I think if we’ve learned anything from our human evolutionary history, it’s that words matter; language matters and communication is vital. I’m glad that the little phrase I learned as a kid, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” isn’t taught anymore. With the increased focus on bullying, which in many instances is also or only verbal, with our increased understanding of psychology, and with all the good work done around communication, we understand more fully than ever that words matter.
The examples of last Wednesday’s inauguration of President Biden highlight the importance of words. I didn’t watch it live, but I saw highlights. I was impressed with the words chosen by Biden himself, Kamala Harris, the Rev. Dr. Silvester Beaman, and especially the words of Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest poet to ever present at a presidential inauguration. The words speaking of a new direction, rediscovering unity and hope, were imperative.
On Wednesday, we heard Biden talk about ending the “uncivil war” and saying, “without unity, there is no peace.” We heard Amanda Gorman say, “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.” We heard Dr. Beaman pray, “We will make friends of our enemies.” We heard Vice President Harris say, “We not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be.”
For me, I suppose because I like poetry and find it meaningful, I resonated with Amanda Gorman’s words most of all. Her poem has to be experienced visually to get the full impact of her words—that’s what I love about modern poetry—it’s also performative. Here are a few of those words:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters and conditions…
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright.
I think one of the things that was genius about Jesus was words and language. Jesus chose words very carefully in Aramaic and probably also in Hebrew; he may even have known a bit of Greek. And after all, as John reminded us, Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. Jesus embodies communication of love in the world.
Paul was careful about words. And if there is any finer example of a choice set of words than Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 13 about love, I don’t know what it is. “Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude….”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, one of the quintessential stories about the importance of language and words is the story of the Tower of Babel found in the book of Genesis. The story is one of arrogance. It is a symbolic story of the problem when one language and one culture dominates. One of the powerful messages of the story is that God’s desire for creation, especially with respect to people, is diversity. Pluralism, culturally and linguistically, is a blessing.
In terms of our Christian story, Pentecost comes along; Pentecost is often interpreted as the discovery of how to be one in the face of plurality, a reversal, as it were, of the Babel story. The Spirit gives speech and understanding across cultural and linguistic differences. The birth of the Church universal was an explosion of cultural diversity and pluralism with respect to traditions, cultures, directions, and languages, all the while celebrating unity and oneness in Christ.
Walter Brueggemann has spent his adult life teaching preachers and biblical interprets how to use words in a powerfully healing way. In a churchanew.org article, he wrote about language and our unique Christian words of faith; he said, “this peculiar language of our faith comes,
- With a memory of specific stories that are fully occupied by a God who with active verbs performs acts of creation, judgment, and rescue. Those stories bear imaginative retelling (see Psalm 136).
- With a vision of a new world that is hospitable to the weak, vulnerable, and left behind.
- With a discipline (disciples!) that is an “easy burden” but that entails the daily enactment of the vision.
This peculiar, distinctive dialect that is a “manger” for the truth (Luther)
A good deal of what Brueggemann suggested was contained in Jesus’ words in Mark, “Come! And I will make you fishers of people.” Jesus presents a vision of love where we are to be caught in the net of God’s compassion and healing. It is to become part of God’s new community of pluralism and diversity. It is to let go of power-over and using words of domination and control. It is to let go into love and compassion and open our hearts to one another. It is to be curious about people who are different rather than suspicious and exclusive. It is to dare to risk to live in the Way of Jesus and ourselves embody God’s Love and Word!
Psalm 62, which we read a moment ago, is full of the powerful language of healing; the context of the psalm may be that someone has been falsely accused and is to offer defense against the false accuser. Those bent on dominating or manipulating others speak lies with their lips because their hearts are conniving for something else. And then at the end of the psalm, we hear the words, “Once God has spoken, and twice have I heard it said, ‘Power belongs to you, O God. Steadfast love is yours.’” It has been said more than once that God’s power is a creative, building-up force in the world.
So, we speak words with love, and we seek to live those words. We seek unity because we are about love and called to embody God’s love. We strive to be one and goodness knows that there are many hurdles to this in our Christian tradition, but we strive for unity and we use words and language to build up and affirm. In song, in prayer, in sermons, in our theological statements, we follow the basic premise of Pentecost, being one people.
So, let me finish by quoting again from Amanda Gorman:
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover…
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Powerful words of reconciliation and vision. Amen.
 See Walter Brueggemann’s article at https://churchanew.org/brueggemann/the-peculiar-dialect-of-faith.
 I found the video of Amanda Gorman and the transcript of her poem at https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/20/politics/amanda-gorman-inaugural-poem-transcript/index.html.