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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When Words Fail

This sermon was first preached at Shaw University Divinity School Chapel Service on February 18, 2017

            I think that most of you would understand what I mean if I said, “It’s been one of those weeks.”  You can probably identify with having that feeling at some point in the recent past.  In the midst of living life, sometimes we prepare our best work, we pray our most beautiful and confident prayers, we express ourselves in conversation as clearly as we can, but nothing turns out as we expected.  We are hurt, people don’t understand, friends are angry, God is distant.  I’m not good at hiding it.  Students see me walk into class and ask if I’m okay.  Co-workers pull me aside to ask what’s wrong.  It was one of those weeks.   
I have made a career out of using words: reading, speaking, and writing.  I read news, commentary, essays, and books a large part of every day of my life.  I listen to preachers in church; I listen to radio news in the car.  I write short, clever comments on what is happening in the world.  I write longer reflections on social issues and the church.  I do my thinking with my fingertips on a keyboard.  I must have written tens of thousands of words as I have struggled to live with the illness and death of my beloved wife. Sometimes what I write is simple and straightforward.  Sometimes it is complex argumentation.
            There are plenty of times when I can’t seem to get started.  Occasionally I begin, only to find myself headed down a road to nowhere, making me have to start over.  On some subjects, I have stored away many long and complicated sentences and paragraphs in the recesses of my memory, ready for me to pull them out on a moment’s notice to clarify a question or drive home a point.
            There is joy in crafting words.  Constructing a strong first sentence or a challenging final sentence in an argument can satisfy a thirsty soul.  Framing a vivid metaphor or a lyrical turn of phrase can give life to a project.  Employing the rhetorical skills passed down by a lively intellectual tradition of preaching can lift an entire room of spirits together, or stir them to anger, or challenge them to action.
            I’m not the greatest wordsmith by any means.  Too many of my sentences meander toward obscurity.  Too often I make an argumentative leap that leaves out important intermediary steps, forcing the listener or reader to wonder why I suddenly changed the subject without clear warning.  We all can look beyond our own achievements toward the oratorical craft of another preacher we admire for her or his depth of understanding, precision of vocabulary, and skill of delivery.  We find ourselves returning to certain writers whose ability to articulate and inspire on the printed page or on the pixilated screen leaves us wanting more.
            So for me, and perhaps for many of you, life unfolds in a proliferation of words.  It’s more than words, but it still is a flood of words.  A few weeks ago, I sat down in a hotel room in New Orleans where I was attending the Society of Christian Ethics.  I had been reading books and essays, contemplating an essay on the topic of reparations in theological education.  Over a period of a couple of days, broken up by conference events, meals, and a small amount of sleep, I wrote over thirty-two pages on the topic, and still felt I had not quite covered all that I should say.  I’m not really trying to brag here.  It’s simply an illustration of how my writing often gets done.  I was only able to do that because of habits coming from so many years of devotion to and immersion in speaking and writing.  It’s far from clear yet whether all those words will make much of a difference in the world.
I doubt that my three kids believe it, but there was a time in my life when I was known as a person of few words.  My wife, who could outtalk me any day, used to laugh at me for the way I had something to say about almost any subject, even those I knew little or nothing about.  She would tease me about being a “know-it-all.”  That’s probably not so hard for my colleagues to believe.  While I slip into the quiet mode still some of the time, mostly nowadays I produce and spout and swim in a sea of words.  I have come to trust in the power of words, especially when combined with the power of communities organized for strategic action. 
A little over a year ago, our community organizing group, Durham CAN, was struggling to see words turned to action on affordable housing in Durham.  The City Council, leaders of the County Commissioners, and of course the Durham Housing Authority all were on record supporting affordable housing.  It’s hard not to think that more affordable housing is a good idea.  But liking the idea and making change happen are different things.  We applied the power of words by creating and conducting a Downtown Durham Subsidy Tour. 
We held a public teaching session about the millions of dollars in subsidies that had gone into various commercially profitable projects.  These were tax incentives and public-private partnerships amounting to tens of millions of dollars from which private developers and businesses would benefit greatly at taxpayers’ expense.  A tiny fraction of those subsidy amounts would be enough to get Durham moving toward more affordable housing.  So we took citizens all over downtown and hung up signs on various buildings, detailing the subsidies that went to private developers and businesses.  Those spoken and written words made a difference.  Television and newspaper reporters’ words made a difference.  Targeted, strategic words made a difference, and progress quickly got underway on three different projects for affordable housing.
A public event like that or a powerful sermon or a groundbreaking book can demonstrate to us the power and importance of words for human society.  The Apostle Paul was clearly a man of words.  He was a speechmaker, a preacher, and a teacher who could adapt his style to the particular audience he was addressing.  In the opening three chapters of 1 Corinthians he discusses this aspect of his ministry extensively.  He reminds his readers of the good times they have had in the past teaching and learning about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He points out how people started out not knowing much, and that God is able to use foolish people to shame the wise.  He insists that the wisdom of the world may, in fact, not be worth much at times. 
He is setting them up.  All these words, all the things he calls to their remembrance, suddenly are challenged in this third chapter.  He says he wishes he could use some of his big words with them, but he says he has to use words more suited to infants than to adults.  Apparently they are stuck in the age of eating baby food.  They may have picked up some fancy words to use, but they have missed the point of what they have learned.  They might know how to pronounce propitiation or concupiscence, but they haven’t let their training transform them adequately toward God’s purpose for them.  They are dividing into camps and sects, picking and choosing among their teachers to create factions.  Some want to claim Apollos, some Cephas, and some Paul.  He gets no satisfaction that some claim to side with him because he wants them to recognize that all the teachers are contributing to the one unified message and calling God has for them.
We’ve seen it happen.  Someone says, “Reverend Smith never would have done things that way.”  One whispers, “Deacon Johnson never tried anything like that.”  Another complains, “Sister Jones always knew the right thing to do.”  Soon it breaks out into conflict in the committee and board meetings.  Then small groups form in the parking lot to continue the criticisms and complaints.  Church conferences heat up with angry words.  People begin to impugn one another’s integrity and doubt the truth of one another’s words.
We take up sides.  We resist leaders trying to make a difference.  We shut out innovative ideas.  Churches too often work against our own best interests and our best opportunities for ministry.
Paul argues in our text today that all the teachers the Corinthians have had were building on a single foundation.  That foundation is Jesus Christ.  All the teaching and preaching had pointed back to this reference point—the ways and words of Jesus Christ are the basis for all that the Corinthians or any other churches must build.  Yet for all the words that Paul has loved sharing and has depended on to accomplish his work of building up the church, it seems that little growth in grace and discipleship have occurred.  Words have failed.  The people in the church have not remembered what they learned, nor have they remembered who they are.
Paul doesn’t give up.  He starts again to build his case with persuasive words.  Now he tells them that they are a temple.  The second-person pronoun in these verses is a plural.  It’s hard to tell in English.  We use the same second-person pronoun for singular or plural.  “Y-o-u” can mean one person, and the same word “y-o-u” can mean a group of people.  In the South, we know how to translate it differently than the English Bible usually does.  Paul, in this case is saying “Y’all.”  Y’all are a temple.  This is not the same way he uses “temple” elsewhere to refer to a human body.  In our text today, the temple is the community of faith envisioned as forming a structure together.  It’s similar to Peter’s image of a building made of living stones.  But the Corinthian church people have broken up the building.  It’s cracked, and there are big gaps, broken down walls, and fallen roof timbers.  For all the teaching, they have failed to become united as God’s building, the family of faith, the body of Christ.
Paul quotes from Job to remind them that just because a person can make a lofty and wordy speech does not mean one has displayed true wisdom.  They may be twisting their words to manipulate a situation, to try to prove themselves superior, to try to put someone else down.  God knows the difference, and Paul says he can tell the difference, too.  Words are failing the Corinthian Christians because they are willing to use them as weapons.  They are abusing the power of words to benefit their particular faction or camp, and the temple they are supposed to be building is falling into ruin.
Words fail us when we use them against one another.  Words as weapons tear down.  They deny the purpose of human living:  to love one another.  Words that shade the truth in order to try to win are failing words.  Words that construct alternative facts for the purpose of verbal battle succeed only in crushing truth beneath our feet.  Words fail in politics and in church when they become our sledgehammers and crowbars to destroy what God wants us to build up.  We may end up like so much of the world around us by choosing up sides and despising anyone who disagrees.  Paul was a couple of millennia too early, but I’m sure if he had been writing today, the people he was criticizing would be calling one another Nazis, fascists, and communists.  He tells them not to boast about human leaders—if they are good leaders, then what each of them gives you is good for all of you.
I’ll have to leave this 1 Corinthians text to talk about other times that words fail.  Here, Paul spoke to the misuse of words to divide, mislead, and destroy.  But sometimes words fail for other reasons.  For instance, sometimes words fail because they choke in our throats and drown in our tears.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve had words fail me in this way.  Sometimes a hurt is so intense, the mind seems lost in a fog.  Words spoken seem pointless.  Things I’ve been able to say before no longer make sense.  I was so sure I understood a situation, but now to have even thought those thoughts seems utterly stupid.  Or I had thought I knew the direction my life would go, only to find out it will be impossible for those things to ever happen.  In these moments words fail us.  We try and fumble about to describe what we are going through, but with little success. 
In those moments of pain and struggle, words can fail another way, too.  For those of us reacting to someone else’s pain, we may become like Job’s so-called friends and start tossing words about in harmful ways.  If I approach someone going through the hellish pain of losing a loved one, and I offer platitudes about their loved one being in a better place, or say it’s all going to be all right, or claim everything happens for a reason, my words are likely to become instruments of greater pain.  The compulsion to provide a solution to other people’s pain is really about my own discomfort.  If I can sum up the problem with shallow theological-sounding clich├ęs, I may assume my job is done.  I’ve figured it out for them, and now they will be fine.  What’s needed in times of pain, grief, and loss is fewer words, more presence, and humble service.  Don’t make words fail by forcing your pile of happy, crappy, empty theological banalities on someone in deep pain.  They are struggling to put words to their situation, and they don’t need useless and hurtful words to fill that void.
When words fail us in the depth of pain, we can be thankful that we are not left alone.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes the situation when our hurt and longing may be too deep for words.  In that crisis, God has not abandoned us, even if words have.  Paul says the Spirit cries out for us when we cannot handle it ourselves.  We may not know what the meaning of our situation is.  We may feel only loss and emptiness, loneliness that looks to be endless.  But God is present in the midst of our struggle. Remember this is the same God incarnate who saw his friends sleep when he needed their prayers, saw them run away when he was arrested, and ultimately cried out in the anguish of abandonment when hanging by nails from a wooden implement of state-sponsored torture.  In the depth of suffering, God knows the wordless void, enters it with us, and initiates the crying out and healing that will restore us.
Here in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul reminds us that when words fail, whether it is through our arrogance and divisiveness or through our hurt and emptiness, we still have a place to stand.  There is one foundation.  That is the foundation of Jesus Christ.  He is the firm foundation.  He has come for us and never deserted us.  We belong to him, as siblings, as joint-heirs, and members of one body, as living stones in a temple not made by hands.  To belong to Christ is to have our lives surrounded by and embedded in God.  You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
To know Christ is to walk in his way.  In word and deed, we take up his path.  He calls us to follow him.  He says to choose the narrow way that leads to life.  He reminds us that it is not merely following a road he walked, but that he himself is the road, the gate, the life we must live.  He is the Word, the logos, the dabar, the essence of both God and humanity, in whom we live and move and have our being.  So words may fail, but the Word of God, our Savior, the True Human and exemplar for our lives, will never fail.  Thanks be to God.
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