February 19, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I’d like to start us out with a short mental experiment. I want you all to close your eyes and when I say ‘go,’ I want you — with your eyes still closed — to say, “I am a dragon.” OK, go: “I am a dragon.”
Don’t open your eyes yet. Let’s do that again and this time when I say, “Go,” shout the words, “I am a dragon,” as loudly as you can maybe even with a dragon-y kind of voice. OK, go: “I am a dragon.”
Some of you are kind of shy so this time, with your eyes still closed, just think the words in your mind as hard as you can. Say them over and over and over again: I am a dragon, I am a dragon, I am a dragon.
Now open your eyes and everyone take a look at your hands. Did anyone grow dragon scales and talons? Have any of you developed the ability to spit fire since we started this exercise? And I’m not talking metaphorically, but I mean real fire that can set towns aflame? Take a few puffs and check.
What this exercise was designed to show was the pretty obvious lesson that in spite of your asserting the statement — “I am a dragon” — none of you was actually able to change from a human being into a mythical beast. We could continue to do this all morning but no matter how loudly and how often you make the statement, “I am a dragon,” your words will not have the power to shift reality and transmorgify you from one species into another, whether it be from human to dragon or even the more minor shift from human to chimpanzee. We don’t live in Hogworts; we live in a non-magical world where there are some things about your reality that cannot be changed by merely speaking certain words no matter how loudly or how often you say them.
On the other hand, what if I had you shout out, “I am a worthwhile person!” If you said that a hundred times a day, and said it to the spouse who is demeaning you or to the people who refuse to take you seriously, then maybe those words would have some power to shape your reality, or at least your inner reality. This is the basis of school programs for young Black children that have them start their day by saying, “I’m somebody,” or motivational speakers who have the audience shout, “I am successful.” Sometimes saying it can make it so.
This sermon is about words, and about the kind of power our words have and the kind of power they don’t have, and what happens when we confuse the two, misunderstanding just how it is that words shape our reality.
As human beings, we are language based creatures. From the moment we are born are immersed in a world of words which we gradually learn to use to communicate our thoughts, needs, and desires. Many of our earliest words are workhorse words — basic tools that we develop to indicate to our parents what we need. A toddler learns to say, “Juice,” to let her father know she is thirsty. My son John’s first word was, “More!” a useful word for an insatiable two year old. As children develop, they begin to amass object words to describe the world that fascinates them — butterfly, cat, snow, truck — and they wield their growing vocabulary like a pile of post-it notes, sticking labels on what they see around them. The toddler even views him or herself as a sort of object among many using the third person to describe themselves: “Hold baby,” “Baby sleepy.”
As children become increasingly self-aware, however, they begin to use words not only to describe but to define: they are able to say not only that the noisy machine passing by on the road is a truck, but also that they are not trucks. They are beginning to define themselves with their words. By age 2 or 3, our language reflects our growing self-awareness as we experiment with pronouns “I,” “me,” and “you,” and by kindergarten we are able to say things like, “I am a child. My name is Laurie DeMott. I am five years old. I live at 163 Crestwood Blvd, (the first address I had to memorize).” Our words now indicate our sense of place in time and space, and the factual reality of our lives. These are words that describe an immutable reality and on their own, just like in our dragon experiment, these words have no power to change anything about that reality. When you are five, you can go around saying, “I am 12,” as often or as loudly as you like but your words will not change the fact that you were born only five years ago.
Before we have even finished our first decade of life, however, the words that we use to define ourselves become less factual and more abstract: “I am smart, I am dumb, I am attractive, I am ugly, I am graceful, I am awkward, I am musical, I am tone-deaf, I am friendly, I am shy.” In spite of being abstract and even debatable, we often give these words the same status in our minds as those earlier factual statements. While the earlier statements described an immutable reality, because of the power we give them, these subjective words now shape our reality. These words become part of our self-identity and they affect the way we interact with others and affect the choices we make. If I ask three year olds how many of them can sing, they will all raise their hands because the ability to sing is, in their minds, simply a fact of human existence. You open your mouth and sounds come out. If I ask ten year olds, however, how many of them can sing, only some of them will raise their hands because already by the age of ten the words, “I can sing,” don’t just describe reality; they make a claim about who that person is, about their abilities, and how they stand in comparison to others. They have begun to shape that person’s concept of reality.
Without even realizing it, we have fused those subjective identity words with factual words as if the two are the same. To say, “I can sing,” becomes as immutable of a fact in our minds as the words, “I live at 163 Crestwood Blvd.,” with the result that we defend those subjective claims with the same vigor that we use to defend unassailable facts. If we think of ourselves as talented musicians, for example, we may avoid situations that challenge our musical abilities so that we won’t have to question our self-concept, so that it can remain there in our minds as a fact. If we think of ourselves as intelligent, we criticize people who disagree with us, calling them stupid and uninformed to preserve our identity as intelligent people. We forget, however, that these subjective words are not grounded in physical unchangeable facts. For example, what does it mean to say, “I am smart?” Smarter than who? Smart about what? I know people with PhDs who can’t boil water. I know professors who don’t know how to work a smart phone. And of course, characteristics like smart, pretty, charming, courageous, athletic, and successful change as our lives change and situations shift, but we hold on to those words and insist on them, continuing to repeat them as part of our identity because we have come to believe that the words themselves have the power to mold reality.
When I was in college, I was part of an interdenominational Christian group that met weekly to discuss life and issues of faith. One night, a member of the group initiated a theological discussion with the words, “I know I’m a heretic but…” and then he went on to explain what he viewed as a radical way of looking at God. I don’t even remember what claim he made about God but I remember very distinctly that it wasn’t as radical as he had thought because as we went around the group, most of the other members agreed with him. Even the campus minister offered historical examples of Christian thinkers who had shared his understanding of God. After several minutes of genuinely supportive discussion, we turned to the young man to hear his response, and he just shook his head and said again, “Well, I guess I’m just a heretic.”
It was as if he had not heard a word anyone had said that day, and I was bewildered by his response until I came to know him better and realized that his entire self-concept was grounded in the belief that he was a radical thinker, an outlier, someone who marched to a different drummer. If he had accepted our acceptance — if he had embraced the warm welcome of a community who shared his beliefs — it would have destroyed his carefully constructed identity. Instead, he simply repeated the words, “I am a heretic,” as if those words had the power to shape his reality. His words, however, didn’t have the power to make him a heretic when he wasn’t one and his continuing attempt to give those words a power they really didn’t have only isolated him from others and left him unable to grow in mind and spirit.
In chapter 12 of Matthew, we see an encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus which is a case study in people’s attempt to control reality through the misuse of words. The set-up to the scene is a simple healing, one that we have seen many times. The crowds had brought a man to Jesus who couldn’t speak or hear and Jesus healed him. The people were all a-buzz with this miracle, saying that it showed that Jesus had authority over the demonic forces that enslave us, and one can imagine that it was the talk of the town for a while, but when the Pharisees heard about it, they were thrown into a mental bind. They viewed themselves as the faithful and pious of their times, men who, because of their devotion to God’s laws 24/7 were God’s holy ones among the impure. Jesus, they knew, ate with sinners, didn’t follow the purity laws, and broke the Sabbath on a regular basis. If the Pharisees admitted that Jesus had done this healing because he had authority over demons — if they admitted that Jesus too might be a holy man — their admission would challenge their own carefully constructed identities. What would holiness mean if both the Pharisees and Jesus were holy? How could they be God’s chosen ones if Jesus, so different from themselves, was also chosen? They either had to deconstruct their world view and reconstruct their entire self-image, or they had to throw up a wall of words to preserve the world as they understood it.
“It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons,” they said. Like our 21st century debate about false news, the Pharisees claimed that Jesus was spreading false information — he claimed to act by God but his power was really aligned by demonic forces. Unable to deny the witness of the crowds, but equally unable to let go of their self-identity as possessing a monopoly on holiness, the Pharisees tried to re-shape reality with their words: “This isn’t of God; it’s of the devil.” This was the tactic that Jesus’ enemies continued to employ throughout Jesus’ ministry: they claimed that he was not on the side of God but of the devil, that he was not on the side of the people but would bring about their downfall. He was not a savior, they said, but a deceiver; not a holy man but a common scoundrel who deserved a scoundrel’s death on the cross. They tried to shape reality by the force of their words and for a while, it seemed as if it would work. Say it loud enough and say it often enough, the words can get down in people’s minds and they can become confused about what is real and what is not. The crowds did eventually turn against Jesus, the Romans crucified him, and his lifeless body was locked away in a tomb.
But the gospel promises that in the end, however, words cannot shape reality if there is no truth behind them. Jesus himself warned the Pharisees of this: “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure,” he said to them. “You can say that you are God’s holy ones as loudly and as often as you want. You can shout your righteousness from the mountain tops and call me demon possessed and pile up your words in a torrent of falsehoods and insults, but if there is no truth behind them, those words cannot make what is not real real. In the end, the words will die and the truth will rise again.”
And so it was: on the third day, God broke open the tomb and Jesus rose again to bring the salvation that he had promised, to reduce the claims of his enemies to ash, and to set the truth free again in the world.
Say your words loudly and often and if they arise from the good treasure of your heart — if they arise from love, and kindness, and concern for others — they will have the power to shape your reality and change the world, but if they arise from a stunted heart — from fear, anxiety, hatred, or cowardice — they will in the end have no power but will turn to ash and the truth will rise again and set us free.