Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Word Between the Lines

Our Lenten book study this year focuses on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Speaking of Sin.” Taylor begins the book with a reflection on words that are no long used such as “Forsooth” and “Perdition” and “Vouchsafe” – words that we sometimes hear in the Rite One liturgy of the Episcopal Church, but no longer are expressed in ordinary vocabulary. Taylor also discusses words that have changed their meaning and context, an idea which lead to some engaging conversation in the study groups thus far as we thought of words that have changed their meaning in our lifetimes. Can you think of some words that have changed their meaning in your lifetime – words like, “Cool…”

I ended up with an ear-worm of an old Neil Young song called, “Words” and the refrain: “Singing words, words between the lines of age.” Taylor writes that “Language is a particular community’s way of making meaning over time.”

Recently I attended the opening week of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. This two week event occurs every year around the end of February. It is a time when NGO delegates from all over the world come and address their UN Representatives on the issues specific to women and girls in the world. It is a time with the UN considers policies and responses to the issues and needs of women and girls. It is a powerful experience, hearing stories from women all over the world. The Episcopal Church, brings in people who serve as delegates to the UN and for the many parallel events that take place while the UN meets. Sponsored by the Episcopal Church and Anglican Women’s Empowerment, I offered two workshops on a project I have been working on for two years called The WordsMatter Expansive Language Project. In this project we consider language as more than words, language includes words, images, and symbols – acknowledging that what we say and do and see and hear has a wider context than words alone. And the very words that I find comforting to me in my faith may in fact be words that cause you pain.

Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

As I child this was a common phrase sung and said by my friends and me. But as an adult I know that it is not true. Words can wound deeply, as can the images and symbols that arise from the words we use. All one need do is read the newspaper or pay attention to the news and we hear of the aftermath of bullying and the impact of words on the lives of human beings who have been taunted and tormented by words.

As I have worked with the Expansive Language Project I have learned from people about the power and potency of words. One woman commented on the way in which Christians use the word blindness as a spiritual metaphor for failing to see and know God. This woman is blind and she said, “Blindness is how I am made in God’s image. Being blind is my most precious gift.” Another conversation took place around the metaphor of “darkness” and how Christians use that term to describe the inability to know and see God. Unfortunately darkness is then used as a negative term to oppress other human beings who have dark skin. How, we wondered, can we change the metaphor? I suggested considering that life begins in darkness: from night comes day, from the dark womb comes life; darkness is where life is born. Darkness is the very source of creation.

Our scripture readings this morning all deal with words and images. In the reading from Exodus we hear the Ten Commandments given to Moses. The core value in all of these Ten Commandments is relationship: scripture is designed to guide people in building relationships with God and with each other that are faithful, steadfast, just, and reflective of the integrity of both self and other. The prohibitions on murder, theft, adultery, falsehood, and covetousness are not just principles for social regulation, but are specific ways of regarding the integrity of the other as a center of value and intention, and not depriving the other of that which enables and maintains their integrity and dignity.

In this way human relationships are meant to mirror the idea that God is relationship. The steadfast love of God sustains people. We respond to this relationship with God by refusing to limit the divine with images that confine the expansive nature of God. We are called to nurture this relationship with God through study, prayer, and practice of faith – by loving others as God loves us.

Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth is ultimately describing the ways in which Jesus is breaking open the limitations of God’s love, previously limited to just the Hebrew people as they followed the law  and the practice of their faith, expanding this community to understand that God’s love includes the Gentiles, everyone. 

The Gospel of John is distinctively different from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in how Jesus is portrayed. The Gospel begins with, “in the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus is God expressed into the world as the Word – symbolizing God expressing God’s self in and through creation and manifesting in human flesh as Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus knows exactly who he is. He is not afraid and he does not suffer and he does not wonder where God is. In John Jesus knows everything about who he is.

The Gospel reading this morning focuses on Jesus in temple. The Temple for the Hebrew people symbolizes where God resides, God is in their midst, in their presence, because God is in the temple. But in this Gospel Jesus has come to show the people that the temple is no longer necessary because God is in Jesus. Jesus now takes over the Temple’s function. Jesus is the “place” of mediation between God and human beings.

In observing a holy Lent we are called to ponder the ways in which God comes to us in the person of Jesus. In the WORD of God expressed in human flesh. In the words we use to express our experience of God and one another: in darkness and in light, in seeing and hearing, in the WORD that falls between the lines and the ages. And, in the WORD that lives and breathes in us, calling us to become sanctuaries of the living God.


Purple said...

I remember a video we saw in seminary "The Power of Words". Follows very much what you say here. The example of the woman being blind...really brings home the image you are conveying. Great sermon.

Rev Nancy Fitz said...

Very good, in fact, making me think about the images for 'lost' that I pulled from biblical stories. But they all can have negative connotations to someone. Perhaps i should add a line about that. hmmm

Martha Spong said...

Yes, words are incredibly powerful. I never understood that saying, although my mother taught it to me. I love the way you move to The WORD.

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women ...