A Matter of Words

If I were preaching tomorrow…here’s what I’d preach.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Beloved, when I was eight years old, I was told by my 3rd Grade teacher that I was, “just not good at math.”

I went through the rest of my elementary, middle, and high school years believing what she told me. It was just a fact: I wasn’t good at math.

I carried this truth upon my shoulders until I went off to University where, as part of my Philosophy Minor I had to take a course called “Logic and Critical Thinking.” It involved a number of word problems, proofs, and in that course, at the age of eighteen, a full ten years after I first was told with all certainty that I was “just no good at math” I realized I had been lied to.

And here’s the shame of it: because I had been told that I was no good at math, and I believed it, I never explored math. I always took the lowest math courses I could find, the most remedial in the catalogue.

I just took it as truth because, well, they were a teacher, right?! They knew best, right?

Words matter.

My friend, as a kid, was called a “fag” every day at school.

Now, I don’t think his bullies actually implied that he was trying to sleep with other guys, though maybe that was part of the implication, I don’t know, but really what they were trying to do was dehumanize him in some way. They wanted him to know, in no uncertain terms, that he was different, unwanted, and unliked.

And, well, later on in his years, when he crouches in a corner clutching a bottle of pills, thinking maybe he should just swallow them all…I mean, that’s part of what was running through his head, Beloved.

Words matter.

In Genesis today we hear that not only do words matter, but words create matter! The Divine speaks into the chaos of the universe and forms order out of it, parting the waters and the celestial bodies, helping to create a rhythm to the hours, helping to create safe spaces for all kinds of what would be created: land dwellers like you and me, ocean inhabitants like the majestic whale and the whimsical sea horse, and those who take to the air like the high-flying condor and the swift hummingbird…and, well, the Wright Brothers who, by the way, just a few days before their first flight would read in an op-ed of a national paper the projection that flight was generations off for humanity.

Good thing they didn’t take those words literally or seriously, right?

Words matter. Words create matter.

Words can create: safe spaces, brave places where creation can be comfortable, order in the chaos of a world that seems hell-bent on entropy most days.

And words can destroy, Beloved. They can stigmatize. They can dehumanize.

They can incite.

Terrorize.

We’re all acutely aware of this now, right?

So today, here are some other words, words to create a brave and safe space, words to lift up and inspire and provide some baptismal hope on this Sunday where we remember not only the baptism of Jesus, but our own baptism:

God loves you, for Christ sake, and will not let you go.”

These words were spoken to me again and again by my Theology professor and surrogate grandfather, Reverend David Truemper. He said these words, wrote these words, inscribed them on my heart, and I etch them now on yours, and he did this even as his body was laid waste by a cancer that ransacked him in my Senior year.

Cancer is a word that can destroy and terrorize, but these words carried him through it to the other side of the Jordan where he undoubtedly heard, “You are my son, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.”

It is good you exist.

In one of my darkest moments as a teen, these words were spoken to me by a friend who guessed I was on an edge. It reminded me of something very deep and very true.

We shall overcome…

In my Black Church course in seminary we started out the semester standing and singing this song, all together, led by our professor who had, himself, marched the streets with Dr. King. Tears ran down his face as we sang, a second baptism of sorts washing our heads and our hearts, re-centering us. We were not pastors who preached just any words, but we must be pastors who preach liberating words! Gospel words. Words that don’t rev people up into frenzies, but lift people up to new heights, by God!

You must work for justice and peace…

I’ve said these words over a hundred times in these last ten years, making sure that before people get to the font they know what they’re doing. These words are part of the baptismal liturgy, and they make clear that entering the waters of baptism means exiting oceans of hate and violence. The waters of baptism don’t wash away prejudice, but they birth you into a life of unlearning it, by God. They birth you into a life of reading the scriptures not through a lens of grievance, greed, and group-think, but through a lens of grace, both for yourself and your neighbor.

Justice and peace hold hands, Beloved, because one ensures the other. Peace and justice work for the good of all people. They lean toward truth and away from lies. They overthrow the halls of power not by force or “trial by combat,” whatever the hell that means, but by a fierce determination that changes hearts because they say, “See how much they love…a sacrificial love.”

Love lifts up the oppressed, it does not oppress.

And, finally, how about these words, ripped straight from our Gospel today:

You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.

Here’s the thing, Beloved: words matter. The words that grip you, matter. The words that you cling to, matter. Words affect matter, and as you know, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

We don’t just matter, we are matter.

You are matter. I am matter. And matter, Beloved, can be manipulated. Molded. Moved, for good or ill.

Which means we have to be honest about words, Beloved. Words matter.

In the spirit of our baptismal calling, we condemn words that incite, right?

It’s no wonder that in the Gospel of John Jesus is called The Word. God’s love letter to the world. Because words matter, love letters matter, and when we have words that go against The Word, that aren’t love letters but hate speech, we rely on those sacred words, like those I lifted above to carry us through.

To remind us not to fall victim for wards that affect matter, but rather live in the embrace of words that remind us that humanity matters, peace matters, love matters.

And yes, words will call us to flood the streets in protest. But we cannot do so over just any words, especially lies and feigned grievances. We do so over words like, “I can’t breathe,” and words like, “You can’t marry,” and words like, “You’re illegal,” and words like, “Move to the back of the bus.”

Marching on those words is not marching for grievances, it’s marching in solidarity with true grief! And if you cannot tell the difference, well, then we’ve grounded ourselves not in The Word who calls us to defend our neighbor, but in words that call us to destroy.

Beloved, we’ve been doused in a river of news this last week, an ocean of words that have spilled over into our hearts, homes, and have covered our heads. There were points this last week where I felt like I was drowning in sorrow, in anger, in sadness.

But we must remember those other words, Beloved. Words that can carry us through. Words that compel us to counter the words of lies, selfish grievance, and hate. Words from The Word.

So, Beloved, be baptized in the deep words that compel you to peace and justice, not the shallow words of grievance and guilt.

Be baptized under the name of the one who created you, not the name of any demagogue out there who longs to move you against your neighbor.

Be baptized under the name of the one who says, unequivocally, “I love you. You are my Beloved,” and who will love you to death and one step beyond to show how true those words are…

Have these words poured over your heart and head today.

Because, words matter.

4 thoughts on “A Matter of Words

  1. Thank you for today’s message. Justice, love, peace, beloved. Thank you for reminding us that we are called to a higher purpose to love God’s creation and serve those in need.

  2. WOW! WOW!! The Words I’ve been longing to hear in this suffocating time. If I were preaching these days, I’d read these words to my hearers…telling them who crafted them. I’m keeping this one for the times when the historic arrowheads of dismissal and disdain implanted within me raise their heads to scoff. The Spirit of our Loving Godde is dripping from these words you’ve called together. Thank you. Thank you.

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