Words Matter

Over the last few weeks we have been talking about the importance of actions, and we need to hold that in mind as part of the argument of the scriptures today. When I say argument I don’t mean that the readings are in conflict with one another. I mean that they have a point to prove, a proclamation to offer, and the intent of winning over our lives through their conviction.

We have small arguments like these all the time. I say small because – while scripture is concerned with our individual experiences – scripture is ultimately concerned with a greater reality than our personal preferences. One such small argument that happened in our house last week was over mayonnaise. 

Yes, I was shocked to find that my daughter – in a blind taste test – had the audacity to prefer a different mayonnaise than the one that I have raised her on. To her credit, I later found that her preferred brand is produced in Louisiana, whereas my beloved mayonnaise is from South Carolina. I later condescended to my own blind taste test, and was comforted that – while both are tasty – my preference remains loyal.

While this is a silly argument, it is packed with words that matter – words like “prefer” and “loyal.” Unspoken realities are also being expressed, like the connection between experience and location and heritage that help us interpret our world in order to make sense of it. Ultimately, that’s what words do for us and why they are so important. They help us to make sense of the world we experience. Words help us construct our realities and invite one another to be a part of the world we live in together even though we interpret it differently.

Interpreting our environment and making decisions that are not simply reactive but actually constructive are some of the characteristics that – according to anthropologists – define what it means to be human. Well, that and hand tools… and language acquisition… those are on the list of what sets us apart. Of course, some will argue that there are complex societies, languages, and problem solving characteristics in everything from insects to Banyan trees, and that our most unique trait is that we work together to intentionally destroy ourselves. 

And that’s why words are so important, and not just any words – but words that reveal the truth. Words that are used in the right way can put a person on the moon. Words used in the wrong way can send us into the depths of despair. 

I heard a news report the other day about the politics between calling those fleeing Syria “refugees” verses “immigrants.” Then I saw a picture of an idilic city street that could have been in any civilized country, but it happened to be in Syria. Then I saw a picture of the same street, having been reduced to rubble and ash – all because of the words we use to speak about our relationship to the greater truth of God.

Of course, the atheist and the agnostic will say that all wars are fought because of religion. While there may be some truth in that, wars are not fought because of God. They are fought because of the words we use to talk about God and the actions that follow those words. Well, actually they are fought because of economic realities of inequality, but it’s just so convenient to say that they are about God.

And in the midst of our war torn world we wage private campaigns for peace, for the protection of those we love, or just for our personal freedom to be who we believe God created us to be. And in this holy space of longing we hear the words of the Psalmist reminding us that God’s laws are good for us. Particularly, this Psalm is referring to the ten commandments and the way they frame our relationship with God and with each other. 

And through the example of Jesus we can see that the law of God is not a barrier to God or a way to be good so much as it is a way to respond to the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. And in today’s passage, Jesus is throwing out the biggest “spoiler alert” that he can possibly offer to his disciples and to the crowds that are following him. Now, these crowds must be a mix of people at this point.

He’s gone further up into gentile territory. Caesarea Philipi was a Roman held area that was formerly a place of worship for the Greek God, Pan. There was a cave where they made sacrifices, and it had these huge sculptures on display. The Romans also placed statues of themselves, and Philip II printed his image on their coins right around the time that Jesus came through, but certainly by the time Mark’s gospel was written. Just as in Syrophoenecia, there are people who are coming because he is supposed to have power – power to heal and the power to command the elements and feed the masses. 

They have come because whether they are devout jews or God fearing people who want Roman oppression to end, they want to know if he is the one whom God – any God – has sent to save them. And Jesus begins, this time, with his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets!” they say. Then he says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter nails it, “You’re the Messiah of God!”

Then Jesus says, “Yes, but tell no one. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to suffer and die and rise again.” Peter can’t handle these words. This is definitely not his brand of mayonnaise. He pulls Jesus aside. “So, I get it that you’re a little worried about our trip to Jerusalem, but let’s not get too excited. It’ll be fine. Really…” And for that he becomes Satan. Wait, what?

J. R. Daniel Kirk, New Testament Professor at Fuller Seminary and host of Lectiocast, suggests that Peter, the disciple, pulled the Rabi Jesus aside to instruct him. That meant that he was no longer following Jesus but attempting to lead him – and to lead him astray. So, when Jesus said, “Get behind me.” He was telling Peter to literally move back into a position of a disciple. The idea of “Satan” at that time was a way to describe opposition to God. So, Peter was representing Satan because he was not behind Jesus with the other disciples.

It makes me wonder. How many of my prayers are essentially requests for God to act in a way that I want God to act? How often do we look at prayer as a tool to clue God into what we want or need instead of seeing prayer as a way to align ourselves with what God wants and needs. That’s essentially what Jesus told the crowd when he told them to pick up a cross and follow him.

For this crowd, you have to remember that the cross was an instrument of death. Some of them may have already seen a family member on a cross. More than that, it was Rome’s attempt to say that they controlled the Jewish people in life and in death. For it is written, “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.”

So, this story is a turning point in Mark’s gospel from a Messiah who demonstrates cosmic power over the elements to a Messiah who is willing to suffer in order to reveal the power of God. Jesus reveals a deeper understanding of what it means to challenge earthly powers and he invites us to do the same. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Apart from military service, or some extreme voluntary role like Doctors Without Borders, it’s impossible for us to understand the call to the cross in any way other than metaphorically. I doubt that God truly wants us all to become martyrs. At the same time, I believe God calls us to constantly let go of the things we hold sacred and dear so that we can see what is of God and what is not.

Sometimes that means letting go of physical things that clutter our lives. Sometimes it means letting go of a destructive habit or relationship. Sometimes it means letting go of a belief or an ideal. Sometimes it’s as simple as keeping your mouth shut, thinking before you post something on line, or doing some research before you forward that email.

Ultimately our words matter, and they should line up with our actions. I’m not in the habit of quoting politicians, but I really like the way New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said:

Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people;

before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children;

before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors.

In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.

Now, may it be that our words and deeds reveal a deeper understanding of truth. May it be that our words and deeds help us understand our relationship with all of God’s creation. May it be that our words and deeds demonstrate more and more access to the love of God in which we live, move, and have our being. And to God be the glory – now and always, amen.
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