Wrestling With The Word -- A Sermon
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OT reading: Genesis 32:22-32
NT reading: Romans 8:26-38
"Wrestling With the Word"
I remember visiting Ed in the hospital before he died. I was the minister on summer duty at a congregation in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and Ed was a highly-respected professor of science at U Penn. Maybe mid-60’s. He had gone in for a fairly routine heart surgery and was told, “This is going to be fine. You’ll be out and recovering in a few weeks. Worst case scenario, such-and-such could happen.” And as is sometimes the case, the worst possible scenario did happen, and one day I walked into the Surgical Intensive Care Unit to find Ed small and lost in a web of wires, his mouth taped shut around tube, and clinging to life. He was heavily sedated but still conscious, obviously frustrated by his inability to speak, obviously frightened.
Ed was an atheist. He was a brilliant man, a rational man, a professional scientist and he didn’t have a lot of interest in spirituality stuff. He had told me so after church one day, in the friendliest way. He knew exactly who he was.
So day after day I drove through the back roads to Bryn Mawr Hospital and stood by his bed, and had no idea what to say that might comfort him. I wanted to pray with him. I wanted to pray, “Dear God, please be with Ed as a healing presence. Fill him with the strength that he needs, and with the peace of knowing that you will never forsake him.” But I knew this kind of prayer would not minister to him, even if it would minister to me. So I showed up every day, and I stammered out the best words of love and consolation I could muster, and I brought greetings from the church. I promised him that his wife was doing well and that she had all that she needed. I told him that what we all wanted most of all was that he not be afraid, that he be well and at peace.
Ed died, and we gave him a lovely memorial service. His wife asked that I sing “Spirit of Life,” and I did. I don’t remember much else, but that it was at the university and the room was full of professors.
I have never forgotten Ed; never stopped thinking up better things to say to him on the last tormented days of his life, things I wish to God I might have had the chance to say.
Paul says that we don’t always know how to pray as we ought.
And he knows what he's talking about.
But Paul, in all the fullness of his faith, says that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness when we come before such sacred moments with tongues tied. Anyone who has stood by the bed of a dying friend knows this. Anyone who has run into a newly widowed neighbor at the grocery store knows this. How often do we manage to find just the right words of consolation and love at just the right time? Hardly ever. Most often we stammer out some thing or another – sometimes horrid little clichés that we know are stale the moment they come out of our mouths. And we go home and we groan for shame and embarrassment. How could I have said that? Did I really just say, “It must have been his time?” What a klutz I am.
Words are important. In the Jewish tradition, God said the world into being. God said let there be light, and there was light, and so on unto the end of the seventh day. God said it was good, and it was good.
In the Christian tradition, according to John’s mystical gospel, it all also begins with a Word. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was from God. And the Word was God.
The Word was God. There could be no higher designation. No wonder we approach words with fear and trembling.
What we say is important. What comes out of the mouth, said Jesus, is more important than what goes in it. What we say has the power to make or unmake, to heal or to harm, to bless or curse some aspect of creation.
Paul says we don’t always know how to pray as we ought. And sometimes we don’t know if we ought to pray at all! Why? Because faith language in our pluralistic society is dangerous and loaded, and political and multi-layered and potentially offensive. You don’t dare say “God bless you” when someone sneezes anymore. Unitarian Universalists, who mostly gather to worship in theologically pluralistic congregations, are particularly sensitive and careful with religious language. Listen to the way a Unitarian Univeralist minister typically offers up a prayer. It’s not going to be, “Let us pray.” It’s something like, “I invite you to enter into the spirit of meditation and quietness, in that deep silence of healing and holiness.” This works okay until someone raises their hand and asks what you mean by “holiness.” So the preacher tries again.
“As you are willing and able, I invite you to join together in a peaceful time of reflection, sometimes known as prayer, or meditation, or thinking good thoughts.” And at the conclusion of such a moment, not just “Amen,” but “Shalom, a salaam alaikum, Shanti, Peace, Blessed Be.” (We cover as many bases as we can.)
Perhaps it would work better if we simply entered into a time of groaning. “I invite you now to join me in a moment of sustained groaning, a groaning that will express all the suffering, loss, fear, confusion and anger that is a part of all our lives.” And then there would be this wailing together. Why not? We need to wail. People in grief especially need to wail. If there is a God that listens, and our faith tells us that there is, do we think that that great, ineffable, omnipotent Spirit and Source of all is listening for carefully-worded English!??
In the beautiful salvation history that Paul lays out in his long and passionate letter to the Romans, weaving throughout all his doctrine of pre-destination and justification and christology, and all of his discussion of the elect and sainthood and martyrdom, there is this constant affirmation that we aren’t saved by words, but by faith, and by God’s love, and by being conformed to the image of Christ Jesus. Because God loves us, The Holy Spirit, the breath of God that blows through every living thing, intercedes for us in groans too deep for words. Paul doesn’t try to explain this mystery. He is wise not to try. It’s a gorgeous image, it’s a gorgeous intimation and intuition of the way creation loves, holds and blesses us even in our sinful, broken, inarticulate being, and let’s leave it alone.
When I think of the Holy Spirit interceding for me, and God knowing my heart as Paul describes it, it reminds me of when I was a child and would listen through the bedroom wall as my parents talked about their children late into the night. All I heard was Mom’s female murmurings and Dad lower rumbling response, my earthly creators holding me in their care as Paul says my cosmic creators hold all of us in theirs. There is great poetry in this image, and great consolation.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, was apparently a gifted talker. We have his beautiful sermons. We have his Wisdom teachings, and the enigmatic parables that confuse us with their many possible interpretations as they reveal glimpses of the coming Kingdom. But Jesus did not always have words. Jesus groaned too, on occasion. He groaned at the disciples when they were being particularly bone-headed, but he also groaned in prayer and when healing the sick. In Mark 7:32, Jesus spit on his fingers and put his fingers in a deaf man’s ears and groaned, and the man was healed. There is love in the groan, a love beyond words. We are also told that Jesus “groaned in the Spirit twice” when he raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was his friend. So Jesus brought forth the prayerful groan, the sigh too deep for words, and invoked the Spirit that let his friend live.
There is life in the groan.
We, though, are enamored of words, verbal formulas, arguments, hair-splitting definitions, etymologies for everything. We act as though religion is a set of phrases with which we can either agree or disagree, forgetting that religion is how we live, how we are present to God’s people. We make idols of words.
I admit to an idolatry of words. I attended a summer intensive course at Andover-Newton Theological School a few weeks ago, and on the first day we had some opening ice-breakers. We were asked to choose a partner, and for thirty seconds, half of us were to spill out everything that came into our head about certain topics, and our partner’s job was to simply listen without interrupting, and then we would switch roles. It was fun. We laughed and the place was buzzing with noise and friendly exchanges and then the instructor said, “Okay now, pick a new partner. And for the next thirty seconds, unburden your soul about some worry or care you came here with. There’s one rule. You can use sounds and you can use any gestures you want, but you must not use any language. No words.”
First there was a great silence, and then there was a great communal groan.
When it came my time, my mind was a blank of anger and frustration. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to unburden myself except for how much I hated this exercise! I spent my allotted thirty seconds stomping and moaning and making sort of chimpanzee sounds. “Wow,” my partner said. “That was intense.” Little did she know.
Later in the week, I was again asked to tell a story without using any language. Again, I seethed with frustration and found within that frustration a seed of tremendous grief and fear. If I cannot speak, if I cannot employ words, what am I? I, the daughter of a nominally Jewish father and an ex-Russian Orthodox Christian mother, who received an atheistic Unitarian upbringing, have wrestled with words since my teenaged years. Having inherited no language with which to articulate my experience of a holy presence and eternal source of love in the world, I set out in search of a language that I could sing in, pray in, and think about God in. What began as an expedition for expression became a religious life, and then a Christian one. (Who knew? God works in mysterious ways!)
But this did not happen for me until I broke through the words and stumbled, sword still in hand, into the mystery of God’s love beyond the words: the mystery of love that those words so gamely attempt to express.
As Jacob sent his household across the river from where he intended to spend the night before reuniting with his estranged brother Esau, so too did I spiritually separate myself from my family and forfeit my primary relationship in order to wrestle with the God whose presence I felt so powerfully but could not name, and whose blessing I wanted to obtain at any cost. Along the way, I wrestled with many of the words we hear in our liturgy this morning, words from a 1785 prayer book that alienate or trouble many worshipers even today. Words like Salvation. Manifold sins and wickedness (that's a good one, isn't it?). Repentance. Righteousness. Lord Jesus Christ.
These words, which once seemed to me mischievous demons which taunted and then turned their backs on me, are now mine. First experiencing them as hostile foes, they are now the threads by which I weave the tapestry of my soul’s journey, thanks be to God. Imperfect as these words are, and troublesome as they are, I have come home in them, and therefore I am a daughter of Israel (Yisroel) – the new name given Jacob after his own wrestling match with God. Israel, which means “one who has striven or struggled with God.”
When Paul is listing, at the end of his letter to the Romans, a catalog of those things that can never, ever separate us from the Love of God, he mentions angels and powers and principalities and height and depth. None of these can cause God to abandon us. Perhaps we might add to that list, “Neither awkward sentences nor confused theological formulations nor sentimental, schlocky Hallmark sermons nor grammatically incorrect prayers can keep us from the Love of God. Neither the worst lyrics in any hymn nor the most sterile litanies can alienate us from the eternal, inviolable love which is God’s nature, and within which we live and move and have our being.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Created in God’s image and likeness, we too are the Word.
May your seeking after that Word that communicates to your soul God’s eternal and inextinguishable love be a wrestling and a struggle that yields great blessing to you.