The Word and Our Words

(A sermon delivered at Northaven United Methodist Church, Sunday January 9th, 2011, in response to the shooting of Rep Gabby Giffords. Apologies for any and all typos. Let me know and I’ll correct them…)

Listen to it here.

This morning, I am weary. This morning, I am tired.

This morning, I am, in a sense, without adequate words, once again. I am talking, of course, about events that took place in Arizona, just over 24-hours ago. I have to tell you, I didn’t want to talk about this today. I didn’t want to HAVE to.

I’m tired right now. It’s been a little busy around here the last few weeks. But more than this, anytime somebody who works for the government is shot or killed, it hits a bit close to home. So, no, I didn’t want to say a thing today.

But then, yesterday afternoon, I read a blog from historian and theologian, Diana Butler Bass. She emphatically implores minister to *not* avoid the subject this morning….to speak out….to preach out…on events in Arizona.

Here’s some of what she had to say:

“…pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words.  I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness.  Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans–how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.”(underlining added for emphasis)

I know she’s right.

And then, it got worse. Then, I remembered that today is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. We read the Gospel lesson about Jesus’ baptism. And in most years we use this passage to remind ourselves not only about Jesus’ baptism, but also about our own.

Baptism is that primary authorizing event in the Christian Church. Far more profoundly and completely than ordination or consecration, baptism is THE act that authorizes ALL of us to act in God’s name as the Church.
And THEN, I remembered  the baptism ritual. It’s something on page 34, and on page 40 of the hymnal. It’s the same both places, so feel free to turn there now. It’s the questions that we ask of people who come for baptism, either as adults…or, if they come as children, we ask their children.

And, right there, take a look at the second question:
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

You see, dear friends, right here in this ritual we find a very important challenge that each of us. Baptized people, people of faith, are called to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

THIS is a part of our calling, through baptism. It’s a part of all of our calling, and it comes to us through the fact that we are baptized. This is a part of our calling, those of us who are preachers.

And so, dear friends, we will speak of this today. We will speak of it. Because Diana Butler Bass asked…because Jesus calls us to it, we will speak about, as she says “The WORD” and our words.

But I am weary. I am tired. And I am terribly terribly sad.

Many times in the past 24-hours, I have read a politician or pundit talk about how “Shocked, surprised, and saddened” they are about these events in Arizona.

So, you might wonder: am I surprised? Am I shocked? Am I saddeded?
Saddened? Yes. Deeply. Truly. Profoundly.

But am I shocked? Surprised?

NO. No, I am not shocked. No, I am not ONE BIT surprised. I didn’t WANT such things to happen. Or yearn for it. Or hope for it. But, no, I am not shocked.

I am not shocked that after years and years(decades, really) of  hateful and inciteful rhetoric against government employees a lone gunman chose what should be unthinkable in our society. Angry political words –a climate of hate that many politicians and preachers say they have never seen– has led a lone disfunctional persons to attempt to kill a member of congress, and and actually kill six people, including a nine-year-old child and a federal judge.

No. No, I am NOT shocked by this. And it grieves me deeply to say that.
And, you know what? I am curious about you. I wonder if you’d be willing to answer this question out loud….this morning, are you shocked? (the congregation responded “No.”)

Because, as people of faith, we’ve been here before and we’ve been here often. Here in sermons, we’ve talked about the WORD and we’ve talked about our “words.” This is a part of why I am weary. I’ve preached before about hateful incindiary political speech before right here in this pulpit. I preached about it during the presidential campaign. I preached about it with during the health care debate. I’ve preached about it with regard to the demeaning language our society uses to describe immigrants or LGBT people. Last Fall, I talked about it with respect to bullying.

But, friends, you know it’s not just me. We’ve been talking about this for decades here at Northaven. You know what I’m talking about. November, 1963. The sermon that likely changed the future history of this church. Rev. Bill Holmes stood in the Northaven church pulpit and decried the hateful fearmongering of that time. Two days after Kennedy was assassinated here, Rev. Holmes asked a question that has echoed down the decades: “In God’s name, what kind of city have we become?!”

It makes us weary to have to remember how long ago that was, how much we had hoped we had changed from being that society. But instead  we can easily extrapolate that four-decades-old question, and ask “In God’s name, what kind of NATION have we become?”

What kind of nation do we live in when this kind of violence is SO UTTERLY predictable that we are NOT surprised?

You might say, “But, Eric, what if we later learn that this shooter was a left-wing nut-job? What if he was a Obama fan? What if he was a McCain fan? What if he liked the Tea Party? What if he liked Greenpeace?”

I will say to you now: it won’t matter.
In fact, I am grateful I can preach this sermon today before I learn too much about this person. Because it helps me make the point that it doesn’t matter. Always after such shootings, we imagine that we’ll be able to BLAME solely on the derrainged mind of one person, and within that that we can blame it on some “cause” in his life…his politics…or his parents….or the music he listened to…we look to blame it solely on him, or anybody else….except US.

But see, dear friends, I don’t really care to know much more about him. I think I know just about everything I need to know. From the little I’ve read, he sounds dissociative. More than a little “off.” He was a person, near the edge, who was driven to do something horrible.

And THE REAL question, dear friends, is not “Who was HE?”
THE question is: “Who are WE?”

In God’s name, what kind of nation have we become? Who are we? And, here within the church, we must ask: how have we, as people of the WORD, stood by as society’s “words” got so out of hand?

On that late November Sunday in 1963, from very this pulpit, Rev. Holmes noted that  during President Kennedy’s visit, all over the City of Dallas, there were posters that said “Wanted for Treason” and featured a picture of John F. Kennedy….with a target over his head.

Did those pictures kill Kennedy? No. Did they contribute to an atmosphere where the poisoned rhetorical air drove Oswald over the edge? Yes. Yes, they did. And that was his point in that day. His point, as a pastor, was to call people to account for the hateful, vengeful speech and attitudes that had been allowed to flourish.

And in our time, my calling as pastor of the current Northaven is similar. Through my baptism, I am called to speak against “evil, injustice, and oppression.”  I heed Diana Butler Bass’ call to talk not only about the WORD, but about our words. I feel compelled to share the following thoughts…

In our day, national politicians have sponsored  websites with targets on them. Gun targets, aimed over certain congressional districts, including the congressional district of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Those same websites encouraged people to “don’t retreat, just reload.” A coded message to a lone gunman that could not be clearer.

In our day, before last Fall’s elections, Senatorial candidates were promising that if the election didn’t go their way, people ought to consider a “second amendment solution.” It’s quite clear: if you don’t like the outcome of the election, take up arms against the government. A coded message to a lone gunman that could not be clearer.

In our day, so-called patriot groups all over the country are quoting an obscure passage from Jefferson that says, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  A coded message to a lone gunman that could not be clearer.

In fact, many of these messages are hardly coded, are they? They overtly call for violence. And it is time for our nation to repent.

So, no, I am not surprised that given this constant bombardment of demeaning language…given thousand of other examples I could cite –but won’t because we’d be here until next week– given the constant bombardment of negative language toward our elected officials, one lone, dissociative person listened to it, and went over the edge.

It’s been going on for decades. For more than two decades now, members our elected government have spoken about the government, and government service, in extraordinarily negative ways. We have used violent language to describe what we have wanted to do with the government and governmental workers. It has allowed us to see government workers as less than human.

By the way, theologically, this dynamic of dehumanization has been with us a long time, less we forget. Let’s remember that in Jesus’ day, some of the most hated people in his society were those pejoratively called “Tax Collectors.” In the New Testament, “tax collectors” becomes a kind of short-hand code for evil people that others are allowed to hate. But, it’s also the kind of person Jesus comes to associate WITH…to LOVE,,,,to see, through his baptism, to RE-humanize. People have been dehumanizing government workers for decades, using hateful speech.

You see, friends, our words DO matter. It matters what we say. Political speech does matter. Think about this: if it didn’t would we be spending millions and millions of dollars on political campaigns?! Politicians and corporations know that incindiary political speech works. That’s why they spend so much for the right to speak out. They know that speech can move people to action…to vote….to join a social movement. Words do matter.

This is why I am weary of the questions reporters ask. After something like this event, they always ask something like, “Well, do you think your use of violent language could contribute to violent action?”
And, of course, they politicians always say, “No, of course it doesn’t.”

Well, what do you expect them to say? Of course they’ll deny that! Look, dear reporters, everybody already knows speech leads to action. Words lead to behavior. If they didn’t, you reporters wouldn’t really have a job. The whole reason we have politics..the whole reason we have journalism is because everybody understands that words…thoughts….ideas…always hold within them, the possibility of being transformed into actions…like seeds birthed into life.

The most important questions are moral and theological. The questions to ask politicians, dear reporters, are these: “Are we inciting positive change in society? Or negative change? Is our language violent, and thereby encouraging of violence? Or is our language loving, and thereby encouraging love?

Because, dear friends, whatever we say begets what we do, and whatever we do begets what we say. Violence (action or speech) begets more violence. Love (actions or speech) begets more love.

And, let me be clear, it is not hateful to call out hate speech. It is not partisan or political to be mentioning this. It is not partisan to disagree with somebody. You are free to tell me it is, but it is not.

Government workers of all kinds are in danger. Rep. Eric Cantor’s office has been shot in the past. Rep. Gifford’s office was vandalized. Friday, a flaming package was intercepted, intended for Secretary Janet Nepolitano. These acts of violence cut in all directions. And it’s time for leaders to renounce them and all us to civility.

Both our President and our new Speaker of the House have both latched on to a phrase that I appreciate: “We can disagree without being disagreeable.” I like this phrase quite a bit.

Yes, we can and we must. And there are good people in all political parties. But there are politicians who have used incindiary rhetoric. And their words must be denounced.

It will not be easy, because these habits have become very ingrained in our very political process itself. These demonizing habits are often supported by demonizing rhetoric from Christian churches too. Rather than calling people to civility and love, far too often, preachers have encouraged this same violent rhetoric.
It will not be easy. But it wasn’t easy for Jesus either.

Jesus goes straight from his own baptism into the wilderness. It’s a jarring series of events. He goes straight from this incredibly powerful moment when the dove descends, the voice speaks, and clearly the Spirit of God is upon him. Jesus goes from this moment, straight into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. As if to say to us: know that the life in baptism is not easy….there will be great challenges, always. There will be temptations to renounce our calling…or to say silent. But we speak out because God would have us to do so. God would call us to speak against the incendiary rhetoric of our day.

Finally, the last reason I am not surprised by this shooting. I am not surprised because, as you know, I am married to a public official. Saying this is not to make this day about me, or her. But it is to say, it’s given us both a unique position to meditate on these issues of the past six years. She works in family court. She sees folks at their absolute worst. She sees just how close to the edge many people are…how even in a courtroom, they can be so enraged as to consider violence.

Things happen every now and then, that I won’t go into here. Sufficed to say, these things make you very glad for trained baliffs and security scanners in the lobby. And they remind you of just how close to the edge some people live every day. Walking around the streets of Dallas Texas…walking around the streets of America…there are people close to the edge….just waiting to be pushed by incindiary words.

And I can promise you this…everybody you know who works in government at any level….people who work for the federal, state, and local government…people who work in the courts, the judiciary, and administration…people who work in congress…judges at all levels….heck, even dog catchers and the aforementioned “tax collectors” (remember the IRS building in Austin?)….I guarantee you that around their dinner tables, around their breakfast tables, in the privacy of their bedrooms, they’ve talked about these things.

They’ve talked about the very real threats of this kind of violence. They’ve always known, that’s it’s always possible. And this morning, all across America, they are not surprised either.

But, friends, they get up every morning, and they find a way past the fear. And they go and they do their jobs on behalf of all of us. They go out, just like Congresswoman Giffords was doing yesterday, and they do their jobs…they serve the people….full well knowing the risks.

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff in the county where this happened, knows this.  I deeply appreciated words he said yesterday:

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous…That may be free speech. But it’s not without consequences.”

Our words are not without consequences, and to speak against hate speech is not hate speech. It does not incite violence to speak against violent speech. In fact, it is what God’s justice calls us to. God calls us to speak against evil speech…to speak against unjust speech…to speak against the oppression of fear that causes so many not not speak up.

Through our faith in God, it is the calling of our baptism. Through our faith in God, it is the calling of our time.
Amen.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

13 thoughts on “The Word and Our Words

  1. I had to stop and take a deep breath as I read this today, recognizing that my reaction was so similar to yours. I'm not surprized … and I find that very sad and disheartening, almost worse than the tragedy in Tucson. The victims in Tucson, along with those in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and anywhere else hatred and violence prevail over peace share in the Baptism of Christ, a baptism of blood, in a sense, a baptism of martyrdom. I'm tired, but pray God give me and those of like mind a renewed energy and commitment to use the Grace of my Baptism by Water and the Holy Spirit to stoke the flames of love, justice and peace. Don't ever let darkness even seem to win!

  2. No, I'm not surprised either … what kind of a nation have we become? … wish my answer to this question was different. Thank you for posting this excellent sermon.

  3. Thank you for your words….if only others were more responsible with the hatespeech that comes out of their mouths….we know where the hatred against our president comes from….we know who promotes the hatred…we know by their words. Thank you for being an honorable person.

  4. Your words have touched my heart…but in reading more, I am not surprised. Many years ago, I used to belong to the Methodist church..my mother was the organist…I sang in the choir….it was a lovely time in my life.

  5. Eric: I bailed on HPUMC more than 30 years ago, after Ken Dickson didn't become senior pastor and the church headed way to the right. And if I happened to run into George W. on Sunday morning there'd be problems.This is the first United Methodist sermon I've read since leaving the congregation and I am glad to see there is still hope.

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