Creating a New World

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam on September 16, 2012  

Have you ever noticed that the second thing said in the Bible by a human being is not exactly true?  Or if you noticed it, have you thought about its significance?

God said to Adam, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree,” but when the serpent asked Eve about it, she said, “God said we are not to eat of it or touch it.”  Now, God didn’t say that so what does this tell us about Eve? You might say, “Look at that.  Here’s comes this woman and the first words out of her mouth she exaggerates.” Well, maybe.  But if you look carefully, you have to notice that when God said it, she wasn’t there. At that point, only Adam had been created.  So whatever she knew, Adam told her, and maybe he exaggerated to make sure she got the point.

One way or another, I think it may be significant that the statement we have is made by a woman.  Eve is the one who makes a difference in the first chapters of the Bible. She’s the one who changes things – for better or worse. She picks the forbidden fruit and Adam just goes along.  Some people use words to make a difference and some just go along. So we don’t really know  whether it was Adam or Eve who misrepresented what God had said.

In the long run it may not really matter who said it.  What matters is that the first human beuings had the power to lie.  You can call it embellishing the truth, or misrepresenting the facts, or a lot of other things, but whatever you want to call it, it’s a way of using language that goes back a long way. Human beings don’t always tell the truth.

The Epistle we read this morning is upset about that.  It says:

” the tongue is a fire. . . . a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, . . . set on fire by hell . . . no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be.”

Now James has a point. The tongue is a flame that kindles great fires.  We can take words like “communism” and “terrorism” and use them to set the world on fire, to define sides in a conflict, to divide the world between us and them, to gain power over others. I remember reading a sermon by a famous Victorian preacher, Frederick Robertson, and came across this statement:

Let any man cast his eye over the pages of the press, — it matters little to which party the newspaper or the journal may belong,—he will be startled to find the characters of those he has deeply reverenced, and whose integrity and life are above suspicion, held up to scorn and hatred. The organ of one party is established against the organ of another, and it is the recognized office of each to point out, with microscopic care, the names of those whose views are to be shunned. There is no personality too mean, there is no insinuation too audacious or too false, for the recklessness of those daring slanderers.

Now that was 150 years ago and you would think he had been watching Connecticut television yesterday and seeing the ads for the Senate candidates. How much has changed?

Did you ever read George Orwell’s book “1984″ and the way he shows words being used to shape thought, to control populations?  He wrote back in the time when we were amazed to hear China calling itself a “People’s Republic” – as if it were a free and open society, but controlled societies use such words to manipulate the truth.  In places like North Korea they use words to turn black into white.

And we are not immune to the virus. Madison Avenue makes a living out of – shall we say “shaping” the truth?  You can’t run for President or be President these days without an army of spin doctors to create phrases like “the Great Society,” “compassionate conservatism,” “hope and change”  “Believe in America” and so on. After 911, the administration rushed a bill through Congress called “The Patriot Act” which got a nearly unanimous vote even though it gave our government new powers and limited our freedom.  But who could vote against “The Patriot Act”?  If they had called it “The Terrorist Act” the result might have been different. But you can’t vote against patriotism. Words make a difference.

But come closer to home.  Have you ever known one member of a congregation to say something hurtful about another? If not, you’re fortunate.  It happens.  This is not yet the kingdom of God and these things do happen. This is a church.  It’s not a sewing circle or bridge club in which we choose our members for mutual compatibility.  So we are not always easily compatible and Christians do get impatient with each other and say things they ought to regret but they are also much likelier to regret it and agonize over it than members of a political party or bridge club.

Words can be used to hurt.  James is making an important point in this morning’s reading: “these things ought not to happen.”  But they do happen and the reason they do is that a) we are not yet perfect Christians, and b) – and this is what’s important – we have the ability to use words creatively. Maybe you’ve actually heard someone describe someone else’s use of language as being “a little creative” – and what they meant was that it went a bit beyond the plain facts.  Like Eve in the story of the Garden of Eden the story has been exaggerated a bit, it’s imaginative to some degree, it doesn’t exactly correspond with existing reality.

But suppose we couldn’t do that.  Have you ever thought about that? Suppose our language were entirely limited to the plain facts, that we had no ability to use language creatively, to imagine, to conjure up visions, that everything we said was just facts. How would anything ever change?
It’s been said that the human ability to make counter-factual statements is the basis of civilization. Or to put it more bluntly, if we couldn’t lie, we could never change things.

They’ve started a program in Litchfield called “Transformation” with a vision of a better community – what kind of place might Litchfield be if everyone worked together toward a common goal?  Some of us see this congregation as a transforming center of life. Is it?  Is that the bare, unvarnished truth?  Well, not exactly.  But if we couldn’t talk that way, what would happen?  Someone would ask you about your church and you would be forced to say “Well, it’s a small number of rather ordinary people who meet once a week and go away again and sometimes get together for pot luck suppers and stuff like that and nobody much notices.”  And that’s probably pretty factual.  But suppose you said, “It’s the kingdom of God on earth; it’s some of the most committed and faithful people in the whole area and they are making a difference in the whole community.” Is that a factual statement?  You can’t prove it with test tubes in a lab, but in some ways it’s closer to the truth than the bare facts.

What do you see when you look around?  Do you see familiar faces doing the same old thing or do you see the saints of God creating the kingdom of heaven on earth?  That may be a counter-factual statement but if it’s what we want then it’s a counter-factual statement that has the power to change things, to enable us to dream dreams and communicate a vision and bring a new world into being.

Now this gets to the very center of what it means to be human – or as the Bible puts it “made in the image of God” – because what God does from the first chapter of the Bible to the last is to create new worlds, bring new worlds into existence.  “God spoke” and it was so: there was light and dark, earth and sea, birds and animals, and human beings made in the image of God – like God, because they could also speak and shape worlds like God, they can imagine a world different from the one we are in and use the magic of words to create that new world.

A character in a play by George Bernard Shaw says, “You see things; and you say, Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” That’s the difference that words can make.

It’s interesting, I think, to know that the Hebrew language has one word, “dabar,” that means both “word” and “act.” In other words, to the Hebrew mind a word has force, it acts, it changes things.  Our words tend not to be like that.  How many of our words really change things?  How many are just idle chatter?  It’s no wonder Episcopalians have the custom of falling silent when we come into a church. It’s not the town hall, not a club room, not a meeting house.  It’s not a place for idle chatter, it’s a place where the word of God is to be spoken and when we think about that we realize then how completely inadequate most of our words are.

The words we use here are mostly Biblical words, words chosen and hallowed for their power.  Preachers need to remember that pulpits are raised up not just for audibility but because we are speaking God’s word, something above ordinary language, a word meant to change lives, create worlds, make a difference.

Prayer is like that too. The Lord’s Prayer especially imagines a changed world: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”  Those are words to change things, invoking God’s power to remake this world in the image of a new world, a perfect world, a world in which God is known and loved and served perfectly.  You can’t pray that prayer and accept the world as it is.

Jesus, we say, was the Word of God, God’s Word made flesh. Jesus changed things, created a new world.  We number the years from his birth because with his birth a new world began. We worship on Sunday because it’s the first day of creation and the first Christians called it “The Eighth Day” – the first day of a whole new creation, a new life in the risen Christ.

Today in the Gospel Jesus is asking his disciples about one creative word in particular: do they know who he is?  And Peter has a glimpse of the truth so uses that word and he says, “You are the Messiah.” But that’s a word that Peter doesn’t yet understand and when Jesus begins to tell him that it means suffering and death Peter misses the point entirely and rejects it.  So Jesus tells him not to use the word again until he knows better what it means.  I don’t fully understand what that word means to our world today or exactly what kind of world God is creating now.

Bishop Douglas likes to ask, “What is God doing now and here?” I’m not exactly sure – and I don’t think the bishop is – what the Episcopal Church should be doing at this moment in its history. The preacher who tells you exactly what God is saying to us today is probably wrong.  The politician who claims to have all the answers is probably wrong and fortunately the primaries pretty much winnowed out the people who had a really clear agenda.

This is God’s world not ours, and it is God who acts in history and it’s our job to listen carefully and try to follow along.  Human words are never adequate and often, right from the beginning, not quite accurate. So beyond the spoken words of our service there’s a different kind of word to receive and that is the word made flesh at the altar, a word that transcends the limits of human language and acts with a power beyond human speech.

Today’s lesson asks us to watch our words. Remember the power they have to create and destroy,  to help and to hurt.  The world tells most people, “You are worthless; you’re a loser; you don’t count.”  The world is wrong.  We as God’s people know another word that says “You have value;  you are God’s beloved and chosen children. Listen to that word.  Receive it today at God’s altar.  Take it out with you and speak it to your family and friends and strangers alike.  When you do that you can re-shape the world.

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