Christmas Stories: Theotokos (God-bearer)

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

You may have imagined it was night when Gabriel came to give Mary the big news, but it wasn’t.  It was broad daylight when he met her, at the well outside town where she came to draw water.  Mary was running a little late that day – drama at home with her younger siblings – and so she came alone, when it was already late morning, long after all the other women of Nazareth had drawn their water and gone home.

The first thought Gabriel had as Mary approached the well, empty water jug in her arms, was how very young she looked.  He knew it wasn’t so long ago that she had been just a kid on the streets of Nazareth, with unruly hair and scuffed-up knees.  Some people would say that God had chosen Mary for this job because she was pure, pious, and deferential.  But the truth was Mary wasn’t known around Nazareth for being any of those things.  Mary, instead, had a little bit of fire to her.  She was tough, stubborn, willing to break the rules for a good cause.  She was always ready to stand up for someone less powerful who was being or hurt or taken advantage of, even if it got her in trouble. That, Gabriel thought, was why she had found favor with God, even if she often exasperated her parents and made the neighbors talk.  Of course, Mary was a woman now – about to be married – and the days of childhood scuffles and adventures were behind her, her tangled hair and scuffed-up knees now well-covered.  A woman – with all the expectations that came along with that.

He watched her as she approached.  From a distance she looked slight, even wispy, but as she got closer Gabriel could see how she walked with her shoulders straight and head held high.  Gabriel had relayed a lot of divine messages to powerful men in his day, but out of all them, this young woman was someone he sensed you didn’t want to mess with.

She stopped short when she saw him.  In their tradition, love stories often took place at wells.  But Mary, though young, wasn’t stupid.   This was real life, and in real life a woman had to be careful.

Gabriel got up.  “Greetings, favored one!” he said with a flourish.  “The Lord is with you!”

Confusion – maybe even fear – flashed across Mary’s face momentarily, as she wondered what he was getting at with this greeting and perhaps realized at the same time that this man standing before her wasn’t quite human.  But she regained her composure and looked Gabriel straight in the eye.  “Who are you?” she asked.  “What are you doing here?”

“Mary,” Gabriel said.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said, and though Gabriel knew that this was probably a lie, her voice didn’t falter or give her away.

Gabriel continued.  “Mary, I’m here to tell you that you’ve found favor with God.  This is what’s going to happen: you’re going to get pregnant and you’re going to have a son, and you’ll name him Jesus.  He will be great and powerful and reign on the throne of David forever.”  He finished the speech he had prepared, and waited.

Mary stared at Gabriel, eyes narrowed, as if sizing him up.  “I’m not married yet,” she said, a hint of challenge in her voice.  She stepped forward, as if to walk past him and continue on her original mission of drawing water.  But before she lowered her jug into the well she looked back at him, skeptical – but intrigued.

“We’ve got it all worked out,” he said.  “You’re going to conceive by the Holy Spirit.”

She just stared back at him.

“Mary,” Gabriel said. “The baby you’re going to have will be holy.  He’ll be the Son of God.”

Mary held his gaze for what seemed like a long time.  Gabriel could imagine the thoughts that were going through her head.   Wondering if all of this was for real, if she was being played somehow, if she was imagining things. Wondering if she really had a choice.  Thinking about the consequences – what her family would say, what Joseph would say, what everyone would say.  If she would be ruined, if she and her baby would be consigned to a life of poverty, if they’d have to beg, if she’d have to do dire things to keep them both alive.  If she even wanted a kid who was supposed to reign on the throne of David and would probably meet an untimely end like everyone else who aspired to power around here – instead of you know, just a regular kid, who would run and play on the streets of Nazareth.  There was always, thought Gabriel, a risk involved in answering the call of God.  Sometimes a big one.

Gabriel wished he could tell her that the risk would be worth it.  That this was her chance for her life to be something bigger, to mean something more, to be part of God’s greater plan for the world.  That there would be sacrifice, and heartache, plenty of it – but also so much love and beauty.  There always was, in answering God’s call.  “Don’t be afraid,” he wanted to tell her again, more gently this time.

But Gabriel stuck to his lines.  Sure, God had a way of chasing people down when they ran away from God’s call.  But in the end, he knew, the answer had to come from Mary, uncoerced.  He had presented his case – or rather, God’s case.  He simply offered these last words of comfort: “Your cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too, even though she was called barren.  Nothing is impossible with God, Mary.”

Then Gabriel waited.

After a long silence Mary took a deep breath as if to prepare herself for all that was to come.  And then she said, clearly and firmly: “I’m in.”

For a long time afterward, Gabriel wondered what had made Mary say yes.  Maybe because she already knew what he had wanted to say, about being part of something bigger, about heartache and beauty.  Maybe it was simply because in the end, when God calls, you answer.

As he left, he saw what looked like fire in her eyes.

Let’s do this, he whispered to himself.  This young, fierce woman was about to bear God into the world.

Gabriel thought of all the people he’d delivered divine messages to before, and all the people he would in the future: important people, normal people, scared people, broken people. All called, in their own way and their own time, to bear God into the world.  He knew not all of them would be as bold and brave as Mary in accepting that call.

But he hoped they would be.

He wished her well, and vanished.

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Christmas Stories: The Silencing

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

Before there was Jesus – at least as far as the world was concerned – there was John the Baptist.  John was the Forerunner, the one who would call people to prepare the way of the Lord.  A wild-eyed prophet on the margins of society, he ate locusts and wore camel hair and told the people who flocked to the banks of the Jordan River for baptism to repent.  But that was all later.  Before there was Jesus, there was John, and the story of his own miraculous birth to his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

On the day that Zechariah came to call The Silencing, he thought he had been cursed.

It would be a lie to say the day started off like any other, because it wasn’t every day that his section of priests was called up to Temple duty.  Still, that happened twice a year, and the long walk into Jerusalem that morning was old and familiar, as was the commotion outside the Temple, and the sweet smell of incense mixed with blood from the previous day’s offerings.  Zechariah knew the routine.  Each morning, lots would be drawn, and whichever priest was chosen would enter the sanctuary – not the very inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter once a year, but the outer inner sanctuary – to light the incense offering.  Zechariah had been serving as a priest for many years, but he had never been chosen to light the incense offering.  In fact, he had kind of given up hope that he ever would.  Zechariah had given up hope about a lot of things, to be honest.  He could hardly believe it when his lot was drawn.

But it was drawn, and so that morning Zechariah found himself stepping – hesitantly, reverently – into the sanctuary of the Lord.  And for a moment, he felt a strange feeling that he hardly remembered anymore, as much as he prayed every day, as much as he could recite the Psalms by heart.  It felt something like hope.

He was just about to light the first stick of incense when he saw him.

The person – could he call him that? – the figure, the creature, standing on the right side of the altar, didn’t move at first.  Afterward, all Zechariah could remember was that he glowed.  And that he spoke with the most booming voice Zechariah had ever heard, like thunder.  Zechariah cried out, and jumped back, and cowered, though in retrospect, he could have told you as well as anyone that when an angel of the Lord appeared, you were not supposed to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the creature told him.  “I have good news for you, news you’ve prayed for for a long time.”

Zechariah’s first instinct was to laugh, though luckily he didn’t do so out loud.  It was true that he and Elizabeth had prayed for a child, almost from the time they were married.  In their world, though later generations would argue the point, children were a sign of God’s blessing, and if you didn’t have them, well, that said something too.  Barren.  He’d heard that word whispered about Elizabeth, and it always stung.  Barren, such a cold and empty word.  He supposed over time his prayers had become somewhat barren too.  He said the words, but it was hard to believe deep down that anyone was really listening.  In time, he had made peace with it all, he thought.

So Zechariah didn’t laugh, but he did shake his head at the pure cognitive dissonance of standing there, in the sanctuary, incense stick in hand, being told by this glowing creature that now, now, his prayers had been answered. “How can this be?” he said, mostly wondering aloud.

That was when The Silencing began – this time in his life that made Zechariah think he had been cursed.  “Because you didn’t believe me,” the creature said, “you won’t be able to talk until your son John is born.”

Zechariah opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out.  And just like that, Gabriel was gone and Zechariah found himself alone in the sanctuary once more.

“That’s not fair!” he tried to cry out into the empty sanctuary, momentarily overlooking the actual good news the angel had delivered.  “I wasn’t doubting you!” he mouthed, at the space where Gabriel had stood.  “I was just wondering about the logistics!”  Nothing.

Zechariah slumped down by the altar and buried his head in his hands.  Leave it to him to get the best news of his life, and ruin everything, all at the same time.  He, who had always been faithful, he, who had kept saying his prayers even when they seemed to go into an empty void, he, who was known as righteous and blameless before God, was being punished for his lack of faith.

After a while he realized that those gathered outside were waiting for him, and probably wondering what was taking so long.  So Zechariah sighed, got up, and walked back out of the Temple into the courtyard, into a sea of people who looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to offer the benediction.

He made one last valiant effort: “The Lord bless you and keep you!”  No sound came out.  The crowd continued to look at him expectantly.  “The Lord make his face to shine upon you!” he tried.  Nothing.  People started to whisper.  Zechariah threw up his hands and gestured wildly.  Finally, someone in the crowd cried out, “He can’t talk!  He’s seen a vision in the sanctuary!” and the whole crowd began to roar.

When it was time to leave Jerusalem, Zechariah walked home alone in silence.  He had never minded those long and quiet walks before.  But this time silence felt like prison.  Now, more than ever, he had so much to say.  He still had questions, questions the angel hadn’t given him the chance to ask.  He had people wanting to know what had happened in the sanctuary, what he had seen, if they should be worried.  He wanted to tell God he was sorry for doubting, not just then in the Temple, but all these years.  After a while, he even remembered that this was good news, and wanted to praise God, but he couldn’t even do that.  He couldn’t even fall back on his old, familiar prayers, though he said them to himself as his old feet plodded their way back home.  Most of all, he wondered – what was he going to tell Elizabeth?

Nothing.  That’s what he was going to tell her.

He felt a pang of guilt about Elizabeth, who was oblivious to all of it.  He wouldn’t be able to prepare her for what was about to happen.  There would be no planning together, no discussing their hopes and dreams and fears for the future, no talking late into the night about the bigger thing that God was apparently about to do in the world.  And then Zechariah envied Elizabeth, because she would be able to talk about all these things, just not with him.

When Zechariah arrived home, Elizabeth was confused at first, then frustrated, then amused.  And, in a matter of weeks, Elizabeth discovered for herself the news that Zechariah hadn’t been able to tell her.  Zechariah waited, from behind his wall of silence, to see what her reaction would be.

And then a strange thing happened.

Because when Elizabeth found out, the first thing she did was close the doors and sit – in silence.

Months went by and Zechariah watched his wife, amazed.  There had, as far as he knew, been no glowing creature that stole Elizabeth’s voice; she hadn’t doubted and been punished for her disbelief.  Yet now, at this time, when there was so much to say, so many questions to ask, so many people wanting answers, Elizabeth chose silence.  It was as if, Zechariah thought, it was the only fitting response – not just to their own answered prayers, but to what God was getting ready to do.

Five months later, when Mary came to stay, Elizabeth broke her silence and sang the praises of another miraculous child.  Zechariah’s sentence, on the other end, wasn’t over.  But surprisingly, he found that he minded less now.  He found himself thinking of all the words he had said before: beautiful prayers, advice offered to friends, theological ponderings, hastily made promises, arguments, the occasional soapbox – and somehow, now, none of them seemed as important as they once had.  He began to think that maybe, in the end, there wasn’t so much to say that couldn’t wait.  That maybe the world didn’t hang on his words as much as he had once thought.  That he even prayed better when he didn’t always feel the pressure to articulate things too precisely.  That he could sit with the mystery of it all a little more.

When John was born, the curse of The Silencing was lifted, and Zechariah sang: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them!”

But by that time, Zechariah could look back and see that The Silencing had been a gift.[1]

[1] With inspiration from Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro

Things Hold Together

Scripture: Colossians 1:1-15

I’m a believer that there are some things that can only really be said in song.  When you love someone, it doesn’t really do you any good to try to describe your love for that person in prose.  Instead you sing, “I can’t help falling in love with you.”  Or, “How wonderful life is now you’re in the world.”  Or, “When you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while.”

And when you’re angry or heartbroken, it might be of some use to try to write out how you feel, but also, you have to crank up I Will Survive and sing along at the top of your lungs.  Right?

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted by the beauty of nature, whether it’s true “lofty mountain grandeur” or just a beautiful sunset, the one thing I want to do is sing How Great Thou Art.

So when I read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I think I recognize what he’s doing here.  This poem he uses in the opening part of his letter is probably an excerpt from a hymn that people were already singing in church.  It’s like he’s trying to describe the majesty and grandeur of Jesus Christ, and he just doesn’t really have his own words to describe it, and so the only thing to do is break into the song that’s written on his heart.  I imagine that he sings as he writes it: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created in him and through and for him…and in him things hold together.”  These are verses that early Christians may have used to formulate doctrine about Jesus’ preexistence as part of the Trinity and the nature of  his relationship to the Father, but they aren’t meant as doctrine in themselves: these verses are, quite, simply, praise for the risen Christ who reigns over all things.

It’s a song I find myself coming back to for Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday, which is today, and if I knew the tune I would want to sing it.  Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year before we start over again with Advent and the promise of Christ’s birth.  That means that in the past year, just like every year, we’ve waited for Christ’s coming, celebrated his birth in that stable in Bethlehem; followed him through his ministry in Galilee, healing people and teaching on hilltops and telling stories of the Kingdom of God; we’ve walked with him through his final week in Jerusalem, including his arrest, trial, and execution; we’ve gathered to celebrate his rising again and ascension into heaven.  And we’ve asked what it means to follow him and grow in our discipleship.  Now it all culminates in this, this Sunday that reminds us that this human figure whose birth and death and earthly work we’ve spent the year telling stories of is also “the image of the invisible God…the one in whom all things were created.”

For those of us who tend to spend a lot of time thinking about who Jesus was as a person on earth, and maybe less about who Jesus is now – or even for those of us who tend to think of who Jesus is now mostly in terms of our individual relationship with him – Christ the King Sunday always bring us back to the risen king who reigns over heaven and earth.

And the thing is, it’s really hard to preach on that.  Because where my heart wants to go is back to this song I heard, which puts things better than I ever could.  In any case, there’s part of me that just wants to leave this there, these words of praise of the majesty of Christ, without trying to explain it or theologize it away or turn it into doctrine.  But then, like with a favorite song, I also want to comb through the lyrics, thinking more deeply about what they mean.

If there’s one phrase that captures my imagination from this hymn Paul uses in Colossians, it’s the line “in him, all things hold together.”

I had to think a little bit about why that particular line stuck out at me so much.  There’s something almost mystical sounding about it, Christ as the underlying force or principle of the universe in a way that takes my mind to something much bigger than the human Christ I usually imagine collecting fishermen on the shores of Galilee.

But to be honest, mostly I think I like this line because so much of the time, life seems to be held together so precariously, as if it’s just one dropped ball away from falling apart altogether.  I don’t mean this in a dire way, like you should be overly worried about me.  I mean it in a way that I think a lot of us probably feel much of the time, as we try to balance the demands of work, and school, and parenting – making sure you follow all the rules, even though they keep changing! – or caring for our own parents, getting our oil changed, finding time for appointments, maintaining relationships and not forgetting friends’ birthdays, not letting the dishes pile up too high.  I know every year I think, “This is the year I’m going to have it together enough to send out Christmas cards!” and every year, it is not that year.  And, of course, it’s easy to look at other people we know and think how they’re balancing all the same things we are and somehow they’re managing to keep it all together, though I’m sure they also think they are not.

Do you feel me on this?  I know some of you may even have bigger and less mundane reasons to feel like things are falling apart, like whatever has been the center of your life somehow isn’t holding anymore – whether that’s a job or a relationship or a housing struggle or illness or some aspect of your identity that you seem to have lost.

In one way or another, I think, we’re all probably desperately praying for things to hold together.

To be honest, I really don’t think that the grand promise of this cosmic Christ is that I’m ever going to feel like I personally have it all together.  That’s much more the realm of self-help books or people who come over and give your closet a makeover than it is the one who is the visible image of the invisible God.  Jesus, as the one who not only reigns in heaven but is God incarnate, deals much more in the messiness of our real, barely-holding together lives.   He never really seemed to get along with the people who had it all together, anyway.  And yet I do really love this idea that underneath it all, whenever things seems to be falling apart, Jesus is there holding all things together.

In the world around us, too, there’s plenty that seems to be falling apart.  Climate scientists are telling us we’re just about at the tipping point where it’s too late to walk back the damage we’ve already done to the earth, and we’re left to imagine what that’s going to mean 20 years from now.  In California in just the past few weeks, thousands of people have lost their homes and possibly also loved ones to fire.  Across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, migrants in the caravan wait to see what’s next – which I don’t mention to evoke fear of those migrants, but out of a sense that our world is a place where so many people are forced to uproot themselves out of poverty or fear for their lives.  Our own political system seems so often on the verge of breakdown when we can’t work together and sometimes aren’t sure if we should even try, and, as we head toward February and the special United Methodist General Conference which will revisit our denominational stance on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, the Church (big C) seems on the verge of breakdown as well.

Again, I don’t think that the promise here is that Jesus will magically swoop in and physically save us from the consequences of our actions, whether those actions are too-large carbon footprints or political extremism or economic policies with far-reaching effects.  And yet somehow in the midst of all of this, we cling to the same words Paul did: that in Christ, all things – somehow – hold together.

And while I don’t want to explain or theologize away a beautiful line from a hymn, it makes me wonder what this promise does mean for me, for us, for all of us living these messy and almost-falling-apart lives here on earth, while Christ reigns in heaven.

The hymn goes on to say that God, in Christ, was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself.  And while this work has been done – on the cross – it also continues: as God calls us back to Godself, as God calls us back together, as God calls us back to love, as God calls us back to wholeness in Christ.  Christ’s life and death made that reconciliation real in heaven, and it’s still being realized here on earth.

What I hear in that is that Christ is not only holding things together, preserving and sustaining what is, shaky as it may be, but actually drawing all things together into a state of shalom – in the full sense of that Hebrew word, which is to say not just peace, but love, and justice, and wholeness.

We all know that saying beloved by Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I go back and forth on whether I believe that or not.  Some days it seems like things really are getting better, as far as we still have to go.  Some days it seems like our only hope is for Jesus to come back real soon and set things right.  I don’t know which one of those things is true, to be honest.  But what I know, either way, is that there is something, or someone, who holds all of it in his hands, who will one day establish that shalom on earth as it is in heaven.

One of my commentaries put it this way: “What does it mean in a world of fragmentation, suffering and confusion to repeat its claim that all things cohere in Christ or that they have been reconciled in him?  It reflects an absolutely basic conviction that, despite the vastness of the cosmos, its determinative principle is not impersonal.  The God who is the ground of existence bears a human face – that of Jesus Christ.  This means, too, that despite fragmenting and chaotic forces at work, we humans can trust that the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is more fundamental and gives the power that sustains the world its distinctive character.  So, although it defies present empirical verification, we confess that what holds the world together is not the survival of the fittest or an unending cycle of violence but the reconciliation and peace of Christ.”[1]

There’s a boldness, a leap of faith, inherent in saying that, isn’t there?  That the underlying, fundamental holding-together principle of the cosmos is not any other of these things that seem to exert so much power and influence – but Christ’s love and goodness?

Paul usually closes his letters with exhortation – instructions on how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ – and while he’ll get there in Colossians too, this hymn that he chooses to begin his letter isn’t that.  It’s not instruction to us, it’s praise.  And at the same time, it’s hard to deny that the one we praise in such a way has a claim on our lives.  Maybe that’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians that we, as Christians, have been given a ministry of reconciliation – that the ordering principles of our lives should be the same as that of the cosmos, lives that lead ourselves and others toward shalom.  What would it look like for our lives to be places of God’s reconciliation?

I asked a colleague this the other day and she said that if she can trust that in Christ all things hold together, then she can actually dare to live in this risky way that is following Christ.

Because this Christ we dare to follow “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…He himself is before all things, [and even when it seems like everything around us and in us is falling apart], in him, all things hold together.”

 

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, p. 609

 

 

 

 

Margins: Leave the Corners

Leviticus 19:9-10

The book of Leviticus often gets a bad rap.  It is most famous for laws that probably seem irrelevant to many of us today: Don’t eat animals with cloven hooves who don’t chew their cud (11:7).  Don’t wear clothing made out of two different kinds of fabric (19:19). Don’t touch dead lizards (11:31). There are certainly people – mostly Jews of various levels of orthodoxy – who do still follow these laws (or some of them) today, but I imagine most of us here, if we had questions about what kind of meat to eat or what to do if we suspected that we had contracted a skin disease, would probably seek out a different source for our answers.

But Leviticus does also have some good pretty good stuff, some laws that many of us would probably agree are not only applicable to our lives today but even central to our faith.  You must not steal or deceive or lie to each other.  That’s from chapter 19 (v. 11).  Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge fairly (19:15).  Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens (19:34).  Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18).

Leviticus also contains the first mention of the law we talked about last week, the command to tithe, or to give 10% of that which we produce back to God.  For the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant 10% of the grain from your fields, 10% of the fruit from your trees, and later 10% of your livestock as well.  That 10% would then go to supporting Temple worship and the priests and Levites who made that happen, as well as to feed the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community – the immigrants, widows, orphans, and anyone who didn’t have the means to produce food for themselves.

As I said last week, we may have some differing opinions over whether this is still a good and relevant law for us today.  We are no longer a primarily agricultural society, though of course we can still easily translate a principle of giving 10% to our modern paychecks.  Even so, nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to give a fixed proportion of our income. And yet I would (and did) argue that there is something holy and good about creating margins in our lives, in setting aside a fixed amount of what we have in thanksgiving to God and for investment in God’s work.  Even if 10% isn’t realistic for you at the moment, you can still commit to this practice of setting some aside to give back to God – the practice itself is more important than the number, especially to start.

But this command to tithe isn’t the only law about giving and generosity in Leviticus that I think it might be worth coming back to.  If we go back to chapter 19 again, we’ll also find this one: When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest.  Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

We hear it again in Deuteronomy 24: Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it.  Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows so that the Lord God blesses you in all that you do.  Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.  Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice.  Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans and the widows.  Remember how you were a slave in Egypt.  That’s why I’m commanding you to do this.

In Jewish teaching this is called pe’ah, the practice of leaving the edges or the corners.

How many of you have ever been gleaning?  The practice of gleaning comes from this biblical command.  Some farmers will let organizations and volunteers come in once the fields and trees have been harvested to collect what’s left over.  You may find apples still on the trees or on the ground that are still good to eat.  I’ve gotten to dig for sweet potatoes before, the ones that were missed the first time around.  Instead of becoming food waste, this food goes to local food pantries and organizations to feed those who might not otherwise have access to fresh produce.

When it comes to applying a law like this to our lives more generally, though, it may once again seem like a relic of the past.  Again, most of us don’t have fields or grapes or olives anymore.  When it comes to tithing, it’s pretty easy to translate into a non-agricultural context: instead of 10% of our grapes we give 10% of our paychecks back to God and to God’s work.  But when it comes to leaving the corners, it may be harder to translate.  What does it mean for us modern urbanites to leave the corners or not go back over our fields a second time?

Just like the law of the tithe asks us to create a margin in our lives to live within and set a certain amount aside, the law of pe’ah, of leaving the corners, asks us to create a margin – to leave room in our wallets and our budgets to help those in need.  It asks us to leave room to be able to live generously in community with others.

I usually listen to the news on the radio while I drive into work in the morning, and for a long time off and on, I’ve been hearing about the civil war going on in Yemen.  It’s been going long enough that it often gets eclipsed by the other news of the day, and yet every once in a while it will make its way back to the top of the news cycle and I’ll be reminded people are calling it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  The war has brought widespread famine and starvation and people don’t have access to basic healthcare.  After the most recent time I heard this, I thought that I should maybe give some money toward aid work in Yemen.

But, you know, I’m trying to stick to a budget.  And there was just some other stuff going on this month.  I needed some new orthotic inserts for my shoes to help me run better.  I decided it was time to buy some new clothes.  I bought a gift for a friend who was having a baby.  So then there wasn’t really a lot left over.  I thought, maybe next month.  Of course, next month it’s time to start buying Christmas presents.  So maybe Yemen will have to wait until the new year.  Maybe in January?  Well, that’s when my car insurance auto-renews, so…

This past week, after I preached about tithing and as I started to think about this practice of leaving the corners, I finally made a donation to an organization that is doing aid work in Yemen.  Because what I want to do is to live and spend in such a way that there is room in my life and budget for things like this – to live generously in respect to those who are vulnerable or suffering in the world around me.  If my whole field is harvested – if all my money is accounted for with other expenditures – then I’m not going to be able to do this.

For better or worse, it’s never specified how much room you’re supposed to leave.  When we’re talking about tithing, it’s pretty clear: 10% is 10%.  We can ask about things like before tax and after tax or what the loopholes are, but we at least have a good, solid guideline for what God expects from us.  But if we are talking about pe’ah, leaving the corners and edges of our field unharvested so the poor and hungry can come and be fed, just how wide are we supposed to make those corners, anyway?  Rabbinic commentators debated this, and came up with different answers that they disagreed on.[1]  There is no one definite answer to that, which, depending on your personality, maybe drives you crazy or maybe you appreciate the flexibility.

Personally it drives me crazy.  I really like to know when I’ve checked the box.  But when it comes to loving and caring for your neighbor, there’s really no box to check.  Maybe you can leave bigger corners this year than you did last.  That’s what we Methodists call sanctification, growing in love and holiness throughout the course of our lives as God gives us grace.

Some of you might be saying, oh man, last week you told us we were supposed to tithe, and now you’re telling us that’s not even enough?  And yeah, I guess that’s right.  Someone once told me that stewardship begins with the 90%.  10% (or at least that portion that we have committed to set aside) goes back to God, and we are entrusted with living faithfully and generously with that which is left to us – which is the meaning of stewardship. Let’s face it, if you place your check in the offering each week but don’t have any left over to buy lunch for someone who needs it, that’s probably not what God intended.  If you tithe faithfully but have to wait three months to donate to Yemen because you spent your whole budget on new clothes you didn’t strictly need, that’s probably not what God intended either.  (See, sometimes I am preaching to myself.)

In the end I believe these two commands are meant to be lived together.  One asks us to set aside a fixed amount of what we have and one asks us to leave enough room to be generous with the rest.  Both ask us in different ways to create margins in our lives, to set some of what we have aside for God, for our world, and for our neighbors in need.

Both commands challenge this dangerous idea we have that everything we have belongs to us.  After all, we might say, we’ve worked hard for these crops – or for this paycheck, this lifestyle.  We’ve plowed and sown and watered and tended our fields and our trees.  We’ve worked long hours, sacrificed time with friends and family, put everything we had into that project, or stood on our feet until we could barely walk.  Surely we have a right to that which our work yields.  And yet it’s God to whom the field belongs first, God who gives the growth, God who gives us the gifts and ability to work and earn a living and have enough to share.

When we set aside a portion of our harvest to tithe, we are reminded of these truths, and reminded even to leave some more room to let others in.  Because God also tells us that some of what we have belongs to others.  Not just that we can give some if we’re feeling particularly generous.  But that it belongs to them.

You know that enclosed in your bulletin you can find a Commitment to Giving card.  I hope that you will take this home, pray about the margins God is calling you to create in your life and what portion God is calling you to set aside.  And then I hope that you will bring it back next week so we can celebrate our commitments for 2019 as we give thanks for all God has done for us.

You heard Sarah talk earlier about the welcome she found here at Arlington Temple and why she decided to make this her church home.  This is part of God’s work that you are investing in when you make that commitment to setting some aside.  You’re investing in worship that not only brings us together each week but also welcomes visitors from all over the world and provides a spiritual home away from home.  You’re investing in opportunities for each of us to grow in our relationship with God through prayer, music, and Bible study, so that we can go out to be God’s people in the world.  You’re investing in this space which welcomes our neighbors who come each weekday for something to eat, to get warm or cool off, or simply to find community.  You’re investing in our surrounding community through the bag lunches we pack, produce we bag, and backpacks we fill with school supplies.  And you’re investing in our future as we make plans for the renovation of this space in a couple years and think about the opportunities for ministry that that might open up.  God is doing good things here and I believe God wants to do even more.  So I do hope you will fill out this card.

But I also hope this card will be just the beginning.  That as you make this commitment, and each time you fulfill it, you will be reminded of all that God has given you, reminded of your neighbors who God loves, and reminded of God’s call on your whole life – including your fields.  And your paychecks.  And I hope then you will make some extra room, and go out there and live generously as God’s people in the world.

 

[1]              https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/peah-the-corners-of-our-fields/

Margins: Enough to Set Aside

Scripture: Deuteronomy 14:22-29

It’s the time of year again when we get to talk about money.  I always like to open things up by acknowledging that no one likes talking about money.  Religious appeals for money may for some of us conjure up images of megachurch pastors with private jets or smarmy televangelists who promise that whatever you give will be returned to you tenfold.  Or they may just bring up that good old-fashioned sense of being guilted into something you don’t really want to do.  How we spend our money tends to feel like a really personal thing, even more so than how we spend our time, and so it can feel like this is one of those times, as the saying goes, when I’ve “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

I say those things upfront because I never liked listening to stewardship sermons from the pews, and I feel like it kind of helps to clear the air a little.  I don’t say them by way of apology, because in the end, if the church doesn’t have the investment of the people who make it up, financial and otherwise, then we don’t really have a church.  And also because I really do believe that the way we spend our money is an important part of our spiritual life; that if Jesus is Lord of our lives, then that means of our bank accounts too.

The concept of giving as part of a faithful life does, of course, precede Jesus.  So today I want to back it up and talk a little about the most basic rule for faithful giving in the Hebrew Bible – tithing.

To tithe means to give ten percent, and for the people of the early Hebrew Bible that meant ten percent of your grain, your fruit, and your livestock.  We find the command to tithe in three different places – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – and it’s a little different in each one, which probably shows that the specifics were adapted to the needs and circumstances of the time.  But some of the things these tithes went to were Temple worship, both personal and corporate, supporting the priests and Levites who did priest-adjacent work, and caring for immigrants, orphans, and widows – the most vulnerable people in society who didn’t have the means to support themselves.

I’ve been surprised to discover that you can find a lot of Christians on the internet who do not believe in tithing. They will tell you that nowhere in the New Testament do we find a command to give 10%. Paul, they’ll point out, writes to his churches and instructs them to give according to their means, instructs them to give joyfully, instructs them even to “excel in this grace of giving.”  And, in fact, I was even surprised to discover that the Christian church didn’t recover the practice or expectation of tithing until sometime in the 4th century.[1]

So it’s easy to argue, I guess, that insisting on some old law requiring some fixed proportion of income is no longer that relevant.  After all, times have changed.  We pay taxes now. Our giving should be prompted by the Spirit, not dictated by some legalistic understanding of holiness.

And times have, and we do, and it should.  And giving prompted by the Spirit may even mean more than 10%!  And yet I’m not ready to give up on this idea that I’ve heard referred to as “creating margins” in our lives – intentionally scaling down so that we have enough to set aside.[2]

A couple weeks ago I had a conversation with one of our new church members to talk about what membership means, and she asked the question, “Is tithing required?”  It wasn’t a skeptical question; she was open to it, and wanted to know.

I answered that when we officially join the church, we make a vow to support its ministries with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  That word “gifts” includes financial gifts.  We are promising to give of what we have to be a part of this community and participate in it and invest in it.  But in the end, that amount is between you and God.  I’m not logging into your Wells Fargo account to check on the actual rates or anything.  You need to decide what is a faithful and realistic commitment to make given your own situation.

BUT, I said, I really believe in tithing.  When I first started tithing, in seminary, I did it because I felt like if I was going to be a pastor and preach sermons like this I should probably not be a hypocrite about it.  But it’s turned into something I feel really strongly about as a personal practice.  Because I believe that God has given me a lot.  And I believe that my budget says something about my values, what I make room for in my life.  And I believe that if I didn’t commit to setting some aside, that I would always find another use for that money, and that more often or not, that use would be for me, or our family, or something that did not require me to look far beyond myself.

And I really, really believe that life is better when I look beyond myself.  I believe it’s better when I acknowledge the source of my blessings, when I invest in a community and purpose that is bigger than myself, when I do my part to make sure the most vulnerable people in our community and world are fed and cared for.

We often think of drawing lines, creating margins in our life, as something that limits us and hems us in.  But the well-drawn margins can actually be life-giving.  I once heard about a study some researchers did watching kids on the playground.  One playground had a fence around the perimeter, and another playground was not fenced in.  On the playground that was fenced in, the kids used the whole space, right up to the fence.  On the playground where there was no fence, the kids stayed closer in.  Instead of limiting them, that boundary gave them freedom.  If you ask me, there is something freeing about making a commitment to give.  It’s not something you need to wrestle with every week or every month.  It just becomes part of what you do, and eventually, part of who you are.

I know tithing may seem way out of reach for some of you.  10% is actually kind of a big number. I know that you may have crushing student debt.  And I know that you might barely be able to make your rent this month.  And I know that you may have health issues and that once those bills start coming they don’t stop.  I never want your giving to this church to be something that’s oppressive or exploitative.  I would rather you give nothing than that be the case. You know what I think is more important than the actual number?  This practice of intentionally creating margins to live within.  The practice of setting some aside, in gratitude and in recognition that life isn’t all about us.  As one of my colleagues said the other day, committing to giving 5% consistently is better than giving whatever’s left over.

I told you that even within the Bible, the actual practice of tithing seems to have adapted with the times. I know another pastor who tried to do some work re-imagining what this kind of commitment might look like if not a flat 10%.

What if, she said, you committed to giving to the church an amount equivalent to what you spend on groceries each month?  Or what you spend on eating out? What if you committed to the giving the church an amount equivalent to what you pay for a gym membership?  Or what you spend on entertainment and leisure, however you want to define that?  What if you gave to the church an amount equivalent to what you spend on vacation each year?  Or an amount equivalent to what you set aside for retirement?

Obviously these are some widely varying amounts and proportions here, but that’s the beauty of it – that it helps you think about creating that margin in your life, in a way that puts this commitment alongside those commitments you are already making whether you are thinking about them that way or not.  If you do think about things that way, it would still be helpful to have a number on this pledge card, since I don’t know how much you spend at Starbucks each month, and we do still have a budget.  But I would also love to know what equivalency you are making there.

I don’t promise that God is going to bring what you give back to you tenfold.  I do believe that God will bless you in your giving.  I believe you will receive the blessing of looking beyond yourself.  I believe you will receive the blessing of being part of God’s work in the world through this church.

It starts with creating margins.  What will you commit to set aside?

 

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I, p. 1190

[2] Phil Maynard, Membership to Discipleship: Growing Mature Disciples Who Make Disciples, p. 27

Living Faith: Friendship with God

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: James 4:1-7

What is causing the quarrels and fights among us? Why are we seeing so much hatred?

It is not a secret that this nation is divided. And this division is getting uglier and permeating through the church, through our communities, and into our families. For many years, experts have told us that the number one cause of relationship problems is poor communication. Yet, today we have more excellent tools for connection and communication than we have ever had in the history of humanity. We can video conference with someone who is on the other side of the world. We can text each other immediately and don’t have to wait for a letter in the mail. And yet, despite all this connection, recent studies by Memphis Flyer and National Institute of Health show that Americans are facing a loneliness epidemic. Nothing seems to bring us satisfaction.

Could it be that the causes go beyond poor communication?

The letter of James draws more heavily than any other New Testament letter on the sayings of Jesus, especially the beatitudes. The book offers a guide for following the path to life (James 1:12) and avoiding the way that leads to death (James 5:9-20). And, Jesus said I am the Way, Truth, and Life. This declaration is fundamental to the Christian faith. We can agree that most Christians hold this to be true. But what then is the problem?  Why are we still dissatisfied and fighting?

This is what the letter of James tries to explain to us. James believes, and so does Jesus, that it is not enough to just talk the Christian faith. It is not enough just to believe in God or God’s word. Remember the rich righteous ruler whom Jesus challenged to be more generous with his wealth to be a true disciple? The Bible reports that he went away sad? Many of us can relate to this young man in some ways. It is never easy to give up your comfort. Yet, we must live out our faith even amidst discomfort. “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” That kind of faith cannot save anyone. The proof of the reality of our faith is in a changed life. Make sure your faith is more than just a statement. It should result in action.

What happened yesterday at the Tree of life synagogue in Pittsburgh is a tragedy. We have become all too familiar with evil. And it reflects the kind of society we have created and tolerated. Our faith is weak and compromised. If we can have prominent religious leaders eager to fight over a supreme court nominee, and yet remain quiet when 11 worshipers are killed, and 6 others injured while in the house of God. Something is wrong with your faith. What kind of faith remains untouched by evil and loss of innocent lives? What use is your private prayer if you can’t even stand in solidarity with the grieving families?

Why is it so hard to put our faith into action?

Pastor Joyce Meyer, in Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind, makes a profound statement that; “Our fallen nature obstructs the will of God from us due to reasoning. The Lord may direct us to do a certain thing, but if it does not make sense – if it is not logical – we may be tempted to disregard it.  God leads a person to do does not always make logical sense to his mind. His spirit may affirm it and His mind reject it, especially if it would be out of the ordinary or unpleasant or if it would require personal sacrifice or discomfort.” Although I wouldn’t say that reasoning is the problem, I would say doubt and self-centeredness are. Especially our preference for comfort.

Unfortunately, the church is not exempt from this moral lostness.  The church is made up of individuals in need of redemption. We all need God’s grace to live out our faith. Christians cannot be relied upon as examples of righteous living without the holy spirit working within us. A true testament that we humans are all fallen creatures in need of redemption. We constantly need to rely on God to make sense of our faith and put it into practice.

James mentions three important aspects of our lives that make the most difference in our living as God’s people in the world. Our Desires, our Prayers, and our Posturing.

Our Desires – these can be needs or wishes or requirements that set the parameters of any relationship. Whether it is a relationship with another person, or with God.  If the desires of those involved are in conflict that relationship will suffer. When you come to God; what needs, what wishes, or what requirements do you come with?

Our Prayers – how we communicate our desires to God. James mentions the most common problems in prayer: not asking, asking for the wrong things, or asking for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to assume that we all talk to God. But let’s say we do. When you talk to God at all, what do you talk about? Do you ask only to satisfy your desires? Do you seek God’s approval of your already formulated plans? It is my firm belief that our prayers become more effective when we allow God to change our desires so that they perfectly correspond to God’s will for us (1 John 3:21-22).

Our Posturing – our estimation or feeling of self-importance. Our attitude of pride or humility. We often worry about our position and status, striving to get recognition for what we do.  We should remember that God’s recognition counts more than the accolades we receive from people. People can shower you with praises for your wrong successes that are outside God’s will. One commentary says that the cure for evil desire is humility. (1 Peter 5: 5b-6) “God opposes the proud but favors the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time God will lift you up in honor.”

But is it realistic to seek friendship with God while living in this broken world?

Firstly, it is important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with wanting a pleasurable life. God avails and blesses us with gifts that God wants us to enjoy (1 Timothy 4:4-5). We should give God thanks for them. However, this does not mean we should abuse God’s gifts to us by being greedy and depriving others of the same enjoyment. Or be so self-seeking that we create unjust systems so that others do not have access. Or allow greed to control your life that you are willing to go to extremes of committing murder in the name of protecting your possessions. We should enjoy these things with the goal being to serve and honor God.

Have you thanked God for the things in your life that you are currently enjoying and are you using them to bring honor to God?

The reality is that the Christian life is not a vaccine against evil desires. If Jesus was not spared from temptation, you also should expect it. We will continue to struggle whether to conform to the standards of this world, and do what everyone else is doing, or choose to obey the guidance of the spirit. You will be challenged to be welcoming to strangers because it is the right thing to do or tempted to side with your political party because it is much easier. You will have to choose to speak out against injustice or pretend it’s not as bad as the media portrays it. There is no escaping or neutral ground.

Friendship with God entails courageous obedience to God’s word.  James encourages us not to compromise our faith through devotion to the world. We need to be connected to the true vine, which is Jesus. And Jesus set a vivid example of how to live in the world and bring the Kingdom of God wherever he went. And Jesus said, “greater things than this will you do, if you believe.” With God’s help, we can do far more than we have done to put our faith in practice. We cannot continue to be Christians who love worldly pleasures as much as we love God. In the end, we are going to compromise our faith and we will no longer be the salt of the earth, or the light of the world.

How are you going to ensure that your friendship with God is healthy? Have you taken some time to assess how close you are with God? Is your relationship with God just a shadow of your past, or are you seeking intimacy and desiring to be in God’s presence?

Let this admonition by James keep you from losing your faith to complacency. Faith without works is dead. Faith is made manifest or tangible through our actions. Let the mind that was in Christ be also in you. Always striving to do the will of God.

Ask God for help.

Amen.

Living Faith: Taming Our Speech

Scripture: James 3:1-12

Once, said Jesus, there was a man with two sons.

The man went to the first son and said, “Go work in the vineyard today.”  The son said, “I’m actually pretty busy, I don’t think I’m going to make it out there today.”  But later he had a change of heart and went.  The father went to the second son and said, again, “Go work in the vineyard.”  And the second son said, “Oh, sure, definitely.”  But he never did actually go.

Then Jesus asked, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?”[1]

Faith, Jesus told us, is about more than just the words you say.  It’s about what you do to live them out.

This is not a bad paraphrase of the letter of James, which we’ve been talking about for the month of October.  Last week, in chapter 2, James asked us to imagine that we come across someone who was hungry and cold.  “Have a good night,” we tell them.  “Stay warm and have a nice dinner.”  But we don’t do anything to feed them or get them an extra blanket for the night.  Clearly, our actions speak louder than our words.  James tells us that faith without works is kind of like that.  It doesn’t much matter what we believe in theory if we’re not living that out in our daily lives.

But we find out today that James actually has a lot to say about words: about the power they have, and the intentionality with which we should choose them, and the difficulty we face in doing so.

James’s task is to provide us some wisdom for how we should be living out our faith in our daily lives, and back in chapter 1, James said that true religion is made up of three things.  I didn’t preach on this section, so any guesses what makes it on to this list?  What would you put on this list – the Top Three Rules for Living as a Christian?  Those things are 1) care for widows and orphans – who represent the most vulnerable people in our society; 2) keeping ourselves “unstained” by the world, or always choosing God over things that are not of God (admittedly fairly broad); and 3) “bridling” the tongue, or exercising control and intentionality in our speech.  I made that one #3 here for the buildup, but actually, James puts it first.  “If any think they are religious,” he writes in 1:26, “and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”

Just as last week James told us that faith without works is dead, so it seems that faith without right speech is worthless.

I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that words have power.  Our words have the power to make or break our relationships.  They can express love or break hearts.  The wounds they cause can take a lifetime to heal.  Our words can change minds.  Well-chosen slogans or offhand comments can win or lose elections.  An ill-advised Tweet can get us fired.  When our words are empty, like in the parable Jesus told, that can reveal a lot about who we are.

The power of words is a pretty big theme throughout the Bible, starting in the beginning when God spoke creation into being.  “Let there be light” – that’s a powerful statement, coming from the right person, of course.  Proverbs tells us, among many other verses about our speech, that “Rash words are like the thrust of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).  And Revelation includes liars among others like murderers and sorcerers who will end up getting thrown in the lake of fire (21:8).

And it’s the power of words, the power of the tongue, that James comes back to in chapter 3, in the passage we heard today. The passage begins with a word for teachers: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  This is another one of those verses that gives me pause.  But it would be a mistake for any of us to think this passage isn’t addressed to us simply because we don’t formally carry the title of teacher.  James wants us to know that the more authority our words carry, the higher the stakes, and we all have some place, some area of our lives, where our words carry authority.

He uses some images that were common in proverbs about speech in the ancient Greco-Roman world of his time.  Think of a bit in the mouth of a horse, he says.  It’s just this little thing in the horse’s mouth but with it, you can make the horse move one way or another.  Or think of the rudder of a ship, which is so small compared to the ship itself but allows you to steer the whole giant ship.  The tongue is like that – it’s such a small part of the body, but it has such tremendous power to influence things for better or for worse.

These are also all images of things we have some control over.  The small rudder may steer the giant ship, but someone’s got to move the rudder.  Part of living out our faith is recognizing the power of our words, and also recognizing that we can choose them wisely, and with intention.

He says later that the tongue can be used to both bless God or to curse someone.  But, you know, I’m going to guess that most of us don’t just go around cursing people.  Or maybe we do.  Maybe we curse the customer service representative who is not providing good customer service or the politicians who are taking the whole country in the wrong direction or the people who buy into what they are saying or the people who decided this morning was a great time to do construction on 395.  Just for a hypothetical example.  But what other ways might we use the power of our words for bad instead of good?

Maybe:

-Being mean to someone

-Gossip

-Manipulating someone

-Saying something you don’t mean

-Complaining (we all need to vent sometimes but there’s such thing as unnecessary negativity)

-Spreading fake news

-We can talk a bit about our use of social media and how easy it is to pass on memes that reduce complicated issues to a quip and dismiss or demonize people who disagree with us.  We get “likes” from the people on our side and feel good, while we miss out on a chance for actual dialogue with people on the “other side.”

 

And on the other hand, what are some of the ways we can use the power of our speech for good?  Maybe:

-Encouraging someone

-Praying for someone

-Witnessing to our faith or how we’ve seen God at work

-Telling the truth when it takes courage

 

This is the easy part of the sermon.  These are things we all know.  And yet as we know them, they can be hard.  I know I’ve said the wrong thing more often than I’d like to think about, something meant to be a joke or just completely unfiltered that ended up giving offense.  I know I’ve fallen into the trap of laughing at someone to establish myself as part of an “in” group.  And God knows I complain enough; Jon can probably vouch for that.

It’s worth noting, though, that James sees the whole thing as a little more complicated than just a reminder to exercise some self-control when you open your mouth, as common sense would dictate. This isn’t just about how to be a decent person in polite society.  It’s a real theological issue.  It’s more than just a matter of controlling our tongues when so often our tongues seem to control us.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire,” James says.  “And the tongue is a fire.”

All of a sudden the image moves from something you can intentionally move one way or the other – a bridle, or a rudder – to something that quickly takes on a life of its own.

We’ve figured out how to tame all the animals we find in nature, James says, but no one yet has figured out how to tame the tongue.

I really think that there’s something to this idea of our tongues and our speech having control over us instead of just the other way around.  I’m not just talking about obvious lies that ensnare us in the web of our own deceit or blatantly offensive statements that win or lose elections.  I also mean that the language we use shapes the way we and the people others around us view reality.  I saw a TED talk about a tribe of people who don’t have the concept of left and right, but instead speak everything in cardinal directions, including things like “There’s a bug on your southwest leg.”  Meanwhile my GPS tells me to head north and I’m like, “What, that doesn’t even mean anything!”  That’s a morally neutral example of how our language, our speech, has the power to shape our world.[2]

That’s why the real danger in how we speak may not be the expletives we hurl at the driver who cut us off on a bad morning, but how we thinkingly or unthinkingly use language in way that shapes the world around us.

When we casually talk about food, and dieting, and bodies in a way that implies that certain kinds of bodies are not as good as other kinds of bodies, we are helping shape our world through our speech.

When we buy into stereotypes and assumptions about people of color, or women (or men), or LGBT people and repeat them without further reflection, we are helping shape our world through our speech.

We choose these words, but they create something bigger than we ever even intended, something we don’t even realize because we are so mixed up in it ourselves.

And that even gets into how we talk about God.

You may have noticed that I try to avoid referring to God as “he,” that I may at times refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” that I try to incorporate some feminine images of God from time to time.  And that’s because, again, I think how we talk about things shapes our worldview around those things, and the language we use to talk about God can say a lot about who we believe God is and thus what we think is good and true.  Of course Jesus called God Father, and there is something powerful in that language of relationship between a parent and a child.  I don’t want to throw that out.  But there are also lots of images in Scripture that talk about God as a laboring or nursing mother, for instance – those are the ones we tend to forget.

I didn’t use to think any of this mattered.  It seemed clunky to me to avoid pronouns for God and to use words like “Godself” instead of “himself,” and when I started finding myself around people who did these things, in seminary, I was like, oh, come on.  These are just pronouns; no one really thinks God is a man.

And then I met some people who really thought God was a man.  What they really said was “God is both male and female, but God is more male than female.”  And I had this moment of, ohAll this talking about God as if God is a man actually matters.  Because if God is more male than female, then what does that have to say about those of us who are female, or those of even who don’t fit neatly into categories of male and female, being equally created in the image of God?  What does that say about our relative worth?

Somehow, even through years of seminary and being steeped in inclusive language, when I hear the word “God,” the first image that pops into my head is that of an old, white man.  And that doesn’t even make any sense!  But the language and images I grew up with had an enormous amount of power to shape both my world and my relationship with God.

Of course, language is imperfect.  We can’t obsess over speaking perfectly. We all make mistakes, and even James says that.  And because in the end, the words we have at our disposal can be limited in their capacity to convey truth.

And yet James thinks that one of the worst things we can do, as we seek to live our lives as people of faith, is to bless God and curse one of God’s children in the same breath, to use our words unreflectively both to build up and to tear down – without seeing anything wrong with that.

Our words do have power, more power than we know, and we do need to choose them wisely.

In the end, while we may fall down and fail at taming this untameable creature, the tongue, God’s grace is there to help us as we seek to grow.

So, as God gives us grace, may we seek to use our words for encouragement, and truth, and telling our story of a God who offers us new life and second chances, and invites us to respond in our speech and in our actions.

 

 

[1] Matthew 21:28-32

[2] https://www.ted.com/talks/lera_boroditsky_how_language_shapes_the_way_we_think