16 Nov 2008
“‘He it is who bears a yield of a hundred, or sixty, or thirty fold.’” (Matt. 13:23) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
Words are powerful. They can motivate; they can destroy; they can inspire; and they can offend. Because words are so evocative the Supreme Court had to recently discuss whether the passing use of the f-word on television violated public decency rules or whether it can be used in a non-vulgar way. Someone had won an award on a live MTV program and in the acceptance speech blurted out the f-word in a reference with no connection at all to its literal meaning of copulation. How come I as a priest, in a Sunday morning sermon, can say copulation, but I wouldn’t dare say the f-word? They both refer to the same act. Legal scholars, lawyers, the FCC, the Justices of the Supreme Court now have to get involved in discussions about whether this one four-letter word always expresses carnal relations in a vulgar way or whether it has become banal, and thus inoffensive, like the word jerk.
A vulgarity is defined as forcing a disagreeable thought on someone else, but how a vulgarity becomes taboo is often a mystery. Rape, for example, is a terribly disagreeable subject that the word forces us to confront, but it’s not a vulgarity because the word is not taboo. There’s something about the f-word though that makes it vulgar, and it’s not just its meaning. Before the Justices of the Supreme Court, the argument was made that in the movie Saving Private Ryan the f-word was used when a soldier had his arm blown-off. The word was bleeped, but the graphics were shown in excruciating detail. What, it was asked, forces the more disagreeable thought on the audience: the word or the picture? I don’t know how the Supreme Court will eventually decide, but I know when I watched the movie the word wasn’t there, but the picture was. Right now it’s not a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s one word is more expressive than an extremely graphic picture. Words are that powerful.
But they’re not only powerful in a negative way. I attended our diocesan Clergy Retreat this past Wednesday and Thursday. The retreat master offered four separate meditations. That’s a fancy way of saying he talked to us. He shared words with us. And his words gave us encouragement and perspective; they reminded us and reinforced for us why we had become priests in the first place, and why we still are today. Those words were much needed and appreciated. Not at all because we were looking for compliments or a pat on the back, but because sometimes we have so many other things to deal with as pastors that we can’t find the time to focus on being a priest. His words alone helped us to get that back. Words can be that powerful.
Then in our moments alone, in the parts of our retreat that were silent, I chose to read from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. It’s an amazing and uplifting account of the birth of the Christian church. It has to be stylized to some extent, but it also has to reflect a miraculous reality because we’re here. The church started out as eleven guys, and now we’re here. What propelled the church forward were words. From the first day of the church, Pentecost, Peter’s words in the streets of Jerusalem brought people to Christ. Stephen, the church’s first martyr, is stoned to death because of the power and effect of his words. When we first meet Paul, we hear of him speaking boldly and fearlessly. The first sacrament shared by the ancient church was the Word of God. Peter is addressing the household of a Roman officer, and in Acts it says: “While [he] was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” (10:44) This is the definition of sacrament. And it goes on to say in Acts that once it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been shared through the Word of God, then those who have heard are baptized (10:47). If words are powerful, then how much more so must be the Word of God?
Our church prophetically declared the Word of God a sacrament in 1909, nearly a century ago. In the past month I’ve heard two other clergy preach who are from two other denominations, and both of them have spoken in almost exactly the same way about the Word of God, but now it’s one hundred years later. Rev. Peter Gomes, the Baptist chaplain from Harvard, spoke at Smith College in October. He spoke of the gospel, the good news, reaching out beyond the written word of the Bible. The written word doesn’t change, but the grace it bears is heard differently as the Holy Spirit needs it to be heard. The Word of God is not confined to the written word of the Bible as fundamentalists would try to limit it, but to how it is presented and received as needed. That’s sacrament. It is the Spirit mystically working now and always through a visible sign. God won’t allow it to be confined by the past.
This past week’s clergy retreat was led by Fr. Al Zadig, a retired Episcopal priest. He went to Brandeis University, my alma mater, as a Jewish student planning on becoming a rabbi, but he came out as a Christian wanting to be a priest. He told the joke that a Jewish man went to his rabbi one day complaining that his son went away and came back a Christian. The rabbi said, “You know, it’s funny you say that. My son, too, left home and came back a Christian.” They both decide to pray about it together, and God answers back, “You know, it’s funny you say that …” But Fr. Al Zadig also spoke to us about the unexpected results some of his sermons have elicited. His first sermon at his home church in Boston was to last no more than four minutes because four Seminarians were each going to speak to the congregation about why they wanted to be priests. He said he was so nervous that he still doesn’t know what he said that day, but the rector of that parish told him afterward that his words had so inspired a doctor in the congregation that he made his final decision to serve overseas as a medical volunteer. He can’t even remember the words he used to describe his own vocation, yet God used them to inspire that doctor to begin his own vocation. That’s the Holy Spirit working beyond the words, and that’s exactly what is meant by the Sacrament of the Word of God Heard and Preached.
Words are powerful so the Word of God must be all-powerful. But that’s not enough. Matthew makes clear today that the Word can be wasted for various reasons by those who hear it. And even those who accept it as the Word of God have differing results. Some will only get a little from it and others much more. What we need to strive to do this Word of God Sunday is let the power of God’s Word affect us as powerfully as it possibly can. God has done His part, but we need to do ours. That this may be our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)