Text: Luke 13: 31-35
Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?
Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world.
No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.
Humans invented language to satisfy our deep need to complain.
When I was growing up I always wanted to be someone. Now I realize I should have been more specific.
Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.
The problem with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat.
Many of you may recognize these delightful quotes as originating with the amazing comedian Lily Tomlin. My first in-person experience of her wit and facility with words was a law school graduation gift in 1986. I was taken then by her ability to be funny and poignant at the same time through her clever use of language. That day I sat in a theatre in New York next to a man who appeared to be completely blind. He laughed his head off without seeing any of her movements, which are also very clever. Then I heard Lily Tomlin again when she was in Durham several weeks ago. Once again I was struck by the power of her words – power to make us laugh, to ponder, to make connections, to question the status quo.
This morning I want to talk with you for a few minutes about words – about their power to hurt or heal us, to diminish or expand us, to discourage or inspire us. These ideas were percolating in my brain before I read today’s passage in Luke’s gospel. But I think they connect to our text on this Second Sunday in Lent, and I’ll explain how.
In our passage from Luke 13, Jesus foreshadows the fateful events that await him in Jerusalem. As he is warned by the Pharisees, “that fox” Herod wants to kill him there. It’s amazing to me that still today the city of Jerusalem is a symbol of conflict and division as it was in the days of Jesus. It’s also noteworthy that in spite of the negative descriptions of the Pharisees in so many places in the gospels, here they seem to be concerned about the welfare of Jesus. “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you,” they warn. Perhaps the long-term motivation of these Pharisees was less than friendly, but that’s not obvious in this text.
Jesus is quite aware that Jerusalem is a graveyard for prophets. But he also seems to know that the city is his final destination. So he is on the way…on the way to continue his ministry of healing and driving out demons…on the way to where he understands God is sending him…on the way to his death. Then he uses the wonderful image of a mother hen protecting her chicks. This metaphor is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures where Isaiah describes God as “gathering” God’s children with great compassion. The image of a bird mothering her young also appears in a variety of biblical passages. Our short text then closes with a reference to the chorus of those who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is a processional hymn sung by pilgrims to Jerusalem and recorded in the Psalms. We know from our vantage point that it will reappear at the high point in the week of Jesus’ death.
Whether it is Luke’s editorial license or exact quotes from Jesus, two significant animal metaphors are used in Chapter 13. Herod is a fox and Jesus is a mother hen. The ruler who wants to kill Jesus is cunning and predatory. Jesus and the God he represents are compassionate and protective. One creates danger and the other shields its loved ones from it. The images are sharp and well-known to those listening to Jesus. These two words – fox and hen – are used to represent that which hurts and that which heals. So let me share some thoughts not just about these evocative words, but about words in general – about how we speak them to each other; how we speak about God; and how we speak about who we are as a church.
In our world today, especially in this American political season, we are overwhelmed with words. Political candidates, people talking about political candidates, people talking about people talking about political candidates… Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in words so much so that lately, in a variety of settings, I’ve found myself muttering, “Too many words. Just too many words.” So one thing about the words we are hearing today is that, in my humble opinion, there are too many of them.
But the bigger problem is how mean they are. The anonymity of the internet allows people to say truly terrible things to each other. Elementary school children are bullying their classmates in text messages. This week we had a deaf 16 year-old come close to jumping from a Rock Quarry Road overpass because of bullying online. A Raleigh police officer used words made with his hands to talk her out of taking her own life. But it’s not just kids. Adults respond to each other’s posts with horribly sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, really nasty insults. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Look at what political candidates are saying in front of large audiences to the thunder of applause by thousands in the house and millions who hear or read the words via TV or the internet. School-yard comments about personal appearance and characteristics or social views have turned public discourse into little more than trash-talking. All this has reduced the quality and integrity of our public life to a new low. It seems the more vulgar and insulting it gets, the more some people like it. I have a déjà vu picture of the people who went to Coliseum because they enjoyed seeing Christians devoured by lions.
There is no way this is not impacting our children and youth as well as adults. Repeated exposure to this obnoxious verbal abuse has to deaden a young person’s sense of what is good and true and kind. I once attended a workshop about the prevalence and the danger of pornography. After nearly an hour of watching images that were variously demeaning or horrifying, I admit that my senses were dulled. An image that would have sickened me at first didn’t seem as bad hundreds of terrible images later. I really don’t know how we take back our public conversation from the hateful speakers that surround us. But we have to figure out how to make a dent in this disgusting means of communication. At the least, we must take special care regarding our own words and teach our young people to do the same. There’s a difference between disagreeing with someone and insulting them. We aren’t working for peace when our words aren’t peaceful.
Another way in which words matter is what they say to us about God. I’m talking about inclusive language here, a topic that been addressed in faith circles since at least the 1980’s. I was a United Methodist when that denomination published its first edition of a workbook called “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal” in 1988. It was eye-opening, to say the least, when I saw a list of more than 100 images for God found in scripture – eye-opening because so many churches in my experience had been limited to only two: Father and Lord. No wonder so many of us have to work hard to erase the image of God as an old white man in the sky. No wonder so many of our youth still reference God as male even after growing up in this church. We are surrounded by a culture that speaks of God only as male. The question is whether those of us who know better slip into this language as well. As a contrast to the culture, our hymns this morning were chosen because they include so many of the rich images of God the church has all but ignored for nearly two thousand years: Womb of Life, Source of Being, Word, Spirit, Mother, Partner, Sovereign, Rock, Cloud, Fortress, Fountain, Shelter, Light, Wisdom, Root, Vine, Comfort, Presence, Fire, Love… The list goes on just in these two newer hymns of our faith.
In 1973, feminist theologian Mary Daly said, “As long as God is male, male is God.” That’s more than 40 years ago and even in progressive circles we still have to be very intentional to offer our children images of God that are not only female as well as male, but also reflect the rich non-gendered descriptions of the Vast Mystery who created us. This is not about subordinating male images of God and elevating female images as much as it is a call to explore how we can connect to the Cosmic Sacred in ways that touch our souls regardless of our gender. One problem, of course, is that our traditional English language only has one non-gendered pronoun: it. Many people aren’t comfortable referring to the Creator of the Universe as “it.” So we get lazy and fall back into giving God a gender – and it’s usually male.
Larry and Jann Aldredge-Clanton tried to expand the imaginations of children in their children’s musical called “Imagine God.” One of the songs begins: Imagine God far greater than words could ever describe in story, song or poet’s verse. Our Sanctuary Art Project is another ambitious endeavor designed to include images of God and our life together that go beyond the many historical male figures we see when we look around us in our sanctuary today. The idea is the same. The Divine is beyond all of our images and words. But within our human limitations of imagination and language, we are all enriched when we use words for God that broaden rather than limit our vision and possibility.
Finally, our words matter when we say what we’re about as Pullen Church. Last weekend several of us participated in a conversation about the identity of the Alliance of Baptists. As you know, the Alliance is one of our affiliations. It is the most theologically progressive Baptist denominational group in the U.S. and Pullen people contributed to its founding. Next year we will host the 30th Annual Gathering of the Alliance here at Pullen.
Daniel Pryfogle was our facilitator on Saturday as we considered how we as individuals found the Alliance and how that might inform our understanding of ourselves as an organization. After several rounds of sharing stories, Daniel asked the group to suggest what he called “provocative propositions” that might describe the Alliance. They had to be both provocative and practical – not pie-in-the-sky ideas a small organization could never accomplish. The most interesting requirement for these propositions is that we had to state them in present tense. Not “we will be…” language, but “we are…” After a few minutes to consider the question and the insights drawn from our table discussions, a number of provocative propositions were offered. I want you to hear some of them because they might sound just a bit like us here at Pullen. But as you do, see what it feels like hearing them in the present tense – as a declaration that we do this now.
We amplify voices for justice.
We listen to the Spirit.
We welcome the whole self.
We are a safe place for people who have been marginalized.
We expand the exchange of blessing.
We discern together.
We are on the way.
As we formulated these statements, we were struck by the sense of both empowerment and challenge in each one. One participant noted that all of these identity statements are permeable and they feel fragile. Another added that they require a willingness to be vulnerable and use a different kind of power from the one we see in the culture. One young man remembered a seminary professor’s reminder that the power of love always looks like weakness. Then a woman observed that each of these is reflected in the ministry of Jesus. This was followed by a voice that said quietly, “Yes, and that’s what got him crucified.” How we speak about what we are doing in community with each other and in building community beyond our walls matters.
Ultimately, our actions speak louder than our words, as the old proverb goes. But words do matter. They can sound like the words of a cunning fox or a nurturing hen. They can nourish a spirit or crush it. They can remind us that we are made in the marvelous image of God or they can turn God into a reflection of ourselves. Words can proudly overstate who we are or they can stir us into doing whatever it takes to bring God’s commonwealth to earth right now – if only for a fleeting moment that offers us inspiration or assurance.
In this season of Lent, we are following Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. In our day-to-lives, we are following God in the way of Jesus. May our words heal rather than hurt while we’re on the way. May they bring us closer to each other and to the One who formed us. May they challenge us to be what we’re called to be right now. Lily Tomlin once said of her work, “I like a huge range of comedy — from broad and farcical to the most sensitive, the most understated — but I always wanted my comedy to be more embracing of the species than debasing of it.” May the words we speak be the same.