Tola’s sermon preached on June 9, 2024

Posted by on Sun, Jun 9, 2024 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

June 9, 2024

There’s a thread that connects all of our readings today: language, and its role in faith.

Language can be weird. Language is by its very nature always an abstraction.

Consider the word “apple.” Visualize an apple in your mind. I’m doing it as well. Do you have one?

Is your apple red, or green? Does it have spots, or is it smoothly colored? Does it have a stem still attached?

Mine is green, and smooth, with a stem. And of course, there’s no right or wrong answer- the word “apple” contains all the versions of an apple that any of us might imagine.

A Chinese philosopher named Lao Tzu, about five hundred years before the time of Jesus, began a book by saying “the name that can be named is not the eternal name.” The name of the thing is not, and cannot be, the thing itself. It’s just a shorthand, or an abbreviation. And it can’t mean the exact same thing for you as it does for me.

Fruit figure into our first reading. Because Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit (perhaps an apple?) they immediately knew that they were naked. So of course, God asks them “who told you that you were naked?” Indeed, he could have asked them how they even came to know what the word “naked” meant. We have all had the joy of learning a new idea, some concept that we had never considered before. This, unfortunately, is the exact opposite of that feeling. Adam and Eve suddenly knew that there was this thing called being naked, and it was bad, and so they hid from the Lord.

The writer of Psalm 130 explores this a little further.

He asks: “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if the Lord were to focus on every mistake, every error, we would all despair in our failure before him. Surely the Lord knows ways that we fail to measure up that we might not even know- that we might not even have words for!

But in the next verse the Psalmist assures us “For there is forgiveness in you, therefore you shall be feared.” The strength in God is not that he can see all, and can know us in ways that we don’t even have words to describe, but that he can forgive and love us even with that knowledge.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he says “I believed, and so I spoke. We also believe, and so we speak.” Later he says, “we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen.” Sounds a little like our quote from Lao Tzu, doesn’t it? Things that we know but cannot say, experience but cannot see.

I find that it is often difficult to explain what happens, and what I feel, here in this this room when we gather to worship the Lord. This experience, right now, does not lend itself to the everyday language that we normally use.

Linguists tell us that English is made up of a core thousand words or so from German, given to us by the Saxon invaders of the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. These words describe all the things that mattered to a Sixth Century English person. Then that core is surrounded by mostly French words that date from the time of the Norman Invasion in the Eleventh Century, for all the science and art and statecraft and professions that came in the following centuries.

And exactly none of that equips us to explain the experience of praying together.

Explaining that which we cannot see directly forms the core of a poem by T.S. Eliot called “The Rock” that I have quoted in a previous sermon, but directly relates here, so I’m going to quote it again:

O Light Invisible, we worship Thee!
We thank Thee for the light that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!”

We feel these things that do not map easily to our everyday language, and we struggle to explain what we feel. This is the challenge of language.

Consider our Gospel. Here the language is “Mother” and “Brothers.” Words we think that we perhaps know well and are clearly defined. But no. Jesus offers another definition. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” Another definition for these words.

Understanding the abstraction of language is a bridge to understanding the challenge of receiving Christ’s message. Christ’s message is perfect. But is our understanding of that message perfect? It can’t be. Because we aren’t.

Consider again what Jesus said about family. A listener hearing that might decide that what Jesus meant is that if my mother and brothers turn away from the will of God, they are no longer my family.

But he never says that! Jesus’s love is additive. He’s adding those that follow him to his family. We hear the Gospel, and we know from our other readings, and from our understanding of Christ, that his love is additive not subtractive.

But the danger of misunderstanding is real. God’s message is infallible, but our reception of it is unfortunately not so.

This is where we have to call upon our understanding and experience with that which cannot be seen, and that which cannot be named. We feel the power of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ here in this room, this morning. That power can guide us as we read the words in the Bible, as we hear the voices that carry down to us through the millennia. Partaking in faith together can provide a clarity and a wisdom that will help us discern God’s will and separate it from our mistake-prone hearing or limited understanding.

That which we cannot see, and struggle to put together in words, can none the less be the anchor to better and more correctly discern the will and message that God needs us to hear. That is part of the mystery and power of coming together to worship the Lord.

Amen.

© 2024 Mr. Tola Marts. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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