This sermon, “Words Matter,” was preached in observation of Children’s Sabbath on 10/10/10 by the Reverend Bri Desotell, United Methodist pastor in Oscoda, Michigan. It is reprinted here with permission.
This is not the sermon I intended to preach today.
You can ask my husband: this week, we’ve talked about this passage from Timothy, and I was all set to preach a sermon on this bit of poetry in the middle –
where Paul writes about denying Christ, and Christ denying us, but even if we are faithless, Christ remains faithful, because he cannot deny himself. And we were going to talk about how Paul was encouraging Timothy and the Christians to hold on to their faith in the midst of trials and suffering, to do their best to stand up for Christ, and to trust that, even when they failed, God’s grace was enough to cover them.
And it would have been a perfectly fine sermon.
But it’s not the sermon we need to hear today.
We are going to talk about how hard it is to have faith in the midst of trials and suffering… and we are going to talk about just how important it is for Christians to stand up for the gospel, even if it means being uncomfortable, or being ridiculed, or worse. And we are going to talk about God’s grace.
But this weekend is the Children’s Sabbath – a time for people of faith, from all faiths, to consider the reality that faces our young people today – and to recommit ourselves to making sure that all children know the love and the grace of our God.
And so today we are going to talk about something very specific, an epidemic that has been striking our young people at an alarming rate. And it’s not going to be an easy conversation. But it is one that is, I think, long overdue. When our churches heard about malaria – a preventable killer – we acted, sending nets and educating people to help them survive. When our churches heard about those who live in real hunger – another preventable killer – we acted, sending animals, food, and education to help our brothers and sisters survive.
And it is in that spirit that I bring before you another preventable killer today, one that has robbed us of far too many promising young lives already, and it is: bullying.
Now I can hear some of you thinking, “Really? Bullying?” Like me you probably grew up and were taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But I want to tell you today: it’s not true. I’ve broken bones before. And I’ve been teased, mocked, bullied. And I can tell you firsthand, the wounds of a broken body heal far more quickly and more cleanly than the damage words can cause.
Even the Bible acknowledges the power of words:
In Proverbs, Solomon in his wisdom writes,
“The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush… like sword thrusts…
death and life are in the power of the tongue…
A cruel tongue breaks the spirit,” he says,
“and a broken spirit – who can bear it?”
The words of the wise, however, “bring healing… and deliverance…
a gentle tongue is a tree of life,
and a truthful witness,” says Solomon, “saves lives.”
(Prov 12:6, 18; 14:25; 15:4; 18:14, 21)
Words matter. Even in our reading from Timothy today, Paul encourages the Christians to take their words seriously: to beware the words that wound and divide – he talks elsewhere in this chapter about the power of the wrong words to bring ruins, to spread like a gangrene, destroying faith – and Paul encourages them instead to use their words to speak truth and to bear witness to God.
It’s interesting – this is a conversation that has been raging among my pastor friends all this week. And one of them, reflecting on the way many Christians act in the world today – trying to shout one another down, mocking and casting out those who don’t fit our preconceived molds, trying to shame others into changing their lives out of fear or condemnation – even to the point where we picket the funerals of our fallen soldiers, desecrating a holy moment and shouting to grieving mothers that their children are burning in hell – and yes, this does happen, by so-called “Christians” – one of my pastor friends said, “If church-going adults think it’s okay to bully others, no wonder kids do it.”
If we shun those who are different…
if we reduce others to names and labels rather than recognizing them as real, living, breathing persons, persons of sacred worth, made in God’s image, saved by God’s love –
if we do it, our children will learn that it’s okay.
Every time we reduce the President to a caricature – forgetting that he is also a man, a husband, a father, a Christian, someone just like us, trying to do the best we can – when we use him instead as an easy target, and laugh – our kids will learn that it’s okay to reduce other people to punchlines, so long as the joke is funny.
Every time we sit in our councils and committees and shoot down new ideas just because they are raised by new voices, our kids will learn that it’s okay to fear change and close our minds to new ideas.
Every time we look away from someone who is lonely, hurting, maybe a little odd – well, our kids learn it’s okay to look the other way.
And every time we see words being used as weapons, and we say nothing – our young people learn from us that that’s okay, too.
Words matter. Words have weight, they can wound, they can divide, destroy, and even bring death.
Bullying is evil, because it strips another person of his or her worth and dignity, reducing them to a punchline, replacing a name with a label.
Bullying is evil, because it preys on the easy targets, the weak and the powerless – exactly those people Jesus told us to seek out in his name.
And bullying is evil, because it takes lives.
In just one high school in Ohio, bullying has taken four lives in the last two years.
So let me tell you about sixteen year old Sladjana, whose sister tells how – even at Sladjana’s funeral – the bullies laughed over her casket and made fun of her looks. Sladjana, whose family moved to Ohio from Bosnia in hopes of a better life for their children; Sladjana, who loved to dance, whose father – in his broken English – describes her by saying, “Nonstop smile. Nonstop music.” Sladjana, who was an easy target for bullies because of her foreign family and her foreign accent and her foreign name – who was teased, called ‘Slutty Jana,” pushed down the stairs, smacked in the face, Sladjana, who received phone calls in the middle of the night telling her to go back to Croatia, that she’d be found dead in the morning, that they’d find her body after school. Sladjana, who stood up for herself for as long as she could… until she couldn’t take it any more. Her sister found her body. And her father laments, “Today, no music. No smile.” Not any more.
Let me tell you about Jennifer, who took Pepto Bismol to calm her stomach every morning, and pleaded with her mother, begging to stay home. Jennifer was sixteen years old, an accomplished horsewoman, and a young woman who happened to have hearing problems and a learning disability. She was tutored to help her keep up with her classwork… and for this, she was bullied constantly. Her mom finally agreed to pull her out of the high school and try an online education program… but Jennifer never got the chance. She took some of her mother’s antidepressants, trying to feel better, and died of an overdose. Her parents believe that, had she not been bullied, Jennifer would still be alive today.
Or let me tell you about Eric. According to his friends, Eric was full of life – a flamboyant young man, who just happened to like the color pink. You know the type: the one who gets picked out and picked on, called fag, homo, queer. It didn’t matter that Eric wasn’t gay. He was still an easy target, because he refused to compromise who he was. Bullies called him names, knocked his books down the stairs, flicked him in the head, and mocked him relentlessly. A friend who stood up for Eric was suspended as a result, although the school authorities seemed powerless to punish he bullies. And when Eric shot himself, his parents asked the coroner to file, under cause of death, “bullicide.”
Three weeks after Eric died, his close friend Meredith took her life as well. Bright, outgoing, well-liked, a volleyball player, Meredith had recently confided to close friends that she might be gay. But it isn’t easy to be 16 and not fit in – Meredith learned that first hand from Eric. Problems and home compounded with teasing at school, until she couldn’t take it anymore.
Easy targets, all of them: the effeminate boy, the foreign girl, the lesbian, the slow kid. And yet not one of them deserved what they got. Each one, a beloved child of God, a life lost because he or she didn’t quite fit in.
And before we absolve ourselves of responsibility, ask yourself: how often have you complained about foreigners? Mocked a heavy accent? Moaned about having to press one for English? Made fun of a gentleman whose clothes were just a little bit too put together for Oscoda? Or a woman whose clothes were a little too “butch” for your tastes? Or rolled your eyes because someone in your Sunday school class took a little too long to sound out a word? We have helped create this culture of ridicule. We have helped create this problem.
And I’m going to push you a bit farther today. Bullying, especially to the point of suicide – bullying is an epidemic that disproportionately affects those who are “different,” those who are easy targets, those whom we as adults and as Christians have made it far too easy to condemn: at least one in three teen suicides is committed by someone who is struggling with his or her sexuality. There were at least five suicides last month by young people who were targeted for daily torment and bullying just because they were gay:
Billy, 15; Raymond, 19; Tyler, 18;
and Asher and Seth, each just 13 years old.
I don’t care what you think about homosexuality. Five deaths is five deaths too many. When will it be enough? And I say again, it is sad that our churches cannot even offer a safe place to wrestle with these questions, but instead have presented ourselves as just one more place of condemnation, ridicule, and judgment – we, too, have been too quick to see an “issue” rather than a living, breathing, sacred person in midst. And listen to me very carefully: We do not have to support or condone homosexuality in order for us to say, “We love all people, regardless of sexuality; and everyone is welcome to find a safe space here.”
During World War II, there were Christians who were willing to risk everything – their reputations, their homes, even their own lives – in order to give shelter to and save the lives of their Jewish neighbors. They didn’t force their neighbors to confess Christ first; they didn’t hinge safety on theological debates; no, they sheltered them because it was the right thing to do. My question for us today is: can’t we – who are faced with far less risk to ourselves – can’t we do at least as much? Every suicide is a tragedy. Every life lost breaks the heart of God.
And there are some who are quick to jump to condemnation – one individual this week said, in response to the deaths of these young people, “Somebody should tell them that suicides go straight to hell.”
I don’t believe that.
Depression is a real physiological problem, and like any other disease, sometimes it’s fatal. That is not a failure of faith, any more than we should condemn the person whose heart stops beating, or whose cancer cannot be cured. We live in a broken, hurting world, in broken, hurting bodies, and sometimes things don’t work the way they should. Sometimes our knees wear out too soon. Sometimes our cells start dividing the wrong way. And sometimes the chemicals in our brains get so out of whack that we cannot cope with the world any more, and we cannot find any hope for tomorrow.
So hear these words of grace: there is nothing, nothing in life, nothing in death, not even suicide, nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Our God is a loving and gracious God, even and especially to those who have come to such a dark and lightless place that they consider ending their own lives.
The official position of the United Methodist Church – and of this pastor – is that God’s grace is big enough for us all. There is no sin so big, not even the sin of suicide, no sin so big that God stops loving us or God cannot forgive. I don’t know what happens in those last moments of life, nor do I dare guess what happens in those first few moments after death. But I know that God is there, and the God I know is loving, forgiving, gracious and life-giving, and I find my hope in Him.
That being said, if you are there – if you find yourself in that dark night, with no hope, overcome by despair, contemplating ending your life – please, please, wait. It gets better. It really does. I can tell you firsthand, as someone who has struggled with depression, that the darkness does not last forever. There is light on the other side. And please don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. There is a song that our praise band sings that says, “I would have stayed up with you all night, had I known how to save a life.” So I want to ask you all today: how many of you would be willing to stay up all night with someone who is struggling? Would you begrudge a three a.m. phone call if your presence, simply your loving presence, your friendship, your support, could save a life? If you are willing to be there, to save a life – would you raise your hand?
Look around you. You are not alone.
Friends, it’s time to start saving lives. It’s time to stand up for those who have had to stand alone for far too long. It is time to speak up for those who do not have a voice. It is time to reclaim the power of healing words, to speak life, to speak hope – and to raise our children to do the same. It’s not enough to teach our kids how to cope with the teasing and bullying they receive; we need to challenge them to stand up for, to stand beside, others, to take the risk of befriending or defending the outcasts, the awkward, the lonely, the scrawny, the smelly, the foreign and the strange.
And we need to model it in our own lives – We need to stop laughing at another’s expense, to stand together and say: this is not okay, and we are not going to be silent any more. All that is needed for evil to triumph in the world is for good men and women to stay silent and refuse to act.
We’ve been silent for too long. We have to do something.
We have to act as though we truly believe that each and every person is of sacred worth. We have to be a church, a community, where each one is welcome, is treated as a person who is made in God’s image, loved so much that Christ gave his life so he or she might live. And we might have to be willing to be a little uncomfortable ourselves – but that is a small price to pay to save a life.
It’s time to take our words and our action seriously. It’s time to stand up and preach the gospel – the true gospel, not the angry hate-filled gospel that makes the headlines, not the gospel of judgment and condemnation – but the gospel that says, “God so loved the world…” and God still loves today.
We can make a difference. We can save a life. We can’t afford to do any less.
By: Rev. Briony Desotell