Steadfast – word of the day (and night)
A sermon preached at Mattins at Chester Cathedral on October 13th 2013.
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher (or, of one who is taught), that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. Isaiah 50:4f
What are the words that waken us?
What are the words that weaken us?
To what extent do the words that waken us make us?
To what extent do the words that wake us break us?
What are the words that wake us?
I asked some Fb friends, and got loads of replies:
They ranged from the relatively mundane (but still wonderful)
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
to the “This is the day that the Lord has made”
there were those who said that they woke to the sound of silence.
Anna says that it isn’t really words that wake us so much as noises, events, images, light etc. To which jenny replied that it isn’t so much the words, as the tone of voice that wakes us
My friends didn’t think anyone used Rise and Shine any more. A bit old fashioned they thought. Though it strikes me as a good Christian wake up call with its associations with the Lazarus story. Perhaps it’s too upbeat and cheerful when waking from slumber.
The words that wake us have the power to make us or break us. The words pounded through the bedroom door – “you’ve got 10 minutes to get dressed and be on that bus”. What effect do they have on the day and family relationships?
Those who are haunted by fear and those who are anxious about the future have other words that wake them up – not just at the crack of dawn, but repeatedly through the night.
Words spring to mind when we are anxious, excited or depressed.
The words that wake the mother struggling to make ends meet are words of panic. What are the words that wake the child who is being bullied.
Words have power.
Words weigh heavy.They shape the way in which we see ourselves and others. Dismissive put downs can affect us for decades. Careless labeling of others mean that we misjudge others.
Many of the words we pick up from a world that is indifferent or hostile to us are so powerful that we come to believe them.
Be careful how you speak to your children. One day it will be their inner voice . Peggy O’Mara
We have to take care about what we say. Particularly with our first words of the day, or the first words of a conversation. An email reply comes across well with an opening response of “it’s good to hear from you”. Macdonalds aren’t far off the mark when their “servers” bless those they have served with “have a good day” – to which the correct response (probably not often said) is “and also with you”.
“What if every word we say,
never ends or fades away?
What if not a word is lost,
what if every word we cast
cruel, cunning, cold accurst,
every word we cut and paste
echoes to us from the past,
fares and finds us
first and last
haunts and hunts us down?
What if each polite evasion,
every word of defamation,
insults made by implication,
compromise in convocation,
propaganda for the nation
false or flattering persuasion,
blackmail and manipulation,
grows to such reverberation
that it shakes our own foundation,
shakes and brings us down?
We must weigh our words carefully. The words that wake us are the words that make us and the words that break us.
The prophet, in our first reading, has the tongue of one who is taught. I suggest that it is not the “tongue of a teacher” as translated in our reading, but the “tongue of one who is taught” … by God – given by God so that he would know how to sustain the weary with a word. (Isaiah 50:4)
The words that wake the prophet are the words that make him. The words that wake him are the words of God.It is because God speaks and the prophet listens that the prophet becomes as one who is taught, as one who can sustain the weary with a word. The prophet says, “Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”
The Bible often refers to the voice of God not being heard. There are various reasons for God’s word not being heard. They include God’s own silence, but also there are times when God’s word is not heard because it is not listened to.
Here we meet with the prophet whose ears woke every morning to the word of God. We can perhaps feel the intimacy between God and the prophet as the prophet feels the breath of God on his ear as he whispers him awake morning by morning.
What are the words that wake us?
There is no shortage to the words that wake us. Newspaper headlines, breakfast TV, advertising – these are the hidden persuaders who know that the words that wake us are the words that shape us, and they want to shape us to their own ends.
The prophet shows us an alternative. His ears are awakened by the whispered word of God, a word which brings blessing to him and the weary.
There are many people who have this discipline of listening to God before first light. It is a discipline shared by very many faith communities.
But our prayer, whether it be morning or evening, can be full of our own words, with God not being able to get a word in edgeways. We can say our prayers without hearing a word from God.
Hearing the word of God requires discipline and attentiveness.
We can choose the words. The words of God can be words of Jesus, words of the angels, words of scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit, words spoken through the prophets. God has spoken many words. They have been repeated down the ages and brought many to life. They have wakened many morning by morning, and hearing them has signified the end of night and the break of day. We can choose the words and we can let the words choose us.
All the words of God are summed up in the one Word, Jesus. All the words of God can be translated as love. “Love is his word” is how hymnwriter Luke Connaughton puts it. All the words of God are for the weary, the lost, the last and the least. They are timed for the dead of night, the ending of darkness and the first light of day.
If it is true that the words that wake us, make us, then is it true that if we allow the words of God to waken our ears morning by morning, we too will have the tongue of one who is taught?
Do the words by which God wakes us make us a blessing to those around us who are weary and those who are oppressed and abused by words and deeds that break them?
What are the words that wake us? What words wake us, make us and break us? These are the questions rattling round my mind today.
Malcolm Guite has a sobering reflection on words in which he reflects on the shadow side of language – he has called it “What if …” (You can hear Malcolm’s reading here). He prefaces his poem with these words from Matthew’s Gospel:
“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Matthew 12:36-37
What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?
What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?
What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?
What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?
Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.
Malcolm has a new book of poetry being published this month – The Singing Bowl.
There are some words you just want to roll around in your mind isn’t there? “Harrowing” did its work on me when I saw this poem by Parker Palmer, which he describes as “taking form” within him.
The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life this way
turned over a whole history
looking for the roots of what went wrong
until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.
Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons –
The farmer plows to plant a gleaning season.
This poem from Let your life speak by Parker J Palmer.
The photo is from Biltho’s photostream
At its best the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of yur eye you can see motion. Something is moving the air and headed your way.
from the Writing Life by Annie Dillard (p75)
>Sometimes we feel that people have to have the “last word” in an argument. It is so annoying! Sometimes I have to do presentations – and I apologise for all those occasions when I’ve appeared to want to have the “last word”. That’s the way it happened in my educational background – lecturers who seemed to have everything buttoned up. What they said really was “the last word”, and there was no chance of comeback or developing what had been presented. The impression given was that you had to go away and “learn your lesson”.
I would rather be giving a “first word” – something to set trains of thought going.
And that’s got me thinking about the first word and the last word. The first word is the Word by whom all things came into being – and the last word is also spoken by God. A word of triumph – “it is completed”. Kingdom come – on earth, just as in heaven. The first and the last – alpha and omega – but thanks be to God who allows us to get a word in edgeways, even if we do make a hell of a din.