Feasting on the Word

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2012 James 3:1-12 and Mark 8:27-38

Old school preachers were taught a basic sermon model that was often characterized as three points and a poem. An unspoken variation of that might be three points and a joke. More diminished variations might be three poems and a point or three jokes and a point, and on some Sundays worshipers would feel lucky if there was a point to be found at all. I wasn’t trained in that model nor do I follow it, so today will be a bit unusual in that I have three points, all based on one word: “word.”

Point one is about words, the words we use each day to communicate, the daily currency by which and through which we interact, whether in speaking or reading or writing. What I most want to say is that words matter. Words matter in a culture and a moment where it seems as if we believe they don’t. We are to be stewards of our words, using them thoughtfully, with integrity. We say that talk is cheap, that actions speak louder than words, and that is true. But words matter.

We as a congregation will reflect the culture as we live further and further into uses of social media. But spend any time on the Internet, on Facebook, with Twitter, and you will learn that the anonymous comments section is a dangerous place, that people can say – anonymously and without impunity – almost anything, about almost anything or anyone, true or not, fair or not.

This is not about freedom of speech, of course, nor simply about the tenor of this or any political campaign season. It is about civil discourse in an increasingly fractured and uncivil world.

And we who are people of faith can do any number of things to change discourse, whether local or more global. We cannot perpetuate the negative things we hear. But more so we can nurture and cultivate good words, good conversations. Whether it’s the way we talk to and with our children and grandchildren, to and with our neighbors and friends and co-workers, how we comment online, or wherever it is that presents us with the opportunity to be good stewards of good words. We can choose to use harsh words, judgmental words. Or we can choose to use gentle words, kind words. Even when we are discussing politics, our critical words needn’t be dismissive words.

Beverly Gaventa reminds us that “words wound and even cripple – words spoken that cannot be retrieved, words withheld from others who ache to hear them, even words imputed to the minds of others in the imagination.” (Texts for Preaching, Year B, page 509) Words have power; they can break down or they can build up.

Last week we began to explore the letter of James. We noted that early theologians weren’t sure that it deserved a place in the Bible. Yet look what James insists on this morning. “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” And “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” James will argue elsewhere that actions matter, but here he is asserting the power of the tongue, that what we say can do harmful things or gracious things. And we have the responsibility, the calling, even, in the words we say to utter words that bless.

Point two was to be the original point, and perhaps the only point this morning, and flows from our interaction with James, or from whatever scriptural message forms any Sunday morning sermon. The Word. The Bible. How we understand it; how we use it; how it has authority in the life of the church and in our own lives.

I have been thinking recently about my journey to seminary. I was nurtured in the life of the church, going to church all the time, youth group, even joining the Session when I was sixteen, which introduced me early-on to the joyous world of church meetings.

So I went to seminary knowing church. But I didn’t go to seminary knowing the Bible. And though I don’t claim to know it a lot more some two and a half decades later, I can say I love it a lot more, that my initial and ongoing encounter with the Bible has been transforming and life-changing.

And I can also say that the same two and a half decades in the life of the church has witnessed both a drifting away from the Bible –biblical illiteracy, we call it – and unfortunate uses of the Bible as we debate the important issues of the moment.

The new educational curriculum that our children AND adults are using is called “Feasting on the Word.” And that’s right. The Bible is to be a feast, an invitation to encounter God and the abundant story of God’s people. It is to be opened and encountered, not to be closed in order to thump someone with it, figuratively, at least. It is not the province of clerics and experts. It is the people’s book. We are all biblical students. We are all called, as the saying goes, to apply ourselves to the text and the text to ourselves.

I was reminded this week of Peter Gomes’ great book called The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. Gomes was chaplain to Harvard, and he insisted that our generation was misusing the Bible; that it was to be taken seriously but not literally.

What would that look like? To open the Bible and engage it, on the difficult matters facing our common political life, or the difficult matters facing church life.

The Bible itself insists that God’s word gives life; that God’s word is a lamp to our feet. That is what I’ve come to believe, that feasting on the word is more than a slogan, but a gracious invitation, whether in matters of navigating the challenges of life or addressing the difficult issues of the day.

Several years ago, when I was serving on a denominational task force, we wrote a report that included what I thought to be a helpful section on the Bible. And though biblical scholars were responsible for that section, when I reread it again I am grateful to find a word or two of my own in there. We were trying to say how the Bible matters in these conflicted and controversial times. We said then that “Studying the Scriptures together enriches our understandings, corrects our misunderstandings, and helps us wrestle with God’s Word more deeply and honestly.” I still believe that. That’s why our “Feasting on the Word” efforts are so important.

We then articulated five principles that might guide our encounter with the word.

The centrality of Jesus Christ
The priority of the plain sense of the text (that scripture usually means what it says)
Interpretation of Scripture by Scripture (that if one passage says one thing and a thousand say another, go with the thousand)
The rule of love
The rule of faith

(see final report, Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church)

I still believe that as well. When thinking about words, and the word, how can we guided by the rule of love. And when thinking about the word, how can we recall the notion of the centrality of Christ.

Which is point number three. Do we remember when we worshiped for a little while at the Lutheran Church next door, the Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word? I remember their big and bold stained glass windows, one of which captured their name – Incarnate Word. That's what we believe about words, and the word. That all of this flows to and from the life and death and new life of Jesus, that the question of “what Jesus would do” is, again, more than a slogan or a bumper sticker but an ethical mandate. Our use of words and our encounter with the word should lead us there.

This morning in Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks his followers who do people say that I am. Then he asks them who do they say he is. He asks them for words. They matter. Words matter. But they matter at heart as they give testimony to Jesus, the word, and as that testimony gives shape to the ways that we live our lives.

Perhaps you watched on Friday as I did the return of the remains of the four American diplomats who were killed in Benghazi, Libya. It was somber and heartbreaking, as the guard silently escorted the bodies from the airplane onto the tarmac and a congregation of family and politicians and military personnel gathered in solemn assembly.

I thought many things in those moments. But what I thought primarily was about the words that form us. The words we search for to seek to explain the inexplicable. The words of comfort we struggle for in such moments. The words buried in our deepest memories that we cling to. The words that give us comfort and solace in times of sadness and grief. The words that help us consider how we live life in the world. The words that give shape to our thought about our political and cultural realities – war and peace, other religions, government and politics and power.

For others those might be great poems or profound political philosophies. But for us – we who have been invited to this feast and given words of faith to hear and utter – they are these words.

That God is our refuge and strength. That nothing in life or death can separate from God’s love. That justice will roll like and ever flowing stream. That the peacemakers are blessed.

Words of hope and justice, comfort and solace, reconciliation and love. Words, from the word, about the Incarnate Word, to whom the written word gives testimony and to whom our spoken words give witness. That’s the gift we have been given, the feast that nurtures us and the bounty we’ve been invited to share.

In the beginning was the word, we hear, and believe, filled with grace and truth. In Jesus’ name, the Prince of Peace, the lamb of God, the bread of life, God’s word incarnate. Amen.



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