Sermon video, Part 1 of 2
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The feast of St. Patrick is celebrated by the Catholic church, and by anyone who loves green, shamrock shakes, Guinness, whiskey, the freedom to pinch anyone not wearing green with abandon one day of the year, all of the above . . . And Chicago marks the day well by turning the river green and hosting one of the biggest parties ever.
It is also a story that is surrounded by much lore, some facts, and many speculations.
Still, what we do know about his life (mostly from his autobiography, Confessio) is an exquisite example of a heart transformed – from self-absorbed teenager to contemplative slave-shepherd to earnest bible student to grace-giving missionary . . . to the people who abducted and sold him like cattle, an object.
The only way a person can offer such grace and forgiveness is by an authentic utter transformation of the heart, a giving over entirely to the healing, loving power of the Holy Spirit. (Jim Elliot and his friends who went to the Ecuadorian tribe and were killed, wives returned: Elisabeth Elliot, etc., another more contemporary example).
He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Or – Putting everything as it should be, under and around him (MSG)Philippians 3:21
Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians that one of the profoundly powerful results of Jesus’ death is that by giving his own life and body – transformed at his resurrection – our bodies are transformed, as well. And it’s not just that we get these bodies that may or may not be able to move through walls and possibly fly (though I’m inclined to believe this will happen!).
It is that our humiliation, our embodied humiliation – because we definitely know the effects that stress and worry and shame has on us physically – is transformed because it is conformed to the body of Jesus’ glory – that is, that resurrected body that more truly reflects God’s absolute presence – that our bodies will be, move, live as they were meant to live: perfect images, reflections of God – in all of God’s glory.
The body sustains humiliations largely by the vehicle of language, words. Words directed toward us and the words we hurl inward by our own minds. And even a moment’s reflection is adequate to concede that the childhood chant, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is categorically false. Words do hurt, and they can be used to wield a great deal of power. How we use our words matters.
The Near East Rhetoric scholar, Jennifer Wright Knust, affirms,
“Assigning meaning to words, [such as] signaling virtue or vice, is a power-laden process, a site of conflict and contention within which the dynamics of power relations are negotiated.”[Jennifer Wright Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander & Ancient Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)., 10.
Assigning a label, such as ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ ‘beautiful’ or ‘plain’ does so much more than merely defining or categorizing for clarity’s sake. It demarcates the power differential between the labeler and the labeled. It lays the stake where conflict can more easily find its way.
So, how does this inform how we see ourselves as followers of Christ during Lent, and the way in which we use our words?
Julian of Norwich saw the body of Christ as whole. Incidentally, this is also how Old Testament writers viewed the body, in general. That is, Christ, fully human (body) and fully Spirit (soul—though, the division of spirit and soul is a subject of some theological discussion, it is beyond the scope of this reflection). By embracing death on the cross, Jesus ruptured the division of time and eternity, thereby making it possible to walk the way of Jesus here and now.
And, we know that Jesus’ way was/is one of peace giving, grace bestowing. It is one that does not distinguish between gender, ethic origin or vocation. In this way, borders and boundaries do not need to be defended. But it is far too easy to feel compelled to draw the boundary, defend oneself, see difference and be threatened by it. The easiest way to distinguish and exploit differences is by using categories—calling names.
French social scientist, Pierre Bourdieu, concludes,
“there is no social agent who does not aspire, as far as his circumstances permit, to have the power to name and to create the world through naming: gossip, slander, lies, insults, commendations, criticisms, arguments, and praises are all daily and petty manifestations of the solemn and collective acts of naming.”Pierre Bourdieu, Social Structures of the Economy.
Indeed, from the first volumes of earliest Greek and Roman literature an ancient rhetorical category of blame predominates. Of course, the very first response to confronting the initial act of separating from God was to blame. To place blame on another has the effect of deflecting one’s own culpability.
Words matter. Even if it is untrue, making an accusation always imprints on the accused—and all who hear it. It is so beautiful that our justice system maintains the clause that all are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Sadly, no one can assert that once an accusation is uttered, no suspicion is present until the proof is set forth (even within the constraints of reasonable doubt). Even when uncontested proof of innocence is presented, nearly without exception a question remains.
When God created humankind, God made them in the likeness of God, male and female God created them and blessed them and named them hā ādām (Gen 5:1, 2). The first Adam then named the woman, Eve (wife, that is, the role he ascribed to her). And we have ascribed names to others ever since. Now, God is creative and we are made in that image. God also blessed by naming. Hā ādām: of-the-earth, created-from-creation. Jesus summons Simon (which means, to hear), who is quick to follow, an apt name. But Jesus sees a different future for him and renames him Peter (Rock). It takes some time before he lives up to the name, but the blessing wins out. How many of us live under the burden of an unfair name—good-for-nothing, daydreamer, easily-distracted, lazy? When is that we begin to use names as a curse instead of blessing? How often am I paralyzed by the belief that I am not-good-enough?
Language, when used to draw boundaries, creates an imbalance of power. Words are used to make categories, assign labels, gossip, slander, praise and flatter. Segments of society are kept in line by rhetoric that seeks to shame and control, dominate. When those who are dominated attempt to come out from under that control, the same language is employed to regain some power. Nothing has changed regarding the system or operations; it is only that the power has shifted.
For change to occur at the fundamental, systemic level, new language must be drawn upon or even created. An entirely new modus of communicating with one another has to occur if we are to truly live/walk after the resurrected Christ-Body, transformed, conformed—perhaps, it is even just by being silent. If we are to be whole, body and spirit, reconciled to our Trinitarian creator, how we speak to/of one another must be transformed from the making-distinctions-assigning-blame speech to blessing and peace. As a spouse and parent I am especially mindful of how my words affect my children, my husband.
Please use this Lenten meditation to consider the words that you have heard in your lifetime—words that blame, that hurt your feelings, that keep you ‘in your place.’ Let us consider together the words that we use to do the same to others. Listen to the heart of Jesus, the words of this God of Love who gave everything to elevate us into this Holy Presence. Imagine with me ways that we can be a part of a transforming movement, a new practice of speaking a new language.
How have words impacted you? In what ways has another’s label given you had on how you interact with people? what you do? how you live? This is what you are dying to, these names and labels are what you are beckoned by Jesus to leave at the cross. How can we be conformed to body of God’s glory, be agents of putting everything as it should be? It begins by having a clear sense of who you truly are – God calls you child, beloved, perfect, the very image and reflection of God’s glory.