Sermon October 16, 2011: “How shall it be known?”

Reverend Stacy Swain

October 16, 2011

Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23


          I was listening to a piece on the radio this week.  In it, an interviewer spoke with a scientist who had made an amazing discovery.  The scientist discovered that piranhas, you know the fish with the sharp teeth and an attitude to match, well they communicate.  By submerging a microphone in a tank of piranhas, the scientist was able to hear and decipher three distinct sounds that he believed were purposeful language.  


·       The first sound was a barking noise, and that by watching the posture of the fish, the scientist interpreted to mean “You are anoying, get out of my way.”

·        The second sound was a thumping noise that again by observing the fish’s body language, the scientist interpreted to mean “You are really annoying me now and I am thinking of eating you.”

·        And the third sound was a clicking noise the fish made with its teeth right before attacking that clearly said “That’s it, you’re dead!”  


What was amazing about all of this is that by discovering that the fish were speaking to one another in the tank, the scientist learned that these fish understood themselves not as just a random collection of individuals, but instead as being in relation to each other in some meaningful, purposeful ways.  Language it turns out, is a sign of social relationship.   One does not develop the use of “words”, unless one has the desire and need to speak them to another.


          But before we explore how piranhas have anything to do with the Scripture texts or our lives this morning, let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  AMEN.  


             The acquisition of language is one of those huge milestones in human growth and development.   A child first learns to language by making the connection between an object and the word that represents that object.  We point to the fuzzy creature with the long tail purring on the bed and say “cat.”  We point to the wooden panel that opens to the back yard and say “door.”  Words in their most basic sense are signs that represent tangible reality. Stand-ins that conjure up in the mind the reality they represent. I will never forget the first word my son spoke.  We were living in El Salvador and one night when the moon was big and round, I pointed to it and asked “Donde esta la luna, Mateo?”.  And  he without hesitation pointed his little finger up into sky and said “alla!!  What thrilling moment!


          Language in this first and most basic usage is tied to a tangible referent and is bound by the temporal world.  We speak with confidence about what is, because we can point to and see that of which we speak.   


          Now all of this is fine and good, and there is nothing wrong with this representational level of language.  But danger creeps in if we begin to think that what we can point to and name is all that there is —  that our experience of reality defines what reality is.   Thinking that if I find you annoying than you are annoying.  It I find you problematic than you are a problem. 


          But the truth is, words can do much more than merely label and define what is.  Words are also revelatory and have the power to create, to crack open the moment and open it up to what can be. .


          It is this contrast between representational language and revelatory language that we see in the Gospel text this morning.  The Pharisees are so sure they see all that there is to see.  They believe that what they know and understand defines what there is to know and understand. And so this young Rabbi from the back waters of Galilee must be nothing more than a young Rabbi from the back waters of Galilee.  They are so sure that they are right that it follows then that Jesus must be wrong.  In their closed certainty, language becomes a weapon used to defend what is perceived to be what is real.  Language becomes a tool of control.

          And so they ask him, “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" not so because they are sincerely interested in his opinion on the matter but in order to ensnare him, in order to trip him up. 


          These days, it seems that much of our public discourse is offered up in the same way.  It is a bit like listening in on the piranha tank.  Language has become a tool that we like the Pharisees use against each other, like a weapon in a verbal sparring match of who gets to define what is.  Have you listened to the pundits on TV. Points are scored for blows to the other not for insight.  I even heard one say at the end of an interview how much he appreciated his opponent not for what he said but “for staying in the fight” as he put it.  Is that what our civil discourse has become?  A fight?


          Have we forgotten that language can be used not to shut others down but as a way to open more fully to what is possible – to the moreness that lies within each moment?


          For this is exactly what Jesus does.  He sees clearly the bait that the Pharisees have put out there for him, but he side steps it completely.  He shifts the tenor of the discourse to revelatory language saying  "Show me the coin used for the tax." So they bring him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"  They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."   Jesus’ words disarm the Pharisees for through them he breaks open an either /or power struggle with the Pharisees and reveals  new possibilities and wonderings.  The people are left wondering  “If the coin caries the imprint of the Emperor, what is it that carries the imprint of God?”  “If taxes are the way we give the emperor what is his, how is it that we give to God what is God’s?”  Jesus’ words open thing up, through his use of language the moment holds more than what it had before. 



          The text from Exodus takes this revelatory power of language even further.  The context of the conversation is that Moses and God are at odds.  Moses is upset with God because God has decided that the people should go on alone with just an angel as their guide not with the presence of God’s self.  God is angry with the people because they made an idol, the golden calf to worship.  So when the text begins today, Moses is mad at God and God is mad at Moses.  But unlike the Pharisees, Moses honestly engages God.  God and Moses are willing to be open to hearing the other and they work it out.  They reach a place of understanding but that is not the really remarkable thing.  What is remarkable is that Moses leans into this moment and asks that God make it more.  Asks that God show Moses more of God’s glory than he has seen before.  And God does!  Not only is the conflict between God and Moses resolved but through it Moses deepens his relationship with God and is privileged to an intimate encounter with God unlike any he had ever experienced.


          Where do you find yourself in these stories this morning?  How do you speak and how do the words that you use affect what you experience and how you relate to those around you? Are you like the Pharisees, quick to ensnare in a winner take all power struggle?  Or are you disarming, like Jesus, using words to break open what is to revelation, to new understandings and possibilities?  Do your words lead to a deepening of relationships, to wonderful new levels of intimacy that were previously unknown?


          As we go into our week, let us be mindful of how we use the words we speak.  Let us engage those around us in ways that draw out the fullness of what the moment can hold.  And let us do so especially in those difficult conversations, in times of conflict when we feel the piranha in us begin to stir, let us instead engage the creative revelatory power of language to open ourselves and those we are with, to new insights and the deepening of relationships.    AMEN