True Words

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber  at Christ Church Seikokai, San Francisco, on September 13, 2015.

I wonder if 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 adam_and_eve_in_the_garden_eden_royalty_free_080827-024591-841042what 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. 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 of Eve  who misrepresented  what God said and in the long run it may not really matter. 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.”

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 sentence:

“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.”

But that was 150 years ago  and you would think he had been watching  American national television yesterday  and seeing the ads for the candidates. How much has changed? Did you ever read George Orwell’s book “1984″  and remember 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 trample down the truth. Places like North Korea and Iran  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 “Make America Great Again,” “compassionate conservatism,” “hope and change”  “Believe in America” and so on. After 911, the administration  rushed a bill Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Mobile, Alabamathrough 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 Christians 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 readings:  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.

When I was living in Connecticut  they started a program in the town of 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?  What kind of place might San Francisco be  if everyone worked together  toward a common goal? Can you even imagine that would happen? What kind of church might the Diocese of California be  if every Episcopalian worked in unity toward a common goal? Some of us see our congregations as a transforming center of life. Are they?  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. Or you could say, “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 bottom 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, because they can imagine a world  different  from the one we are in  and use the magic of words to create that new world.
Do you remember the phrase, “Compassionate conservative”  – goodness, that was 15 years ago; how about “Hope and Change” seven years ago?  Maybe these are just meaningless slogans to win votes  and make us feel good  but it could have been an invocation of something new, a world in which the whole energy of our society was employed to be sure that  indeed no child was left behind  and no one was left without useful work to do.  Your words and my words  could make these things happen.   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 is an act; a word has force;  a word changes things.  God’s words are like that. 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.

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 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.

The Bishop of Connecticut 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 winnow out the people who have 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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