Tag: Words

Working Smart, Working Hard

Genesis 25:19-34fac_wycliffe_open
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Picture a church lit by beautiful stained glass windows and decorated with statues and glittering images. The pastor preaches from the pulpit, but you cannot understand a word he says. You’re told he is telling the stories in the windows and alcoves. But what he’s actually saying you have no idea. They are magical, holy words. The words of Latin, which only educated people know, and in which Holy Scripture is writ.

But the words are so powerful that if the pastor misspeaks them, it is said God will send lightening down and strike him dead. And the words are so powerful all by themselves that people take them and use them for their own magic. Hocus Pocus – you know this is a holy word. The Father says it often.

The Father finishes the Latin and moves into your own language for the sermon… presumably, it is based on what you just heard. But you don’t know.

… Its this phenomenon John Wycliffe had issue with back in 1376. Wycliffe, like Jesus, and like the prophets, communicated that physically hearing the words of scripture and faith is not enough. You also have to understand them.

If you can’t hear them spiritually, understand them deeply, struggle and debate, love and use them… then the words are just noise. Seed that never bears fruit. Wycliffe wanted the Bible translated into people’s common tongues. He wanted them to know hocus pocus isn’t a magical word, but how people heard the poorly pronounced Latin words for ‘Hoc est potus [meum]’ “This is my body,” He preached all people needed to have access to the scripture.

Hundreds of years before, others had argued for this too. We need to not just know other’s understandings of scripture, but struggle with it ourselves, too. So long before Wycliffe, scripture was translated into common languages for people – but over the centuries, scripture became solidified as the Latin version only, and no one but the educated spoke Latin anymore. Many people had forgotten it’s all our jobs to listen deeply to scripture, and to come to the message. It is the meaning, rather than the particular words, that is important.

But anything not Latin, back in the 1300s, was considered not true scripture.

People who followed Wycliffe’s way of thinking got called Lollards. A word for mutterers. And were called heretics. And burned at the stake.

In our reading today, Jesus translates the message of the prophets and God’s words into people’s common lives. He was called a heretic. And hung on a cross.

Today – people still fight over what translation of prayers, and scripture, to use. One of the biggest fights is over the King James Version. Is it the only authoritative, only true, version?


What version of scripture you consider authoritative matters. If only the KJV will do, then you’ll have to accept that unicorns walked the earth with Jesus. If you’re okay using more than one translation, to try to get at the various meanings of ancient words… then you’ll have hard work, but you’ll also have smarter work. Then you’ll know the word some Bibles have as unicorns others have has aurochs and we know as… really big cows.

On the flip side, if only our NRSV is authoritative, who is his ‘Holy Ghost’ we sing to in our doxology? That word is Holy Spirit in the NRSV.

So which Bible is authoritative to you? Which one do you trust?

Red letter Bible?
King James?
New Revised Standard Version?
Common English Bible?
The Message?
Does it have to be a printed version, or is online okay? On a phone okay?

They all have pros and cons to their translation and transliteration. All of them make choices in translating old, hard words that may only appear once and have no context for us to know what it means. Is it debts or trespasses? Holy ghost or holy spirit? All of them also make assumptions about what their words mean to you or me.

For instance… my grandpa might ask you for a poke. What does that mean to you? Click a button on Facebook? Stick your finger into his belly? Or hand him a grocery sack? If you had to translate Grandpa’s request to someone… which one of those would you pick?

Those who provide us even the Latin Bibles have to make those choices… Let’s say you’re translating the Bible and come to the word describing Mary… should you say virgin, silly, child-like, naive, young, unwed, girl…? All of them are legitimate translations.

Even those listening to Jesus today had to decide what he meant with his words.

And this is why Jesus so often doesn’t just say something, but then demonstrates it too. And today he tells others to do the same: listen to understand, and then act on what you hear.

Wycliffe listened to scripture with an ear for action. Scripture said to spread the Good News to all. It said God’s Word is a lamp to our feet. And he took action to be sure all had access to this news and a lamp. His followers made secret and illegal copies of the Bible written in English. And this, along with the same happening in Germany for the Germans, led us to the Protestant Revolution. Led the church into multiple reforms where you can hear God’s Word in your own tongue in almost every church regardless of denomination. Led us to remember… the words themselves aren’t magic. The message is.

Before today’s reading, Jesus has given the Sermon on the Mount… and this is its conclusion. He says: I have told you all these things. I have said them. Now… who has really heard me and will go and produce fruit? And who will start… but for this reason or that, not finish?

Who heard the words, and got lost in nitpicking just who is my neighbor and just who gets to be called the meek…

And who heard the words, and said: care for others, and be humble and kind.

And who heard the words… and went and cared for others in humble and kind ways?

It is those who took what was understood, and did more kindness, that produced 30, 60, or 100 times more good in the world.

Did you hear about the care chain in Indiana on Father’s day? A woman looked in her rearview mirror at McDonalds and saw a man who had four kids in his van. She decided to pay for herself and him at the window, and told the cashier to wish the man a happy father’s day. The father was so impressed and happy that he paid for the people behind him, too. This went on all day! The only reason this chain stopped was because the place closed! One good deed produced the fruit of an entire days’ worth of good deeds. And each one of those people’s moods were lifted, encouraged, and they left telling others of the goodness that surprised them. And everyone’s days were better and more loving because of it.

The words I say and the words we read and hear today are important, but are seed on rocky soil if they don’t land in your fertile hearts and lead to more good words and more good deeds.

The Genesis story of the twins Esau and Jacob touches a little on this.

Both boys have grown up hearing from their mom and dad about the promises of God. Both have heard how God is making a nation out of their family and how God’s blessing is passing down generation to generation. And both have been told how the older boy, Esau, is the one Isaac is passing down the bulk of his land and the blessing of God to.

The words are just words. Neither boy has seen God in action yet. The words fall on Esau and he doesn’t do anything with them. They are just stories. The words fall on Jacob and he does something – he envisions the future and he works for it. He believes in God’s promises.

And so, Esau gives up future promises for the immediate gratification of soup now. And Jacob believes in future promises, takes Esau’s birth right, and waits decades to see these promises come through.

Do you believe in God’s promises? Do you believe enough to take action on them? To risk your immediate benefits for long-term benefits?

Do you work hard – toil – at life or do you work smart – trust – God ?

The words we use are often forgotten. But the deeds we do are remembered. Carl Bueher and Maya Angelo said: “They may forget what you say – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

So… embody your scripture. And know your scripture enough to embody it. If it’s in a language too complex, get a different version.

So that, the words of God are more than just words, but a way of living and acting you can count on for your whole life.



All the Lord’s People are Prophets!

pentecostNumbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21

Let me set the scene for you in Numbers: the people are complaining. Give us meat to eat, Moses! We had meat in Egypt. Give us leaks or cucumbers or anything other than this manna! Day in and day out – all we have is manna. Moses!

So Moses and God talk about this. And God says it is too much for Moses to be the only one leading the people. Gather up seventy men, God says, and I will gift them the Spirit. Then they can help lead.

So Moses obeys God, gathers up the seventy, and they go outside of the tent village where God descends upon them like mist, or a cloud, and they speak wonders.

Speaking the word of God has a lot of power. Scripture tells us that it was God’s Words that created everything from Light to you and me. It’s no wonder that people told Moses that Eldad and Medad were acting as prophets. Moses’ friends probably thought these two were trying to take control of the camp. And if they weren’t, at the least, they weren’t part of the 70 chosen to be prophets and so God may be furious at their speaking God’s Words.

Moses’ right hand says — stop them!

But Moses isn’t worried, or upset, or slighted, or jealous. He’s thrilled that others are speaking Gods words, spreading God’s message and says he’d be glad if everyone did this: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the Spirit on them!”

Indeed, if you recall, later in the letter to Corinthians we hear that it is only by the Holy Spirit we are able to say “Jesus is Lord.”

Moses knows anyone that is working for God, even if they don’t have official permission to do so, or aren’t pastors, or maybe even aren’t of the same faith… as long as they are doing God’s work and speaking the Spirit of Truth – let them be!

In the days of Joel, the prophet foretells the end of the world. A scary end times full of blood and fire and smoke. He calls these the Last Days.

In the days after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, there were people prophesying without official authority. Without official permission. Without clearance. Once again.

We hear how the early Christians are gathered together when violence strikes. This microburst of wind bellows through the house and tongues made of fire appear above the heads of everyone there — every person — and every person suddenly spoke other languages.

Just like at Babel, languages are spread out.

Just like at Babel, confusion reigns.

People come running to the house – what was that roar from heaven? What is this that everyone is speaking all these languages eloquently and they are NOT from our home counties? How are we to understand this?

Like with Moses, some said — stop them! They’re drunk and out of their minds.

Like with Moses, a leader stands up: this time it is Peter. And Peter, like Moses, says don’t stop the Spirit! Interpret what is happening through the prophet Joel — in the last days, God will pour out the Spirit on sons and daughters, young men and young women, old men and old women, babies and toddlers and preteens and teenagers and the married and unmarried and those who are free and those who are repressed; those who are upstanding citizens and those with criminal pasts — everyone will speak of God and God’s wonders.

As Joel said — there will be signs from heaven. And signs have happened. The Lord’s Great and Glorious day is here: the reign of God, Heaven itself, has come close. All who call upon God are welcome in.

In our days, now, there were people prophesying without official authority. Without official permission. Without clearance. Out of the mouth of babes are words praising the wonders of God. Out of the dreams of the elderly are visions of heaven and God’s good work. Out of the work of the middle aged are glimpses of the Kin-dom of God. What is to be done?

Stop them?

Absolutely not!

Wherever the Spirit moves, inspiring people to praise God and spread goodness, love, mercy and forgiveness — it should be permitted to flow freely. ((I also don’t think we could stop the Spirit if we tried.))

God’s Holy Spirit comes upon us at all ages and all times infusing us with the power to have faith, keep hope, and do good to one another. It is outside all establishments, cannot be ordered about, cannot be silenced — as Christ told us, we do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes. The Spirit moves, enlivens, and we move and are enlivened with it.

What does that mean? It means in our days, now, the Spirit is testing our church and our lives. Showing us how we need to be more open, more inclusive, and speak words of love and welcome to people we’d rather not… but the Spirit gives us that language and Jesus tells us to go. Go and speak of God’s wonders wherever you find yourself in whatever languages you are gifted to whomever you meet.

The official authority, official permission, official clearance to be a prophet, a witness of God, a pastoral presence, has been given to you. You here today received this when you were baptized with water and with the fire of the Spirit.

Therefore, we are all God’s prophets. All God’s witnesses; because we are all God’s children.

Light of the World

Isaiah 9:2-7
John 1:1-14

Darkness… nothingness… emptiness… silence…

There is a void, no form, and the spirit, the wind, the voice of God hovers over the face of the deep darkness.

And then suddenly, God SPEAKS. “Let there be light!”

And there is light – stars, burning blazing suns, glistening comets, churning atoms and vibrant energy — and God sees this light, and it is called good.

God speaks more, and more — land and water, birds and bees, trees and fish, bugs and animals, you and me — God speaks us into existence. God’s word is life.

In the beginning, the word of God, the voice of God, the intention of God always exists with God — and is God — and God creates all things into being by speaking. God’s speech and action are one and the same. When God speaks, life happens.

And this word, which is the truth of God, and which all things gain their breath of life, and which deeds and intentions, actions and word are one and the same — this incredible word became flesh and lived among us.

The word of God, God’s voice, became the man we call Jesus.

This light, the very light of God, was gifted to all who are the children of God.

The Gospel of John takes us to the Nativity Scene in such a cosmic route. He reminds us of Genesis, and how the speech and deed of God started everything, and the speech and deed of God continues everything. The speech and deed of God, writes John, is present in Jesus.

When Jesus speaks, his words change reality. When Jesus does something, his deeds speak loudly of who God is.

This concept of speech and deed being one and the same isn’t as heady as you might imagine. Think about this: when is a person ‘married?’ Maybe from the moment they said “I Do?” Those words change reality. These performance utterances CHANGE the world just with the speech.

“I name you John.”
“You are under arrest.”
“I apologize.”
“I dedicate this example to St. Michael’s.”
“Court is now in session.”

Reality before and after these words is different. The words change things.

Some of the most powerful words God ever spoke were through the mouth of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Go. You are forgiven.” and in doing so, forgave sins against God.

“This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In speaking such, he made it so.

In speaking forgiveness, forgiveness happened. In speaking a new covenant, a new promise was made.

John writes to us that this power to change reality we, too, possess. We can use our words, our deeds and intentions, to say “I forgive you of your debts against me,” and make it true. We can forgive as we are forgiven. We can love as we are loved. We can be a light to the world because the light of the world has come.

John goes to such lengths to explain how Jesus truly is the incarnate word of God – truly is God’s breath, Word, wisdom, truth put into a human body.

This is a very, very important concept in our religion. It is a huge point of difference between ourselves and our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

We preach, and believe, that God God’s self was in Jesus.

That is why we say Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us. That is why we say God chose to share our common lot. God became human. It is why we say God truly understands what it is to be human… because, in Jesus, God was human.

God experienced being born.


God experienced the frustration and joy of siblings, cousins, relatives.

Those awkward teenage years.

God knows what it is to hunger and thirst, to be in pain, to be lonely. God knows what it is to be joyful, to be surprised, to be loved.

God knows what it is like to be you and me.

The incarnation of the Word of God is also why we say God came to us… rather than we went to God.

None of us can choose to be divine.

But God chose to come to us.

We are now already chosen. Already loved. Already forgiven. Already a child of God. It’s nothing we can choose, but a gift given to us. A precious, precious gift.

And all we can do is decide how to respond to this gift.

Joy? Hope? Love? Peace?

Awe? Stunned silence? Tears?

Perhaps something beyond words.

When we share communion today, listen to the words that are used. Listen to how words shape our reality, shape our response to God’s gift. Listen and say the words yourself.

Our Lord is God’s Word. And God’s word is a lamp unto our feet. A guide. A way to respond to the gift of God’s abiding, God-with-us, love. Amen.

Astonished Beyond Measure

James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

“I’ll pray for you.”

Have you ever said that? I have. Have you ever then congratulated yourself; you said the right thing! You have the right intentions! And then you walk away. Mission accomplished.

I’ll pray for you.

There is something a little… insulting… about this phrase. I mean, it’s said with the best of intentions and wishes… but… what would it mean if I said, “I’ll pray with you.”

Suddenly, we’re now partners. Suddenly, I’m no longer doing from a distance but in the middle of the issue. Now I’m with you.

… and what if I added, “Would you like me to pray with you now?” We’re taking some action together now. Working together now. Not putting off to tomorrow… to Tuesday… or most likely never… that good intention to pray together.

So often, far too often, “I’ll pray for you.” is a dismissal.

Sometimes, it even is intended as an insult.

I remember my mother telling a friend she was reading this fantasy book series aloud to my brother and I. The friend patted my mom’s hand, “I’ll pray for you.”

It was an insult – it was telling my mother her friend thought what she was doing was misguided and sinful.

This wasn’t about prayer at all.

How is the excellent name invoked over us blasphemed — how is Jesus— made a fool of? When we use religion in hurtful ways.

James sets up a scenario we see all the time. He says picture a church – and men and women, old and young, boys and girls, rich and poor, black and white, and all people come into it. Now, the town mayor is surrounded with people wanting to shake his hand. “Oh thank you for coming to our little church!” People gossip, “Did you see the newspaper is here? They’re taking photos of the mayor. We’re going to be in the news! Maybe the publicity will make us grow!”

Meanwhile, one of those “undesirables” comes in. This woman hasn’t bathed in days, she stinks big time. She’s missing some teeth, her clothing is all full of holes and doesn’t fit. Would it kill her to wear a bra? Is she drunk? She surely smells of cigarettes and BO. What other negative stereotypes can we throw on her?

Anyways, someone comes up to her and says, “Macy, the mayor’s here today, so we can’t have you scaring him off. Go help yourself to some food in the kitchen and then go home.”

Macy shuffles off and walks between the photographer and the mayor, who is bent down talking to the cutest two little kids. Everyone gets upset because she ruins the picture perfect shot. The adults all start getting angry, the kids think the adults are angry with them and so start crying. Now the shot will never happen.

Macy is told to go! Go away! Go sit over there in the corner, go disappear into the kitchen, go back into the parking lot, go somewhere where we can’t see you. Go home. Go away!

The first church goer says, “I’m so sorry about Macy. Don’t think we’re like her, Mr. Mayor. Do come back!”

The second says, “Ms. Photographer, here, over here, come take a photograph of the Sunday school…”

The mayor says, “Do you have to deal with women like Macy often? I’ll pray for you. Let’s see this Sunday school.”

In James’ story, he says our favoritism makes us become judges with evil thoughts. We honor the rich and shame the poor. He points out — the rich already have honor and the poor already shame, why are we adding to this problem?

It’s not Macy, it’s not the poor, who causes us problems, says James, it’s the rich. The mayor has the power to change the rules that keep Macy from doing better!

Poor people don’t make the country laws, they aren’t the ones who make housing market schemes and regressions set in; they aren’t the CEOs and company owners who bring home millions of dollars tax free while their employees earn minimum wage and pay heavy taxes. It’s not the poor taking jobs over seas, and not the poor who oppress others. It is the rich.

This holiday we have tomorrow, Labor Day, was started by unions, trade organizations, groups of working-class poor pulling together. A day to recognize it’s not the rich who make our country great, but the average worker.

James is arguing that we Christians, those who invoke the name of Jesus, are supposed to be equals. We’re to ignore who has money and who does not. We’re to treat all people equally. Treat them all with love.

Honoring the rich and powerful because we hope they might make us rich and powerful too is idolatry. Is worshipping, wanting, following something other than God. Banishing the poor and powerless because we’re scared they might make us poor and powerless is sin. It is dishonoring, not loving, cursing the children of God.

James says if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of us says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat your fill,” … but we don’t give them clothing and food when we clearly see they need clothing and food to be able to be warm, filled, and peaceful — we have dead faith.

When we tell someone “I’ll pray for you,” after hearing about their situation, and don’t actually pray for them, pray with them, or assist in their situation… our faith is dead.

It is dead because it doesn’t do anything.

It is nice words.

But only words.

Words without power are just food for trees – carbon – and we’ve got enough of that already, thank you very much. No more empty words, no more CO, is needed.

Jesus, too, is bantering words in our scripture today. He’s tired of all the words and so seeking a quiet place away from the Jewish crowds who can’t stop talking about him and to him. But even way out here word about Jesus has spread.

A woman immediately hears about Jesus. It doesn’t matter Jesus is in a house resting. She barges in and throws herself at his feet and begs. She makes a total scene for the sake of her daughter.

Why does Jesus call her and her child a dog? This is such a disturbing encounter. Jesus doesn’t seem to act like the Jesus we know. He implies he is only there to help the Jews and no other religion. Indeed, other religions are dirty dogs. And this woman reverses Jesus’ words to argue even dogs get leftovers. Even more strangely, Jesus now implies she has won the argument of words. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

This woman never converts, never becomes Jewish. She still worships Baal or Zeus or another god. Jesus never sees the little girl. He heals her with a word from the distance.

Perhaps the woman pointed out Jesus’ hypocrisy and instead of arguing with her, he gracefully agreed. Gracefully lost his argument and granted her the win. Perhaps when someone points out we’re saying one thing but doing another, we don’t have to respond in anger but change our ways gracefully – like Christ.

Or perhaps this is an example of how to relate to others who are not like us within our midst. She says if she is a dog, she is a dog under the children’s table. In the household, in the protection, of the children’s family. She might not be Jewish, but she lives with Jews. And so since she guards them like a good dog, they should also assist her. Since non-Christians make up our community and help us, we should also help non-Christians.

Or perhaps, Jesus was responding sort of what we answer today sometime when we say ‘I’ll pray for you.’ He just was being more direct. Once my mission is done, once I have time, if I get a chance, I’ll help you. In other words, I have an opening on the 12th of Never. Should Never ever come, then 12 days after that I’ll help. Should I remember this week to pray for you, and nothing else comes up, I’ll pray.

And the woman calls Jesus on it.

And he agrees she’s right. And he takes action NOW.


In the next scene, Jesus has moved on and now some people bring Jesus their friend who cannot hear and speaks poorly. After all of these words — words that do nothing, words that cause Jesus to change, to invoke a miracle — this man has only poor words.

Away from the crowds, in a quiet spot, Jesus examines the deaf man and sighs a single word in Jesus’ native language “Ephphatha.” In English, “Be opened.”

Jesus’ one and single word prayer to God opens the man’s ears and lets him speak clearly. Jesus tells the man and his friends not to speak about this, but the more Jesus stresses their silence, the more they talk. They go around telling everyone of Jesus’ miracles. “He makes the mute speak and the deaf hear!” “The lame leap and the blind see!” The words they all wanted to spread about Jesus were about his healing, his miracles, what he could do for their physical needs.

And our physical needs surely need met.

But so do our spiritual. And few were speaking of what Jesus offered spiritually. Few were speaking of the cost of discipleship. Few were speaking of Jesus’ message of God’s love, forgiveness, and reminder of God’s commandments. They were only speaking of what they could get from Jesus — and Jesus wished if they would speak, they would speak of so much more.

Speak of being opened. Being opened spiritually. Being opened to the needs of others. Being opened to the love of God. Being opened to seeing their mistakes and changing their mistakes, as possible, with grace.

Speaking, as Jesus’ brother James would later write, and acting as those who have living faith. Faith that grows, faith that acts, faith that is ever blossoming, faith that looks at each situation and asks ‘what is really going on?’ ‘How can I truly assist?’

Sometimes that assistance is giving – giving money for a bill, giving a ride to the doctor – but more often than not, the assistance that is really needed is silence. Someone to listen. Someone to pray WITH you, not for you. Someone to HEAR you.

May we be astonished beyond measure with our Lord. May be take his example and speak what we truly mean, do what we say we will, and not speak empty words. And may we embrace times of silence. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio, September 6th 2015