Standing By Words

Pietro Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, 1482

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19

Isaiah 50:4-9a

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

In the opening paragraphs of his 1979 essay “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry states:

“Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. That these two are related (that private loneliness, for instance, will necessary accompany public confusion) is clear enough…What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” 

I often share these remarks with the Rhetoric and Composition students I teach, as a way of diagnosing a problem that I believe it is our calling to address, in whatever small way we can. This problem, which certainly hasn’t gotten any better in the forty-plus years since Berry published his essay, is our careless neglect and misuse of one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity, the gift of words, whether written or spoken. While we might not always treat this gift with the respect it deserves, that doesn’t change the simple fact that words matter. They matter to God, and they should matter to us.

As our lectionary texts for this week demonstrate, this is a concern that has been with us far longer than any of us can fully grasp. That is to say, for as long as human beings have been writing—probably for as long as human beings have been speaking to one another—the mystery and the responsibility of language have weighed heavily on us. 

The passages from the Old Testament point to some of the most important uses for this gift, the tasks of worship and prayer, of teaching and proclamation, of exhortation and lament. With the speaker of Psalm 116, we cry out to God in our trouble. We join in the prayer of Psalm 19, asking that the words of our mouths will be pleasing to God. With Isaiah, we wrestle with the responsibility that comes with having “the tongue of a teacher,” knowing that we might be called upon to “sustain the weary with a word,” but at the same time knowing that our words might be met with derision and even abuse. 

Still, we strive to be faithful to that calling, balancing the knowledge that it is the Lord God who vindicates us when others might declare us guilty, with the humility that comes from knowing it is never our words, or our wisdom that we make known. We are, at most, vessels of that divine Wisdom that cries out in the streets, calling the wayward home. We are, even at our most eloquent, simply part of the chorus of creation that declares the glory of God. And so we pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts would be pleasing to our God, our Rock, our Redeemer.

In the New Testament texts, likewise, we are confronted with the reality that this gift of language, the ability to express the meditations of our hearts, to speak truth and wisdom, is not to be taken lightly. In one of the best known passages about the power of speech, James reminds us that our tongues, despite being small, exercise an enormous amount of power, both within us and in the world around us. Like a rudder, the things we say can provide guidance, steering the lives of our friends and family, our neighbors, our students, our brothers and sisters in Christ, where they need to go. But just as easily, our words can provide the spark that burns a life down. When we speak, whether from a pulpit or in private conversation, whether in a sanctuary or on social media, we must do so with an awareness of what our words can do.

Finally, the Gospel recounts the story of Peter’s confession, a moment when Jesus asked his followers a question and the words of Peter’s mouth revealed the meditations of his heart in a way that pleased his Lord: “You are the Messiah.” Other accounts of this same event depict Jesus acknowledging just how significant Peter’s statement was, declaring that this confession was not revealed to him by human beings but by God. But just as quickly, almost before we, the readers of this story, have fully digested the import of Peter’s moment in the sun, Peter does what he so often does. He speaks in a way that reveals his lack of understanding. He speaks from the heart, to be sure. He speaks with honorable intentions. Upon being told about Jesus’ imminent betrayal and death, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. When Jesus responds with what must have been the most withering critique that Peter (or any of us) had ever received, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on divine things, but on human things,” it not only serves as an indictment of Peter’s words, but a powerful reminder of James’ teaching, that out of the same mouth can come good things and bad things. Our words should therefore be measured carefully, spoken with discernment, and guided by a wisdom that is beyond us.

Of course, we also do well to remember that, just as speech is a gift, so is silence. The Wisdom that cries out in the streets only helps us if we listen. To be a disciple is, first and foremost, to be a student. If we would be faithful teachers, messengers, evangelists and encouragers to those around us, this must begin with a willingness to hear what God is saying to us, through creation, through the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, and through the discerning community of the saints that God places in our lives. Only by listening can we become more attuned to the Word of God at work among us, and thus stand by our words more faithfully.

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