With Words we Create the World
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (RCL, Year B)
September 16, 2012
The Reverend Rebecca Justice Schunior, Assistant Rector
Who of us here does not know the searing power of speech? For me, the words that stand out are the words from my favorite teacher in high school. I wrote an essay for a history exam on Christianity and American imperialism. I was so proud of my fierce and convicting arguments. But when I got my exam back, my beloved teacher had given me a B minus (the lowest grade I’d received at that point). Even worse were his comments:
“This essay presents neither a good historical nor a good theological argument.” Nothing has ever made me feel so small; and nothing has ever pushed me so hard to be more rigorous and deliberating. I’ve always been the sensitive type and so words perhaps stay with me more than others, but I think we all have moments in which words burn into us. Think of those words that can reduce you to a ruin with a single sentence, or alternatively uplift you to the point of walking on air. There are words that a certain person can say that can turn your existence into ash or act as sustaining manna in the wilderness.
No wonder the author of James tells us to be careful: “The tongue is a fire…from the same mouth come blessing and cursing…the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” What we say has power.
And not just the power to tear us down or lift us up, but they also create entirely new landscapes of meaning. Words can call into being something that wasn’t there before. The word is spoken and so it is. We, this week, just celebrated the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. In the days following the event our president declared that we were at war against terror, and then so it was. Our president told us, in truly uplifting speech (at least for me), that while everything had changed, nothing in our lives need change. There was no sacrifice required of the vast majority of us – we should go on as normal. If not, to use the crude phrase of the time “the terrorists win.”
That particular president claimed that he got his resolve from a predecessor. George W. Bush claimed he was inspired by a painting of Abraham Lincoln. And the words that president said it not too dissimilar circumstances is instructive. After another horrible event of blood-letting on US soil, another president also offered words. As a bloody war where 600,000 people have died is drawing to an end and a devastated country looks to a new future, Lincoln said this:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
This is theology that I would ordinarily find utterly repugnant. That in some ways we deserve what we get. That the violence we face is instructive. I can’t believe in a God who punishes the innocent through a bloody war.The deaths of the Civil War seem like a great waste of a generation. But Lincoln’s words give poetic purpose to meaninglessness. And suddenly, in the poetry of speech, sacrifice and pain are part of the human drama – a drama with purpose and more importantly a drama with hope. We understood ourselves in new ways as players in the drama that brought greater equality. And we also understood that we had a shared sense of loss. These words were meant to draw us closer to one another.
And what of these words? "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.” What kind of new reality do these words shape? Is it a reality we can bear?
In our context, for many of us, death, loss of life, is something hidden, something seldom seen. It’s kept as a kind of secret in hospital wards and within small families. Crumbling bodies are simply not part of our landscape. Most of us are productive, sleek, and strong. Or at least we portray ourselves this way. Part of what was so infuriating about 9/11 is that it happened to people like us – men and women with desks, and laptops, and expense accounts, and 2 pm staff meetings. They were similarly mundane; they had similar worries and aspirations.
While no loss of innocent life is ever acceptable, we as a people went a special kind of crazy in the face of the death of people like us. The words we spoke and the words we heard reassured our own unexamined reactions. Somebody had to pay; somebody had to die and it didn’t really in the end matter who or why. Torture, spying, unchecked aggression are now a part of the landscape of meaning of the last decade. Anything was permissible as long as we could go on as normal, as long as we could make it as if nothing had happened.
9/11 is an anniversary that reminds us of a failure of words and reminds us that no words brought forth transformative action – no poetry that helped frame our understanding and acceptance of shared tragedy. Words matter. The words we form shape reality. Jesus formed words that spoke the truth that there are worse things than death. I can, and I will, lose my life but no one can take away who I am.
You will lose your life, but in this loss is salvation, is what Jesus says. The truth these words create is hopeful. Existential crisis is only the gateway to new life. We know this is true. In a matter of months the way we have been using this building will change radically. This is viscerally real for me. I will lose my large office on the third floor – the most lovely space in Baxter House, our offices around the corner. I will lose the plaque that says who I am and what I do. I will lose the sense that I am in my own private tree house. I will work in a much tinier space in a trailer. My office will be no more glorious than anyone else at St. Mark’s. You too will lose. Where you have been meeting together, where you have been eating together in this community will be ripped apart.
So the words we use to speak about this matter. The words we use to create our new reality have power. Because who knows what new life will come. And I don’t mean just when the new shiny building is erected with its elegant design. I mean what will happen to us when we lose what makes us who we are as community? Perhaps we’ll be new people as we bond with those we shiver with in line waiting for a port-o-potty in winter. Perhaps our Christian education classes will move beyond the boundary of these walls to bring together people who would never step inside a church; perhaps we’ll know more about community and how dear it is to us when we’re finished than when we started.
The words we choose will form the actions we take. The words we use will sear into our brains what it means to be a church; what it means to live at this time. Words are just words, but with them we create the world.