Imagine… A New Conversation

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C., April 24, 2010
Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C., April 25, 2010

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: 

I shall not want… (Psalm 23)
I know them and they follow me. (John 10:22-30)

Back in 1953, Leonard Stern, one of the writers for the TV show “The Honeymooners,” was working on writing a new character into the series. He was stuck for a descriptive passage and yelled out to his co-writer Roger Price for help with an adjective. Before he could define his request further, however, Roger yelled out “clumsy!” Stern said, “I now had a character with a round face, blue eyes, and a clumsy nose. At that moment, or maybe ten seconds of laughter later, Mad Libs was born.”

For those who aren’t familiar with Mad Libs, it’s a game where you have a story where some of the words are missing and you have to fill them in – but all you know is that you need to supply a form of speech like a noun, adjective, adverb, color, etc. You don’t know what the story is about and you don’t get to hear it until you’ve given all of the words that are needed. The result is often gibberish, but it’s also often hilarious.

This morning, I thought we might play a round of Mad Libs and see what happens.

In case you’re like me and have forgotten everything you learned in English class, except perhaps how to speak it, here is a quick refresher on parts of speech we’ll need this morning:

An ADJECTIVE describes something or somebody. Lumpy, soft, ugly, messy, and short are adjectives.

A NOUN, like the Schoolhouse Rock song tells us, is a person, place or thing. Sidewalk, umbrella, bridle, bathtub, and nose are nouns.

A VERB is an action word. Run, pitch, jump, and swim are verbs.

When asked for a GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION, it means any sort of place: a country or a city (Spain, Cleveland) or a room (bathroom, kitchen).

When asked for specific words like A NUMBER, A COLOR, AN ANIMAL, OR A PART OF THE BODY, it means a word that is one of those things.

Ready? Here we go: (Below is the Mad Lib we came up with in service)

The GIRL is my BOY, I shall not PLAY.

He makes me MASTICATE ERIUDITE in RED PIGS; he leads me beside FAT CROWD.


He SWAM me in TINY GUITAR for his MINE sake.

Even though I SKIP through the PRETTY TAJ MAHAL, I fear no BIRD; for you are with me; your CANTALOPE and your SANCTUARY, they PRAY me.

You prepare a COOK before me in the presence of my EGG;

you SING my head with CAT; my COW overflows. Surely UMBRELLA and BROCCOLI shall follow me all the LESBIANS of my CHURCH, and I shall PUSH in the SCHOOL of the CAR my whole life long.

Now, that’s a familiar piece of scripture, Psalm 23. What do you think of our new version? Is it as good as the original? Do you like it better? As the Mad Libs version shows us when we knock out some of the original words and put in our own words, this beloved Psalm doesn’t make much sense, does it? It may be funny in some parts, but overall it’s nonsense.

It’s almost like listening to someone speak a foreign language that you don’t know – or even like learning a foreign language. Writer David Sedaris, in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day, writes about his struggle to learn French, where every word is assigned a gender. Words like steak, murder, and toothache are masculine, but other words, like torture, depression or psychosis, are feminine.

“What’s the trick to remembering that a sandwich is masculine?” he writes. “I’ll tell myself that a sandwich is masculine because if left alone for a week or two, it will eventually grow a beard. This works until it’s time to order and I decide that because it sometimes loses its makeup, a sandwich is undoubtedly feminine.”

He concludes: “Say what you like about southern social structure, but at least in North Carolina a hot dog is free to swing both ways.”

The ancient Hebrews understood that life is intricate and just like language, it can sometimes come to us easily, and other times we seem to struggle for every little bit we can get. This psalm speaks radically about what is important in life – and that is God, and God alone.

This psalm invites us into a new conversation – one not about problem solving and discussions about what’s wrong with all those people who won’t live or behave or speak like we want them to. Instead, we’re invited into a new conversation.

We’re invited to speak the word – to speak God’s words in the world – God’s words of possibility, God’s words of comfort, God’s words of grace.

Breathe deeply.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1964, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman graduated, at the age of 8 to the guitar from the ukulele her mother bought her when she was three. She used those skills to pen four Grammy award winning songs and 8 albums full of other great songs. Today’s song comes from her 2000 release “Telling Stories.” The song we’re singing today is “Speak the Word.”

[verse] Unsettled hearts, promise what they can’t deliver
Bring me the wine, and the cold night air to clear my head
Gray matter memory house, master of this trembling flesh
Steady still my doubts ,
Let me speak the word that precedes bliss

[Chorus] Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word Love love love love love love love love
Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word
Love love love love love love love love
Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word (2x)

In our Jesus story today, we find our guy out lounging around on the porch of the temple. He’s challenged by some Jews who ask him: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” How many times have we been in the same situation.

We’ve told people over and over again what they’ve asked to hear from us. We’ve said it so much we’re blue in the face, and yet they still won’t believe us.

My older sisters are convinced that the media has a liberal bias. As someone who spent two decades in that alleged liberal hotbed called the media, I try to assure them that there’s no such thing as a liberal media. What we have is a corporate media – all the major news outlets are owned by big corporations who are very interested in not having the government interfere in their business. Stories at any news outlet are chosen with a corporate agenda in mind – some days that may seem liberal – other days it may seem conservative – but the media doesn’t lean one way or the other. Even though I spent two decades in the belly of the media beast, they don’t believe anything I say about media, because it doesn’t jibe with what they want to believe about the media.

Same thing with Jesus and these Jews. He wasn’t the Messiah they expected – a man who would lead a bloody and violent revolution against their Roman oppressors. Instead, this was a man who went around healing sick people, eating and drinking with the poor, the outcast, and the tax collectors among them. He spent his time with women, with those society said were not worthy of a glance, let alone a full on conversation. So, in some ways, it’s no shock that they didn’t believe Jesus’ words.

He tells them, if you don’t believe my words then believe my actions. But they don’t even believe that.

He says, “The works that I do in God’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

So, who are these sheep that both hear the word and see the actions and believe that Jesus is the real deal? They’re the ones who understand that Jesus has come to invite us into a new conversation – into a new way of talking about the world and how we want to live into it.

In his book, Community: A Structure of Belonging, business writer Peter Block writes that one of the main ways to build real community is to change the conversation, much in the way Jesus did.

He writes: “The future community (is) a choice between a retributive conversation (a problem to be solved) and a restorative conversation (a possibility to be lived into).”

Jesus changed the conversation with his very life. Those expecting the messiah were engaged in retributive conversations. They had a problem to be solved and those problems were called Romans. They were seeking the bold leader who would help them solve that problem, a man who would drive that problem from their midst so they could reclaim their land, their freedom, and their religion. They kept asking Jesus if he was the guy they were waiting for, and he kept confusing them by changing the conversation.

Instead of holding conversations about retribution, he kept holding a restorative conversation, talking about possibilities to live into – about a kingdom of heaven where lambs and lions, Romans and Jews, live in peace with one another. Jesus’ conversations are always about possibilities. To the lepers he told them to go and wash. To the disciples he said come and see. To the sick he said be well. He even invited the Pharisees into a new conversation, one where their insides are as clean as their outsides.

Imagine … he said to them … a new conversation – one that restores, one that heals, one that reconciles, one that brings us together instead of tearing us apart. To the ears of the Jews on Solomon’s porch that day Jesus’ words must have sounded like an ancient Mad Lib – or like a foreign language. He appeared to be speaking words, but they couldn’t understand them.

Don’t worry, Jesus said – you don’t get it because you’re not one of my sheep. You’re not ready to have this conversation yet – you’re still a pack of wolves, out for the blood of your enemy. You’re not ready for a shepherd yet.

But, Jesus continued, until his dying breath, to speak the word – to speak the word that precedes bliss.

[verse] These weakened knees,
have not touched ground or pew in ages
I haven’t bowed my head,
to offer thanks to any god or to ask for favors
But watch me now. I’m falling down, praying
To speak the word that precedes bliss

[Chorus] Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word
Love love love love love love love love
Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word
Love love love love love love love love
Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word (2x)

Lest you think this whole new conversation thing is pie in the sky thinking, let me give you a concrete example. As many of you may know, I was raised by Republicans. It’s sort of like being raised by wolves, minus the love and nurture that wolves tend to provide their young.

Since I was raised by Republicans, going home for any length of time is always a challenge. You just know a maddening political conversation will start up at any moment – and the wolves will circle – waiting for you to bleat something about social justice so they can pounce on your bleeding heart.

I went to Atlanta last weekend to lead a retreat for an Episcopal church group there and I stayed with my sister, Linda. She’s not as rabidly Republican as our oldest sister Barbara, but she’s close. She believes that FOX News is the truth and that all other news outlets are the “librul media.” She had FOX News on the TV Sunday morning and I could feel myself getting dumber by the minute.

Anyway, the night before we had come back from a nice visit with my mom and something was said on the TV about global warming. My sister piped up, “The stupidest people are those who believe that global warming is real.”

I harumphed …

“You don’t agree?” she asked, knowing good and well that I didn’t – and I felt the wolf begin to circle … trying to spot any weak areas she could sink her teeth into.

“No,” I said, “I don’t agree, but I also don’t feel the need to make you agree with me. I have absolutely no need to argue with you about this.”

The wolf stopped in her tracks. She’d never been approached like this before. The usual dance is – she snarls, I snarl, she growls, I growl, she gets her back up, I get my back up, then we lunge for each other’s necks in a fight to the death.

But, I was tired, and I honestly didn’t care to fight.

“I will tell you one thing,” I said as I lounged on the couch, “whether or not global warming is real or a hoax, I fully believe that we need to stop polluting so much, and we ought to be looking for cleaner forms of energy, and we need to conserve more and find ways to stop fouling our nest because if we don’t – global warming or not – we won’t live long because we’ll have made the earth uninhabitable.”

My sister blinked and said something I never thought I’d hear her utter. She said, “I agree.”

And the angels sang. Or, it could be the first sign of the apocalypse.

Either way – I changed the conversation. Instead of having the same old self-defeating and ill-feeling leaving conversation about politics that we usually have – I decided enough was enough. Instead of speaking words of division and blame – I spoke words of edification – words that we could all agree on – stop polluting, start conserving, let’s clean up our act.

And she agreed. My Republican wolf of a sister agreed.

So, Jesus urges us to start a new conversation. Where in the world do we start? I suggest we start with the 23rd Psalm. It is a road map to what kind of words we’ll need to be speaking as we seek to create this new conversation.

Hear these ancient words:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Instead of a Mad Lib conversation that makes no sense, this is an ancient restorative conversation because it is filled with healing words we need to be speaking even today.

These words are the possibilities we seek to live into today – green pastures, still waters, restored souls, right paths, no evil, God with me, comfort, table, overflowing cups, goodness and mercy, dwelling in God’s presence. These are the building blocks of a new conversation, a new language. Imagine filling our words daily with green pastures, still waters, restored souls, right paths, no evil, God with me, comfort, table, overflowing cups, goodness and mercy, dwelling in God’s presence.

Imagine … a new conversation. A restorative conversation that doesn’t use words of strife, of challenge, of disbelief, of anger, of angst, of inequality, of hatred, of blame, of sadness, of despair, or any other words that divide us or turn us against one another. Imagine … a new conversation – on filled with words that heal, uplift, edify, and unite.

I challenge you – change the conversation this week. Whenever you hear yourself speaking words of retribution – words meant to divide instead of unite – stop yourself, and instead, speak the words of restoration – words of love and peace.

Don’t be surprised if people look at you funny when you start this kind of conversation. People don’t understand these kinds of restorative words. We live in a world that loves retribution, so to those who hear us we may sound like a Mad Lib or like we’re speaking a foreign language – but this is the only conversation – a conversation of possibilities – that is worth having.

Imagine … a new conversation. Speak the word that precedes bliss.

[Chorus] Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word
Love love love love love love love love
Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word
Love love love love love love love love
Let me speak the word, Let me speak the word (2x)