We Want Our Words Back (11/14/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Remember the movie Mystic River? Tim Robbins plays a man named Dave Boyle, who had been abducted, tortured and molested as a child. After several days the young boy had escaped his abductors, and returned home to much celebration in the community. But everyone knew what had happened. As one of the adults sympathetically observes at Dave’s return to his family, “He’s damaged goods.” And as the movie unfolds, we see that Tim Robbins’ character is indeed “damaged goods.”
Once something is taken away from us, it is difficult to ever get it back. We may feel happy when the police notify us that our stolen car has been discovered. But if it was treated shoddily—wrecked and left at the side of the road as a three-thousand pound pile of trash—it is hard to shine it up again, no matter how much Turtle Wax we apply to the dented exterior.
When something is important to us, we must safeguard it. And when it is taken from us, we must attempt to retrieve it as soon as possible, before it is too damaged to salvage. And that is why, on behalf of the people of this congregation and like-minded congregations all over the country, I want to report a theft this morning. Several things that are very dear to us have been stolen, and we want them back. Now, we admit we took these things for granted for a long time. When they were in our possession we often didn’t give them a lot of thought—we just assumed they would always be there for us. But now that they’ve been taken, we won’t give them up permanently without a fight.
These precious possessions of which I speak are words. Words. The ancient Hebrews believed that words carry within them the reality to which they refer. That is why devout Jews, even today, do not say the name of God aloud. Christian readers of the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible—see those capital letters referring to God—YHWH—and pronounce it Yahweh. But Jews understand the power of words, and do not say that name aloud. If they are reading the Bible aloud, whenever they see those letters they say “Adonai,” which means “Lord,” but does not claim to be the Lord’s name.
Even if we don’t give words the same esteem as do the devout followers of Judaism, we still recognize their importance. Words represent realities. They convey meaning. And once a word is stolen—once a word is corrupted—it’s sort of like that wrecked car, or Tim Robbins’ Dave Boyle character. It is difficult to restore it to its original form, no matter how much we wish to do so.
There is a long list of words that have been taken from us, but for this morning, there are four that I think are really worth fighting over—four words that we, as Christians, simply cannot afford to have permanently corrupted. The first word we want back is God.
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God. This word has been stolen by all sorts of people. We want this word back from the people who see no meaning in the word and use it as a meaningless exclamation of surprise. These folks often add a “y” after the “g” so the word ends up being pronounced gyod. The basketball star misses a free throw, and the fan says to his buddies, “gyod, they pay him a hundred grand a game and he can’t even hit a free throw.” We want our word back from those people who treat it as if it had no real meaning.
But we also want that word back from some of our Christian brothers and sisters who acknowledge the importance of the word God, but have troubling ideas about the reality to which that word refers. What is God? Who is God? Over the years many people have told me they were atheists. When they tell me this, I usually ask them to tell me about the God they do not believe in. And when they are done, I say, “Well, I must be an atheist too, because I don’t believe in that thing you just described.”
I’ll describe the God so many seem to believe in. He is a male. He lives up there, somewhere. He is the creator of the universe, which he created in six earth days. His adversary, the devil, corrupted his creation, and therefore all the human beings God has ever created are bound for eternal torment in the fires of hell. But God has given us a way out. For the ancient Jews, his anger at our sins was overcome with the sacrifice of animals. When God smelled the burnt offering of a calf or sheep on the altar in front of his temple, his anger was assuaged. Finally, he sent his son as a sacrifice for our sins. And for those who believe that his son suffered and died on their behalf, God will forgive them. Everybody else on the planet, including the most devout worshippers of God from all other religions, will be sent to hell.
And do you know what’s strange? There is truth scattered here and there throughout that story. God did indeed create the universe, and it has indeed fallen into a sometimes sorry state. And for those who believe in Jesus Christ, and accept Jesus into their hearts, they truly experience salvation. That’s the part of the story we should keep. (And salvation, by the way, is the second stolen word we want back, and we’ll talk about that in a moment.)
But there is some baggage hanging on this word, “God,” that we need to get rid of. Baggage like the idea that God looks like a male human being, and that God’s anger is appeased through the sacrifice of life—human and otherwise—and that God creates billions of people with the intention of sending them off to eternal torment.
We need to reclaim the word God as something that points to the mystery God truly is. The God which can be expressed is not God. And if we think we’ve got God in some tidy little box, forget it! We can only approach God through faith, which, by the way, is the third word we would like to reclaim. But through our faith we can know, in our hearts, certain truths about God.
Here are some of the things our faith helps us know: God is our creator. We don’t create ourselves. We don’t give ourselves life. We are absolutely dependent on something beyond ourselves for our very existence.
God is good. God—that mystery holding us and the rest of the universe in being—is good. God is a benevolent power. In fact, God loves us. Loves us.
God is not angry at us. I personally suspect God is frequently disappointed in us, but angry? The wonderful medieval mystic Julian of Norwich said that if God could be angry for even a moment, the universe would fall apart.
And finally, through our faith we can know that Jesus Christ was not just another great teacher. He was that, but much more. We can get a glimpse of God’s nature by looking at Jesus. Jesus who loved everybody, even the least among us. Jesus who taught us to love in the face of evil, to stand up to the oppressive powers, and to live life joyfully, one day at a time. Jesus, who I believe revealed the true nature of God at the cross. Not by becoming a human sacrifice for our sins and thus appeasing God’s anger. Not by having his blood cleanse us as it ran down the cross, even though those are powerful symbols that many find very meaningful.
No, I see Gods nature when I look at the cross because of what Jesus says from the cross. Father forgive them. Let me paraphrase what was happening there. Jesus, fully representing the nature of our Creator, looks at the people who are unjustly killing him and says, “You can laugh at me, spit at me, curse me, humiliate me, torture me, and slowly and painfully kill me in the most vicious manner conceivable… and I still love you. I still forgive you. Because I am love. That is my nature. That is what I am.”
God. We want that word back. We need that word back.
And now let’s talk about another word that has been stolen from us: salvation. Salvation is an important element of our religion. Christians acknowledge that we are not perfected beings. We fall short of the glory of God. But what does it mean to receive salvation? How does one receive salvation?
Salvation is derived from the word salve, meaning to heal. Salvation is a spiritual healing. But in Christian theology salvation is always in the hands of God. Salvation is a free gift from God. And it is not something to brag about. The people who have stolen this word from us like to approach others and ask, “Have you been saved?”
How do we answer such a question? My suggestion is this. If a person approaches you and asks if you have been saved, just say, “Yes. Yes I have.” It will save you all sorts of headaches. And you’re not really lying, because when somebody asks you that question, what they are really asking is, “Have you been saved from the angry god who created you with the intention of sending you to hell?” And you can honestly answer “yes,” because you were saved from that god when your faith grew to the point you understood that particular god is a figment of the human imagination. So I recommend that you answer questions regarding the state of your immortal soul with a simple “yes.”
You will not win a theological debate with the person who asks you if you have been saved. If you insist on giving yourself such a headache, just go bang your head against the wall and save yourself some time. If you are determined to discuss the matter, let me give you some friendly advice. Devise a simple reply, no longer than a sentence or two, and stick with it. For example, you could say, “Yes, I’ve been saved. I believe God’s love is so powerful that the sins of all the world were conquered at the cross, so that even someone like me, or even someone like you, will still receive their salvation.” And then, please, walk away fast.
And now the third word we would like to retrieve before it is damaged beyond redemption: faith. I spoke in depth about this word several weeks ago, so we’ll only briefly talk about it this morning. Einstein was asked, “What is the most important question in the universe?” And this was his reply: Is the universe a friendly place, or not? Is the universe a friendly place, or not? The very essence of faith is believing that the universe is good. The word faith has been stolen by those who would have us think faith is a list of beliefs. If you believe the right things about God, about Jesus, about the church, then you have faith. If you believe the wrong things, then you are a heretic.
But faith—real faith—is simple trust in God. It is the heartfelt conviction that the universe is a good place. Faith is knowing that this is all worthwhile. Faith is seeing through the pain, tears, and death that accompany life, and looking squarely into the frightening vastness of the cosmos, and knowing, inside, that in spite of all the terrible things that happen in this world, creation is still good. That is faith. And that is all we need to say about it this morning.
There are lots of words left that we could seek to reclaim, but there is one that is perhaps the most important of all—one word that has been so corrupted, it is truly a crime. And that is the word Christian.
We want that word back. That word—Christian—has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For people of other faiths, the word Christian represents people who adhere to the most judgmental religion in the world. I have always said that the original sin of Christianity is its claim of exclusivity—the claim that only Christians are in God’s grace. And this from a religion whose name comes from the man who told us to never judge other people!
Let’s consider the core teachings of Jesus:
Love God with you heart soul and mind.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do not return evil for evil.
Do not judge other people.
Share your wealth with the poor.
There’s no need making this harder than it is. Those are the core teachings of Jesus. That is what he stood for. That is who he was. And for Christians, that is who he is.
But consider the characteristics of what many would call a Christian:
He stands firmly against civil rights for gays and lesbians.
He believes America is God’s chosen nation, and that it is best to strike first and strike hard if you feel threatened.
He believes in rugged individualism.
He believes that people who do not practice religion the way he does are bound for hell.
And last, and perhaps most importantly, He doesn’t smoke or drink.
And that’s fine—this person has the right to live however he wants, but we would sure appreciate if we could have our word back. Because there is nothing in that set of beliefs that would define this person as a Christian. Jesus spent a great deal of time pointing out sins—greed, envy, pride—but he never mentioned sexual orientation. And he welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors and eunuchs to his table. Combine that with his admonition to love neighbor as self and never to judge, and it is difficult to justify modern “Christian” attitudes toward gays and lesbians with the teachings of Jesus.
According to both candidates who recently sought the presidency, America maintains a policy of pre-emption, meaning we believe we have the right to strike a nation if we feel they may pose a threat in the future. That may or may not be good foreign policy, but we’d better leave Jesus out of it. Because pre-emption is the polar opposite of the teaching of Jesus. Jesus says, “If you are struck on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Pre-emption says, “If you think you may be struck on the right cheek, kill that person before he has a chance to strike.”
And as for the smoking and drinking, well, that can certainly be self-destructive behavior, but it is clear from the gospels that Jesus and his disciples enjoyed wine with their meals.
Christian. I want that word back so much it hurts. Because for most people outside the church, a Christian is a person who is smug, judgmental, and self-righteous. For most people outside the church, a Christian is a person who stands for everything Jesus stood against.
We need that word back. I want the day to come when if a person is called a Christian, everybody knows what that means. It means that person is kind, and loving, and not judging of others. I want the day to come when the word Christian stands for a person who, in his or her own fallen way, tries to love everybody and judge nobody.
And that should be our dictionary definition of a Christian. Quote: a person who tries to love everybody and judge nobody.
We’ve got some work to do if we want that word back. But it’s worth fighting for. And we’re up to the task!