Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC January 19, 1986
It was the spring of 1964, and I had to make a choice. I had to decide whether I would, in my very first year of ministry, do something which would create a bit of tension in the church, but which the students with whom I worked were clamoring to do. Either I could take the way of comfort, the way which would seem appropriate to the older and more settled, more conservative people of the church; or I could take the way with which I personally felt in agreement, the way which would offer, I hoped, a witness to the college and to the students.
And so, with some misgivings and with a little doubt, I took the second road. I piled students into the bus and took off one lovely morning for the state capitol, where there was to be a large demonstration, a rally, designed to urge our governor and our state legislature to enact a civil rights bill, a bill which would guarantee equal access to all public facilities in Kentucky. And as we stood there, part of a vast throng of people who had come from all over the state and even beyond the borders of the state, we listen to the words of a young orator, a preacher, obscure only a few years before, but now a rising star. No, more than that, a fully risen star, a preacher of great power and insight.
There on that morning, hearing for the first time in person the electric oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr., all my doubts melted away. All my misgivings about the rightness of what I had done disappeared. Under the veritable waterfall or his words, I was bathed in a sense of well-being, I was cleansed of any fear I might have had. I went home that afternoon lifted, elevated, made confidant, inspired to do yet more for this cause.
You see, speech can do that. Words in the mouth of' a master orator can do that. Human speech is the most marvelous instrument yet created for convincing and for persuading, for inspiring and for motivating. With speech men and women have been lifted out of the morass, with speech, with words, men and women have been turned around; with speech, with the power of human communication, our lives have been shaped.
I think of teachers I've had, for example. I think of some of my teachers, and I remember. I may not remember enough of the subject matter they taught me even to pass the exam now, but I remember how they taught me and what kinds of concerns for my life they brought. I remember well my high school Latin teacher, probing and prodding and driving me to discipline myself, as with the simple phrase, “Well now,” she would comment on my recitation. “Well now,” said as though the executioner’s ax were about to fall. But she convinced me of the power of words well used, and she altered my sense of self, she gave me a thirst for precision that has not left me.
And I remember my university professor, a professor of organic chemistry, of all things –and I know very well I could not pass his tests now, because I didn't always pass them even then – but I remember the caustic wit and the poison pen he wielded over those long and pretentious reports I tried to write. Somehow I had felt that if you were to be a scholar, you ought never to use two or three plain English words when eight or ten polysyllabic Latinate utterances would do! And when he rewrote a three-page paper of mine and said the same thing in three sentences, I learned. I learned about the power of words, I learned about an economy of words; some of you have wondered about that on certain Sundays, haven’t you? And I learned again that words, speech cuts through and shapes. When I am addressed, when someone speaks the truth to me, speaks my kind of truth, I am changed.
I could go on. I could tell you of the New Testament professor who helped us love words, who helped us learn how to speak the words which care and comfort others. Dr. Brown, for example, insisted that when we young preachers were to do funerals that we read out of the King James Bible, though of course he was very much committed to the best translation, the most up-to-date translation possible. But, said he, when people need to be comforted, it will never do to debase that glorious line, “In my father's house are many mansions.” to the more cut and dried, “In my father's house are a lot of rooms.”
Words, speech, language, it shapes life, it communicates to the very heart. And it is vastly important what you say and how you say it. The writer of Proverbs puts it well when he tells us: "He who speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit. There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."
The tongue of the wise brings healing. My message to you this morning is really quite simple and straightforward. It is this: speak; speak the word of healing. Use the weapon God has given you and persuade, convince, say what you can and say what you must, but say it. Say the word of healing, the word of love. Say the word of salvation and of wholeness to someone who needs to hear it, and do not doubt its power. Because our God has assured us that, “He who speaks the truth gives honest evidence,” and that “the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
I am challenging you today to speak the word of witness. I am, as last week, urging you to make the most of every opportunity you have to share your faith. It's not enough just to say, well, I'll live out my witness. I'll be good, I'll be moral, I'll go to church, I'll pay my bills, and they will know I'm a Christian. That’s not enough, I am saying; you need to interpret your style of life, you need to speak it, you need to say it.
Why? Remember what we've been saying: that there is no truth so powerful as the truth that one person addresses to another. There is no truth so life-changing as the truth someone has shared with me. Oh yes, the life has to be there, there has to be something to back up what is said. But you have to say it, you have to speak truth, for, says the writer of Proverbs, “The tongue of the wise brings healing."
I think too of what the Apostle Paul says to us in the Ephesian letter. He's asked us to commit ourselves to the whole armor of God, the whole armor of God. And if it includes the breastplate of righteousness and the shoes of peace and the shield of faith and all the rest, it surely also includes the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. The whole armor of God involves the way in which we share, and speak, and open up the word of God to others.
Phillips Brooks, himself a preacher of great ability, defined preaching in one of his books as the communication of truth through personality. And that's what you so when you share the Gospel with another person: you give it body and substance and power, truth through personality.
You see, presumably it would be possible to do away with preaching; possibly you could have worship without preaching (though I hope not in the foreseeable future). You could show films and play tapes and conjure up videos, you could sit and read the Bible together. And all of that would be instructive, it would be helpful. But the wisdom of the ages says, No, we want a person, we want someone who will bring his own passions, we want someone to share with us out of the deep conviction of the moment, we want a fresh now word from the Lord. Let there be speech so that our lives may be shaped and our attention may be grasped, right now.
And so I am saying that there is no substitute for your witness, there is nothing which can take the place of what you can say. Even when you feel you do not know what to say, the very fact that you have struggled to say it says to that other person that you care, that this is important. Put on the whole armor of God, and be sure to carry with that the sword of the spirit which is the word, the word God gives.
Surely that word which you speak will be a word of love. Surely you will share the Gospel in a loving way. But say it, speak that love. It's not enough, is it, to bottle up those feelings of love and never express them? It just won't do to tell yourself, Oh well, she knows how I feel. That won't work.
Do you remember the thrill of your first love? Do you remember what it was like when he or she finally broke the barrier of silence and in halting, embarrassed, tones, mumbled that first, "I love you"? Now you had suspected it all along, hadn't you? You had suspected it and you had hoped it was true, but the words tumbling out made all the difference. The love was real, the love was authentic, because life and lips had now conveyed the same message.
So speak the message of the Gospel, and speak it in love. Speak it now, knowing that it will not be easy, but speak it. It was indeed Dr. King who wrote a book about the strength to love; it was he who knew as few have known that doing and speaking the witness of love could hurt. But he knew something else too: that it could not wait. "Why We Can't Wait" – that's another of his books – and at its core he said that it was love that could not wait. Love cannot wait. Speak it, say it.
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” old Tevye wants to know, “Do you love me?” His wife argued that over all these years she had darned his socks and made his breakfast and all the rest, why did she have to say it? But still the question rang, “Do you love me?” We need to hear it, you see? Say it. The tongue of the wise brings healing; put on the whole armor of God … the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.
And surely, again, that word which you speak will be a word of justice, a word designed to offer righteousness and to encourage truth. For the truth, you see, is not served well by silence. Justice is not well served by silence. When the young minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery was called one day for permission to use his church as a site for a meeting about a bus boycott, he could have chosen the way of silence. He could have pleaded ignorance, he might have said that he was too busy; after all he had a doctoral thesis to complete. He might even have found all sorts of philosophical and convenience reasons to say no; but Martin Luther King knew that justice and truth are not well served by silence. No, no, again, put on the whole armor of God; use truth and righteousness, use peace and faith, use it all, but use it, speak it. Speak your witness to justice, and do it now. For what does the Proverb say? “The tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Speak your witness. They say that silence is golden, but I tell you there are times when silence is merely yellow, there are times when to keep silent is cowardly, when it is even criminal. Speak your witness, say what you mean and mean what you say, say what you are and tell them who has made you what you are. Speak your witness.
If you know the Lord and His work, then tell it. And if you do not know what God has done, then find out, else you will be saying that he has done nothing in your life.
If you have a story to tell to the nations, then tell it. If you have a story to tell to your neighbor, then tell it. And if you have no story, then discover it, discern it, learn again what God has done in you.
When they ask you to sing, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer's Praise,” will you be able to testify that you did use the one tongue you have?
When they ask you to sing, “I Love to Tell the Story of Jesus and His Love,” will it feel authentic or will it be hypocrisy?
When the hymn is, “Lord, speak to me that I may speak,” will you tell the Lord you are tongue-tied? Speak your witness.
And then, If you cannot sing like angels, If you cannot preach like Paul, at least, at the very least, you can tell the love of Jesus and say He died for all.
The tongue of the wise brings healing. Put on the whole armor of God, and use the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.