Speaking the Name

The Rev. Richard E. Spalding
Chaplain, Williams College
Williamstown, Massachusetts

Sermon – November 4, 2004

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-23
Colossians 3:12-17
John 1:1-5, 10-13

[audio:http://covnetpres.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/audio/sermons/spalding-04.mp3]

In the beginning God named things into being out of darkness. Light first; then sea and sky, then earth… The pieces of the world we know were uttered into reality by the speaking of their names. The Speaker was One who, in naming, exercised both power and gentleness – One who, in being articulate about how things are also intimated how things might be. And it was so. And it was good.

We weren’t there, of course. Our time was – not yet. So how do we know that word was the medium of creation? Because in time Word acquired a name itself, took flesh and dwelt among us, and in time made us a new creation by naming things about how we are and how we might be. You are light… You are salt… Blessed are you poor… And we have come to believe that in our telling of this story about God, God is telling us the story of ourselves. In time we have come to recognize this power to name at work in us – wielding light or, sometimes, kindling darkness. We‘ve held it in our own hands, on our own lips: sometimes the things we speak to each other do suddenly seem to acquire blood and sinew and nerve endings. What we make out of word is relationships – uttered into being in the volatile chemistry of God’s breath and ours in con-spiracy. And in naming the relationships we make by speaking words like “I promise” …or “Don’t be afraid” …or “you are different” …or “I forgive you” …or “this is war” …or “I take you” – we too have the power to articulate how things are and how they might be. Word wields us to change the shape of the world.

If you read your Covenant Network mail carefully, you may have noticed that a year or so ago when the first fliers began to utter this conference into being, the working title was “Speaking of Sex: Exploring the Theology and Expression of Human Sexuality.” But it seems that in the time since then the design got refracted through a Presbyterian lens – because now this gathering has been renamed “Thinking Theologically about Sex.” Talking about sex, as has been said over and over again, is something that ruffles that time-honored Presbyterian suave. (I know I was predestined to be a Presbyterian, for instance, because when I was 10 or 11 and it was time to learn those things about how this flesh actually works, my parents … gave me a book to read. I guess it bought them some short-lived safety from the need to speak certain names. And if not really talking about sex was intended to get me thinking about sex – well, it succeeded, though probably not in quite the way that they were hoping for.) Thinking about sex – in the sense of the deployment of equipment – is what we’re given to believe everyone’s doing more or less all the time – with help from the media, certainly, and also, of course, from certain politicians, and from the wings of various religious communities (including ours), all doing what they can to make sure that sex is making lumps just under the surface of the conversation. Maybe it’s true that the less we talk about it, the more we think about it.

But thinking before speaking is probably the right order to proceed in, especially when we’re talking about creation – because not everything we utter into being does what we hope it will do (G6.0106b, for instance), and because thinking wins us at least a little more time to consider what it is we want to create. Of course, quite a few years later, I now realize that offering a book to this task of understanding ourselves is not necessarily a cold, clinical thing to do – or a safe thing to do. Maybe there’s one book in particular that we don’t give enough. That book – this sacred book of Word – is pretty frank, when you get right down to it, and even graphic in spots, in talking about sex. It’s also pretty clear that the deployment of the equipment is one way of offering the deepest and widest truth of yourself as a gift of love to a person whose living helps shape your living to its deepest beauty. But, as usual, it leaves the thinking to us.

Last year at this conference, doing some of that thinking together, we were honored by the presence of two people of remarkable integrity and faithfulness, Barbara Wheeler and Richard Mouw, who modeled the kind of respectful, authentic conversation about our different ways of thinking theologically that seems our only hope of surviving the disagreements we know so well. You couldn’t see the common ground they stood on so much as you could feel it: the hunger to know each other as brother and sister in Christ, the leaning together toward a deeper unity and wholeness than we have yet been able to name into being as a church. That Richard Mouw, in particular, was willing to stand respectfully and graciously in a roomful of people most of whom disagreed with him was a gift of the Holy Spirit to us. But there was another gift of the Spirit, too, not so much in what he said as in where he said it – an ironic gift, maybe even a little playful. Dr. Mouw started his piece of the point/counterpoint dialogue with clear, straightforward words: “I believe that genital sexual expression between persons of the same sex is wrong”. That’s where most of those who don’t share the Covenant Network’s vision start: with the deployment of equipment. But Dr. Mouw was upstaged by the room itself. Maybe those of you who were there remember how, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, when you speak from the chancel you stand in the warm embrace of a wide expanse of beautiful wood behind you – into which are inscribed, in strong gold letters, the only real permanent adornment of that room, which is the words,

Beloved, let us love one another,
for love is of God,
and one who loves is born of God
and knows God.
[I John 4:7]

That’s where we start. That’s where thinking about sex had better start – or else it isn’t theological at all.

So let’s return to the beginning…

In the beginning God named things into being. Word was there from the beginning – without Word nothing could have come into being. The pieces of the world we know were uttered into reality in the speaking of their names by One whom we recognize by the gentleness of power, by the power of gentleness. One who, in speaking the truth of the world into being, named not only how things are but also how things might be.

We enter the story at about this moment; maybe we first recognize ourselves in the telltale appearance of the dust of the ground, in which we see a certain family resemblance. But for the first time something is named “not good”: the Adam (1), the creature of earth, the earth-ling, is alone. So Word begins to imagine a way of being to assuage the aloneness of the humus human. But this time, oddly, the cosmic Artist is speechless as the work proceeds. God is certainly capable of instruction about the uses of creation – what and what not to eat, and so forth. But now instead of guidance there is silence so that the human can speak relationships into being. “So the Lord God…brought [every creature] to see what the earthling would call them. And whatever the Adam called every living creature, that was its name.” The making of the bonds that reconfigure loneliness is the responsibility of the human being. The earthling has to live with the names bestowed – to live up to them, to live among them.

But among the names bestowed, the name helpmate, partner, companion is still undiscovered.

The deep sleep which ensues is one that you probably also recognize. With more than enough of someone else’s work to be done … and weighed down by instructions that come with costs whose rationale and scope have not been fully explained and are not readily apparent … and now surrounded by a cacophony of voices each clamoring for acknowledgement of its particular relationship to you and claims upon you … and still, essentially, alone… All this heaviness induces the sleep that still hungers for rest.

And if you should wake from such a heavy sleep to find yourself looking at a creature in whose eyes you recognize the family resemblance to dust – someone whose voice speaks so gently as to drown out the clamor of the rest of creation, whose company offers a depth that is both terrifying and exquisite – if you should find yourself looking at someone in whose stature you recognize the strength to join the work that needs to be done as your equal and to make it your own, together – someone in whose bearing you recognize a common understanding of the stakes of what lies ahead – one in whose presence you feel the essential loneliness of your existence transfigured… If you should wake from such a sleep to find yourself in such a presence, then perhaps the living breath God breathed into you before ever you knew who you were might rise to your lips, there to be formed into words by which you might again utter relationship into being. But this time the speaking of the name will be an exercise of cosmology – not mere taxonomy. This time all of you will speak: your eyes, your stature, the bearing of your spirit, every atom of your body. And the words you speak will change the shape of creation: This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. And though you are naked together, you are not ashamed – because the recognition, the call from the depths, the naming of the bond, the power in gentleness, all of it reveals the unspeakable beauty God molded and breathed into you both before ever you knew who you were, or why.

You will blink once or twice, and years will have come and gone. One rainy night you look up from the dregs of the newspaper to see your beloved there, dozing over his book, or balancing her checkbook, and just for an instant the mystery of life itself is present in the room, in the very particular form of a love you barely ever deserved for one full day of your life but which is right here across the room from you, of all places in God’s green earth – yours just in the act of breathing. And there again are the words by which you named this truth floating on the breath God gave you for speaking the name: this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

Or there will be an ordinary day on which doing other people’s work will have so exhausted you that, on your way home, you can scarcely remember your own name, let alone rise to the challenges of supper, so absolutely certain are you that you have not one blessed thing left in you today to give anyone. And waiting for you at home there will be a piece of news, for you or for the partner whom God found to help you live – news of the family, perhaps, or news from the world, that will tear open the flesh of your flesh – news to weep over, or to stir anger, or to siphon the hope from your heart. You will realize again that you stand naked together in this life, with all the elements of time raging around you. Because there is no deeper sanctuary to go to, you will find yourselves holding each other as the storm of whatever has happened breaks over you – and in the most elementary moment of touch you not only give a love you couldn’t imagine you’d have any more of to give right then, but you receive something that’s beyond the reach of words to ask for. And there, leaning against the kitchen counter with the radio going in the background or the scribbled phone message still in your hand, the words of the name you once bestowed are there on the breath again: this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

There was a night at what began as an ordinary supper when the ones sitting at the table suddenly knew that they were in the presence of the love that had uttered them into being. Perhaps the tip-off was some change that came into Jesus’s eyes by the light in that room with the powers of death and hatred breathing in the shadows all around them – or perhaps it was only some change in their own eyes. He took bread and blessed it, and broke it, and named them. This is my body, he said. You are my body. You are light. You are salt. You are the blessed poor. I no longer call you servants, but I call you friends… Whatever the words were it was Word speaking them again, uttering a new creation into being, a relationship which, as it turned out, no death could ever kill. It woke them from a deep sleep, at least momentarily – long enough to remember how it felt, and to tell us the story and to teach us to tell it too. This way we hunger to know each other as brother and sister, and to lean together toward a deeper unity and wholeness than we have yet been able to name – this body, this communion, this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

In time we have come to believe that in the telling of these stories about God, God is telling us the story of ourselves. They’re all in the book we have to give. We read them carefully, thoughtfully. We think theologically about the details. That the Adam in the story was undoubtedly a heterosexual, for instance. That God’s consummate gift of partnership to the Adam was a partner whom he called “Ishah”, wife. We think about the nakedness – and about how things they chose to do, realities they spoke into being, changed how they looked at each other. It’s not a very good story to tell if what you want to do is explain about how certain equipment of the flesh came to be deployed in certain ways. The destination of this story is not the bedroom, and the holy words by which we create and recreate the most essential relationships of our nature are not a come-on line. Those words speak the name of the way things are and the way they might be. This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
And when things happen that remind us again that we stand naked together in this life, with all the elements of time raging around us, and the storms of feeling raging within us – what then?

Then it is the beginning, again. Word reminds us of the responsibility to speak relationships into being – and the names we bestow cover our nakedness. With power and with gentleness, the creator says, “as holy and beloved creatures of earth, put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The words aren’t fig leaves to hide sexuality or disguise it or obscure it or apologize for it or to make it harder to get to. They are words to consecrate and redeem sexuality, to rescue it from the gutter of shame and prurience where those who believe themselves to be of surpassing righteousness have dragged and abandoned it.

So we begin. And that longing to offer the deepest and widest truth of ourselves as gifts of love to those whose living helps shape our living to its deepest beauty… and that leaning together toward a deeper unity and wholeness than we have yet been able to name into being… and that yearning to stand together in our nakedness, and to not be ashamed… these are the marks of the image of God that is our family resemblance. These faithful dispositions are the light, the salt, the bone and flesh that we have to offer to the world. When we speak the name Word planted on our breath – this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh – then behold, a new creation. We return to the beginning. Again.

Note

1. The version of the text from Genesis 2 used in the service reproduced the generic quality with which the narrative refers to the first human: “…the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no Adam to work the ground – then a stream came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground – and the Lord God formed from the dust of the earth, the Adamah, an earthling, an Adam, and breathed the breath of life into the nostrils, and the Adam became a living being. Now the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there put the Adam who had been formed…”

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