The Common Good

More Than Words

“Words! Words! Words!

I’m so sick of words!

I get words all day through, first from him, now from you. Is that all you blighters can do?” 

So, Eliza Doolittle challenges the hapless Freddy Eynsford-Hill at the height of a dramatic confrontation in My Fair Lady. Freddy has come to her rescue, with his flowery, long-winded protestations of love, but poor Liza is fed up with words:

“Don't talk of stars, burning above. If you're in love, show me. Tell me not dreams, filled with desire. If you're on fire, show me.” 

And you know, Eliza has a point. A well-turned phrase won’t keep you warm at night.

It’s ironic that this drama was penned by one of the great wordsmiths of the English language. The play turns on the transformation of a poor Cockney girl into a proper English lady through the manipulation of her ability to master the English language. One argument put forth in the course of achieving this goal is that it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it properly. Style can compensate for the absence of substance.

In contrast, I listened this week to a powerful sermon preached by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber to a gathering of some 34,000 Lutheran youth gathered in assembly in New Orleans.

(Watch Nadia's address to the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans earlier this month HERE.)

The choice of Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of the emergent congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, was a controversial one. Her invitation was almost withdrawn because the heavily tattooed young pastor, with a decidedly checkered past as a suicidal alcoholic and drug abuser, has been known to use profanity in her preaching.

It doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you say it properly, and we know that “blue” language is not proper, especially in the pulpit.

But here’s the challenge for those concerned with words in worship: Can we ever argue that it doesn’t matter what we say, as long as we say it properly? I don’t think so. 

When our words are charged with carrying the gospel, it always matters what we say. I’ve sat through more than one sermon in my life that I wished had been better crafted, but the words of which clearly conveyed the good news of Jesus Christ and I benefitted.

In the end, Eliza is a human being of considerable power and passion, not a robotic, experimental model for the linguistic expert, Henry Higgins, to manipulate. She is more than the pawn in his bet. She is a person in her own right, with heart and soul, courage and the capacity to love. 

In the end, she turns the tables on the arrogant professor, transforming his life with the loving content of what she has to say to him, no matter how inelegantly she may express herself.

Bolz-Weber would argue that she “tells it like it is” to people who well understand what she is saying in the language she uses. However in her sermon to the kids in New Orleans, Bolz-Weber reined in her language, under the watchful eyes and ears of the organizers of the event. Still, the power of her message rises to the significance of the occasion. 

She uses the vernacular, familiar words, common language to tell her own story of moving from misery to ministry, from despair to hope, from the bottom of the heap to the grace of God. Those kids got the word.  They heard the message. They stood and cheered the good news of Jesus and the always in-breaking, eternally redeeming reign of God. 

To be fair, Bolz-Weber’s ability to craft the language and communicate with eloquence goes right along with importance of her story in a powerful confluence of style and substance. She has both.

There are any number of ways to talk about words and the Word as we have already seen this morning. We have read and spoken prayers and scripture. The songs we are singing we’re all chosen, not just for the beauty of their music, but for texts that cover the theme of the day.  

At their best, the words we use carry meaning. They convey the significance of ideas, feelings, the stories of our lives and of our worship, in particular.  I know that some of us would be happy with fewer words. Others love the interplay of language and encounter with the holy.

Some wish the words came directly from the heart and weren’t crafted in liturgy written in advance.

Some feel the elegance of language is essential to carrying the worship forward.

Some long for more silence.  Some would rather sing their faith. 

The truth is we need room in our worship for all manner of means for communicating God and God’s way for us. 

Today we have experienced a couple of key approaches to words and the Word. We started with words from the prophet Isaiah, an elegant and eloquent poet from an ancient world. The prophets used words to speak God’s word to their community. 

Dow Edgerton writes of the task of the prophets:  

“The prophet is…singled out from the community, for the community.  The prophet must call the community to itself, to its true history and identity, for the sake of its true future and vocation.  For the sake of the community, then the prophet is placed over against the community” (W. Dow Edgerton, Speak to Me That I May Speak: A Spirituality of Preaching, pp. 134-5). 

The prophet brings a hard but true word to a people who need to hear in order to find their way to fulfilling the meaning of the life for their community.

The truth is that, although God desires right living among God’s people, that desire is always born of God’s steadfast love for those same people. The call to repentance is a call to come home to the boundless love of God for all of creation, including God’s wondering and wandering people. 

God calls. The prophet responds, often reluctantly. God then speaks through God’s chosen voice the truth that God’s people desperately need to hear — a word about peace and the cooperation that reigns on God’s holy mountain, a proclamation of the abundance of God’s provision for those who seek God, who hunger and thirst for both righteousness and abundance of creation.

Words were spoken. Sometimes people listened; more often they didn’t. The old adage proved true. The prophet did not find attention, let alone honor, among the prophet’s own people. Still, a prophet is only a prophet if she comes from the very people to whom she brings God’s word. 

Finally, when God had enough of the futility of the law and prophets, he sent the ultimate argument, the last word. God so loved the world that God sent God’s only child, not to condemn the world but that the world through that blessed child might find its way back to God. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen its glory, the glory as of the only child from God, Father and Mother, full of grace and truth.” 

The ultimate Word made flesh, God incarnate, the truth come to earth in human form in hopes that we might finally see, hear, accept, turn, embrace the life that God prepared for us from the beginning of time. 

Words! Words! God’s word! The Word!

“Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.” Because, in the end and at their best, that’s what words and the Word do for us — they bring us to life.

Isn’t that what Eliza was saying to Freddie? Don’t just come to me with high flown romantic language.  If you really love me, use language that shows me. Speak with a kiss, proclaim an embrace. 

Another old adage, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, urges us to “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

Good news can take many forms, but it must be alive and enlivening. In worship, Baptists have historically privileged words and the Word. We have proudly proclaimed ourselves “people of the book.” We claim the New Testament as our sole authority for faith and practice. 

We have placed the pulpit at the center of our worship space and the sermon at the center of our worship service. We have said words are important. But in the end, it is only a living word that counts. Words matter when they are full of grace and truth, when they convey the word of God, when they carry the good news of Jesus Christ, when they empower us with the Holy Spirit.

Today let’s give the last word to Clarence Jordan. This is the 100th anniversary of his birth. Jordan was a Baptist preacher and biblical scholar who was instrumental in creating a beloved community at Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia. 

Founded in 1942, Koinonia Farms was an interracial experiment long before the flowering of the Civil Rights movement. It not only lived out racial harmony, it eventually became the seed bed of Habitat for Humanity.  Jordan read the gospel and then tried to live out its word in the depths of rural Georgia. Not only did he attempt to occupy the land in a God-ordained way, he created a popular paraphrase of the New Testament in the southern vernacular of his home and people. He spoke of the risk of making Jesus too “contemporary” and “human.” 

Of the Word become flesh, he wrote,

“Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man.  He has become an exquisite celestial being who momentarily and mistakenly lapsed into a painful involvement in the human scene, and then quite properly returned to his heavenly habitat.  By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”

But God’s word says something different. Jordan continues, “Obviously this is not the thrust of the Bible.  Its emphasis all the way through is on the humanity of God – Immanuel, God-with-us; upon incarnation – the word become flesh, here and now, in our own experiences.  Its movement is from heaven earthward, not vice versa” (Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus’ Doings and Happenings, pp. 7-8). 

Jordan took this belief in the thrust of the word toward humanity and tried to put in contemporary language, in much the same Bolz-Weber does.

How do we keep the word alive?

The passage we read as today’s ancient word, portrays Jesus teaching in the synagogue in his hometown, to the people in whose presence he had grown up and who had known him all his life.  Like a prophet of old, he speaks a word on God’s behalf. As the Word made flesh, he astonished them by claiming that God’s prophecy is fulfilled that day by him. 

As the last word, here is Clarence Jordan’s paraphrase of that same text in The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Act:

“Then Jesus, spiritually invigorated, returned to south Georgia, and the news of him spread through the whole area. He was speaking in their churches, and the people respected him.  But he went to Valdosta, where he had grown up, and as he was in the habit of doing, he went to church on Sunday. They invited him to preach, so he got up to read the scripture and found the place in the book of Isaiah where it says:

'The Lord’s spirit is on me;

He has ordained me to break the good news to the poor people.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the oppressed,

And sight for the blind,

To help those who have been grievously insulted to find dignity;

To proclaim the Lord’s new era.'

Then he closed the Bible, and handed it to the assistant minister. The eyes of everybody in the congregation were glued on him. He began by saying,

'This very day this Scripture has become a reality in your presence.'”

Sing the over again…and again…and again, wonderful words of life! Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon is pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif.

Image: Rex Harrison listening to Audrey Hepburn in a scene from the film 'My Fair Lady', 1964. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images). Words image by donatas1205/Shutterstock.

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