Lent 1: Words Matter
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Lent, March 9, 2014
Over the last couple of months personality quizzes have exploded online. According to Martha Gill, of The New Statesman, “It all started when the editors at Buzzfeed.com realized that a quiz called Which Pink Lady are you? (referring the 1978 movie Grease) was one of their most-viewed posts in 2013.”
Apparently, I am Sandy.
“Since then, we’ve had which sandwich are you?, which Harry Potter character are you?, which famous turtle are you?, what arbitrary thing are you?, and finally, the inevitable which Buzzfeed quiz are you?”
Have you heard of these quizzes, or seen one, or taken one? There are now hundreds of them. I find them entertaining and, when shared with others, quite fun. We have made them the topic of several dinner conversations in our home, each of us taking turns asking and answering questions about our individual interests and inclinations, and laughing at the results. Which Star Wars character are you? I’m Queen Amidala, and August and Noelle are my rebellious twin children, Luke and Leia. (There are days). Where should you actually live in NYC? It turns out Noelle would thrive in Greenpoint, I feel right at home in Greenwich Village, while our seven year old son would be hipster in Brooklyn.
A couple of days ago I took “Which philosopher are you?” and I turned out to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, the early twentieth century philosopher of language. I have to say I was particularly pleased with this, since the Lenten journey we are undertaking this year involves the spiritual discipline paying attention to the words we use to speak with one another and to speak about God. Because the words we use matter!
* * * * *
We’ve all experienced, haven’t we, conversations, arguments, and debates where everyone is using the same words but clearly talking past one another? The words seem powerful or obvious on “our” side, but the “other” side doesn’t hear them the same way. Wittgenstein would say that we have to understand the games we play with words in order to understand what they mean.
In our scripture passage this morning, the devil chooses to use words to assert power, to manipulate, to distort reality, and to tempt to self-absorption. God uses words, and The Word, both to create and to liberate.
The question of the day is, what does it mean to live “not by bread alone” but “by every word that comes from the mouth of God”?
Because is not enough just to read scripture. The words of scripture and the traditional words of our communities have the potential link us together and draw us into fellowship across space and time. But in their patriarchy, violence, and different cultural assumptions they also alienate, offend and cause harm. Religious metaphors have the power to transform, to inspire and to bring life. But they may also (intentionally or unintentionally) inhibit, denigrate, and deal death.
If you look on page 928 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, you will find “A Statement on Language.” I encourage you to read it at some point as part of your Lenten journey because it addresses both the language we use to refer to one another, as well as the language we use to point to God. “Language is close the heart of Christian faith,” it declares. “As befits a faith community called into being by a God we know as the Word made flesh, we pray, proclaim, teach, comfort, admonish, serve, and administer justice with words woven in and through all our actions.”
As we enter into a spiritual discipline of paying attention to the words we use during Lent, we could take guidance from these pages, as they urge us to consider how our language stereotypes persons according to categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, age or disability. At the same time it invites us to practice using expansive language for God, drawing from the full reservoir of biblical imagery for God and God’s gracious acts.” Our next hymn, “Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,” does just this, reminding us that “no single holy name, but the truth behind them all, is the God whom we proclaim.” The hymnal is committed, therefore, to using metaphors for God that are both “comfortable in their familiarity as well as those that are enriching in their newness.”
“The limits of my language [are] the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein famously said. And so no one is better equipped to usher in a larger world than the poet, whose job is to use words in new and surprising ways. The prayers that are part of our daily devotion during Lent were written to do just this. And they are working. On Ash Wednesday Leslie M. was caught up short as she encountered the word “harrow” used in an unusual and powerful way, inviting Christ to “harrow our hell.” In the same prayer Tyrell L. objected to the image of the Christ bending over backwards. I had conversations like this all day. The prayer on Friday distinguished Christ-like suffering, which suffers for love, from the suffering of our own martyrdom, in which we suffer rather than love. Helpful stuff. Yesterday’s prayer, which expressed a longing for the life of God, brought back the single word “yes!”
You see, to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, it is not enough to know the words of scripture. It is to have an encounter with the God behind the names we use for God, the Word behind the words, the Spirit who still speaks to the church. And for this we must pray, we must wrestle with our words, and (unlike the Buzzfeed.com quizzes) we should be ready to be surprised.
 Dr. H. Frederick Reisz, for Words Matter, 2011.