be or not.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?  Do you reject the evil powers of this world?  We become what we behold.  Our words describe that which we behold.  What if we meant what we said?  We already do.  The question is, will we be accountable?


  1. Jon, it always give me a shiver when I hear people answer those questions in the affirmative, and I've commented on that on those days when it happens. You renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, really? Cool! You're accepting the power to resist evil, injustice and oppression? Awesome! How exciting is that! What an amazing thing to be shaped by words like this, which we surely are, if we take the time to notice them as we glibly say them.

    I agree: the words of political rhetoric, like words of exclusion or (as some would say) "political incorrectness" MATTER, and they shape us beyond what we even recognize. Thanks for putting words to that.

  2. Lee, I've always wanted to say, "Are you sure???" after those questions...followed by, "Just how are you planning on doing that?" Afraid of what the answers might be I guess.