Sermons

Isaiah 62:1-5 – Psalm 36:5-10 – 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 – John 2:1-11

Some of us find it harder than others to speak our minds, even when the circumstances call for speech. My grade school report cards were always good, except that my teachers would invariably write in the comment section that they wished I would speak up more in class. No amount of cajoling or encouragement really helped – to this day, if I do not have prepared remarks, like a sermon or a classroom lecture, I would rather listen than talk. After all, God gave us two ears and only one mouth – which do you think we should use more, given the resources at our disposal?

Spontaneous words do not come easily to me. They must be just right – persuasive, accurate, erudite, and if at all possible, just a touch poetic. With these expectations, it is often much safer to keep quiet.

There are all sorts of reasons to keep quiet, besides wanting your words to be perfect. If you are like me, you may also worry about offending those who disagree with you, or of not being able to respond clearly to counter-arguments. Or, at a deep level you may not entirely trust your own experience, your own story, your own truth. What if I’m wrong? What if what I think is real is actually a delusion? What if what I want to say isn’t worth saying?

I actually think it’s a good thing to subject our experience and our opinions to some critical evaluation – we call this humility, based on the knowledge that none of us is perfect and that our perspective is always limited by our particular location and scope of vision. Self-doubt seems to be one of the hallmarks of those who desire earnestly to hear God’s truth and who are called to proclaim something of that truth to those who would hear it. The prophet Isaiah protested, “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips” when God called him to speak harsh words to Israel. Jeremiah could not imagine himself an adequate messenger for God, protesting, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

There is a difference, however,between reasonable self-criticism and crippling self-doubt. The first leads us to venture, “I might be wrong, but what about this?” The second paralyzes us with the fear: “This is stupid and it’s not worth saying at all.” The medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen began having visions when she was a young girl of only three; she writes: The heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…[1]

Can you imagine having such an overpowering experience? It must have been life-altering. Yet Hildegard was still afraid to speak of what she saw and heard: it took her forty years to work up the courage to talk about it.

It was more than just a vision. Hildegard received the call of a prophet – she was called to speak on behalf of God to a church that was weakened by corruption and apathy. She knew that her criticism of the church might put her at risk, and she knew that speaking as a woman undermined any authority her words might have. Would she be believed? Would she be dismissed as crazy? Would she even be excommunicated, put in prison, or worse? No wonder she was hesitant to speak her truth. But eventually she spoke, and wrote – the voice of God could not be contained.

It is especially hard for those on the underside of society to speak their truth – not only hard, but dangerous, too. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who marched with him, bore physical, emotional, and spiritual scars because they did not stay silent. Some even paid with their lives. But their voices were, and continue to be, heard.

Yesterday was the third annual Women’s March – in Washington, Boston, and all around the nation.

Women’s voices are being heard – not for the first time, but as always, over persistent noises of patriarchy and fear. It helps to gather with people who share your struggle, because speaking up still costs something, as we saw this autumn during the Supreme Court nomination hearings. When you speak your truth you risk being doubted, belittled, vilified, and humiliated.

But we all know, or certainly can imagine, a time when, despite the danger, it becomes impossible to stay silent. A time when, no matter how faltering or hesitant the words are, they have to pour out. Did you hear that in the voice of Isaiah in the first reading? Israel has been decimated, destroyed, and is waiting for God’s justice, watching for the new shoots of their common life to spring up, but it has not happened yet. Perhaps the people are afraid to cry out; perhaps they believe that they do not deserve salvation. Perhaps they do not know what to say. But it is the prophet’s gift, the prophet’s calling to give voice to what can and shall be: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” And in the breaking of the silence, hope is born.

It doesn’t take many words, just true ones. Words as simple as “They have no wine,” can open the door to a miracle, the first of seven signs that God has come to dwell among humans. An unnamed woman – for in the gospel of John, Jesus’ mother has no name – sees and speaks the truth. Perhaps in this case it is not a momentous truth, not a particularly painful or risky truth, but a truth nonetheless. A truth that, once spoken, changes things.

Words, though the nursery rhyme claims they can never hurt us, do hold power. They can cast down or raise up; they can condemn to darkness or shine salvation out like a burning torch. They can poison us from the inside when we are too afraid to speak, and when we find the courage, they can lead the way to justice. As people of God, our words find their source and meaning in God’s Word – and by that I don’t mean each literal word printed in the Bible but the power of God’s self-communication in history and in the world.

Why do we speak? Because God spoke first, uttering forth creation and blessing, declaring all things good. Why is silence in the face of lies and injustice impossible? Because through prophets like Isaiah and Dr. King and Sojourner Truth, who bravely cried, “Ain’t I a woman?” God’s Word found its way into the light.

How is it that we might summon the courage to confront words of death and despair? Because in Jesus, God’s Word spoke life into a world of death. We can speak difficult and risky truth because God in Christ spoke and lived, died and rose again, for the sake of those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death. Still speaks, still lives, still dies, and still rises once more, for the sake of justice.

Last week we stood at the Jordan River with Jesus, and as he came up out of the water, heard God speak Words meant for the whole world: You are my Child, the Beloved. When we know this about ourselves and each person we meet, vindication shines out like the dawn, and salvation like a burning torch, and there is no way we can keep silent.

[1] Scivias, “Declaration.” Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990, p.59.

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