Title: Learning to speak is learning to touch
Text: Isaiah 42:13-17
Date: Oct 23, 2011
Author: M. Elia
I first met the Lord Jesus in an enormous Baptist megachurch. Imagine the Durham Bulls stadium, but slightly larger and with a roof over it, only with no alcohol and fewer hotdogs. (Though our church did have plasma screen TVs, a PA system and a sizable gift shop, so the picture’s really not far off.) It was there that I got myself good and saved as they say. In all sincerity, I truly don’t mean to mock my church or its theological vocabulary. Just the opposite: I am thankful for what a means of grace that community was for me, with all its blind spots and shortcomings. Given the context of our current sermon series, the most obvious of these blind spots is gender. But another of them concerns preaching, that is, the practice of saying things about God, the Bible and ourselves, and especially, the art of learning to say true things about God, the Bible and ourselves. In my background, the only proper form of preaching is ‘expository preaching’—a verse by verse ‘exposition’ of the biblical author’s intent as revealed in the details of the text. One expository preacher famously advised his students to preach a non-expository sermon only once every 5 years, and then to repent for it immediately afterwards.
But of course, such an approach pounds itself into pieces against the rocks of Isaiah 42, our passage for today. A text like this doesn’t get us from point A to B. We can’t move smoothly through this passage, at least not if we want to say something true about it. For this text in particular, it’s not as though we board a train in Memphis, trace the path on the map as each town or farm or city passes by the window in a clear sequence, until we safely disembark in Chicago. Making sense of Isaiah 42 is different. It’s more like being dropped inside Times Square. On a holiday weekend. During an earthquake. Gone is any attempt to identify neat coherence. Away with the seat cushions and sealed windows, away with the tidy lines on glossy paper. Instead, blurred images flash before you; objects swirl out of the dark spaces at the corners of your eyes and jerk out of sight; shadows jut out across the broken pavement underfoot as you stagger forward—you are a body entangled in a world , and this world is no longer ordered by your perception of it. No longer is it your job to make sense of it. The space now makes sense of you.
This is the starting point for the Isaiah text. It is a difficult text to make sense of, but maybe this very difficulty makes sense of something about us. The author of the passage gropes his way through a series of images, struggling to say something true about God, about the world, about himself. Perhaps this groping, this struggle says something true in itself.
This brings us to the first, and least controversial of three things I’d like to say about God and gendered language from Isaiah 42. And yes, I am still Baptist enough to know every sermon must have three points. Not two. Not four. Three is God’s eternal decree for numbering sermon points.
So, the first thing I’d like to say is this: It is a difficult matter for human beings to say things to and about God. This is especially the case if we want to say true things.
In Isaiah 42, we see the prophet, flushed with ‘the divine pathos’ (as Abraham Heschel would say), groping for true ways to announce God’s personal investment in this moment of Israel’s history. It is difficult. He represents the encounter with God through a bundle of flashing images, compressed inside the tight energy of a few dozen words. The images seem to clash and conflict. We see how difficult and risky a thing it is to speak of God through the clash of a thousand moments, to encounter God from a thousand vantage points at once.
And yet, this is the way we must speak if we want to say something true about this God, the God of Israel, that mystery who is a fire which doesn’t burn bushes, but does chat with wandering murderers—provided they are willing to remove their shoes. We must speak of a God who always outruns and exceeds any of the images we propose. As Isaac reminded us a few weeks ago, the whole point of the burning bush story is that God will not provide Moses, and us, with a proper name, a stable identity we can use to compare God with the other Gods. In the story, God won’t be a God that Moses can use, that Moses can name and claim, that Moses can classify and then compare with other Gods.
It is first this refusal on God’s part to be captured within one definitive name or image which makes things difficult for our speaking. So our difficulty says something about God. But I think it also says something about us, about our finitude, our voice, our limit, as those who always already speak from one particular body and at one particular place and time. There is always risk in speaking from the limit, and this brings me to an embarrassing story.
My freshman year of high school, I wrote a paper for English class on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers. As I recall, the title of the project was “Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.” On the bus ride to school, I sat down next to my friend Antoine who was African-American and a few years ahead of me in school. He was ‘rough-around-the-edges’, known as something of a troublemaker and not known for being especially concerned with his studies. He looked over at the stapled pages on my lap and asked what I was turning in today. “Oh this?” I replied, “it’s a paper for English on the Black Panthers….Do you know who they are?” He just stared at me for a moment and then said: “Do you really think you’re gonna know more about my story than I do?” It was uncomfortable. He had nailed it. I had thought that I, as a white male in possession of a library card, would know the story of being black in America better than he would as a black American.
This is part of why I feel a bit strange talking to a group of men and women about gender. I speak as a male, and this entails blind spots, certain propensities for saying untrue things about God, the world and myself. This is one reason I am so thankful that in our community, the word has not been preached until we have all had the chance to speak, until we have all spoken from within our limit. Inside the merging of our limited voices—and sometimes in their clashing—we have the best hope of speaking truly.
In a similar way, the prophet merges and clashes images of God in the hope of saying something true about what God is up to at this point in history. By all accounts, the prophet means to portray through these images the God who, for whatever reason, has been standing by as Judah suffers oppression under empire, but now is springing into action. Verse 13 finds God in the shouting of an enraged warrior; 14, in the breathless panting of the woman in labor; verse 15 sees God in the obliteration of the countryside, then in the destruction of life-giving waters. Then, strangely, verse 16 finds the skin of God in the grasp of the blind beggar’s hands. Together they stumble silently down some unknown path from night into light, from rough places to level ground. What do these images mean? How do they fit together? There are many things that could be said, but what surprised me is this: God, as presented in the prophet’s words here, is not imagined to speak clearly-worded, intelligible messages to the people, whether they be the imperial oppressors or the oppressed of Judah. Notice God’s mode of communicating: God is not talking like a good public speaker. Instead, the text says: God “cries out, shouts aloud” like a warrior. God had ‘kept still’ and been restrained. Now God “gasps and pants like a woman in labor.” God is not speaking, but crying, shouting, holding silent, gasping, panting. All of this brings us to the second, perhaps more controversial thing I think is true in this passage:
In some sense, it is a difficult thing for God to speak to human beings.
It seems that God has a hard time with it. Perhaps it is uncomfortable to imagine a God who stammers and falters, who hesitates in search of the right word and at times seems to give up speaking altogether—at least for a while. But should we be surprised? This God, Israel’s God, Jesus’s God, has always refused to stand far off, making studied pronouncements from a position of detachment or neutrality. Instead, it has long been God’s habit—even before the incarnation of Jesus—to break into the world, speaking from inside all the ambiguities and frailties of our fractured condition. What does this mean for the way gender is being imagined in the text?
 The LORD goes forth like a mighty man,
like a man of war he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
 For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in travail [or labor],
I will gasp and pant.
God presents godself as the mighty man of war and as the gasping woman in labor. It is no small thing to find God speaking to us through both masculine and feminine images. And yet, we should ask: what sort of masculinity and femininity is envisioned? Where did it come from? It seems clear that the gendered images through which God speaks are by no means images of men and women at their best, at peace, fulfilling the purpose for which God created them. Instead, the thing we call ‘gender’ comes into view here already in relation to the deeply fractured, cataclysmic world around it. Gender appears already in relation to the horrors of war, and to the pain and danger the Torah had said would haunt Eve’s childbearing.
God’s voice emerges in the midst of an ancient world of empire, in which men are most useful for their ability to fight wars. Women are most useful for their ability to bear children. Manliness is valued as physical strength. Womanliness is valued as motherhood. What I’m getting at is this: when God speaks judgment upon the empire, God borrows the assumptions of the judged world which that empire has produced. A world which charges men with the duty of killing bodies, and women with the duty of replacing them with new bodies. The point, needless to say, is not to suggest any sort of equivalence between killing and bearing children. Nor is it to undermine the importance of the metaphor of God as the mother of Israel. Instead here I am simply asking: Is there not more to the man than physical strength? More to the woman than motherhood? Moreover, many men are not strong; many women are not mothers. Maybe all these ambiguities get at why speaking to human beings is hard for God. So that we can get it, God speaks from within the world we know, the world we have broken—empires, wars, fixed gender roles, and all. But this is not all God says to us in this passage, and therefore, it is not all we must say about God. There is a third thing about these words from Isaiah 42 which says something true about God, the world and us.
In verse 16, God says: “I will lead the blind
in a way that they know not,
in paths that they have not known
I will guide them.”
Notice the way the encounter with God shifts. Before this, God has been crying out, gasping, and shouting. Yet, you do not lead blind beggars by shouting instructions, but by holding their hands. The encounter moves beyond speech, to touch.
This is the 3rd thing to say—At the limits of speech, we are invited to touch. God leads the blind by holding their hands. God does not tell them where to go, but walks with them from the darkness into the light, from rough places into level ground. To touch demands ongoing, long-term presence in a way that speech alone does not. Touch calls forth relationship, being-with-one-another, communion. To touch is to live where your body reaches its limit at the body of another. It is the simultaneous refusal either to withdraw from or transgress the limit. To touch is to live in a space beyond alienation and beyond violence, which after all are two sides of the same coin.
The radical Catholic peace activist Dan Berrigan tells of how subversive, how dangerous it is to live in this way. Having been arrested for burning draft cards, he writes:
“One day, as we were being taken handcuffed from the jail for a court appearance, a young nun who was a dear friend reached out her hand to mine in solidarity as we issued from the jail. One of the marshals came forward in a swift, reptilian move. He crashed down between our hands with a karate blow. ‘Don’t touch!’ he screamed. It was the epitome of the system; he had said it all.
Don’t touch – make war. Don’t touch – be abstract, about God and death and life and love. Don’t touch – make war at a distance. Don’t touch your enemies, except to destroy them. Don’t touch, because in the touch of hand to hand is Michelangelo’s electric moment of creation. Don’t touch, because law and order have so decreed, limiting the touch of one person to another, to the touch of nightsticks upon flesh.” [Daniel Berrigan, No Bars to Manhood, 11-26]
By way of a conclusion, I want to close where all good Baptist (or Mennonite!) sermons end: with Jesus. All throughout the gospels, we see that the body of Jesus is not so holy it cannot be touched. To the contrary, it is so holy—so full of life and love and sorrow and healing—it is so holy that it must touch and be touched. “And he stretched out his hand and touched the leper, saying, I wish it, be clean.” (Mt. 8’3). Or, “he touched her hand, and the fever left her” (Mt. 8’15). Or, “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Mt. 20’30). And again, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise and have no fear’.” Likewise, the crowds of that region “begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mt. 14’36).
And yet, all of these moments of the body of Jesus touching and being touched, what do they mean for our speaking? For our stammering and faltering attempts to speak of God, ourselves and gender, all of which are of the greatest importance?
“And they brought to Jesus a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Be opened’. And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mk. 7’32-35). This man, like all of us, can neither hear nor speak very well. But the body of Jesus touches his tongue. With the touch of the body of Christ, his tongue begins speaking clearly, speaking plainly, perhaps even speaking things that are true. Maybe learning to speak means learning to touch and be touched. This would suggest there is nothing necessarily wrong with us for finding it difficult so to speak of God and ourselves. Maybe saying things that are true about God simply demands speaking them from inside what is most true of all: the touch of the body of Christ, the bodily presence with one another in community, the embrace of God which meets us at the limit of our bodies and their words.