Sunday, January 28, 2017
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
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"The Words We Speak"

The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 & Mark 1:21-28

I remember well enough what a teacher of hula and Hawaiian language said to me one day: “Not everyone can sing, but everyone can chant.” There is power in the words of the oli or Hawaiian chant.

I also remember well enough when another teacher reminded me that the recitation of the mo‘oku‘auhau or genealogy of one’s family was never to be taken lightly. There is power in the oral tradition of words that are spoken.

But for some the notion that an oral, rather than a written, tradition had any value was once consider incomprehensible. In A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands (Hartford: Hezekiah Huntington, New York: Sherman Converse, 1848), the Rev. Hiram Bingham was far from restrained in his judgment of the oral tradition of the people of ancient Hawaiʻi. He wrote in his preface: “The introduction and progress of Christianity and civilization . . . viewed in connexion (sic) with their original state, present condition, and prospects, have become a matter of interest to many who desire to see a connected account of the efforts to raise that people from their degradation and barbarism, and convert them from their idols, their cruel superstitions, and their unbridled lusts.” (ibid., iii.)

He went on to say, “Darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the people. This, for ages, was emphatically applicable to the isles of the great Pacific Ocean. Destitute of high moral principle as idolaters of reprobate mind usually are, and by no means distinguished for forming in their own minds, or conveying to others by language, just conceptions of facts that came within the sphere of their observation; or for distinguishing between conjecture, belief and knowledge – the Hawaiians of former generations will not be injured if their oral traditions should be received with caution, or with many grains allowance for fiction, poetic license, forgetfulness, and intentional misstatement” (Ibid., pages 17-18).

After twenty-one years of having served in the Christian mission here in Hawai‘i, Bingham concluded that the Hawaiians, “How imperfectly, then, were those stupid, unlettered, unsanctified heathen tribes furnished for making out a trustworthy history of their country for ages back or even a single generation!” (Ibid., page 18). Is it any wonder that such notions of the early Hawaiians would persist to this day - notions that they were a “stone age people” living under a “heathen system” that tended to “immeasurable evil; the Christian system to immeasurable good” (Ibid., page 21). Bingham was convinced that the Hawaiians whom he encountered were the “miserable captives of Satan, led by him at will . . . because they change[d] the truth of God into a lie, and worship[ped] the creature rather than the Creator” (Ibid., page 22).

There is a familiar children’s rhyme that goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” (The Christian Recorder, March 1862, African Methodist Episcopal Church). That is far from what we know to be true, especially in light of Bingham’s words.

Someone pointed out: “Most of us remember this childhood saying as a rebuke against name-calling bullies. It seemed to work at that time, but in reality, the saying is wrong. Words can and do inflict more pain than the biggest stick or the heaviest stone could ever cause. Cursing, mocking, blaming, insulting . . . we all know that this simple method of just saying a few well-chosen words can manipulate and hurt people in ways we can’t even image.”

“Words do hurt us . . . always. What we say, how we say it, what we mean by it, does affect us and other people. Words have energy and power. Words can heal or maim; comfort or kill” (Sticks & Stones, The Epistle, epistle.us)

That, I would contend, is what we know to be true. Words can maim or heal. That is what is at the heart of our reading from The Gospel According to Mark.

“Throughout this season of Epiphany, Jesus has been revealed as King of the Jews, Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah, preacher, and one who calls disciples” (Preaching Through the Christian Year B, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1993, page 91). In today’s Gospel lesson, we see a Jesus who is both a teacher and an exorcist. The account is “clearly a compound of two stories, one centering on Jesus teaching in the synagogue and the other on an exorcism” (Op. cit.)

As amazing as the exorcism may have been with all of its revulsion and convulsion on the day Jesus entered the synagogue to teach, the greater amazement for many, many others was reflected in the question they asked: “What is this? A new teaching – with authority”. He commands - he speaks - and the unclean spirit obeys (Mark 1:27). There is power in the spoken word. With “Jesus comes the word of power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore” (Ibid., page 92).

Lest anyone thinks that our words do not have an impact on others, Jesus reminds us: “The good person brings good things out of the good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:35-37).

In The Book of Proverbs, the ancient Hebrews remind us: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). The ancient Hawaiians knew of such wisdom. The following is recorded in the book ʻŌlelo Noʻeau: Hawaian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings: “Aia ke ola I ka waha; aia ka make i ka waha. Life is in the mouth; death is in the mouth” or “Spoken words can enliven; spoken words can destroy” (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau: Hawaian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, Mary Kawena Pukui, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, 1983, page 9, Helu 60).

There is power in the spoken word, the power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore (Ibid., page 92). The Book of Proverbs also reminds us: “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).

We may want to assume that there was nothing gracious about Jesus’ words in our reading this morning, but Jesus’ rebuke was of the unclean spirit and not the man. Again, the point is that there is power in the spoken word and it is a power that is available to all us.

Sadly, whether in civil society or religious communities, whether in political or religious discourse, we have convinced ourselves in the United States that the right to free speech gives us license to use our words to cripple, alienate, distort and destroy the life that is ours through the One who created heaven and earth. I was in Honolulu on Friday and Saturday for a meeting of our State Council of Hawaiian Congregational Churches. Representatives on the Board of Directors for the Council come from Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Moloka‘i, Maui and Hawai‘i island. The meeting began with a time of worship.

It was somewhat serendipitous that one of the hymns we sang came from a composition that was written and arranged by Philip Paul Bliss. Bliss was born in 1838 in Rome, Pennsylvania.

He was an American composer, conductor, writer of hymns and a bass-baritone Gospel singer. Among the many hymns he wrote was “Wonderful Words of Life.”

Bliss died in 1876 in a tragic train accident. He and his wife returning to Chicago from Rome, Pennsylvania when the express train they were riding in crashed through the trestle. Seven of the cars plunged into the icy riverbed below and burst into flames.

Bliss was just 38 years old. He survived the fall, escaped through a window, and crawled from the wreckage. When he did not see his wife, he fought his way back through the fire in an effort to rescue her. Both died in the fire.

The lyrics to “Wonderful Words of Life” are simple. Some may argue that they are simplistic, but the lyrics remind us that there is power in the written and spoken word or in this case there is power in the words that he wrote that was meant to be sung:

       Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life;
       let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life;
       words of life and beauty, teach me faith and duty:
       Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life;
       beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

       Sweetly echo the gospel call, wonderful words of life;
       offer pardon and peace to all, wonderful words of life;
       Jesus, only Savior, sanctify forever.
       Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life;
       beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

There is power in the spoken word, the power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore (Ibid., page 92). It is a power that is available to us.


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