Sermon: Why Should The Devil Get All The Good Tunes

2017 December 3
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Helen spoke so clearly and insightfully about the complexities of religious language. It’s a problem for everyone (or at least everyone who thinks about such things, which is probably not everyone). It’s been a problem ever since the story of Moses at the burning bush when he asked the voice coming out of the bush who or what it was and the voice replied with the completely unsatisfying non-answer, “I will be what I will be.” And ever since then we have struggled with what to call this thing that is not a thing at all. And when people have tried to nail it down and say “God” and give names to all the associated concepts – “worship,” “church,” “sin,” “blessing,” “prayer” – there have always been people who resisted; people who have said, “you can’t do that! Putting words on something confines it. Words make finite what really should be infinite.”


It became part of Jewish tradition to not even try to speak the most sacred name of God. And Buddhists don’t use any names at all to describe ultimate reality – anything that would narrow it would turn it into an illusion. Words are powerful – our concepts of reality shape the words we choose; but the words also shape our concepts. So that’s one problem with religious language.


The second problem has to do with how it’s been used over the centuries. As religion developed with the aid of these words we attached to it, the words began to enshrine some truly oppressive understandings of the universe. “God” became the word for a male powerful figure that judges and punishes and smites the unfaithful. “Worship” became the word for supplication to this patriarchal figure. “Sin” became the word used as a weapon against innocent people who were loving who they loved and being who they were and harming no one. “Blessing” became the word for preferential treatment for those with wealth and power and privilege already. “Religion” became the pretext for all these kinds of violence. And “church” became the room where it happened.


And so people, for good reason, fled from these words. Unitarian and Universalist churches across the country became “congregations” or “societies,” or in our case a “congregational society.” (Congregants had originally called this the “church of the Savior,” which is still what it says on a plaque outside the sanctuary.) The word “God” got dropped from liturgies across the land and replaced with words like “love” and “hope” and “spirit of life.” The word “sin” got wiped from the lexicon entirely and some people bristled at calling Unitarian Universalism a “religion.” Religious language fell away.


This worked fine for a time, roughly the second half of the 20th century. People enjoyed the freedom from those words that carried such painful baggage. But then the pendulum started to swing back. Even in the time I’ve been in ministry, which is about eleven years, I’ve noticed a change. People have been craving that religious language. Former UUA president Bill Sinkford in a controversial sermon in 2003 called for a “language of reverence.” Spiritual seekers were finding that while language, for all its limitations, can also serve as a vehicle for connection. This is what Helen was talking about in her homily – how religious language played a role in bringing her closer to the holy.


I believe that we, as religious liberals, should reclaim and redeploy religious language. This means that we don’t surrender these words — these sparkly, powerful, meaning-packed, heritage-rich words – we don’t surrender them to those who misuse them. To say that religious conservatives get to own “God” and “worship” and “sin” is to say that they win the linguistic Monopoly game and walk away with Park Place and Boardwalk and Pennsylvania Avenue! And we’re left with just a couple boring “utility” words.


Conservative religion is not the “real” religion. We’re just as real and we have just as much claim on those sparkly words as they do. And so we have the right to use them for different purposes. We can expand their meaning so that they become resources and tools for us. How we treat the various religious words should be taken on a case-by-case basis. I can think of three approaches we can consider for each word: (1) embrace and expand (2) repeal and replace (3) delete.


God,” to my way of thinking, is a word that we should embrace and expand. God becomes, not just a masculine power, but also a feminine power, and a power beyond any possible conception of gender. God becomes an earth force, a water force; a principle of beauty and wisdom, creative energy; compassionate, destructive, friend and queen, brother and jokester, the infinite eternal. We can also use love, hope, Spirit of Life, which each bring their nuances. But keep God in the mix. God is precious real estate on the Monopoly board. Don’t cede that ground to conservatives; rather use this word to seed our own ground. Embrace and expand.


A word like “church,” to me falls into the “repeal and replace” category. We should cede this word to Christians because it’s a term for a Christian congregation. This building is a church building, but this congregation is a congregation. This is a good way to be inclusive of people here who don’t come from a Christian heritage. I’ve had some of our members approach me and explain that this is very important to them and that to hear people call the congregation a “church,” actually feels distancing. So repeal and replace.


Finally, there’s a small category of words we should just delete. “Excommunication” is a word I would think we will probably never have a use for. I don’t foresee a time when we’ll be excommunicating people from Unitarian Universalism. So I think we can safely delete that word.


But we need to be aware that when we delete a word, often the concept behind it goes out the window too. The meaning itself can be lost. In the case of excommunication, we don’t care. But there are other cases where losing the meaning of a word might actually impoverish us. “Sin” is an example of this. Unitarian Universalists have deleted the word “sin.” That word has so much baggage and has been so weaponized against our people that we’ve rejected it completely. But we haven’t replaced it with anything and so the concept itself has lost traction. A common critique of Unitarian Universalists by people of other faiths is that we don’t have a spiritually mature language for human wrongdoing. We have too rosy a view of human nature and we don’t take seriously enough our capacity for evil. (“Evil” is another one of those words.)


We need a concept of sin, even if we repeal that word and replace it with something else. We need a word for when someone commits violence against the earth. We need a word for when someone commits violence against a child. We need a word for when someone in a position of power sexually violates someone less powerful. We need a word for systemic violence that creates poverty and denies people health care and education. We saw some of this systemic violence over the weekend. We need a word for this. Whether it’s “sin” or something else, we need a word.


We don’t have time today to go through every religious word and explore which ones should be “embrace and expand,” which should be “repeal and replace,” and which should be “delete.” But I’m guessing that this topic pushes some buttons or has juicy resonance for you. Talk about it at coffee hour, journal about it, take it seriously, and form your own lexicon of religious words that work for you. Words matter. Language matters. We should neither embrace words unthinkingly nor discard them lightly.


From the opening words of the Hebrew Bible when God literally speaks the world into being (“let there be light”), religion and language have been intertwined in a complex relationship. The words we speak, speak back to us. They can guide us into rich, mystical places of meaning and they can also cause pain. Let’s redeem them from the ways they’ve been abused or abusive, but let’s also fill our lexicon with words that are spiritually nutritious. Let’s make religious language work, not against us, but for us.



One Response
  1. Melanie Lee permalink
    December 17, 2017

    This sermon is very important to me . I listened to it in church and I listened to it again just now .

    I am a lifelong UU, I am 63 and left the church because I could not find the language in our practice that would allow me to speak in a coherent way even to myself about what I was experiencing.

    The best I have been able to come up with is the generic term: attention. I love it, it’s true, but it will not do in many social situations. This is something I am struggling with a lot and the only place I have been able to find some work in the solution is from a book called everything is Workable: a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution, in which the author talks about each conflict having a wisdom. This does not satisfy the problem of vocabulary but it does go very far in the problem of process. I haven’t finished the book yet, maybe I will find that it covers vocabulary as well.

    I i’m interested how to proceed with figuring out this problem of vocabulary. If you have any recommendations for reading I would be interested in exploring them and I would love to hear updates about your own pursuit of satisfying conclusions.

    Thank you very much for preaching this sermon.

    Melanie Lee

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