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Sermon: Finding the Right Word

Finding the Right Word

Text: Genesis 11:1-9; John 1:1-8

(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, on 6-4-2017)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. Then more words came and more words followed after those words and words still keep coming. We are awash in words. Some of them are dreaded words. Doublespeak words. Deadly words. In the beginning was the Word and now there are so many words.

Dirty shades deflect the bright light of the newly risen sun. Clothes are wrinkled and matted from a lost battle for sleep in an ER waiting room. Doctors stumble in and stutter and finally say that the pregnancy has miscarried and they cannot explain why. Too many words. Dreaded words.

The carpet is worn with his incessant pacing as he waits for the call. The interview went so well, better than any interview before. Why don’t they call? Then, the phone rings and he wishes it had not. Too many words. Dreaded words.

The car door slams in mid-sentence. “You just don’t get it, do you?” is his futile attempt at stopping her. She does not get it or get him. Neither one does. They shoot words at each other like live ammunition regardless of the fallout. Theirs is not a marriage; it is a survival contest. Too many words. Dreaded words. Deadly words.

The newspaper said it was “an unfortunate incident.” The grapevine says that these two gangs hate each other and something like this was just waiting to happen. Parents and students have taken sides. Everyone has an opinion. The principal listens to the angry assembly pile on their dreaded, deadly, toxic words, while searching deep inside for what she will say, looking in desperation for just the right word.

When I step back and look at my vocation as a pastor, I realize how much time I spend searching for the right word. Preachers traffic in words as much as anyone I know. No sooner does the preacher leave the pulpit than it is time to start looking for the right word again. A friend of mine calls it, “the relentless return of Sunday.”

The words I look for, though, are not limited to Sunday. I look for them when I am sitting with a family in the hospital and the surgery has not gone as planned or when a parent calls and the teenager has left home without a going away party or when someone is fiery mad about something the church did or did not do or when I am proud beyond measure at leaders and members of this community of faith, but do not want to sound maudlin or syrupy. Finding the right word is hard.

I am trying to gin up a little preacher sympathy here on Pentecost morning, but if the biblical story and human experience hold true, we are all in the same boat. We are all desperately searching for the right word. And, God knows, we need it. God knows, the world needs it.

What is the right word to say for a predominately straight and white church community to make people of every race and sexual orientation and political philosophy know that they are welcome here and welcome here as more than second-class or occasional visitors? What is the right word to say to persuade people in power to give up their addiction to violence, to convince people that the great cloud of nuclear weapons surrounding us are actually only a fool’s security? What is the right word to say to families grieving the latest incident of terror in London today?

Long ago and far away there lived a human community that knew the right word. They had no trouble sorting out each other’s accents or dialects. They had no trick words in their language, no inside idioms. They understood each other with no need for a dictionary. They always knew the right word.

This community had a serious problem nonetheless. They lived in constant fear of losing the right word. Every minute they worried about being divided, split into groups speaking different words, spread across the face of the earth into a hodgepodge of competing words. So, they set out to erect the Babel Building, an architectural wonder, an impressive tribute to their unity and independence. They would make a name for themselves, a name written in one language across the sky.

Tragically, though, their Homeland Security identity project did not work. The building did not pass divine code and they lived into their greatest fear. Their one word fractured into a thousand different words. They were scattered across the land into a chaotic cacophony of languages. People who once knew the right word could no longer find the right word to make themselves understood.

Years passed and the babel got worse. People kept looking for the right word, but just missed finding it. The yelling increased and the arguments intensified. Families split over a few ugly words, nations spit out awful words against other nations. Then something totally unexpected happened.

John says it this way, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth.” It is no accident that John calls Jesus by the name of “Word,” or in Greek, “logos,” the word, the “right” word.

In Jerusalem, not long after Rome tried to have the last word with the Word made Flesh, the Spirit of God rushed into the lives of anxious disciples. People of different races and genders, classes and religions could hear each other, could understand each other again. But not everyone understood, mind you. Some thought the disciples had hit the sauce a little too early. Many, though, marveled finally to find and to hear the right word.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Pentecost is a festival of words or more accurately, the Word turning life into a festival. Pentecost is more than an ancient Jewish and Christian history lesson, more than a holiday that we moderns find puzzling at best; it is a continuing miracle in our midst.

Pentecost is the celebration of the right word spoken when we eat this bread and drink this cup, when the waters of baptism drown out all the lesser words that try to name us, when God’s consoling and confronting Spirit sends us to protest in the streets and to build Habitat homes, to speak life-giving hope to our ailing sister’s and brother’s despite all the dealers of death who walk the street and strut in the halls of power. Pentecost is the festival for those whose throats have grown hoarse and dry, a celebration that restores this community to good voice, resounding voice, redeeming voice.

In the beginning was the Word and in every true beginning is the life-giving Word of God, breathing out community where isolation reigns, breathing out solidarity where schism seduces, breathing out courage when the powers that be would have us live in fear, breathing out the Word, not dreaded words, not deadly words, not toxic words, but the right Word, the Word made Flesh, the incarnate Word in Palestine, the Spirited Word enlivened again on this Pentecost morning.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. In every true beginning is the Word.

Thanks be to God!


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