Sermons

Where Old English Majors Go To Die

May 26, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I was hoping today to talk about how the conversation on climate change is stuck, using Santiago’s performance lament as one way into the subject. But I cannot. It may be hot in my back yard but it is also dangerous in my front yard.What people say right now matters.

It is truly great that President Sexton spoke out so beautifully at the NYU graduation in Yankee Stadium, honoring an 83 year old lesbian who said she had enough.That is why it is also curious – thank you, Ken Kidd, for such a good use of the word curious in your post this morning – that Mayor Bloomberg has been so quiet. Sexton’s speech and Bloomberg’s silence are testimonies to the power of words, in two different ways. What we don’t say often matters as much as what we do say.

 

How many of you are English majors? How many of you love words? How many of you have told your children to use their words, fully aware that they may finally just punch the other kid out, if the words don’t work? How many of you sometimes feel you are just an MFA in an MBA world, as John Cormier put it the other day to me? How many of you know that words are important but wonder if they are close to enough?

That same matter of what’s enough allows us to stare straight at the text for the day. It is an all purpose one, especially gratifying to we English majors. In the beginning was the word and the word was God. It offers divinity to words. Words can help us with the violence, although not as much as we usually think. We do not have enough words to stop the spike in hate crimes in our neighborhood. Nor do our antagonists have enough guns or fists to stop us. Nobody has enough. Even God did not have enough words, although that was all God had too. Yup, God did not have enough. We don’t have enough. And so-called they don’t have enough. If we or God had enough words, the violence would have stopped long ago.

So why bother with this powerful sentence about the beginning, the word and God? Why bother with it at all, if it is not enough to stop the violence? You could go even deeper here and ask yourself the bigger why bother question. Why bother living if the thugs are in charge?

Let me tell you how Henry David Thoreau answered the question. You may or may not know that Thoreau believed in violence and supported John Brown’s armed revolt. He believed in violence because he saw it as morally proportionate. Slavery to him was so bad that he didn’t want to just help slaves get North. He wanted slavery over. In his defense of Brown, he said, “ACTION FROM PRINCIPLE IS THE PERCEPTION AND PERFORMANCE OF WHAT IS RIGHT, IT CHANGES THINGS AND RELATIONS; IT IS ESSENTIALLY REVOLUTIONARY, AND DOES NOT CONSIST WHOLLY WITH ANYTHING THAT WAS. IT NOT ONLY DIVIDES STATES AND CHURCHES, IT DIVIDES FAMILIES AND IT DIVIDES THE INDIVIDUAL, SEPARATING THE DIABOLICAL IN HIM FROM THE DIVINE.” What bothered Thoreau and what bothers me is that the passion which causes a person to pick up a gun is absent in those of us who would do good. Thoreau was hoping for moral proportion in language and deed. He wanted action from principle. Slavery to him was wrong, and you had to stop it.

Hate crimes to us are wrong, and we have to stop them. Without the kind of passion in our words, akin to the passion the NRA has for its guns or the haters have for their hate, the words will not be enough. Thus, it is very important for all of us to pick a major and stick to it. We are to hate hate and love love as much as the haters hate what they hate. I quote Thoreau, not because I believe he was right about violence, but because he says something very important. He says action needs to come from principle, the same way the text says that words come from God in the beginning. The only decent answer to the question of why bother is here: we bother to align ourselves with the beginning purpose of creation. We bother with words because God is a word. The text of goes on to say that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The best understanding of Jesus for me is also here, that Jesus is the one who refused to have an enemy, refused to beat up the other kid, when words failed, as they do, and went on to be a living, loving word, despite the violence used against him.

The living word of God, arched into reality at the beginning of time is like Jesus. Or like love. It is as fragile as a spider’s first string, hung on the porch, and as strong. It is as threatening to the foundation as a carpenter ant. Words can take a person down or lift a person up. Words can move all of Yankee stadium or they can deflate the hope of New York City in itself and its leadership. Words are small. They aren’t enough. They aren’t even sufficient. They are instead all flummoxed up with how we move our lips and add our breath to them. Speak from your diaphragm, we say. Speak you're your gut. Speak from your principles. Act from your principals. Pick a major and stick with it. Note that our text has a funny grammar, akin to the present perfect. In the beginning was the word and the word was God. By present perfect, just in case, you majored in English, it means present forging the future. And this text claims all three sets of time, the past, the present and the future. It says God became flesh and dwells, present tense, among us. Living Words forge futures. Putting life into our words means seeping them in our principles, so that they become morally proportional instead of morallydisproportional.

The increase in violence is directly related to the increase in hope that our great nation has for its future, where we can already glimpse the day our grandchildren will say to us, “Did they really call people fags back then?” The center has already moved. The train has left the station. The gunmen are chasing it but they can’t catch it.

I wanted Michael to play Dayenu, that great Hebrew song, meaning, “It would have been enough.” It has fifteen verses, each exegeting the word enough, saying just one thing that God has done was enough. It is a song of praise, useful on a day when our hope has taken a hit.

I can’t tell you that words are enough to protect you from the power of a gun, especially if it is shot straight in your face. I CAN tell you that the living word of God is worth the bother.

 
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