My grandfather died almost 50 years ago, but one of his sayings continues to be part of the family lore. It may be apocryphal, but my mother insisted that when she or her siblings had done something wrong, he would confront them by saying, “we’re going to have words, and you’re not going to get to use any of yours.”
We’ve just heard two remarkable examples of using words in that sense – as means to an end, to punish or rebuke. The interchange between Moses and God, as well as the one between Jesus and his religious opponents, is about using words as a shield, to avoid the deeper meaning of the message. Moses keeps complaining that he can’t possibly carry out this mission – he doesn’t think Pharaoh will believe him, he can’t speak well enough to confront this mighty tyrant. He’s afraid to say that he feels incompetent and afraid. But Yahweh keeps responding creatively – and reminding Moses that he won’t be alone. Moses remains anxious; he finds it hard to believe the word he’s hearing.
We only heard part of a long passage where Jesus talks over and over about “word” and God’s word. It begins with Jesus saying “if you continue in my word, you really are my disciples, and you’ll discover truth in that word, and it will set you free – free from being slaves to sin.” And then he confronts the ones who are trying to kill him by saying that they’re not acting like children of Abraham or of God, so they must be illegitimate – their father is the devil because they believe only lies. It’s strong stuff. And then the part we heard begins with Jesus saying, “and you call me sinful?!”
It would be funny if it weren’t deadly serious. At first blush it sounds like little kids on the playground throwing words at each other, calling names: you’re sinful; no I’m not; yes you are! Yet the conversation continues to push deeper. Jesus tells them whoever is in relationship with God hears the words of God, and those who keep the word will never taste death. But his debate partners literalize everything and miss the point. They divert the conversation from its deeper truth – here is the living, creative Word of God in front of them, challenging them to live like the one in whose image they were created, and telling them that if they do they will taste the eternal in the here and now. The last interchange is the choicest – Jesus says, “before Abraham was, I am.” He’s not talking about when he was born, but about God’s eternal nature. And they try to stone him.
The psalmist plays with literal and deeper meanings as well, when he points to the nature of sacrifice. He’s talking about correct worship – in the way that we might talk about whether a service followed all the rubrics. The psalmist reminds his hearers that godly worship is about a humble attitude and not the rules.
What is the power of words? How do we use them? Language, and our ability to be creative with it, is probably the most distinctive gift of human beings – it’s what makes us different from other creatures. Words are always shorthand ways of trying to convey deeper meaning. They’re symbols that convey a constellation of meaning, even though we try to turn them into simple black and white signs. Particularly when it comes to language about God, the challenge is always to look deeper, for the word itself can only point toward the reality it tries to represent. If we try to fix each word with one and only one identity we make an idol out of it, rather than an icon. We have always done this and probably always will, because we need fairly predictable sets of meaning around words or we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Yet if we believe that God creates out of chaos, and that creation is not finished – in other words, that creation and resurrection are current realities, not just events that happened at a fixed time in the past, and that God is a living reality, then we have to sit humbly in the presence of language. The word of God, and effective communication, live in sustained relationship.
We’re here for the next couple of days for a retreat – now, is it a retreat from the enemy, what’s dead and limited, or the letter of the law? Is it a retreat for rest and refreshment to discover what God is still creating? We’re here to consider how to Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly in a 21st Century World. Every part of that theme begs us to explore God’s ongoing creativity – “do justice” is about discovering more just ways to live in the world, not simply the lex talionis, eye for an eye limit to violence, instead of retribution. We’re looking for the deepest possible sense of justice as restoring right relationship.
“Love mercy.” Mercy is evidence of growth in human capacity to provide that kind of healing justice. I recently heard a powerful story of a drug bust that gathered up an entire band of wrong-doers – the folks who brought drugs in small boats from Central America and brought them ashore on this coast, those who sold them, the cops who were paid to look the other way. Most of them took plea bargains. One person pled guilty – the fellow who had the least heinous part in the whole scheme. He was an airport manager who happened to provide info to the smugglers about when they could expect air surveillance. He said, I’m guilty and I’ll take my punishment. All the others got off without jail time. When time came for sentencing, the judge tore up the docket and told him he was free to go – otherwise, he said, there would be no justice whatsoever. That is mercy, for the reconciliation had already been accomplished.
Walking humbly remembers that we’re creatures of the earth, made of the same stuff as every other part of creation (humble and humus have the same origin). When Moses remembered that, as when he encountered the burning bush, he found confidence, and the ability to be effective, to let the creative word work through him.
This 21st century world is still being created, still unfolding, not fully defined or capable of being fully understood, and we’re going to wrestle with what it means to give evidence of the living word of God. Are we becoming signs of bread and drink and light for the world?
We’re going to have words here, and I encourage you to use yours and discover how others use theirs, for in the midst of it, where two or three or a hundred are gathered, we will discover the very Word of God – and we’ll find evidence of the love and mercy and justice of God at work.