This Week's Sermon
Sunday, September 12, 2021
Good morning church,
Speech is the topic for today’s sermon, one of the privileges, one of the great gifts and catalysts of human culture. We would not be here without speech. We would not be able to worship and have music and community without our ability to speak with one another and speak of God’s wondrous world in some way. Even our Book of Faith begins with a speech in the story of creation. God spoke: “Let there be light!”
For much of my life, I took the gift of speech for granted and, to be very honest, I still do most of the time. But when you meet people whose ability to speak has been affected by a birth disorder or a stroke or cancer or an accident, and you witness their struggle and desperate desire to communicate and make their voices heard, you gain a greater appreciation for language and all the subtle observations we are able to share because of this gift.
I came to this country 25 years ago, in July of 1996, and my English was not very good and not very polished. I soon discovered: everybody here in the United States seems to have a very bad accent. They don’t pronounce the “w” the way it’s supposed to be pronounced. They say “vineyard” instead of “wineyard.” You know what I’m talking about? I was made aware of my unusual pronunciations. A young African American nurse in Western PA joked, “You sound like Arnold’s brother,” referring to the Austrian-born actor with the big muscles. I made many mistakes back then and often it was funny. I addressed the mission committee of a proud Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh as “Mission Comedy.” Ah, another new word learned the hard way! Committee! Yes, that became an important word in my future work. Committee!
I remember writing down new words every day, underscoring them in newspaper articles and books, finding out what they mean in the old translation book that was falling apart on both ends, trying to memorize words and meaning, trying to participate more fully in this culture, trying to master speech as much as possible. I wanted to be a pastor here. I’ve got to be able to speak. In the early years, my wife very frequently spellchecked my sermons. “You are the daughter of an English Professor,” I said to her, which is the truth – “please check out my sermon for Sunday.” And she went to work with her red pen. I tell you, some of the early sermons looked bloody red! But I also tell you: it was worth every effort. It’s wonderful to be bilingual and I only wish I could be multilingual and understand and speak many more languages. It’s such a joy to participate in this cultural gift and better understand people!
All of this was of course only the introduction to my sermon for today. The Apostle James, in his letter, made a big deal about the human tongue and our need to keep it under control. In fact, he compares it to the rudder of a ship. He also compares it to a spark that can start a huge wildfire. And who among us hasn’t witnessed words that injured someone, words that destroyed relationships, or even incited a war? Who among us is innocent in that regard? I certainly am not. I have at times used words carelessly or all too passionately.
In our Christian faith, we rightly emphasize to love our neighbors as ourselves, to practice charity, to do things that improve our world. But sometimes we forget to pay attention to this tiny little instrument that we use every day: our tongue. It can be used to encourage people or to discourage them. It can be used to accuse and judge or to be kind and forgiving. It can be used to share one’s burden or to gossip. It can be used to speak the truth or to lie. It can be used to promote yourself or to serve the greater good. This tongue of ours, as much as it is a gift from God, can also become a perpetrator, a weapon, or, as James says, the spark that ignites a wildfire. We know all about that.
And so James, quite logically, asks his people to choose their words with greater care. I believe that’s one of the greatest developments we may undergo as human beings and people of faith: to become more aware of the impact our words have on others and learn how to use this gift as God would want us to. I have experienced many moments in my life when I thought afterward about things I had said in the heat of the moment and thought, “You shouldn’t have said this…” or “You should have said it in a different way…” Fortunately, oftentimes we can go back and correct our words; not always though. This type of self-awareness will help us grow as human beings. We all grow from mistakes, sometimes painful mistakes. I have wondered sometimes whether even Jesus would have taken some of his words back and expressed them in a different way if he had the chance. Maybe that sounds heretical. Maybe it is not right for me to wonder. But I know as a fact that no human being grows without making mistakes and no human being learns to speak without first babbling and no German learns English without first stumbling over the “w” and the “th” and therefore, we are not afraid to make mistakes. It’s part of the deal. Let us be eager to learn from our mistakes, to perfect our speech and the way we interact with others. May your tongues be blessed and may you find words that sustain people around you. Maybe even ignite a fire – a fire of love. Learn to sustain people with words that build them up. It’s God’s kind of speech therapy!