"A Window To Our Spirit"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 09/17/2000

Mark 8:27-33; James 3:1-12


     During the last five years, all of us have experienced an explosive movement in our society toward something called "political correctness." News headlines have described the consequences to people who have dared to transgress this newly-emerging valueCa value that our culture has decided to revere in spite of our more time-honored freedom of speech.

     For example, an Admiral in the United States Navy lost his command of the Pacific Fleet because of demeaning comments he made about women. About a month ago, an individual was fired from his post in the NAACP because of his stated impressions of Jewish people during a televised interview. And most recently, presidential candidate George W. Bush was cited by the media for using a derogatory word. He was standing too close to a live microphone while talking privately to Dick Cheney about a particular news reporter in a crowd of listeners.

     There is another segment of society that claims that the pendulum has swung too far. They claim that people can hardly say anything without offending someone's sensitivities and all this is being done by the tyranny of a few. Names like the Washington Redskins, the Atlantic Braves or the Cleveland Indians are being viewed as derogatory. Washington's basketball team changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards. So who knows perhaps one day Dan Snyder's team will be called the Washington Native Americans.

     What is so curious about this recent phenomenon is that the pressure to change has come from our society itself. If the clergy across our nation were ventilating such frustration with our language, more than likely society would have ignored it. Today one of the values the Church has espoused for centuries has moved to the center of society's stage. The mere use of a single word or an inappropriate expression can mean public ridicule or instant expulsion from the ranks of power, responsibility, and authority.

     One of the qualities that allowed the Book of James to be selected for inclusion in the New Testament was its insightfulness into human behavior. Part of the chapter that was read to us this morning accurately describes how our words reveal who we are. We may disagree with James but we would be wrong. The words we use do provide listeners with audible connections to our thoughts and feelings, our prejudices and predispositions, and our attitudes, immaturities and points of view.

     James wrote this: "All of us make mistakes quite often. But if a person never makes a mistake in what he says, he is perfect and is also able to control his whole being. No one, however, has ever been able to tame the tongue. We use it to give thanks to God and also to curse other people who are created in the likeness of God. Words of thanksgiving and cursing pour out from the same mouth." This morning we are going to be looking at how our words can provide a non ending source of our growth in spirit.

     One of our goals as disciples of Jesus Christ is to manage change and growth creatively so as to be more effective teachers. And let us be clear, we are all teachers. Our beliefs are always on display. With this understanding in mind, do our words serve us? Are we willing to work on our language so that we better communicate the spirit we want to reflect to others?

     James used a wonderful metaphor in describing the power of our tongue. He wrote, "Think of a ship. As big as it is and driven by such strong winds, it can be steered by a very small rudder. That ship will go wherever the pilot wants it to go. So it is with the tongue."

     One of the issues we face today is that we have received very little training on how to use language to communicate effectively. We were taught how to talk. We were never trained how to share our feelings when we were feeling vulnerable. This is why the number one cause of relationship failure today is the inability to communicate. As children we were taught that when we do not have something good to say, we should not say anything. That is like pounding a cork into the spout of a boiling tea kettle.

     One of the revealing findings that surfaced from the murder-suicide at Columbine High School came from those who knew the shooters. They claimed that the boys were labeled as "misfits" by fellow students. The boys had been verbally maligned and teased on a daily basis. The black trench coats these young men wore became the uniform of defiance for this fraternity of labeled youth.

     The boys felt powerless to change the attitudes of their fellow students. The cork was in the steam kettle. The desire to pay back and get even fueled their plans to make visible their form of justice. Their feelings of desperation resulted from words that others used repeatedly to hurt them. Try to imagine how words of acceptance and encouragement might have prevented the disaster that sent shock waves through every major school system in the United States.

     Human beings were designed by God to give and receive love. As many infant studies have dramatically demonstrated, when babies are not held and communicated to with loving sounds, they frequently die. In spite of state-of-the-art hospitals in Brazil and Venezuela, at one time the infant mortality rate was extremely high. Consultants from the United States were brought in to investigate. They found that when the babies were being fed, they were never touched by people. The introduction of midwives into the infant nurseries dropped the death rate overnight. Loving words have the same effect on children and adults.

     Occasionally people send me stories over the Internet. Many of them come from the series of books given birth by the classic, Chicken Soup for the Soul. Frequently these stories describe the impact that words have on people. For example, teachers who wrote thoughtful, encouraging notes to their students found that years later many of those students were still carrying those messages in their wallets and purses. When life was challenging, those written words became a source of strength.

     Can we imagine the implications of this? If all of us can have such creative, regenerative power over each other, why not use it? Jesus never stopped using his words. Paul never stopped using words. In fact, both Jesus and Paul would have given humanity very little had it not been for their words. Their words represented a window allowing us to view the infinite number of possibilities they claimed could be ours.

     A number of years ago, Tony Robbins wrote a book entitled, Awakening the Giant Within. In that book there is a chapter on words. And his message has influenced thousands if not millions of readers. He encouraged people to watch very carefully what words they select while communicating.

     For example, he asked his readers to substitute the word "dislike" for "hate." He invited people to stop using words like "problems" and "impossible" and substitute words like "challenges" and "opportunities." Tony wrote that our words should always be connected intentionally to the values we want to make visible. While we are being molded through our use of better words, we also dramatically influence the people around us. Tony may have received his cues from the Sermon on the Mount.

     Most of us heard the analogy that when a glass is shaken, what spills are the contents. While that sounds obvious, the same is true for each of our lives. When our words are negative, critical and divisive -- they communicate the values that are driving our behavior and decision making. Likewise, when our words are insightful, enthusiastically spoken, and point to the creative values we embrace, they inspire.

     The words we use are like a window that allows others to see what is inside of the rest of our house. When people are dating and their relationships are becoming serious, this is an indispensable tool of discernment for both men and women.

     James concluded his section on the power of words with this thought. "Words of thanksgiving and cursing pour out from the same mouth. My friends, this should not happen! No spring of water pours out sweet water and bitter water from the same opening."

     Yesterday during Bob Smith's memorial service, I quoted from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He said, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Wesley's words reveal a single mission statement for life. That mission is this: In spite of our circumstances, Jesus invited us to make the Kingdom of God visible. This is our task. This is why we are here.

    When we rise each morning with the understanding that our words are gifts to others, that concept will help us think about which ones we want to use. Are they helpful? Are they healing to hear? Are they insightful? Will they encourage? Are they carrying the message Jesus invited us to share with others? Will they make the world a more delightful place to live?

     We can always justify our criticisms, our judgmental finger pointing, and why we should reveal the truth about someone else's flawed character. But has the world ever been short on its number of critics? Have we ever experienced a shortage of people who whine, complain, and write letters to the editor every time the world is not quite what they want it to be? The answer is obvious. We have had plenty of such people in every generation. Quite honestly we need such critics. Every society needs its prophets who warn the rest of us where our tolerated values are taking us.

     But our world also needs to experience more of what heals and binds together, more of what encourages us to celebrate what we have, more of what inspires us toward a greater commitment to our faith, and more of what enables us to rediscover the hope that may have grown dim.

We must remember that it is a much easier task to tell someone where they are wrong than it is to put them in possession of the truth. Pointing the finger of blame requires no skill. Any unhappy person can do that. Producing hope in others requires a lot of skill.

     Most of us memorized John 3:16 when we were children. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." It is the next verse that describes Jesus' purpose for coming here. John 3:17 says this, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved." If that was Jesus' purpose for coming, it must also be ours. The words we use can make that purpose visible.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     We thank you, God, for creating the Sabbath while inviting us to keep that day Holy. We thank you for giving us the ability to experience peace while inviting us to live it. We thank you for giving us the tools of communication while reminding us how they reveal our thoughts. We thank you for providing us with a spirit that always discloses what we treasure. Everything we need to reflect our nature, O God, you have freely provided. Yet our world invites us to forget your gifts. Doubts of our worth can allow fear to take up residence within us. Our responses to life's uncertainties can reflect what does not come from our faith and trust. May worship cleanse our thoughts and heal our spirits. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     We thank you, God, for these moments when we come to you in prayer. Life is complex and sometimes difficult to understand, and we often find ourselves coming to you when we have a request to make. As you know, we frequently ask you to solve our problems for us. We often come to you forgetting that it was you who invited us to participate in spreading the Kingdom on earth.

     We ask that you help us relax during these moments. And may any tensions we are carrying be surrendered into your safekeeping. And if we are currently worrying about people or events, may we likewise place those concerns into your care. We have so much for which to be thankful, yet we find ourselves allowing the 3 percent of our lives that we cannot control to overshadow everything else. Teach us humility, O God, so that we find enormous peace in all that we are and have instead of being distracted and even tormented by what is trivial by comparison.

     Help us to experience a resurrection of consciousness, so that our lives are free from the necessity of looking for issues that upset us. May we be big enough not to be surprised by anything someone else does. May we be wise enough to understand that troubled waters are perfect places to demonstrate our faith. May we be sensitive enough of your presence to know that we are exactly where we should be for your will to be done. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .