Sunday’s sermon: Words = Power


Texts used: Mark 8:27-38 and James 3:1-12

  • “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This is what we teach our children when they encounter people in their life who tease them, who use words to bring them down and make them feel bad. We try to take away the authority and force of those words – to minimize their importance and their impact. But as adults, even as we utter these words to give comfort and refuge, we cannot deny that words have power. We know just how truly powerful words can be. → words = power to …
    • Express ourselves
    • Explain and teach, to learn and understand
    • Build up and bring together or to tear down and divide
      • Positive power – Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai continues to celebrate and defend the power of words and learning even after Taliban’s failed attempt to kill her
      • Negative power – fervor and blind devotion and hate stirred up by one of the world’s greatest public speakers: Adolf Hitler
    • We cannot deny that words have power.
      • E.g. – clip from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring[1]
        • Background: Frodo = hobbit inherited certain ring from his uncle (unaware of ring’s significance/history/power) learns about truly evil, powerful nature of ring joins up with Gandalf (wizard) and others in epic quest to keep the ring out of the enemy’s hands
        • [PLAY CLIP:→ In this moment, Gandalf’s words literally resonate with power. The sky darkens. The earth shakes. Those around him are physically affected by the words that he utters. They cower and grimace and squeeze their eyes shut as if in pain.
        • Commanding illustration of the power that words can have à And be it fantasy or reality, we cannot deny that words have power.
    • Both Scripture readings this morning speak to/illustrate the power that words truly have
  • First: staying/eternal power of Jesus’ words
    • More familiar version of text (pew Bibles): [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.[2]  Christians for centuries have pondered and prayed over these verses. Can we ever truly deny ourselves? How do we “take up our crosses”? What does it mean to lose our lives to save them? In the many attempts at answers that have arisen throughout history, these words have become the cornerstone for a wide variety of faith practices.
      • Monks and nuns in monasteries – communal living, strict discipline, vows of poverty & chastity, serving those in need
      • Catholic practice of confession
      • Ancient prayer practice of examen – daily exploration of your heart, your actions, your thoughts, and your attitudes in an attempt to get closer to God
      • Incredible acts of service inspired by these words
        • E.g. – “The Secret Millionaire” (TV show)
        • Mahatma Gandhi: The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
      • Jesus’ words from our text this morning: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. … Follow me and I’ll show you how. … Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.”[3] We cannot deny that words have power.
  • Also in gospel reading – power of testimony
    • Passage begins with Jesus’ seemingly-simple question: Who do the people say I am?[4]
      • Disciples initial reply: John the Baptizer, Elijah, one of the prophets
      • With a little more prompting from Jesus (“Who do you say that I am?”) – Peter’s answer: You are the Christ, the Messiah. first time he’s identified as the Messiah in Mark’s gospel
    • This is certainly a powerful pronouncement and the most easily-recognized testimony in this passage … but it’s not the only testimony. Remember, a testimony is not always about the easy, the acceptable, and the joyful. Testimonies can be about pain and struggle and tension. And so we hear Jesus’ testimony, too: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religious scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.[5]  This is the first of three times throughout Mark’s gospel that Jesus will try to warn the disciples about what is to come.
      • Powerful testimony because of the raw truth in it
      • Powerful testimony because of holy self-sacrifice in it
      • Powerful testimony because of vulnerability in it
      • Jesus’ words here are revealing. They’re profound. They’re striking. They. Are. Powerful. So powerful, in fact, that they cause Peter to “take him aside and rebuke him”[6] which in turns elicits Jesus’ shocking and powerful response: Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.[7]  Now up to this point, the words we’ve talked about have been intentional words – words chosen and spoken deliberately and carefully, words that have been thought out. But this exchange of words is one born of emotion, unbidden and uncontrolled.
        • Imagine disappointment and frustration Jesus must have felt – shared something so intimate, so compelling, and Peter pulls him aside to rebuke him
        • Imagine utter shock Peter must have felt – from the high of “You are the Messiah” crashing down to “Get behind me Satan” in a few short moments
  • We cannot deny that, intentional or unintentional, words have power. Remember what I said just a few minutes ago?  words= power to build up and bring together OR to tear down and divide
    • We are surrounded by words – articles and advertisements, status updates and Tweets, blog posts and memes [explain], news reports and meetings and everyday conversations. (Sermons) Words words words words words. And as we all know, not all those words are positive, lift-you-up words. Anyone who’s ever been bullied will tell you that it’s not just positive words that have power.
      • Cyber-bullying epidemic – statistics[8]
        • Over half of young people report being cyber bullied
        • 1/3 of those who reported being bullied received threats
        • Only 1 of 6 parents are aware of the scope/intensity of cyber bullying that their kids are experiencing
      • And goodness knows bullying extends beyond the realm of cyberspace. – so bad that there’s actually a government website connected to the Dept. of Health and Human services:
    • This is what James speaks to in our second New Testament passage this morning: A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it! A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By your speech you can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it … With our tongues we bless God our [Creator]; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women [God] made in [God’s own] image.[9]  We know that these words – these powerfully negative, powerfully destructive words are out there in the world. We’ve felt the sting of them ourselves. We’ve watched our friends, our family, and our loved ones suffer the sting, too. We know how painful and damaging these words can be. In fact, it can be argued that negative words can actually be more powerful than positive words. Studies have shown that it takes 5-6 positive comments to balance out one, single negative comment.[10]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that words have power. But we can choose to be a presence to powerfully counteract the negative instead of someone who adds to it. When we hear others tearing down, we can choose to proclaim the words to build up again. We can choose to be the cool, clear water that washes away the polluted mud. We can choose to be God’s affirmation – to be God’s “I love you,” God’s “yes,” God’s “peace be with you.” And we cannot deny that those words have power, too. Amen.

[1] “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” directed by Peter Jackson, distributed by New Line Cinema 19 Dec. 2001 (USA).

[2] Mk 8:34-35 (NRSV).

[3] Mk 8:34-35 (The Message).

[4] Mk 8:27.

[5] Mk 8:30-32.

[6] Mk 8:32 (NRSV).

[7] Mk 8:33 (The Message).

[8] “Cyber Bullying Statistics 2014” at Modified Sept. 10, 2015, accessed 12 Sept. 2015.

[9] Jas 3:5-6, 9.

[10] Jack Zenger and Jopseh Folkman. “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio” in Harvard Business Review online, Mar. 15, 2013, Accessed 12 Sept. 2015.

Sunday’s sermon: A Blind Man’s Story

Lord I Believe

Texts used: Psalm 23 and John 9:1-41

Sometimes, instead of writing a “conventional sermon” (whatever that might mean), I like to take a text and imagine what living in that text might look like. What else could the story say? What might the people inside the story be saying, feeling, doing, thinking? What does the inside of the story look like? Sound like? Smell like? And in that imagining, I expand on the Scripture to help you place yourself in the story as well in the hopes that you might hear God’s word in a new way and be inspired. This is one of those stories …

The words still rang in his ears:

Get out of here! Leave this synagogue, and don’t bother coming back. You aren’t welcome here anymore.

He had been thrown out of the synagogue – actually thrown out! This was the community where he’d grown up – where he’d worshipped and observed the Sabbath with his parents and sat mourning the death of his grandparents. And now he could never go back.

The man continued wandering the streets of Jerusalem as he thought about the way things had gone, turning the recent events over and over in his mind. What a whirlwind it had been! The day had started out like any other – with him sitting by the side of the road begging passers-by for whatever coins they could spare. Because he’d been blind since birth, begging had been his whole life, so he sat by the side of the road every day, relying solely on the mercy of other people.

That’s exactly where he had been when this whole crazy mess had begun.

He’d been sitting by the side of the road begging when he heard what sounded like a fairly large group approaching. Large groups were always a bit of a wild card for the blind man. Sometimes, when one person in a large group stepped out and gave the man a coin or two, many others followed suit. But sometimes large groups meant trouble – people who wanted to cause him harm and steal whatever meager coins he’d been able to collect that day or Roman soldiers looking for someone to harass. As the man listened to this large group approach, he wondered what was in store for himself.

Looking back, he could say with all honesty that he never could have guessed.

As the group approached, he heard one of them say, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”[1] The man groaned inwardly. He’d heard this question so many times before, and he hated it. It was common belief that for someone to be disabled like him, either he or his parents must have done something wrong – something to earn God’s punishment. But he had trouble understanding or believing this. He had been blind since the moment he entered the world. Could he truly have sinned while still in the womb? And what about his parents – two wonderful people who had cared for him his entire life? He knew no one was perfect, but he could hardly believe that either one of them had done anything terrible enough to make him deserve this.

And so it was a relief for him when he heard the Rabbi’s reply: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”[2] And then he heard one of the other people in the group call the rabbi by his name: Jesus. When he heard this, a little spark of hope lighted in the man’s heart.

Before he could ask Jesus any questions, the blind man heard someone spitting on the ground. What is going on? he wondered. And then he felt the mud being smeared across his eyes. It was warm, and the hands that applied it were gentle but firm – calloused and strong and sure. Even though the blind man knew that he should probably be trying to get away – I mean, who smears mud on a blind guy’s eyes?? – something kept him rooted in place. Instead of feeling annoyed or afraid, he felt calm. He felt peaceful. He felt … tingly. His eyes were tingling. He opened his mouth to say something, but Jesus spoke to him: “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam.”[3] The Pool of Siloam was famous for its healing properties, but for whatever reason, no matter how many times he had immersed himself in the past, they’d never worked for the blind man.

He was about to tell Jesus this, but something stopped him. There was something different about this man, this gentle but determined Rabbi. So the blind man got up and began to make his way to the Pool of Siloam. When he reached the pool, he felt his way along the limestone edges until he felt first his toes, then his ankles, then his shins, and finally his knees enveloped by the cool, refreshing water. The blind man cupped his hands, dipped them into the pool, and brought some of the water to his face. He thought that, if nothing else, he could at least get this mud off of his eyes. He cupped his hands and brought the water to his face again and again, enjoying the feel of the water as it ran down his cheeks and trickled off his chin.

Finally, the blind man knew he had to get out of the pool – to make space for others who were also seeking healing. He used the tips of his fingers to rub away the final bits of mud that were clinging to his eyelashes, and opened his eyes.

He could see.

He could see!

Everything was so startlingly bright that he immediately squeezed his eyes shut, and then he opened them again right away, afraid that he had been imagining things. But no, he wasn’t imagining. He could SEE!! He quickly got out of the pool, and as he made his way toward home, his vision became clearer and clearer. The fuzzy edges of things began to solidify. He slowly became more and more accustomed to the light. It was probably the most difficult journey the man had ever taken because even though he was trying to hurry home, he kept stopping to look at all of the amazing, beautiful things along the way. There were carts in the market full of the most beautiful, exotic-looking foods! There were children running through the streets with the most beautiful smiles on their faces! There were women winding their way through the crowds wearing dresses made out of the most beautiful colors!

Finally, the man found himself on his street. He smelled the smells he always smelled at home. He heard the sounds he always heard at home. This must have been it. He slowly walked down the street, running his hand along the fronts of the houses and counting until he came to the fourth doorway on the right – his house. It was small and made of pale mud bricks – bricks that he’d run his hands over a thousand times. They were beautiful, too. He walked into the house, and there was a woman standing in the kitchen and a man standing in the common area.

Before either of them could say anything, the man declared, “I can see!”

Both his parents stopped what they were doing. His mother’s mouth hung open just a little. His father’s eyes went first to his face, then to his mother’s face, then back to the man’s own face. Then both of them came toward him, arms outstretched. They hugged him. They touched his eyes. In the midst of it all, the man told them about what had happened that morning with Jesus and his disciples.

His mother and father were so overjoyed by this miraculous healing that they dragged their son outside and shouted to all the neighbors, “Look! Look! Our son was blind but his eyes have been opened! He can see! He can see!” All the neighbors came out of their houses and marveled at this healing. Some of them didn’t even believe that he was the same man! They were convinced that he was just someone who looked like him, but many of his other neighbors recognized him. “Of course it’s him,” they said. And the man himself kept saying, “I am that man. Truly, I am that man.” Like his parents, the neighbors were all curious about how this amazing thing had happened, so they asked him again and again, “How did your eyes get opened?”[4] And so the man recounted over and over what had happened with the mud and the pool and the miracle. “Where is he? Where did Jesus go?” his neighbors asked. And he answered them truthfully: “I don’t know.”[5]

As he was retelling his story yet again, the man saw another group of people coming down the street. As the crowd parted for these men, the man realized that they must be the Pharisees. They explained to the man that because today was the Sabbath, it was sinful for Jesus to have done the work of mixing the mud, spreading it on his eyes, and healing him. “God said we are to rest on the Sabbath,” one of them reminded him sternly.

Then the Pharisees proceeded to question the man over and over and over again about what had happened. And over and over and over again, the man repeated the same story: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see.”[6] As the questioning continued, it became clear to the man that the Pharisees were very upset with Jesus. Finally, one of the Pharisees declared in exasperation, “Obviously, this man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath!” Before the man could respond, another one of the Pharisees countered, “How can a bad man do miraculous, God-revealing things like this?”[7] And they argued amongst themselves for a short time before finally turning to the man and saying, “You’re the expert. He opened your eyes. What do you say about him?”[8]

The man thought for a moment. Certainly, those with Jesus had called him “Rabbi,” so he must be a teacher. But he did so much more than any of the other rabbis the man had ever known. He must have been more than a rabbi, so he finally answered them: “He is a prophet.”[9] The Pharisees simply shook their heads at this and continued arguing amongst themselves. As they argued, the man heard them discussing whether or not he had truly been born blind in the first place. “You never know,” one of them whispered loudly. “This could be one big, elaborate hoax to further Jesus’ agenda!”

The man could barely believe his ears. Were they serious?! Why would he lie about something like that for so long? He couldn’t imagine what might possibly be gained by a deception like that. He was about to interject into their conversation and tell them exactly what he thought about their suspicions when one of them called out, “Where are this man’s parents? We want to speak with them!” Once the man’s father and mother had been brought forward, the Pharisees asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”[10] The man felt sorry for his parents. It was obvious that they were fearful of any repercussions that might stem from their response. It had already been established by the Pharisees that anyone who supported this Jesus person – anyone who agreed with the whispers and rumors that this rabbi might be the long-awaited Messiah – would be driven out of the synagogue. In quaking voices, they said to the group, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see – haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes.” They took a deep breath as if strengthening their resolve, then quietly added, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.”[11]

And so the Pharisees turned again to the man who had been born blind, and again they questioned him over and over. The man could tell that they were waiting for him to say something – something negative and disparaging about Jesus – but the man refused to do so. In his frustration, one of the Pharisees finally declared, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an imposter!”[12] Even then, the man remained firm. “I know nothing about that one way or the other,” he replied steadily. “But I know one thing for sure: I was blind … I now see.”[13] Again they came at him with their questions. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” And again the man answered them. Again and again and again, he answered them. Finally, his patience ran out. “I’ve told you over and over,” he shouted, “and you haven’t listened! Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?”[14]

Instantly, the man could tell that he had touched a very raw nerve. All of the Pharisees turned very red in the face. Their searching eyes became hostile eyes, and they crossed their arms over their chests as if to ward off his words. “You might be a disciples of that man,” they said venomously, “but we are disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.”[15]

For the man, this was the last straw. He could hardly believe these men. This Jesus – whoever he was – had performed a miracle and given the man the sight that had been denied him since birth. He could see! How were the Pharisees missing this? He stepped forward and raised his voice so that everyone around could hear him. “This is amazing!” he shouted. “You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does God’s will.” As he was speaking, the man could see the Pharisees getting angrier and angrier, but he just couldn’t seem to keep the words inside any longer. He continued. “That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of – ever! If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”[16]

The moment he finished, the man knew he had gone too far. The Pharisees exchanged meaningful glances, and then, slowly and deliberately, one of them stepped forward. He said to the man, “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!”[17] His voice rose with each word. “Get out of here! Leave this synagogue, and don’t bother coming back!” His last words were firm and deadly quiet: “You aren’t welcome here anymore.”

That was it. As the man who had been blind wandered through the city, he knew that he had been cut off from his community for good. But there was also a small voice inside him that was saying, “But what you said was true.” And so, having nowhere else to go, he continued to walk the streets of Jerusalem, one of his favorite Scriptures from worship running through is mind: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. … Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.[18] I could sure use some of that comfort right now, God, he thought.

As he was walking, a familiar group approached the man. It was Jesus and his disciples. Jesus came up to the man and put his hand on his shoulder. “I heard about what happened at the synagogue,” Jesus said. “Tell me, friend, do you believe in the Son of Man?”[19] The man was silent for a long time. Finally, he said to Jesus, “I have just been driven from the only community I’ve ever known. I have nothing. I am in need of something to believe in. Who is this Son of Man? Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”[20] Jesus smiled with warm, kind eyes and said gently, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

And the man knew. He knew that the rumors and whispers he’d heard about this Jesus man were true. He knew that the Pharisees were wrong. And he knew that this man was with the Messiah. Another part of the psalm began running through his mind: He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. … You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.[21] The man took a deep, shuddering breath. “Lord,” he said, “I believe.” And with a heart overflowing with gratefulness and praise and love, he worshiped him.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long! Amen.

[1] Jn 9:2.

[2] Jn 9:3-5.

[3] Jn 9:7.

[4] Jn 9:10.

[5] Jn 9:12 (paraphrased).

[6] Jn 9:15.

[7] Jn 9:16.

[8] Jn 9:17 (emphasis added).

[9] Jn 9:18.

[10] Jn 9:19.

[11] Jn 9:20-21.

[12] Jn 9:24.

[13] Jn 9:25.

[14] Jn 9:26-27.

[15] Jn 9:28-29 (emphasis added, with some additions).

[16] Jn 9:30-33.

[17] Jn 9:34.

[18] Ps 23:1, 4.

[19] Jn 9:35.

[20] Jn 9:36 (paraphrased and with additions).

[21] Ps 23:2, 5b.