Wrestling With Words

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge

Church of the Intercession, NYC

August 2, 2020

Text:  Genesis 32:22-31


In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the depressing characteristics of our current time – among many – is rampant disrespect:  disrespect for authority, disrespect for the dignity of elected offices, even by those who are occupying them, certainly disrespect for the value of human life, particularly black and brown human lives.  But there is one other kind of disrespect that I would like to lift up this morning, one that may not seem as important as the others in the great scheme of things, but one that I think actually promotes and enables all the rest that I have just mentioned, and that is disrespect for language.

Never in the history of the United States has the spoken or written word been treated with as much contempt as it is today.  Think back on how Americans of all stations in life were accustomed to elevated discourse in earlier times.  Of course there is the eloquence of famous statesmen, beginning with Thomas Jefferson – whatever you may think of him as a person, he could certainly knew his way around words – continuing through, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and in modern times Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, who could move the nation with their words.  And we have a magnificent literary history as well, of essayists, novelists, biographers, poets, playwrights and journalists, all of whom could wield the immense power of words to convey the deepest truths and dreams.  But many common people had considerable talent and the desire to express themselves, too.  Think of the trove of correspondence that we have from the Civil War, when the lowliest soldier could write beautiful, heart wrenching letters home from the most terrible conditions imaginable.   Up until now, language was a precious vehicle respected and used to great effect by most Americans, the means for us to convey truth, one to another.

Now, unfortunately, reverence for language has been replaced by torrents of words emptied of not only elegance but of truth itself.  Misspelled, rash, untruthful, provocative communications of a paltry 280 characters are now regularly turn the word upside down.  Cheap, agenda-driven, truth-poor language has now become normalized. Of course, propaganda – misleading words or outright lies designed to push a cause or point of view – has existed as long as language itself, but even propaganda historically shows more respect for the power of words than our culture shows today.

The Bible is very clear about the creative power of language and the respect that it should therefore command; Jesus, after all is called the incarnation of the Logos, the Word.  In Genesis, God creates the entire universe using only words – the one exception being when God stoops down to form us, humankind, from dust  – all of the rest is all spoken into existence.  For this reason, Hebrew – the language of creation – was considered holy, and its misuse constituted a sin against God.  Think about this: of the Ten Commandments, three deal directly with misuse of language – the prohibition of taking the name of God in vain, honoring one’s father and mother, and not bearing false witness, and at least three other Commandments can be interpreted to involve misuse of language as well.

The mortal danger of misusing language is at the heart of today’s reading from Genesis.  Jacob had stolen his older brother Esau’s birthright years before with a lie – a lie invented and abetted by his mother Rachel, but his lie none the less.  When his father Isaac was old and blind, Jacob allowed Rachel to dress him in Esau’s clothes, then he presented himself to his father as Esau.  Isaac is suspicious – he says that the voice he is hearing sounds like Jacob’s, not Esau’s, but he is convinced by the smell and texture of the clothing that it really is his elder son serving him meat stew.  This ruse results in Isaac giving the blessing to Jacob that would normally go to his elder son. Esau, predictably infuriated, threatens to kill Jacob, and Jacob had been on the run from him ever since, until this night when a confrontation can no longer be avoided.

What we tell others has the power to form their reality, whether those words are truthful or mendacious, but what tell ourselves is just as powerful.  Thomas Jefferson said, “falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart.”  We can convince ourselves of an alternate reality by lying, lying, lying until we believe that the lies are actually truths, and usually, we believe we can run from the consequences of such behavior forever.  Sometimes, reckoning comes only when we are in mortal danger, when we are forced to face the consequences of our lying ways.

That is where we find Jacob today.  In a cowardly but shrewd ploy,  he sends his family ahead, knowing that Esau is lying in wait with an army, and hoping – praying, certainly – that Esau won’t attack his wives and children, and maybe will even forgive him as well.  So Jacob remains behind alone, and when night falls, he is suddenly attacked by what the Bible calls “a man.”  Who this man actually is has always been a matter of debate – was he an angel or perhaps God himself?  Or is the attacker a metaphor for what attacks all of us at night when we are anxious? – Bishop Dietsche has spoken to us clergy about what he calls “the terrors of 2 am,” that time of wakefulness in the night when the troubles of the day before and the anticipated troubles of the next “gather round the bed” in that anxious hour. Whoever or whatever his wrestling partner is, Jacob is forced to use every ounce of his strength to prevail.  In the process, he’s wounded; by dawn his hip is permanently disabled, ensuring that he will remember this night and this battle for the rest of his life, every time he tries to take a step.

Jacob emerges from this confrontation a changed man, not only physically.  We never hear of him deceiving again.  He is now humble and truthful as he embarks on a new stage of life, for which he is given a new name befitting his new role: Israel, which means “he who has wrestled with God.”  Now he is ready to father twelve sons who themselves will sire the twelve tribes of Israel.  Please hear this:  Jacob could not have become Israel had he remained a lying trickster, a man who believed that his lies were justified by his ambitions.  Sure, he could have gotten his way some or even most of the time that way.  But he could not have become a patriarch without becoming truthful in deed and in word.

We too are anxious and wrestling with ourselves and with God, and language has become an arena for that battle.  Now, our culture is paying close attention to language in a few ways – mostly as we refine and invent new terms that define identity, since language can be a means of perpetuating power structures based on gender and race.  The updating of language is continually necessary, particularly when it has become clear that our traditional, in most cases unthinking, linguistic usage leave us stuck, hide-bound in a society that is trying to move forward.

But that is a small, granular, microcosmic fight, one that does not address and in some ways distracts from the larger issue of the colossally destructive culture of political power that has been based on perverted language.  This week there is a brilliant essay by Louis Menand in The New Yorker entitled “Joseph McCarthy and the Force of Political Falsehoods,” which provides vivid evidence of McCarthy’s manipulation of the political climate of his day for his own self-interests, using nothing more than words.  I’m going to skip around here and lightly paraphrase Menand occasionally as I present his highlights – maybe better called “lowlights”- of McCarthy’s way with words.  Listen to this:

“McCarthy was a bomb-thrower . . . He would make an outrageous charge, almost always with little or no evidentiary basis, and then he would surf the aftershocks.  When these subsided, he threw another bomb.”  “He tried to block a hostile newspaper from his press conferences, and he egged on the crowds at his rallies to harass the reporters.”  “Right from the start, McCarthy had prominent critics.  But almost the entire political establishment was afraid of him.  You could fight him, in which case he just made your life harder, or you could ignore him, in which case he rolled right over you.  He verbally abused people who disagreed with him.” “He was incapable of sticking to a script.  He rambled and blustered, and if things weren’t going his way, he left the room.  He was notoriously lazy, ignorant, and unprepared, and he had a reputation for following the advice of the last person he talked to.  But he trusted his instincts.  And he loved chaos.” “To his supporters he could say and do no wrong.”  Someone even said, “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they probably would still go along with him.”  Finally: “His fans liked that he was a bully, and they liked that he scandalized the genteel and the privileged.”

Sound familiar?  As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun,” but McCarthy was only a senator, powerful enough, but without the massive sphere of influence of a president.  Menand depicts the extreme, even mortal danger we create by buying into wholesale lies and ceding power to someone whose heart has been remade by falsehoods. So how do we get out the thrall of someone who has amassed power in such a way?  Before his death, John Lewis wrote a stirring essay for the day of his funeral; it was published by the New York Times on Thursday.  In it, Lewis says this, listen especially to his words about our hearts:

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.  In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way.

If you witnessed President Obama’s eulogy of Lewis at his funeral, you heard the whole point of what I’m trying to preach in this sermon, the perfect demonstration of both what Lewis was telling us in his final message, and the language we have been missing for nearly four years.  The only way to counter political power based on language that promotes division, violence, and hate is to wrestle it down with oratory that creates the opposite, healthy climate of peace and love.  Truth coupled with deeds creates a force more powerful than any gun or bomb or weapon that we could devise.  So let’s answer the highest calling of our hearts, reclaim our national and personal discourse, and wed our words to deeds that Obama and Lewis said would create more perfect union, and that Jesus tells us will help bring God’s kingdom on earth.