Sunday, January 31, 2016
January 31, Epiphany 4, Worldview #4, What Your Voice is For
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
What an exceptional thing is human speech. We are told that chimpanzees share 99% of our DNA, yet they do not talk, and it seems they cannot talk. They have no use for words. Neither does any primate or any other mammal. A few birds can mimic human speech, but they don’t use that speech for their own birdy lives. Those animals that can understand some of our speech are those we have domesticated, and our words to them are instruments of their domestication.
Animals, of course, raise their young without speaking to them. They communicate without words. But we humans talk to our babies constantly, and we have to, not only to develop their brains, but also to fashion their relationships. For the human species, words are not just information but how we do relationships.
And we do this without any special physical organ for speech. We just make use of the same mouth structures that we share with other primates. Our tongues, lips, and teeth evolved for eating food, and these eating structures are what we use to shape our sounds. With your teeth you make dental consonants, and with your tongue linguals, and labials with your lips, be they aspirated, liquid, fricative or plosive, and for vowels you adjust the opening of your mouth, so that you can produce an infinity of sounds that serve an infinity of meanings for a subtle complexity of mind.
The human mind has many purposes. The Christian claim is that the greatest purpose of your mind is for you to know the God who is behind the universe, as much as this God can be known by you, and that depends on what God reveals to us. Yes, your mind is your own, and for being human in the world, but to be a human in the world brings with it that your mind is ultimately for God.
If you can you know God and the things of God, then you should not keep silent about what you know. What you know of God is not yours to keep for yourself. You are to give voice to what you know of God, and with your mouth make those sounds in patterns that other human beings can recognize as confession and praise and thanksgiving. To make these sounds along with other people is a very human thing to do, and so the worship service helps you function as a human being.
I know that many times it’s better to keep silent. I tend to speak up. That’s my calling. I believe it’s a calling laid on me by God since my youth, like Jeremiah, and because you recognize my calling you employ me here and you listen to me speak. I’m a speaker, and in my gift is my usual sin. With me, it’s things I say that I regret the most. Many people err by keeping silent when they should speak, but my errors are from speaking when I should be quiet. Many times it’s better to keep silent. And yet that does not excuse you from God’s call on you to speak up when it’s needed and costly.
Last Monday I sat behind a mike at the Brooklyn Paper Radio Hour. It’s a weekly comedic commentary on Brooklyn news, and I was asked to come in as “A man of God and our moral compass.” The two hosts of the show are quick, sharp, funny, and aggressive. I found myself trying to just keep up, and stay in, and maybe score a point or two. I’d get asked sudden questions, and have to give an answer quick on complex issues. I made it through, I think without embarrassing Old First or shaming Our Lord, but I won’t go back. This kind of talking may entertain, but what does it serve? And this kind of talking dominates our public culture.
Here’s the first take home. With the glut of talk in radio and media, one of our Christian missions is to offer an alternate culture of how we talk, of disciplined speech, loving speech, especially about other people. It’s not political correctness, it’s calling people what they ask to be called. It’s respecting them. The loving discipline of speech starts with yourselves and what you repeat and what you say about each other. You also discipline what you say to each other. My mentor once told me that I was required to say something difficult to somebody only if that person was able to hear it.
Was that the problem in the synagogue of Nazareth? Were they simply unable to hear what the Lord Jesus had to say? They were so stuck in their pressing problems and so oppressed and victimized that they could not imagine a salvation from that did not first relieve their presenting problems. How could they welcome a salvation that would benefit their oppressors as much as themselves?
Was Jesus sounding like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal? He may have spoken with the tongue of an angel, but what he said did not sound very loving. You have to wonder at his pushing them, why he wasn’t more gradual with them, and more considerate of their feelings.
Or was he done with their feelings after thirty years? Doubtless every word he said to them he had heard them saying to each other ad nauseum, and he knew exactly who would say what and who would chime in or nod their heads. And their feelings are not the object of his love.
The salvation of God is not directed at our feelings. It’s not even really directed at what we’d first bring up with God. We are not just saved, we are converted. And our conversion converts our expectations of what God does for us. And whatever God does for us does not spare our feelings.
That tells us something about love, and also about why God deals with us first and foremost through speech and words. These two things are connected. First about love. We use the English word “love” to translate three different Greek words, eros, philia and agape. The natural loves are eros and philia: erotic love and family love. Erotic love is for spouses, and family love is for all your other relationships: sibling, parental, love of country, love of learning, etc., even your love of yourself. These two kinds of love are based on feelings specific to certain relationships, and you do not owe them to everybody. Other species of animals incipiently practice these two loves in their own ways.
But agape is the love that St. Paul writes about in First Corinthians. This is the love that comes to you from God, and that you owe back to God, and also your neighbors, indeed to everyone, and that includes your enemies. This is the love that the church must practice and demonstrate to the world. This love is based not on feelings but on words. On promises. On invitations. On prophecies and projections of the future. This love is not evident in nature, and it may go against your feelings. The truth of this love and even the existence of this love you have to take on God’s word.
This is not to say that the love of God is intellectual. No, little children can grasp it as easily as any philosopher. But the reason that God has chosen to relate to us through the medium of words, that is, God’s Word, which is directed to our minds and to our hearts—God’s reason is so that your relationship to God might be conversational, like this: “I hear you God, I hear your call and invitation, and I will answer you.” That’s the kind of relationship God has with you. As the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Here I am, let it be with me as you have said.” For you I will do it. That love.
So this is why our species has evolved the special facility of words and speech. It is that we may be a species that can freely enter into the special love that is from God. And this why you have your voice. Yes, you should sing love songs to your lover, and patriotic songs about your country and folk songs of your people, and the beauty of nature and the tragedy of life within the world. But fully to be a human being is to come together in worship to raise your voice and sing along with other people of the love divine, all loves all excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.