Sermon preached at Evensong on the Ninth Sunday After Trinity (13 August 2017) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Ninth Sunday After Trinity (13 August 2017) by the Reverend Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

The Canon Pastor reflects on the importance of using words that 'might be good, just, useful and pleasure giving' and the need for using these words in our world. 

'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’

– a childhood rhyme to persuade the victim of taunts to ignore them and to refrain. More of this later.

The Biblical books of Kings tell the story of Israel including the rule of their golden King, Solomon. But with the death of Solomon the nation divides into a northern kingdom, Israel and a southern kingdom, Judah. The stories of the two kingdoms then run parallel until each is defeated by invading superpowers.

Our passage from 1 Kings hones in on the moment when the two kingdoms split from one another.

This, in the aftermath of the death of Solomon. His long reign had been marked by ambitious building projects and expansion, including the construction of the great Temple located on a ridge above the site of the old city of Jerusalem – a spot marked by the sacred rock which is today pinpointed by the Dome of the Rock. But this was not all. Whilst seven years were devoted to building the Temple, 13 years were spent building a great Palace complex for the King, his family and government. Other fortified cities were created and military resources were poured into controlling valuable trade routes.

However, behind the scenes of this brilliant, confident energy were rumblings of disquiet. Solomon’s expansion came by means of harsh financial exploitation and forced labour. The people had become slaves to these many building projects, taken from their land and their families to work on them.

With the death of Solomon and the ascendency of his son to the throne, the people come to ask Rehoboam for an easier life.

His answer paves the way for a parting of the ways, which would have an impact for centuries.

His answer highlights the power of words to do good or evil; to lighten or to tighten the burden others bear; to bring together or to tear apart.

Rehoboam had sought advice from wise, older counsellors about the people’s request. He hears the advice and promptly disregards it.

The advice was: ‘speak GOOD words’ to the people.

‘GOOD words’.

How might we understand ‘good’?

One way is set out in the reflections of Pope John Paul II on the different facets of the just good, the useful good and the pleasurable good.

If we choose to seek the useful good we are looking for the advantage we,– or perhaps others might gain.

If we choose to focus on the pleasurable good we are focusing on the delight or joy that we or others might gain.

If we choose to focus on the just good, we are focusing on the morality of the action and the means by which it comes about.

Of course these aspects of good are not the only ones that we could highlight and they each enhance the others. So a just action or good is often accompanied by a sense of interior joy. You’ll know that feeling of satisfaction when you’ve helped someone or done the right thing, without any other reward.

Back to Rehoboam’s choice.

‘Speak good words to the people’ say his experienced counsellors.

them, take joy in lightening their load: it’s what would be just, it’s what would be useful, it’s what would bring you and they delight – and you will gain their loyalty.

Be their servant and they will serve you! Mutual service. For the good of all.

That’s not the choice Rehoboam made... His ears stoppered against their pleading … His words were harsh, threatening and crushing. .

And there would be serious consequences. The immediate result summed up in the dreadful phrase: ‘so Israel went away to their tents’.

They left the conversation, such as it was. The people revolted.

In this moment the nation divides. The people of the northern kingdom, Israel, went away and chose a new king for themselves and Rehoboam’s southern kingdom is left much smaller and vulnerable.

It maybe that these two kingdoms had only ever been truly united in their loyalty to Rehoboam’s grandfather, David, so when the chance came for the northern tribes to leave they took it…but who knows what difference might have emerged if Rehoboam had spoken differently? What sorrow, fear, bloodshed over centuries, might have been avoided?

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’.

There is much to commend in the sentiment of this childhood rhyme.

Sometimes it is right to let words pass us by, not to grant them power over us. But here is the rub, even the existence of the rhyme acknowledges the potential power of words. The words we choose, as colleagues, parents, managers, customers, leaders, lovers, neighbours, have an impact. As with Rehoboam our words can lift up or cast down, lighten or tighten the load, serve or enslave, build bridges or break relationships. As for Rehoboam the shadow cast by our words can be long and may even outlive us.

Think of the divided families living with the impact of words spoken so long ago that the present day descendants don’t even know what was said which caused the breach, or the nations fighting a war of words which bring concern not only to their citizens but to the world.

Don’t we long in the international arena and in our own everyday settings for ‘good words’? Words which are:

- just: ethical, which have a positive moral quality

- useful: instructive, constructive, challenging, beneficial

- pleasurable: encourage, build up, bring joy - this doesn't necessarily mean they mollify, but, as when someone asks just the right questions to get us to a point of new understanding or when you've had a hard but important conversation which has cleared the air, they bring hope.

Don’t we need such words?

Centuries after Rehoboam, John’s gospel was written and its opening describes in astonishing language the coming of Jesus, THE Word who came amongst us – as different and illuminating as a piercing shaft of light in the darkness.

On one occasion a life hung in the balance of his words. A woman dragged into the open by a self-righteously inflamed group of men, ready to put her to death by stoning. They the self-appointed prosecutors, judges and would-be executioners of the woman they said had committed adultery. Sticks and stones…

Stones were already in their hands. Their intent was hurt and harm.

If you want to look at this encounter for yourself, seek out the eighth chapter of John. You can also find a painting of it by Rembrandt in our National Gallery.

In that knife-edge moment, after a lengthy pause, Jesus, the Living Word spoke.

His words, emerging from that silent pause were:

Just: they shielded, defended the victimised, and challenged those who condemned, the would-be violent.

Useful: they turned the men away from violence, from the harm their actions would have done not only to the woman but to their own souls.

Pleasurable: his words brought freedom, forgiveness, release – and a call to be renewed, different from that moment on.

Speech often reveals what is in the heart Jesus said.

That our words might be good, just, useful and pleasure giving, the work starts in our inner selves – at the heart of us – where God, longs to meet with us. Transforming, renewing, releasing.

There are times for silence and for restraint.

And when, out of that silence, words come – would that they might be ‘good’:

Arising from a strong inner core of ethical, constructive joy.

Echoes of the Living Word. Words of eternity and of life.