Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Approximately Correct - Words For the 7th Week after the Epiphany

"Let us raise our heads, hold hands
So that we don't lose our way in the tangled grass."
     --Czeslaw Milosz, "The Excursion in the Forest"

A man was introduced to a large gathering in this way: “This is the man who made $25,000 in potatoes in Maine.” As the man got to his feet to begin his speech he said:

"The introduction is approximately correct.”
“It was not Maine...but Texas.”
“It was not potatoes...but oil.”
“It was not $25,000...but $250.00.”
“Not made...but lost...”
“Not me...but my brother.”

Do you sometimes get the feeling that we are drowning in a sea of words that are only approximately correct?

Birth certificate—true or false?
Evolution—true or false?
Bible—literal or parabolic?
Liberal or Conservative?
Constitution—firm or flexible?
Global warming—real or hoax?
Vaccinations—good or bad?
Torture—necessary or wrong?

Words have lost their effectiveness in our time. Language has been devaluated and flattened. One begins to wonder if the Genesis story about all the people coming together to build a tower to heaven only to discover that each one spoke a different language and nobody understood anybody else is our story, too. One of the characters in Alice in Wonderland said: ”A word means what I want it to mean.”

In our Epiphany lessons we have been dealing with the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7 left us characteristics of citizens of the Kingdom of God. Here Christ gave his followers specific guidelines for living. Paul Minear, who was a very fine New Testament scholar has said that Matthew 5. 33-37 is a fundamental saying of Christ and basic to the life of the community.

Jesus gave his followers an admonition against swearing—saying that we ought to be able simply to stand by our words. He added:” Our yes should be yes and our no—no.” Why was this so important in the Kingdom? Truthfulness and integrity is at the heart of the Gospel.

During the Korean War General Dean of the U.S. army was captured by the Communists and was in imprisoned for over two years. During the second winter of his captivity he was told almost every day he only had a few minutes to live. They told him if he wanted to write some last word to his family this was his chance. So the General, thinking that was to be shot in thirty minutes sat down and wrote what he thought was his farewell message to his family. The General’s letter is fascinating. It contained only eight or nine lines. But in the middle of the note he wrote especially to his son, “Tell Bill the word is integrity.” He could have written the word: money or popularity or security or success or happiness. But General Dean told his son the word was integrity.

Our task in the church is to speak the truth. Paul underlined the point by saying we are to speak the truth in love. In a world swimming in half-truths there ought to be some place in our society where our yes is yes and our no is no. Isn’t Church the place where we can make our words are right and true and clear? And the beginning place for the Minister is the pulpit.

Epiphany is the season of light. That season is coming to an end very soon. But those that choose to use words right and true are surely the light-bearers in a very dark time

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