Rev. J. Mark Worth
“Words, words, words, in my old Bible,” sang Pete Seeger, “How much of truth remains? If I only understood them while my lips pronounced them, would not my life be changed?” Words, words, words. Sometimes, despite our words – or maybe because of them – we have trouble understanding one another.
Do you know what language they speak in England? It’s not a trick question. English! Do we speak the same language? Maybe, maybe not. You know what they call a flashlight? In England it’s a torch. Over there, the trunk of your car is the boot, and the hood is the bonnet. You don’t go to Hertz to rent a sedan, you go there to hire a saloon. Your boss is your governor. French fries are chips in England, and potato chips are crisps. A truck is a lorry, and an elevator is a lift. They use words we don’t, like knackered for tired or worn out. And if they say, “I’ll come to your house tomorrow and knock you up,” they plan to knock on your door. That’s all, really! Maybe that’s why George Bernard Shaw said we and the English are “two nations separated by a common language.”
The words we use can lead to misunderstandings. And we Unitarian Universalists often struggle with our words. When I first joined a UU church, back in the Stone Age – 1970 – in many, maybe most UU churches, we never spoke of God. We were rationalist humanists. So we didn’t call it a worship service, it was the Sunday service. We didn’t use the word prayer, and certainly didn’t have faith. We said we were tolerant and open-minded, open to ideas from Buddhism and Taoism – but not Christianity! We often explained our faith by beginning with, “We’re not Christian.” And to a large extent certain words were not used and certain ideas were not discussed.
That was then. Since then, a younger generation has been coming to our churches, and our younger members are often more open to religious-sounding words and ideas. Yes, Humanism is still part of the mix, naturally. We use our reason, and we value the scientific method. Science is not a liberal conspiracy! But at the same time, we no longer have a knee-jerk reaction against Christianity or religious words. And we know that science doesn’t answer all questions; a question such as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” cannot be tested in a chemistry lab, or solved with a mathematical equation.
So I am still a Humanist. My concerns are human concerns, and I want my religion to make sense in the natural world. But I’m also a liberal Christian, and a student of Buddhism. As a UU, I have the freedom to explore words I once rejected, and find new meanings in old ideas and old stories.
Metaphor, myth, and the words we struggle with ~
We UUs still sometimes struggle with religious terms, of course. And so today I want to look at some of the words that sometimes give some of us trouble.
Let’s start with “metaphor.” A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, refers to one thing by mentioning another thing. A few years ago I read a letter in the UU World magazine. Rev. Bill Sinkford, who was then the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, had said that we ought to be open to using what he called, “a language of reverence.” The letter-writer disagreed. The letter-writer said he disliked religious metaphors, and said that metaphors have to be literally true.
No! The whole point of a metaphor, the value of a metaphor, is that it isn’t literally true, and yet it’s also not literally false. The arm of a chair isn’t an arm. And yet it is an arm. The same with the legs of a chair – they’re legs, and yet they aren’t legs. Like the arms and legs of a chair, religious metaphors all have the quality of “is” and “is not” at the same time. So when Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” he was using a metaphor. It’s not literally true. And yet it is truthful.
Theologian Sallie McFague says that all the best religious terms, the most useful religious terms, they’re all metaphors. So when Christians speak of “God the Father,” God isn’t literally a father. But metaphorically, God both is and is not a father. It’s a perfectly good metaphor. And at the same time, God the Mother is also a perfectly good metaphor. And God the Lover and God the Friend.
And yes, “God” is a metaphor. It is a word we use to talk about something we cannot really describe. Some theologians have said we can’t say what God is, only what God is not. God is not an old White man in the sky, for instance. We can be sure of that.
The Book of Genesis says that God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, and talked with Adam and Eve. It’s a myth, folks. And there’s another term, myth. A myth is not a lie. A myth is a classic story that tells a truth, or truths, about the human situation.
Oedipus Rex is a myth. It’s not a lie, it’s a classic story that tells a truth. The Garden of Eden is a myth, too. The myth tells us that God walked and talked to the first woman and the first man in the Garden of Eden, and they had a falling out, and the relationship has been pretty complicated ever since.
So is God a person? When I was a child, I thought God was an old man in the sky. Children want truth to be a solid thing. Kind of like Santa Claus at the North Pole. Either it’s true or it isn’t. But then I learned that the Bible, in John 4:24, says “God is a spirit, and those who worship God should worship in spirit and in truth.” Not a person, but a spirit.
And the Epistle of 1st John says that God is love. And love is not a person. Love is an emotion, and it’s also an ideal. So God is a person, and isn’t a person. God is a spirit, an emotion and an ideal. Because the word “God” is a metaphor, God both is and is not.
And I think that’s all biblical. Because the Bible isn’t one book, it contains many books, written by many different people, and it says many different things. The Bible is a discussion about God.
So that’s not all. It also says God is the sound of silence. You thought that was Simon and Garfunkle, didn’t you?
Well, the 1st Book of Kings says that the prophet Elijah encountered God. Elijah was on Mount Horeb, in a cave. And the Bible says he experienced this: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” So, God is not the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. But after the fire Elijah heard the sound of silence.
That’s from one of the best modern translations, the New Revised Standard Version. The King James Version of 1611 said after the fire there was “a still small voice.” That’s what we sing about in the hymn, “Voice Still and Small.” There is a still small voice within each of us. We may call it your “inner light;” that’s what the Quakers call it. Some call it conscience. Some call it the voice of God.
So what do we mean when we say “God”? Even the authors of the Bible give many different meanings. The whole point here is to not take this too literally. A metaphor “is and is not” at the same time. John Haynes Holmes, one of the great Unitarian ministers of the early 20th Century, said, “When I say God, it is poetry and not theology. The books of the theologians gather dust on my shelves, but the pages of the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.”
Some more terms we struggle with ~
Faith and doubt.
Conservative Christians say we must have faith. But “faith” doesn’t mean that we have to believe things that are scientifically impossible. The Greek word pistis, used in the Bible, means to be true, to be trustworthy. It’s not about believing impossible things, it’s about trust. I have faith in Mickey because I trust her. I don’t just believe in her existence, I know her to be trustworthy. And I trust the airplane pilots will take me to Green Bay when they say they are going to Green Bay, and not to Pensacola. Faith means trust.
And while we have faith, we cherish our doubts. If you don’t have doubt, you either are kidding yourself or you’re asleep. Lonni Collins Pratt, author of the book, Radical Hospitality, writes, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps faith moving. … No such thing as belief can exist, unless not believing is an ever-present option.”
Grace is an unexpected gift, a gift freely given that we didn’t do anything to deserve, but received anyway. The natural world is full of grace; it is a gracious place. The poet and essayist Wendell Barry writes of the peace of the world and the grace of wild things. People, our fellow humans, also can be bringers of grace. Share some graciousness with someone today. I recommend it.
A minister is a servant, and ministry, serving others, is the mission of the church. There are many ministries – the ministry of serving coffee hour, the ministry of teaching and guiding our children, the ministry of greeting and passing out orders of service, the ministry of music, and so much more, all of them gifts of service. And the paid professional minister can only do a small part of the ministry of the church. You do the rest when you serve and look after one another.
Worship comes from an Old English word, woerschipe, which means “to ascribe or give worth to something.” So it does not have to mean “to bow down.” It means “to give worth,” and we give worth to many things, to love, to community, to our promises, our covenants with one another. And yes, to God, which is after all what? A spirit, love, silence, poetry, metaphor. God is and is not. And we have faith, that is trust, at the same time that we cherish our doubts. It’s all paradox. Religion isn’t like math, where 1+1 always has to equal 2. I believe it’s more like poetry, music, and art. In music, we don’t say that because Johann Sebastian Bach is right, Duke Ellington and Blink 182 have to be wrong. In art, we don’t say that because Rembrandt is right, Monet and Picasso have to be wrong. In religion, as in poetry, art, and music, there is more than one right way.
Christ is a title, not a name. Jesus was not the son of Joseph and Mary Christ. We have three words in three different languages that all mean the same thing: anointed, Messiah, and Christ. Anointed is the English word, Messiah means anointed in Hebrew, and Christ, or christos, means anointed in Greek. To call Jesus “the Messiah,” or to say that Jesus is “the Christ,” is to say he was anointed, or chosen, by God for a special purpose. It does not mean he was divine, only that he was given a special task. That task, the gospel, could be the subject of many sermons.
You’ve heard of the gospel truth. Well, no, that’s not what the word “gospel” means. It means “good news.” The gospel of Unitarian Universalism is the good news that we don’t all have to agree all the time. It’s the good news that you don’t have to be wrong in order for me to be right. We don’t have a creed that demands theological agreement; we have covenants, promises to support one another on our individual faith journeys.
The gospel of Unitarian Universalism is the good news that a loving God would never create a hell to torture us in and then create us so flawed we have to be sent there. It is the good news that you don’t have to be born again; you were born the right way the first time! It is the good news that gay, straight, black, white, brown, female, male, trans, tall, short, young, old, left-handed, whatever – we are all loveable and valuable just as we are, just as God created us.
And it is the good news that Jesus spoke in Luke 4:18-19: “I am anointed to announce good news to the poor, proclaim release for prisoners, bring sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” – that’s the gospel, that’s the good news according to Jesus, and to that I can say amen!
How do you pray to a metaphor? Well, I like what Mother Theresa said about prayer. She was asked by a reporter, “What do you say to God when you pray?” “I don’t say anything, “ she said. “I just listen.” “Then, what does God say to you?” asked the reporter. “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.”
I end each sermon with “Amen.” What does that mean? It means, “So be it.” Amen.