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Raising a child is a challenge, isn’t it? I’m thinking about this because we’re celebrating our daughter’s 11thbirthday his weekend. My mother and step-dad are here to share with us. We told wonderful stories, and we even went to the skating rink! I skated for an entire hour without falling, and my legs were like noodles—like noodles of steel!
Now that our daughter is on the verge of Middle School, we hear more stories of how her friends and classmates speak to each other. How they use their words—to build one another up or tear one another down. It breaks my heart when she cries at dinner, telling us how someone has used such hateful speech that breaks her heart.
When she was a child, when she would get so upset, one of our “rules” was “use your words. Learn how to describe what you’re feeling in a responsible way.” We taught her that no one was going to listen to her if she just yelled and pitched a fit. We tried to be better people than that.
In the Buddhist tradition, this attention to the way we talk to one another is one of the practices on the Eight-fold Path: Right Speech. Learning how to speak, how to talk, how to engage with one another is a crucial aspect of what it means to seek after Enlightenment.
We learn from our Christian tradition that words matter. God’s creative power comes about from God’s Word: In Hebrew, the Dabar of God. God speaks, and existence comes into being. We speak, and we can either take our place in co-creating life, or we can disrupt and destroy it. It’s a heavy call to share in God’s mission in the world, but it is one that we cannot avoid if we dare call ourselves Christians.
It is this dynamic of words and speech that caught my heart this week in our assigned lectionary texts.
I have read today’s appointed text from I Samuel so many times, with the account of God calling to Samuel but Samuel not recognizing God’s voice. “Samuel, Samuel,” God calls out, and Samuel thinks it is old Eli who is asking for him. Samuel didn’t even consider that it might be God calling out, because, as the text says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Eli finally has to tell Samuel to listen deeply, that he suspects that it is God calling out to him. The next time you hear this, Eli says, simply say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
And there is this image that I have never seen before: “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” I had never noticed that phrase before: God “let none of his words fall to the ground.”
When you dig in the Hebrew, this phrase of falling is convicting: to fall, to be cast down, to waste away, to rot.
A mark of Samuel’s life was that God preserved his words so that they would not waste away, so that they would not cause rot in the world around him. Those who have ears, as the text says, let them listen.
Our speech is intimately connected to God’s own speech. God’s own speaking forth connects with our own deepest identity. We see this power of words in the psalm appointed for today as well, from Psalm 139:
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
We see this power of speech, the importance of words in the Gospel text as well. Jesus calls out for Philip: “Follow me.” And, Philip goes and begins to spread the Good News of Christ to Nathanael and others—even when Nathanael questions if anything good can come out of that part of the world. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael says in contempt. What possible good can anyone find in that hole. The words are chilling for us today.
But Philip listened, as did Samuel, and they were able to hear the voice of God speaking to them in their lives. There is the deeper meaning, if we can see if: Philip stepped out into his life of discipleship, and Samuel’s words were protected from falling to the ground because they first listened to the voice of God that dared to call them into a new way of life.
God spoke, they listened, and their lives were changed.
It is this image of God letting none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground that grips my heart today. It is such an important—and challenging—image for us to ponder.
When our words are not rooted in a posture that listens for God’s voice, they are reactive. When our words are not anchored in the life of Christ that calls us to empty ourselves, to lay down our lives for our friends, to care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger in our midst, the poor, those who are grieving—to pay attention to the least of these—when our words are not anchored in this call of discipleship, they are too often driven by our own egoic agendas, by our own grasping for power and control.
And when our words remain in this sphere of the ego and grasping, they waste away, cause pain to others, cause rot to spread wherever they fall.
But when they are rooted in God’s presence, when they are attuned to God’s guidance, God does not let them fall to the ground. Our words become echoes of God’s grace and hope, spreading through the world around us, rippling across time and space to bring good news to those who are in desperate need of hope.
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord…
Oh, that we would all be able to see that this is our call as well…
Now, let’s look at our ongoing experiment in seeing how the way we pray shapes the way we believe. Turn in your Prayer Book to page 80, to Morning Prayer.
This portion of the service is called “The Invitatory.” In its original setting, in the rich monastic prayer that undergirds who we are as Anglicans, this was the first thing the monks would say after keeping the Great Silence of the night. After holding silence and spending time resting, listening for God in prayer in the darkness of the night, they would gather and open their day with these words:
Lord, open our lips.
And our mouths shall proclaim your praise.
Think about that, the way they broke the silence was by orienting themselves toward prayer and praise. This was what framed their lives. It was how their day started, and it was what they pledged to one another: that their mouths shall proclaim God’s praise.
There’s a lot to soak in about that.
The monks knew that their speech had the power to build up and ground their lives in God’s presence, to invite others into spaces of compassion, and offer hope and love. And they also knew their speech had the power to cause harm, to distract, to be destructive…to cause rot to come into relationships within the community.
They knew the power of words. That is why so many of the contemplative orders had strict rules around keeping silence. It was not that they thought speech was superfluous or not necessary or merely distracting from their prayers. It was that they knew how powerful speech was. And something that powerful must never be taken lightly. Never just thrown around. Never wasted. Never misused. Never used as a weapon.
Lord, open our lips.
And our mouths shall proclaim your praise.
And as the prayers continue:
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Sermon #2 in the Praying Shapes Our Lives Series
2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
I Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:43-51
January 14, 2018