February 25, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
There’s a lot of competition today between the tech giants Google, Amazon, and Apple as they constantly vie to be the best that technology can offer but I recently saw proof that Apple is closer to perfection than all the rest or at least its assistant Siri is. You see, Siri is without sin. Literally. I know this because when I am walking my dogs, I often use my phone to take notes on my musings for the upcoming sermon. Siri does a pretty good job transcribing my thoughts, until I decide I want to talk about sin at which point she flounders. Every time I say, “sin,” she writes, “soon.”
“No, no, sin!” I insist and Siri dutifully types, “No, no, soon!”
In my frustration, I once pointed Siri to a dictionary saying, “Siri, please define sin,” and after a second in which I could visualize her flipping through the pages of her virtual dictionary, she said, “It means, ‘in or after a short time;’” in other words “soon.”
Maybe Siri just couldn’t understand my western NY accent, I thought, and so I tried asking Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant the same question.
“Alexa, define sin,” I said to my Echo Dot. She answered without hesitation, “estrangement from God,” and then even went on to list the seven deadliest sins, including avarice, something I’m sure Amazon is well acquainted with. Obsessed now with this quirk of Siri’s, I texted my friends and family asking them to see if their iPhones recognized the word “sin.” Most reported that their phones transcribed the word accurately but a few experienced the same problem I have, with Siri insisting that they must mean “soon” not “sin.” I’d like to suggest that perhaps Siri is able to recognize perfection or the lack of it in her owners, but Stacy — whose phone easily transcribes the word sin — tells me that my phone is just in denial. What makes this all even more interesting is that the other word my phone stumbles over is faith: if I say “faith,” Siri writes “face,” every single time, but then perhaps if you are without sin, you have no need for faith.
I suspect many of you will go home after this sermon and test this out for yourself but I’m bringing this up as more than just a parlor game. I’ve been dealing with Siri’s refusal to talk about sin for as long as I’ve been forcing her to take dictation but I was more aware of it this week as I considered this sermon on the importance of the written word. Language is not only a means of communicating between people; it is also the means that we as human beings use for thinking about the world. If you don’t have words for something, how can you think about it? How can it have an impact on your life? My dog Dexter, for example, spends a lot of time in seeming contemplation as he sits on my back porch looking at the world around him. Nevertheless, because his language consists of physical gestures and images, I imagine that what he is thinking is not much more profound than “tree, grass, wind…. SQUIRREL!” at which point he leaps off the porch in pursuit. While I often envy my dogs their mindful immersion in the moment, their lack of language has kept them farther down on the evolutionary scale since even if in their contemplation, they were to come up with a remarkable new theory of quantum physics, they would have no way of communicating that to anyone else or of leaving a body of work for those who come after them to build upon.
Last week I preached about the power of stories, a power Jesus used in his parables to open the eyes of his listeners to new ways of being, but no matter how powerful those stories are, it is unlikely that we here in 2018 would have been able to discuss the importance of those parables if they had remained as stories and never been written down. The early Jews were known as the People of the Book because by giving the written scriptures a central place in their religious identity, they made Judaism transportable. When the Jewish Temple was destroyed and the Jews forced out of Israel, Judaism continued because the people’s religious identity was not tied to a particular building or to secret knowledge passed down orally (as in the mystery religions) but to a book — the Bible — which could be carried in scrolls on the back of a donkey.
Some scholars say that the invention of writing in about 2000 BCE was the most important invention in human history. 1 Writing was a major step in the evolution of human civilization because it gave people a way to transmit their ideas across geographical space and time with a minimal amount of change. Anyone who has ever played a game of gossip, or telephone, or even listened to one of my Children’s Times, knows how hard it is to preserve an oral teaching across time and culture. Certainly, some story tellers may slavishly try to transmit the story just as it was told to them but there are the inevitable independent types like me who insist on embellishing stories to fit their audience. My re-tellings of David and Goliath or the Good Samaritan are hardly verbatim accounts of what the kids would read in the Bible but I don’t have to worry about it because I know that the written word will preserve the original as a touch stone so that we can go back time and time again to hear that story in a way that is pretty close to how people thousands of years ago heard it.
The written word is important for preserving the teachings and faith insights of each generation for the next but anthropologists argue that written language also contributed to human evolution by increasing our ability to do complex reasoning. Writing is a sort of code: we put symbols on a piece of paper (or stone, or clay tablet) that are abstract representations of sounds, and the very work our brains have to go through to make sense of those symbols pushed us to evolve a greater capacity for abstract thought. The scholar Tom Standage says, “The amazing thing about writing, given how complicated its early systems were, is that anyone learned it at all [but those ancient civilizations quickly recognized the importance of the written word. One Egyptian text reads,] “Set thine heart on being a scribe, that thou mayest direct the whole earth.” The earliest scribes understood that literacy was power – a power that now extends to most of humanity, and has done more for human progress than any other invention.” 2
Helen Keller testified to the power of writing and its ability to shape who we are. Keller went blind and deaf at the age of two and for the next six years lived in a world of pure physical sensation.
“For nearly six years,” she said, “I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactual…. I know I was impelled like an animal to seek food and warmth…. There is not one spark of emotion and rational thought in these distinct yet corporal memories. I was like an unconscious clod of earth.”
This all changed for her, however, when her teacher Annie Sullivan figured out how to talk to her through the finger spelling of the deaf, placing her own hand in the shape of the letter symbols onto the palm of Helen Keller. Sullivan’s patient repetition helped little Helen eventually associate the shapes she felt on her hand with the world around her and Keller says that the “writing on her hands” gave her an ability to conceptualize things she had never been able to think about before.
“Suddenly, I knew not how or where or when,” she wrote later in life, “my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge of love, to the usual concepts of nature, of good and evil! I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life…..”
For Helen Keller, the word literally became flesh, pressed against her palms by a woman whose commitment to her would save her and free her to a new life. 3
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” While the other gospels use stories to describe Jesus’ advent into our world, the gospel of John turns to poetry, and describes Christ as the Word of God dwelling among us. The Greek word for “Word” which John uses is ‘logos’ which when you Americanize the pronunciation becomes loe-goes, or namely those symbols that represent and embody a greater entity. If you want to be unpoetic about it, then, you could say that in the gospel of John, Jesus is God’s logo. For the Greeks, a logo, or logos, was more than a marketing symbol — they believed that the written word has the power to create thought and bring life into being and so logos was not just word with a small w but The Word with a capital W — the all encompassing word, the first and last word, the word that describes all things and in which all things find their being. The Jewish philosopher Philo wrote that “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.” And so, John says, that Logos — that Word that holds all things together and in which all things have their being — has become flesh and dwells among us. Christ is God written in flesh.
And so we come back to my original point in telling you the story of Siri and sin — if you don’t have a word for something, how can you think about it? We may have a spiritual experience of something bigger than ourselves, deeper than the world, more encompassing than anything we know but if we don’t have a word for this experience, then how can we even begin to talk about it? How can we know anything about the divine in the world if God remains ultimately beyond language? How can we understand the movement of the holy in our hearts if we have no words to describe it, to even comprehend the complexity of this unknowable divinity? The gospel of John says that God gave us the possibility of encountering the fullness of Godself by giving us words for God — by giving us the Word made flesh — and thus like Helen Keller feeling Annie Sullivan’s fingers forming words in her palm, in Christ we encounter the Word of God and in Christ, we have the language to bridge the gap between human and holy. My iPhone may know nothing of sin but perhaps Siri is right that faith is better written as face — a face, the face of Christ in whom God’s word is given flesh so that we may see and understand the full depth of God’s compassion for us. In Christ, our minds feel the impact of the divine mind, and we awake to the knowledge of love, to the concept of good and evil, to compassion and mercy, to possibility and hope. In Christ, the Word is made flesh, and we are lifted from nothingness to life.
During these weeks of Lent as you work to be artists of hope, may you encounter the hope that we know in the written word, the Word made flesh who has come to dwell among us.
1. By 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), and then soon after in Egypt, and by 1500 B.C. in China, people were scribbling, sketching and telling their world about their culture in a very permanent way. https://www.livescience.com/2283-writing-changed-world.html