My name is Richard Jones. I once lived for three years in Hollin Hall Village, but I am not your rector (although I admire him), or his assistant (although Grace invited me), or a former rector.
So why should you listen to me?
Why should you believe anything I say this morning?
By what authority do I presume to stand here and speak to you as if I could speak for God?
I invite you to think about what makes any human speech believable?
At one time or another, when we attempt to affirm something, to stand for something, or to demand something, all of us may be disbelieved.
You presume to tell some raucous midnight basketball players on the court behind your house, “This park closed at sundown”, they may well answer, “Who says?”
You try to deter a child or a friend from harm by saying, “There will be drugs, or alcohol, at that party. Don’t go.” The child, or the friend, may answer “Who says? Why should you tell me what to do?”
If you hold national responsibilities requiring you to demand some foreign sovereign government to curtail its building and testing of nuclear weapons, you will predictably be met with, “By what authority do you make this demand?”
Even if you are not demanding different behavior. but are simply declaring what you know to be true, you may still be met by resistance. The more deeply held the belief, the more the believer must resist changing. And the deepest of beliefs is our belief in God.
Along comes Jesus: allowing his gang of fans to crowd the streets and to shriek to him as if he were a king or a prophet; yanking the seats in the Temple yard out from under the dealers in sacrificial birds; turning upside down the tables of workers who were simply giving out sacred offering coins in exchange for ordinary street coins. What else could the known upholders of the truth do except confront Jesus of Nazareth, this disturber of the peace? “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”
What makes human speech believable? What makes any statement reliable?
People are right to challenge words that come from nowhere and disturb the peace.
Just because certain words are spoken does not compel me to believe or obey those words.
No matter how much I like the fortune promised me on the little paper inside my tasty fortune cookie, that printed fortune may be pure fantasy.
Even the utterances of city council, or public safety directors, or prophets of God do not validate themselves. They do not compel the obedience of anyone who has any gumption, or has any prior commitments, or has been taught to think for himself.
Who says so? Why should I believe you? By what authority do you seek to direct me? Why should I obey you?
I suppose people will always struggle over what speech is true and what action is required. We struggle both as listeners who respond, and as speakers who initiate. You might picture our speech struggles as something like the never-ending struggle of traffic maneuvering around DuPont Circle in Washington DC – except in our verbal arguments the traffic is circling clockwise and counter clockwise, all the time. No policemen sorts out our arguments for us.
An endless struggle, with likely collisions, may be the way family discussions or political discussions or even church discussions feel.
I would like to offer you a different image of our speech situation. I suggest to you that rather than circles of collision, we actually are involved in a stable triangle of simultaneous commitments. Our commitments give meaning to our individual lives, our life together, and our life with God. I think of this triangle as equal-sided and simultaneous. We operate on an interlocking, triangular grid of commitments. Not three commitments competing, but three commitments which depend on each other.
If you will hold in your mind’s eye this picture of a triangle, it may help explain what makes speech reliable. It may help us move towards making our own speech believable.
The first side of this triangle you could call SPEAKING UP. We are all committed to ourselves. We trust ideas that are confirmed by our personal experience. We believe bees sting if we have been stung. We believe authority is reliable if our parents or commanding officers were reliable. We value what we have found valuable. We speak out of what we have experienced. We wish to be true to these experiences and to ourselves. You might call this side of the triangle “integrity”. I call it speaking up. Speaking up, out of our own experience, feels like standing firm on a firm base.
To live with truth, we need to speak up.
But we do not wish to live locked up inside ourselves. We do not wish to remain oblivious to larger reality. That way lies madness. So we acknowledge a second side of the triangle. We could call this second side of the triangle DATA. Or we could call it SPEAKING WIDE. The universe contains lots outside ourselves, beyond our personal experience, waiting to be discovered, waiting to be described. Better telescopes widen our way of imagining and describing space and time. Better microscopes begin to widen old ideas of race. Christian theologians ponder again the data of God’s being both with us and also totally beyond us. In time we find ourselves sitting to worship God more in a circle than in a forward-facing formation. Rethinking compels us to adjust some of our ideas of what is possible, what is real, and what is good, as our minds become persuaded of new truth. We come to know things that had never occurred to us. Ideas that once captivated us we may come to find untenable. We do not wish to live in delusion. The side of the triangle which tries to put our data into words has to be flexible. We have to speak wide.
To speak with personal integrity, we speak up. That is the base of our reliable speech triangle. Tohonor the data, we refine or revise our speech; we speak wide. But there is one more side to the triangle. Besides reckoning with ourselves and with the data, our speech must also reckon with the source of the data and the source of ourselves. We want to connect with what is true, what is real. I call this final side of the triangle SPEAKING DEEP.
We desire truth. Just as our ideas have to be revised so that they more closely match what we continue to discover to be true, so our selves want to stretch themselves to connect with this Truth. And this truth wants to connect with us.
When the physicist Robert Oppenheimer observed the first release of atomic fission energy at the test A-bomb test explosion in the New Mexico desert, he reports that his mind went to Vishnu, the Hindu destroyer of worlds.
A deeply committed white member of the neo-Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s was drawn one day to the music of a black jazzpianist in a bar, and in time that white man was opened to the full humanity of his new musician friend.
The people quarreled with Moses: “Why did you bring us out to this place with no water, to kill us and our livestock with thirst?” Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Then Moses heard the Lord command him: “Strike the rock. Water will come out of it so the people may drink.” You might call this kind of speaking “engaged speech”. I call this third side of the triangle SPEAKING DEEP. Even as our grasp of data changes, even as our ideas to of what is possible change, the source of all that truly is has power to act on us. We respond to truth outside ourselves that has taken hold deeply inside of us. We engage with Truth. The Truth engages with us. Deep call to deep. The deep source of all that is is willing to be in touch with the speaker. That is deep listening and deep speech.
To me it is good news that reliable speech is not an endless, contradictory circle but instead a connected, stable triangular grid, like an electric grid, charged with truth.
What does it sound and feel like as human beings to live with truth, to live with this charged grid of reliable speech, speaking up, speaking wide, and speaking deep?
It feels good that the grid that connects me to my speech. The grid of truth tests me and my speech. Do I do what I say? Do I behave like what I say I am? If what I profess contradicts what I do, something has to give. I may have to change my talk, or change my ways. I may have to resign from my job.
It is good for the triangular grid to test my speech also against the data of what really is. Am I exerting myself for what is true, or for a flattering fiction? Am I leading people to a waterless campground? If I have been committed to a delusion, a true reckoning with the data will undermine my misdirected zeal.
It is also good news that what is real may speak to me if I expose myself to what is real. Exposing ourselves is not painless. A thirsty, angry mob is frightening. Engaging the life-threatening fire at the top of God’s burning mountain, Moses the one-time prince of Egypt was shaken. But Moses saw the face of God. And Moses lived. Moses spoke to God, and God spoke to Moses. Better to taste in my mouth the ashes of my own delusion than to lead other people into delusion. Still better to cry to God and to hear that God is reliable.
So, out on the dangerous traffic circle of this world’s contradictory speaking, whose word is to be believed? We can rely on the triangular grid of true speech.
We trust sincere speakers who speak up from their experience and keep their word.
We trust even more those who speak up and speak wide, who keep allowing the data to speak to them.
We trust most those who speak up, and speak wide, and speak deep, because these have heard from the one who is the source of all speaking. They have heard from the source of all speakers. If the one who is the source of all data, the source even of my deepest experiences, has deigned to speak, who can not stop to listen?
The reliable speaker is the one who is willing both to hear and to speak. Such people can speak up, and can speak wide, and can speak deep.
I can trust people who from their heart speak up. I can trust people who speak wide. I can trust most deeply people who speak deep.
Thanks be to the God who speaks!