Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The Word Made Strange”
“Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’” (Matthew 4)
Language has been much in the news this week. We’ve been pondering an inaugural speech, parsing the homemade signs carried yesterday in resistance, and just generally wondering what the larger meaning of it all is.
I was especially struck, therefore, by a conversation I had with one of you over coffee this week, when the subject came up of how predictable the language of the lessons we read here in church can be. You can pretty well bet that once every three years (since the lectionary is on a three-year cycle), we’re going to have the same old texts. And there are some days (like Christmas), when we get the same text every year. Let me assure you, nobody knows better than we preachers how familiar it can all seem, as we struggle to find something new to say!
But on the other hand, I often find it uncanny how just when you think you’ve got something like a biblical text down by heart, a new meaning can jump out at you that you never noticed before. It comes from what one theologian suggests [Rowan Williams] is practicing the art of looking at something familiar so intently and minutely, that it ends up becoming remote and strange.
Another one of you gave me just such an experience, also this week. You have perhaps noticed that we have made a bit of a substitution in our worship during the season of Epiphany: instead of the rote recitation of the Nicene Creed (which I know is not everyone’s favorite text), we are trying out instead an alternative affirmation of faith, taken from our sister church, the Anglican Church of New Zealand and Aotearoa.
So as I was saying, one of you gave me a fresh insight into these texts by calling my attention to the fact that oddly enough, the Nicene Creed never actually uses the word, “love.” That omission seems especially peculiar, given the fact that one of the strongest Christian beliefs about God, is that God is love, and John’s gospel and epistles in particular make that point over and over again—as if it is the one thing you’ve got to understand about God. (Think for instance of I John 4:8, which reads, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”)
So right there in the Nicene Creed, in what is one of the most basic of Christians texts, a huge gap opens up. The strange thing is, that until one of you called my attention to it, I had never noticed that fact before. And suddenly, a familiar text was made strange, strange indeed.
The affirmation from the New Zealand church, however, is quite overt on the subject of love: it says, “You [O God] have revealed and proved your love for us in Jesus Christ.” So here is another text, also suddenly made strange, by including what another left out.
My point is this: the meaning of texts in the current moment is often to be found not in their familiarity, but in their strangeness as it becomes apparent to us by such close attention. It is, if you will, taking a poet’s approach to language, for a poet is one who is able to take words that seem familiar and well known to us, and by using them in unexpected ways or drawing out previously unimagined connections, to show us something new.
Here’s an example, also taken from my experience this week. When I’m driving here to morning prayer in the church, I try to leave just before 7:45 am so that I can catch Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on the radio, which comes on at precisely that hour each day. This past Wednesday, the poem he read was “To Sara, 1999,” by Bill Jones. It is about two parents whose young daughter is leaving home, perhaps for the first time by herself, on her way to a trip to Ireland. He writes,
Tonight, fifteen, you’re boarding
a plane to Ireland by yourself
on your first flight, seven hours
in the dark across the Atlantic
to land in Shannon at dawn.
Backpack in place,
you walk the long corridor
beyond where Mom and I can go.
We stand there, grinning,
watching and waving,
as you pass through security
and emerge on the other side.
How often we have all passed through airport security, but how strange that experience is made in the poet’s eye, which is able to see it as a metaphor for life’s transition from childhood to adulthood, from home to independence. As one who recently saw my own child walk through just such a security checkpoint, the poem certainly arrested my attention for its insight into something seemingly so prosaic, yet also nothing less than an irreversible life transition.
So through attentiveness, words, images, and ideas can leap out of what we thought we already knew so well, and suddenly open a different dimension to us. In short, words have far more communicative and revelatory power than we are normally aware. Think for example of the political events of this weekend. When we are given a lexicon of words that makes our country seem strange to us—words like “carnage,” “swamp,” “grab,” “crooked,” “rapists,” “rigged,” “lock up”—it is no wonder that a resistance should at some point be spawned that tries to substitute an alternative vocabulary (at least, that was what I was thinking yesterday afternoon as I wandered among the 10,000 or so people gathered on Albuquerque’s plaza). Words have a way of taking hold, and of having a hold on us, so we must use and adopt them with care—a principle of civil society quite forgotten in the Twitter age.
As an example of the power of words, take the word “call,” which comes to us out of today’s gospel, where Jesus begins calling his disciples. Jesus is strangely able to persuade people to follow him, simply with the invitation: “Follow me.” The call he extends is not complicated, not really even explained, but it exerts sufficient power over them that they leave everything to respond to it.
Now, call is a word we use all the time in church, as if we understand it completely. But hold that one word up for a moment, and let it become a bit strange to you in its contemplation. Call: is that a lifelong thing (like a career), or is it more temporary and fleeting (like a vacation)? Can it be both? Is a call definitive, or is it always partial and uncertain? From who does a call come—directly from God, or from our own interior response to God? What if we feel as if we have no call? Does everyone have one, or is true call more rare? Am I being called to something right now, or is my call something that has been lingering in the back of my mind for a very long time, unattended and unanswered? Does a call change? Might I be called to a variety of things, or is a call unique?
Just taking that one word—call—and letting the changes ring on its possible meanings, has the potential to lift the very familiar story of Jesus calling the disciples, and make it seem very strange indeed. What was in the disciples’ minds when they responded so readily to such a vague invitation? Is there anything that would cause me to drop everything that I currently am, and to take some other direction in life? Is there some reason that I need to drop everything that I currently am, and to take some other direction in life?
Perhaps it is worth saying, that this approach of letting the familiar become strange through our attentiveness to it, is quintessentially Anglican (Episcopal) in character. There are some Christian traditions that focus on dramatic, personal conversion. Others are concerned with the faithful fulfillment of duty. And each of those has its value.
But the Anglican tradition of which we are part is more likely to turn to a patient, inquisitive attention to small things as the way to God, finding “heaven in the ordinary” (as the poet George Herbert put it), in the moments when the familiar is suddenly made strange to us. It is what Simone Weil called attente (“waiting”), not passively, but with a wide-eyed attention and expectancy for what might spring up. As one writer put it, Christian life and worship “is a bit like birdwatching”: you may see only what you have seen a thousand times before, but then suddenly the unexpected will dart into your vision, and you find as a result that your soul has been unexpectedly enlarged by the experience.* Amen.
* Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, 2012.
© Joseph Britton, 2016