Date: August 27, 2017
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 15:10-28
Sermon: The Power of the Mouth
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
So, a man was seen fleeing down the hall of the hospital just before his operation. “What’s the matter,” he was asked.
He replied, “I heard the nurse say, ‘It’s a very simple operation, don’t worry, I’m sure it will be all right.’”
“She was just trying to comfort you. What’s so frightening about that?” he was asked.
“She wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to the doctor.”
Even when we may have the best of intentions, our mouths can get us in trouble; at least I know that mine does. And it’s usually with my kids. . . Do you ever have that problem? Something is said. The impact was not anticipated. And we’re mired in a mess. What comes out of our mouths can be a problem. Our words can get us into trouble as the president keeps reminding us!
And, surprisingly, Jesus shows us this, too. The writer of Matthew shares the story of Jesus teaching about the power of what comes out of the mouth. The religious legalists were worrying about what was going into the mouth – eating certain foods and not eating other foods. Ok. But they were not worrying about what comes out of the mouth. Jesus reminds us that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart which generates evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. Whew! All these things lurk in the heart and come out of the mouth. Jesus teaches that this is what people should really be worrying about. Fixing what is in the heart and what comes out of the mouth is what brings us closer to God.
Then, in the next story, we are told of Jesus’ mouth getting him into trouble. It’s quite ironic, actually. A woman comes to Jesus begging for healing for her daughter. And first he does not respond at all. Nothing comes out of his mouth. Then the story has Jesus saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This person pleading for her daughter is not from the house of Israel. She is a Canaanite. An indigenous person. A Gentile. And a woman. She has several strikes against her from the first century Jewish perspective. Jesus ignores her and then refuses her. Then, he insults her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yup, in the story Jesus calls her a dog. In terms of what is coming out of the mouth, this story goes from bad to worse.
The encounter in this story echoes with the racism that we have seen in this country. Can’t you hear a traditional, respectable white man telling a black woman that he isn’t going to help black trash like her? Even a white doctor, years ago, saying that to someone black in need of medical treatment? Sorry. Can’t treat blacks. And probably putting the message across in far less civil terms? Jesus basically tells this woman, I was not sent to help the likes of you. The way this story is written, Jesus’ mouth is getting him in trouble. And in the story just before it, the writer has Jesus telling people to be careful about what comes out of their mouths. Interesting.
The mouth can get us into trouble. By ignoring someone’s pleas, we ignore their humanity. We degrade them. We demean them. Does that make the pleading go away? Usually it just gets louder and more persistent. Think of all the people who are begging for help today. People in areas affected by sea level rise begging to be heard. People who are starving and have no access to food, perhaps because of drought or war. And they are pleading for food. For a place to live. For access to basic human necessities. There are people begging for the recognition of their full humanity. People pleading for access to economic self sufficiency. People begging for the freedom of self expression. Pleading to live in violence free communities. Begging to have access to health care. There are many voices imploring in the world.
Sometimes these needs are met with silence; just ignored which is a message in itself. You are not worth listening to, hearing, or paying attention to. You are worthless. Insignificant. Sometimes nothing comes out of the mouth but a message is still sent.
Sometimes our mouths deliver outright insult and injury. I was sent to the lost house of Israel. Not for you, you dog. You’re not my problem. Go home. Get a job. Even when we try to contain it and be more diplomatic, sometimes our mouths just let loose revealing what is truly in our hearts. And we find ourselves a long way from the compassion and justice that we are aiming for.
The mouth is a tricky thing and very hard to control. Words can wound. Our mouths can get us into trouble we did not expect or foresee.
Some years ago I was working part time for the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ and I was assigned to help a church that was seeking a new pastor. As part of the process, the search committee creates a list of the ten characteristics that it feels are important in their next pastor. Then the committee rates each candidate on the list of ten characteristics. To practice, the committee reads a “dummy” profile, a dossier, and then uses the list of 10 characteristics and the rating system. So the committee did the reading and the rating and then we had a discussion of the process. An older gentleman on the committee asked, in all seriousness, “Well, that’s ok for the pastor, but how do we go about rating the wife?” The best I could do at the time was use every ounce of my will to keep my mouth shut. I was so stunned by the many insinuations of the question that I was afraid of what I might say, so I remember sitting there intently telling myself, Don’t open your mouth. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t open your mouth. Finally, I felt calm enough to begin to respond. I didn’t have to say much. Some of the women on the committee took over and set the man straight – about assuming the candidate would be a man, assuming “he” would have a wife, assuming the wife would be involved in the church, and so on. . . Whew!
It was a vivid reminder of how powerful the mouth can be. We see this from the Canaanite woman in the story of the encounter with Jesus. In the story, Jesus ignores her and then insults her. But she is undeterred. She continues to use her mouth to pursue her goal: healing for her child. We had a colleague in seminary who preached in chapel one day and I’ll never forget Ada Maria Isasi Diaz telling us that no matter your circumstances you are never powerless as long as you have a mouth. That Canaanite woman absorbed insult and injury and kept using her power, her mouth, to get the response she so desperately sought. Ok, we’re dogs, but don’t even dogs deserve crumbs? She will still take a crumb. She will do whatever it takes to get healing for her precious child.
The closing of the story again shows the power of words. We are told that Jesus does not go back on his commitment to address himself only to house of Israel. He doesn’t back peddle on ignoring the woman or insulting her. He attributes the result of the encounter to the woman herself: “Woman great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the daughter is healed. The healing is attributed to the woman’s faith not to Jesus. He saves face and she gets her healing. Ah, the power of words.
Words can cause incredible harm. Can you think of a time something has been said to you that has cut you to the core? Just pierced you? Words, sharp as a knife. And maybe closer to our hearts, more to the fore of our memories, are the times we have caused harm with our words. Can you remember something you have said that was hurtful or harmful? That you regret? That you would instantly take back if you could? We know that the ditty, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,’ is simply not true. Words can hurt.
But words can also heal. Yes, words are powerful, and that power can be positive. It can be constructive. It can be loving and healing. Words can do harm but they can also do good. Think of the times you have heard words that gave you relief and peace. Think of words shared that have led to understanding and reconciliation. “I’m sorry.” “I didn’t mean that.” “I did not understand how you felt.”
Recently my husband, Jeff, confronted a comment that was made to him using words to convey a powerful message. While he was cleaning up after a meeting, another white man said to him, “You do a pretty good job for a white guy.” Jeff responded with civility and candor and challenged the racism laden in that comment. After a calm, thorough exchange, the other man held his ground claiming his comment was not racially charged at all. Well, you can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
Words are very powerful. Look at all the attention the words and signs have been getting at recent demonstrations. Some of the words are shocking and offensive. But many of the words are words of healing and hope. And as people of faith, and people with mouths that can speak words, we have the power to use our words for good.
When we went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in January, we had the opportunity to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. I snapped a picture of this quotation: “If I were white and believed in God. . . I would speak in no uncertain words against Race Prejudice, Hate, Oppression, and Injustice.” These are the words of Florence Spearing Randolph, spoken in 1941. Randolph had a long career of using words for healing and transformation. She was the first woman ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church of New Jersey. Randolph was born in Charleston, South Carolina into a family of free blacks. She was trained as a dressmaker and moved to the New York area to pursue her trade. She was involved at her church but had no inclination toward the ministry. It was her pastor that encouraged her. The authorization of a woman for ministry was extremely controversial and the source of much bitter debate. But in 1897, Randolph was licensed to preach and in 1900 she was ordained a deacon and then an elder. She was tutored by Dr. E. George Biddle, a graduate of Yale University, and a scholar of Greek and Hebrew. She studied at Drew University where a prize is given each year that is named for her – to a woman demonstrating powerful preaching and potential for outstanding pastoral leadership. In Randolph’s first 12 years of ministry, she served 5 churches, all small and poor and struggling, for, of course, no pay. She represented the AME Zion church at a conference in London and traveled to Scotland, Belgium, and France giving lectures and preaching. Randolph served on the mission field in Liberia and Ghana. She brought a young woman back from Africa and saw that she was educated in America. Then the woman went back to Africa to be a teacher.
In 1925 Randolph was called to Wallace Chapel AME Zion church on a temporary basis which then lasted for 21 years.
Randolph founded the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Through this initiative, she organized people to address issues of race, gender, social inequality, and colonialism. She fought lynching and real estate laws that prevented blacks and Jews from living in certain neighborhoods. She promoted scholarships, health programs, and the inclusion of African American issues in the state and national press. She was an active suffragist seeking the vote for women, all women. She was active in the temperance movement. She promoted the celebration of what was then Negro History Week. She was recruited to work on the presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding and in the 1930’s ran for assemblywoman in New Jersey.
Randolph used her mouth in the church and beyond as voice for the healing and transformation of society and left a long, noteworthy legacy of her efforts for the benefit of the individual as well as society as a whole. But she knew that her power was limited as a black woman, and so she encouraged white people of faith to use their mouths for good in the world. In 1941, at 75 years old, at her church in Summit, New Jersey, she preached a sermon, “If I Were White.” And she told the congregation, “If I were white and believed in God. . . I would speak in no uncertain words against Race Prejudice, Hate, Oppression, and Injustice..In the city of Summit, I would speak of the unjust housing problems affecting Negroes, the school problem…the lack of Negro books in the library, the ignorance of Negro history because it is not taught in schools.” Personally, I think that she deserves a statue.
Can’t you see the spirit of the Canaanite woman in Randolph? The persistence? The clarity? The faith?
Each one of us has a mouth. And, yes, sometimes that mouth is going to get us into trouble. We’re going to say the wrong thing. The negative sentiments of our hearts are going to slip out of the mouth. But we also have love in our hearts. We have the deep desire and yearning for justice and compassion in our hearts. Think of that Canaanite woman so intent on the healing of her daughter. We, too, are desperate for the healing of our lives and our world. We must be sure that we are letting that out of our mouths. We can speak words that are poignant and savvy. We can utter words of honesty and integrity. Our mouths can form words that convey the sentiments of those who are ignored. Like the Canaanite woman and Florence Spearing Randolph we must intentionally form words of healing and love with our mouths. Amen.
For information about Florence Spearing Randolph, please see:
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.