May 26, 2024

    Series: May 2024

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon




    Isaiah 6:1-8
    1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.

    3And one called to another and said:
         “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
         the whole earth is full of his glory.”

    4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

    6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

    Romans 8:12-17

    12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.


                I had to look it up to see if washing a child’s mouth out with soap was ever really a thing, it has become such lore.  I’m glad we no longer do that, but the symbolism is clear –clean a mouth of the profanity it is putting out into the world.  We have a lot of symbolism in our tradition about the power of words.  God creates the world in the great creation account of Genesis by speaking, “Let there be…and there was.”  In the Gospel of John Jesus is introduced to us as, “The word made flesh.”  The book of James describes the tongue as fire, capable of incredible destruction.  Words are powerful.  This is why tyrants on any scale like to stifle others’ words.  They are right to be afraid of truths being spoken.  We speak realities into existence and the worlds we create can be holy or profane.

                When Isaiah is called to be a prophet, one whose job it is to speak truth, whether in comfort to a people in pain or in challenge to those abusing their power or failing to be faithful, he knows he has to, in essence, was out his mouth.  “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says (Is. 6:5).  A live coal is taken from the altar in the temple and put to his lips to burn away the impurities that rest there, a little more dramatic than soap. Speaking is serious; it has the potential to burn down, the potential to distract, the potential to inspire and create.  

                We know speech’s potential.  Have you ever been in a casual setting and someone says something inappropriate?  Instantly you’re given a window into the way they see the world and the world they speak into being?  The reaction is bodily.  A lot of people feel we have become too sensitive over words spoken, but words are very revealing of their source, the words we choose at our weakest moments, revealing.

                That is the question, the source of the words we speak. We are all called to be prophets in our own right which means we are not here to merely give voice to our own agenda arising from ego.  We’re here to access a greater wisdom that belongs to none of us but is accessible to all of us.  We are here, humbly, to attempt to speak divine words, godly words, into the world. This is why true speech, the most helpful speech, holy speech, is always first an act of listening.  I get frustrated when people are dismissive of spirituality as frivolous, because spirituality is about developing this skill of listening, whether you call it spirituality or not.

                Spirituality which gives rise to speaking truth is about aligning with a higher Spirit, connecting with a greater purpose and set of values.  As we have said before, the Apostle Paul draws this binary contrast between flesh and Spirit as he sorts out certain baser or selfish ways and higher evolved ways of God, wisdom, Christ.  Christ is the manifestation of this way.  In the passage we heard today, Paul talks about being led by the Spirit, becoming family with the Spirit of God.  We live according to it, which means we practice listening for it and its way, the way we see embodied in Jesus, and we speak from that reality and that set of commitments rather than voices arising from envy, greed, prejudice, malice, violence, and vengeance. 

                Living into this way takes takes preparation. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which I commend to all of you, King describes a process by which one prepares for protest, which is essentially prophetic speech. He says, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:  collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.”[1]

                We should all learn those four steps because we they can help us work for good in the world nonviolently, which is the vocation of the Christian, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically nonviolent.  Violence begets more violence.  Let’s take them one at a time: 

    1. Collection of facts to determine if injustices are alive—I love that phrase—injustices being alive, actively causing harm.  A group that cannot longer agree on basic facts cannot function.  I read an article by a psychologist who underlined just how debilitating and destabilizing it is for a society, or any grouping of people, who no longer have shared ground.  We have a responsibility to ascertain what is going on and who or what is being hurt. 
    2. There is a lost art.  Somehow negotiation has become a sign of weakness.  We jump right to conflict, vilifying the other, but no, King reminds us to show up at the table in good faith, positioning the other best we can as a partner in redressing a wrong, showing respect even when it is not earned. When we are not spiritually grounded, it is easier to get addicted to the fight rather than committed to shared solutions.
    3. Self-purification. King knew before engaging in protest there had to be a process of purification, just like Isaiah.  Why? Remember, purification is being cleansed of whatever is profane, doesn’t serve, comes from a baser place.  It’s about connecting to a higher source and purpose, and in doing so accessing a greater strength and discipline.  King knew they were going to face opposition hoping either to intimidate them into retreat or goad them into profane acts, violence, destruction, robbing them of their moral high ground.  Self-purification is about fortifying oneself against damaging one’s own cause.  You know I see myself as an environmentalist.  It’s been shown that these protests whereby activists throw soup on paintings in museums have the opposite of the intended effect.  I wonder if these activists whose concerns I share have purified, accessed a deeper discipline and strategy, a more powerful creativity.
    4. Direct action. Only after fact-finding, purification, and negotiation does one engage in direct action.  Only then is one ready and only then does the situation merit it, except when time doesn’t allow, which is why we should always be purifying. With King what we remember is the direct action—the marches, the boycotts, the protest speeches, but so much comes first.  Again, spiritual practice supports action.  How often do we act first, which really means we are reacting?  We stay in our lizard brains, as neuroscientists might put it, our revenge selves in spiritual parlance. 

               We all have watched the protests happening on college campuses.  I have some sympathies here to some of what they are trying to represent, the plight of the Palestinian people in the midst of awful suffering.  I also think in some cases protestors have missed important context, the awful event that triggered this latest war, and I know there is context preceding October 7 as well.  I wonder about the approach of these protests.  A pastor and consultant we brought in to work with the elders last week wondered aloud if these protesters perhaps hadn’t had elders of sorts showing them how to do this.  I don’t want to sound condescending; it’s just there is a way to do this well, effectively.  There is wisdom in King’s process:  gain as full an accounting of the facts as possible, seek real negotiation, purify, and then act deliberately and creatively. 

               When we don’t take these steps, we can waste a lot of energy, burn precious goodwill, even do real damage to the cause we’re trying to advance.  You all don’t need me to direct you what to think about the war in Gaza right now.  You’re smart people.  Most of us can recognize the horror happening now just as we can the horror that took place in October.  Most of us can separate the Palestinian people from Hamas just as we can Israelis from Netanyahu and the Israeli government.  You should feel encouraged to speak out, let your voice be heard by any you feel can make a difference.  What I will ask more directly is that you consider the potential effectiveness and effects of your words.  Jews, Muslims, and Arab Christians for that matter, all sometimes feel the consequences of our words.  Those consequences are often felt acutely by our neighbors here even when we are trying to speak to realities over there.  Speak up but do your work. 

               It does take work, and it also takes something else, something not appreciated by our culture, time. I’m aware of the dangers of paralysis by analysis, of endless equivocating.  There are occasions for swift action.  I am only reminding us to take the beat to get out of that lizard brain, get informed, grounded, and connected.  There’s an old camp story about a distant tribe and that tribe had a wise leader, Wise Leader Egg in Mouth.  And Wise Leader Egg in Mouth was called that because they always went around…with an egg in their mouth.  They did this so whenever they were asked to speak on something, they had to stop long enough to take the egg out of their mouth before talking.  Even just that little moment was enough for them to access the great wisdom from beyond and within and thus speak wisely.  Remember the words we speak create worlds.  They create countries.  They create communities, schools, workplaces.  They create churches.  They create families, all relationships. 

               We no longer wash our children’s mouths out with soap, thank God, but we could start to wash the world with good words. 


    [1]Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”