It’s the penultimate Sunday in Epiphany today. Which is only interesting because despite the fact that it is the last Sunday in February, the church calendar still has us harkening back to the birth of Jesus. I’m not one to observe the letter of the church calendar law, by any means, but I do like the fact that even this far into the new year we are bringing ourselves to consider again, outside of the usual trappings of Christmas, what it means for us to be Christians, to have claimed Jesus as ultimately significant. For while we can all argue about how Easter may or may not be important to my faith or yours, we all do so as people who claim the name of Christ, and we can only claim the name of Christ because he was born into the world, and somehow into our hearts and lives. The season of Epiphany dwells on this fact.
Epiphany, at least in its original and not in the popular sense, strikes me as curiously countercultural. Popularly, of course, we say we have an epiphany, whenever we have an idea, whether harebrained or not. An epiphany is the light bulb turning on — it is not, as in its original sense, the judgement revealed by the light. In its original Greek sense, the word epiphany did not privilege private revelation, but sought reasoned judgement.
What I want to say this morning is in the context of the culture of the church and of the society in which we live today both having said and continuing to say, you cannot speak about God in any manner or any forum that really matters. The church has relegated God to the special pleading of revelation and the special language of theology, and our society has said that any talk about God shall be relegated to the church and therefore cannot be reasonable. In other words there will be no exalting of reason to the height of passion, as Gibran put it in our gathering words this morning. There will only be passion, it will rule unattended, and will burn to its own destruction.
Curiously, it has not always been this way. As late as the First Vatican Council in 1870, the church tried to part ways with its authoritarian past when it decreed, as an article of faith to be upheld by all Christians that
God, the source and end of all things, can by known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason . . .
That promulgation stood against several centuries of thought within the church that goes, in a nutshell, like this:
God is so completely and categorically different than humans, and humans are so pathetically imperfect, sinful and stupid that any attempt to reason about the nature of God must be not only wrong, but an affront to the divine. The result of this way of not speaking has been to take away our voice, historically in the interest of maintain order and orthodoxy. If Christians are free to think then soon enough God will no longer be God. But that poses a much higher problem — it keeps the highest moral order and spiritual success from the grasp of individual Christians. We are left thinking that our ordinary thoughts about God are inappropriate. And so our search for God takes on a veil of tentativeness and frustration.
What I want to do in this sermon this morning is invite you to think about your own fascinating and yes, sometimes difficult, search to know God. Invite you, by your own insight into the truth of the matter, the voice of your own highest moral and spiritual success. This call is the one bedrock invitation of the Judeo Christian tradition — the call to be Holy.
The temptation is to read that passage from Leviticus, and so many others like it in the Bible, as a set of rules. To be Holy, you must honor your father and mother, keep the sabbaths, make no idols or images, observe rules about sacrifices, and carry yourself properly in all matters relating to ritual cleanliness.
Thankfully, that’s not the way we humans work when we aim for the highest moral success — and its not the way our tradition has to work either.
We’ll bet back to Leviticus in a minute. First let me explain the title of my sermon — the whole of what I want to get across hangs on it.
Erin and I went to see the King’s Speech last week. The kids were both away, and we took the opportunity to see the movie that has been receiving all sorts of high praise. It was good, and I’m not going to be giving anything away today, in part because the movie is not about the plot so much as the interplay between the Duke of York, soon to become King, played by Colin Firth and a speech coach played by Geoffrey Rush. You’ve probably already heard the plot — The King of England dies, leaving the throne to the eldest son, who refuses it because of a love interest. This is not only scandalous, it places Bertie, the younger brother on the throne with a severe stammer. Fortunately, Bertie’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, has sought help from a certain Mr. Lionel Logue, an eccentric speech therapist, and the two have developed a fond relationship and made some headway on the stammer by the time all of this happens.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do know that there is some debate about the root causes of stuttering and stammering and no widespread agreement on how best to deal with it. But you don’t need to be a psychologist to know that the life of a stutterer or stammerer is clouded by fear — by fear that even in intimate moments with one’s own family, one will not be able to speak. That fear is like a cancer that steals the voice of the stammerer with a more and more iron like grip.
All of this, of course, comes to a head when Bertie’s brother refuses to take the throne, placing, as he puts it in the clip I’ll play for you in a moment, mad king George the stammerer in position to let down his people in their hour of deepest need.
Here he is in a scene with Mr. Logue, in the Westminster Cathedral preparing for the coronation. The Duke is timid and fearful as he reflects on this what will soon transpire, not only for him, but the world, as Hitler prepares to move into France and England, he knows must fight another war when the memory of the last one has hardly dimmed. The iron-like grip of fear has made him second think his friendship with Lionel Logue. We pick it up with the Duke opining his relationship with this commoner.
It is clear that this is the turning moment. But the film is great because this turning moment does not make everything instantly better for the king. There is no single, magical epiphany that will cure him. But to stand and recognize that he has a voice, allows the King to be real. His stammer is not gone, but he has a new confidence. Lionel Logue remained by his side for the speech, from which the movie gets its name, and for every speech of any importance thereafter.
The word for not having a voice is apophasis. And the word for refusing to use your voice to express your thoughts is apophatic. Several weeks ago, when I read from the Revelation of the Magi, a beautiful passage of the ubiquitous presence of God, someone commented to me afterward, at just how great a reading that was. This weeks’ reading from the RevMagi will likely not have moved you that way. There is no voice. Neither his heavenly worlds nor his lower ones are able to speak about his majesty. This is in accord, not with the early disciples’ record of their knowledge of God through Jesus, but of much later, as theologians attempted to serve, not God, but the church, to support the authority of the church and prop up the power structures of the institution. In serving not God, but the church, they lost their voice.
We are not called to be apophatic Christians. Our anthem this morning has it more correct than the anonymous authors of the RevMagi — Now let every tongue adore thee! Where we partake through faith victorious, no mortal eye hath seen nor mortal ear hath heard. Therefore with joy shall soar our song in praise to God forever more.
To be free from the false constraints of apophaticism is to be free to love, because love without a voice is not really love. It is going through the motions of it. It’s like trying to sing without being willing to hit the wrong note. It is impossible to love, short of having a voice. It is impossible to love, when the fear that what you say in your love is somehow sinful. The whole of command to be holy is lies in the discovery your voice.
Like King George VI, our various journeys to discover God are often difficult. No one has said that it wouldn’t be. But this is no excuse not to speak. It is no excuse for us not to say, as the great reformer Martin Luther did before the grand inquisitor, “Here I stand.” We claim the name of Christ not to shut up in dumb for saying something wrong about God, but that we might lift our voices, in praise to God forevermore. Amen.