On 13th September 2015, the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 116:1-8, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38.
I imagine most of you have heard the saying: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.’ I have quite a lot of respect for old sayings, believing they come from wisdom gathered over generations. This one, however, I have to disagree with. I’m really not sure how it has continued to be passed down from generation to generation except perhaps as a kind of defence, an act of bravado that denies the truth.
We are all likely to have been very badly hurt by something that someone has said either to us or about us. Words can hurt deeply. Whereas broken bones and cuts and bruises might heal, the hurt from unkind words often continues. The emotional damage from such words can continue to shape a person’s life for many years, even a lifetime.
Words can also cause material damage to someone. If a person’s reputation is damaged in some way, it’s very hard to restore things to how they were. There have been those caught up in the child sexual abuse issues who have been accused unjustly of wrongdoing. The long drawn out court proceedings take their toll on the person and can result in them being suspended from their job or even losing their job. Once proved innocent, it can still be very difficult to return to life as normal.
Words can also do damage spiritually. Quite a number of people who have come to Epiphany Island over the years have been damaged by church. That has left them very wary of Christians and dented their faith significantly. I know from experience that a single sentence caused me to almost lose my faith some years ago. I believe we are in the privileged position of being a place where people who have had hurtful experiences in church may dare to try again. This is why I believe that we have to live out what we profess. We cannot risk doing more harm in the life of someone who risks trusting Christians once more. As most of our communication is in words rather than action, we have to be very careful with our words.
James, in the section of his letter that we have heard today, is in no doubt about the power of words. He writes about the tongue, thus the spoken word, but written words can be equally harmful. As James points out, it’s incredibly difficult to tame the tongue. It’s wild and destructive, wreaking havoc like a fire raging out of control. It is poisonous and evil. It can bless and curse equally readily. James is sure that this is totally wrong.
In the Gospel we have an example of two contrasting statements coming from the same person in quick succession. When Jesus checked with the disciples to find out what they were hearing from people about Jesus, they had a few options to share with him. When they themselves were asked, Peter took it upon himself to act as spokesman for the disciples. He was absolutely sure of himself: “You are the Messiah”. In Matthew’s version of this incident, Jesus told Peter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter was speaking the words of God the Father himself.
Just a little later, when Jesus had shared about how he would suffer, die and rise again, something very different came out of Peter’s mouth. Obviously unable to comprehend how the Messiah could possibly suffer, Peter blurted out a rebuke. Once again, Matthew tells us more, that Peter stated that this suffering could never happen to Jesus. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter, calling him Satan. The same mouth which had spoken the words of God, was speaking the words of Satan. Why Satan? Satan is the tempter, the one who wants the people of God to turn away from God’s path. In suggesting that Jesus did not need to suffer, Peter was tempting Jesus to take a path other than that which was God’s will.
Jesus was absolutely certain of his purpose. He knew that suffering and dying were an integral part of God’s plan of salvation for humans who had gone their own way. We know from the story of Holy Week, that this path was not an easy one for Jesus. He begged God in the Garden of Gethsemane to find another way, but he humbly submitted to what God had planned.
Careless or hurtful words spoken to us can very easily divert us from our purpose. Likewise, our words might divert someone else from the way they should go. The words spoken to me a decade ago by someone who should have known better, could so easily have left me without faith. As it turns out, God in his mercy sorted everything out and here I am. Just because God can do such things doesn’t mean we can be neglectful in guarding our tongue. Jesus was very stern in his warning to those who would lead others astray. Our words need to be words of grace and encouragement to one another. If we do say hurtful things, the best way to repair the damage it to admit it and apologise. In this way, we help all in our community here, and all those whom we meet online and offline, to flourish and be all they are meant to be. We may not all be as certain about our purpose as Jesus was, but we all have a purpose.
As John Henry Newman, a 19th century divine, wrote:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.