Sept. 10, 2017 // Narrative Yr. 4.1 // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Words Can Do That”; Genesis 1-19; Genesis 1:20-2:3

 

Intro

“Let us remake the world with words…” For the past two weeks, we called one another to worship with a poem by Gregory Orr.

Let’s remake the world with words.

Not frivolously, nor

to hide from what we fear

But with a purpose.

                Let’s

As Wordsworth said, remove

“the dust of custom” so things

Shine again, each object arrayed

In its robe of original light.

 

And then we’ll see the world

As if for the first time.

As once we gazed at the beloved

Who was gazing at us.

(Pause)

I.

Our faith story begins with a poem. It is spare, metered, and intentional as any contemporary free verse. Genesis 1 begins the way an ancient griot in the campfirelight or a wise woman on the porch in the drowsy afternoon shade would address the eager faces gathered round:

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the breath of God swept over the face of the waters. (inhale)

Then God said…

Among the ancient Near Eastern creation myths, the one we hear this morning shines for the way God makes the world with words. There are many creation stories, in many cultures. In some myths, all of this [gesture to world around] is born of violence. Sometimes, one god is fighting with another god until the strongest or smartest overpowers the other and subjugates the weaker one. Sometimes the planet forms from the blood shed in those battles. Other times human beings are formed by mixing battle blood with dirt. But this Creation story is unique. In this story, words call creation into being three by three. If you can channel your high school English teacher for a moment, enjoy the way there are three days and three days paralleling each other.

First the resource:

Light & Dark,

Sky & Water,

Dry Land and the Vegetation, the lowest form of organic life then-known, to be fruitful and multiply.

 

Then, in the next three days, God creates the thing that utilizes the parallel resource:

the Luminaries (heavenly bodies we sometimes call them),

the Fish & the Fowl,

and then the Land Creatures and Humankind (the highest form of organic life).

The poetry ordered in balance, even down to the number of words and syllables in each day’s creativity, threes and sevens and fourteens.  In this Creation story, God speaks into the chaos to make the world with words. (Pause)

 

Trans.

“Just words.” Nothing is ever “just words.” Words have power. Rob Bell, in his book about the Bible, quotes Heschel when he reminds us: “Words… can create new worlds.” In fact, in ancient Hebrew, the word for word — davar — is also the word for thing or power. The word is both speech and the thing about which one speaks. Words create worlds. Words can do that. (Pause)

 

II.

We may be most aware of the power of words to create a world when the world called into being is one of terror and threat. On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Trump’s decision to end the DACA program. He repeated the phrases “illegal aliens” and “rule of law” with a frequency and intention designed to create a world in our minds. Reinforced by other phrases about “crime, violence and terrorism,” “lawlessness” and “lawful,” his word choice implied a level of criminality in a population of nearly 800,000 young people that has no basis in fact. [In fact, the young people who participate in DACA, who as minors upon entry into the U.S. had no legal standing for citizenship on their own, must prove no criminal history in order to participate in the program. They have the cleanest of the clean records.] But words create a world. It was true again this morning. As a radio journalist described what’s happening in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma, he tried to explain why so many more communities up and down both coasts of Florida must prepare for impact — communities that haven’t previously been vulnerable to storm surges of 10-15 feet — he said, “because the sea levels are higher because of… higher sea levels.” He just couldn’t say “climate change.” Whether it was his own stumble, or whether a network rule to avoid that phrase, words create worlds. Toni Morrison knows at the deepest levels how much language can poison a world. Accepting her Nobel Prize back in 1993 she said, “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties for menace and subjugation.” Morrison said, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence…” In a world with so few boundaries on speech, a world which in fact commodifies inciting speech — if it bleeds, it leads — words can destroy worlds… from the very personal realm, as when one neighbor slanders another neighbor or a local business in town, to the national or global level when one tweet or interview can make hundreds of thousands of people feel no longer safe. Words are never just words. Words have power. On the planet this past week, it felt like the world created by words brought way more curse than blessing. (Pause)

 

III.

As any master word-worker knows, Toni Morrison knows that just as words can tear down, they can bring things to life. In that same Nobel speech, Morrison tells a fable that at first seems to illustrate how often words fall short, how often they limit knowledge or block access, end in judgment or serve to divide. But of course, that’s not the whole story. Morrison tells a fable about a group of youth trying to trick an old, wise woman by asking her a riddle about a bird she cannot see in their hands. Halfway through the story, Morrison twists it. She begins to ask whether a sentence that seemed final instead opened up a possibility. She invites her audience through the youth in this fable not to be so discouraged by the way language fails us that we give up caring about the words:

“Make up a story,” the children say. “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created… We know you can never do it properly — once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours… Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul… Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names.”

 

Tell us a story. The youth in this fable back in 1993 interrogate us again today in 2017: What words do we need right now, in our world? What are the words that will call forth life?

 

IV.

At church camp two weeks ago, we played with words. We explored trying to tell our future story. Three groups told a story not just of where we have been, but a story of where we are going as people called to Reconciling, Equipping one another, who are Transforming ourselves the world around us. We watched the groups have a blast and also wrestle with how to say what we are without demonizing what we are not, how to use words to give life and not take it away. It’s never “just words.” And the story of Creation didn’t end on that 7th Day. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” that how the Gospel of John begins, continuing the Creation story of Genesis one. “The Word became flesh and ‘moved into the neighborhood’… In that Word was life, and that life was the Light of all people.” (Pause)

 

Concl.

It’s never just words. Our word and our deed are all wrapped up together. “When God began to create,” one Jewish scholar translates that first line of the Genesis poem, “When God began to create heaven and earth… God said…” As human beings created in the Divine Image, this is one of the ways we are “godlike” — the way we use language to build up or tear down. This week, let’s remake the world around us with words. Not only for the objects in it, but maybe even more so for human beings… let’s remake this world of our with words so that each one can shine again “in its robe of original light.”