~ Psalm 100/Mark 10:37-45 ~
On occasion, when I’m out and about with minister colleagues, at Presbytery meetings or with friends on vacation, I might tell them about one of the biggest challenges I face as pastor of Noe Valley Ministry. The challenge? De-Lording scripture texts! With astonishment they ask, “why do you have to do that?” “We’ll,” I say, “we have issues with the word ‘Lord’
What about the word ‘Lord’? Well, it’s a word with lots of baggage. So, this morning I want to consider what ‘Lord’ means. Of course, it is a name for God. In fact, it’s used for two names for God. We’ll get back to that a bit later.
So, some etymology on ‘lord’. Traditionally, it is often a designation of honor or status, a courtesy title, as seen in the House of Lords in England. Sometimes it is term of endearment, as in “my Lord.” Often, Jesus was referred to as ‘Master’ by his disciples, out of respect for his teaching and leadership. But mostly ‘lord’ refers to a person who has authority, control, or power over people – lords and subjects, masters and slaves. And often, indeed more often than not, this kind of lord is abusive and unjust, tyrannical. This is the kind of lord Jesus was talking about when he said, “their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”
It is this kind of lord that we have issues with here at Noe Valley Ministry. You see we have this declaration printed at the end of the order of worship in our bulletin. Take a look. Here’s what it says:
We are a faith community that practices inclusivity in our membership, our leadership, and our language. Our language for God’s people incorporates male and female. Our language for God is intentionally genderless and non-hierarchical.
Now I’ve been told this declaration has been a thing here at Noe Valley Ministry from the very early days – 40 years. It has been an important feature of the “theology,” if you will, of this church. Now, many of you, most of you, were not around when this was implemented. So, maybe you’ve never questioned it. Maybe you’ve questioned it but not seriously enough to make it an issue. Or maybe you didn’t even realize it is a thing (which says something about how well you read the bulletin). So, today I’d like to conclude my September sermon series on “how we think about God matters” by exploring this topic. Why is our worship language “intentionally genderless and non-hierarchical?” What do we have against ‘Lord’?
OK. Going back to the challenge I face: De-Lording scripture. Already this morning, we’ve heard and sung various renditions of Psalm 100 – the introit, the call to worship, the opening hymn were all based on Psalm 100. For our second scripture reading today I want us to hear it as it rendered by the New Revised Standard Version.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
Lots of “Lord’s” and “he’s.” It’s with these kinds of texts that I wish the English language had neuter pronouns (which is a fascinating subject all its own!). But I’m not one to back down from a challenge. So here is how I re-wrote Psalm 100:
Make a joyful noise to Our God, all the earth.
Worship Our God with gladness;
Enter into God’s presence with joyful song.
Know that Adonai is God.
Our God made us, and we belong to the Creator;
We are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture.
Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise.
Give thanks to God.
Bless God’s Name.
For Our God is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
And God’s faithfulness to all generations.
OK. This approach does call for saying ‘God’ a lot (and sometimes I have to use ‘Godself’). And, to avoid saying the redundant “God is God,” I’ll use one of the Hebrew names for God, ‘Adonai’ – “Adonai is God.” And you’ll notice I use the phrase ‘Our God’. Lots going on here in this one translation. So, a little sidebar on how it came to be that bible translators used ‘Lord’ for the name of God in the first place.
There are several Hebrew names for God. Three are of particular interest. ‘Elohim’ is a name that means, simply, God. It was a derivation of other names of God from neighboring religions, based on the name ‘El’. It appears quite frequently in Hebrew Scripture.
‘Adonai’ is not so common (only about 450 times in the Hebrew bible) and it means “my Lords.” It is the plural form of adon which means ‘lord’ (the plural form is often explained as a “plural of majesty”). So, very early on ‘Lord’ was introduced as a name for God. And we can see the personal aspect of this title from the name itself, “my Lord.”
But the most often used name of God in the Hebrew bible (7000 times) is what is called the “Tetragrammaton” (which means “four-letter word”). That, of course, is YHWH, the name that is forbidden to pronounce in Jewish practice, going back to the 6th century B.C.E. As a result, no one knows for certain how to pronounce the name, 1) because it was forbidden to say aloud and, 2) because ancient Hebrew was not written with vowels, only consonants. Scholars, using the vowels from Adonai and Elohim have settled on ‘Yahweh’ as the most likely pronunciation. ‘Jehovah’ is sometimes used but it is not considered a legitimate translation. But Yahweh is the God of Israel, exclusively. For the Jewish people this is “Our God.” It goes back to that famous encounter between Moses and the burning bush in Exodus. There God declares, as in the Charlton Heston version, “I Am that I Am,” but it’s more accurate to say, “I Will Be that I Will Be.” As you can see it is almost undefinable.
Somewhere around the 3rd century B.C.E. some Greek-speaking rabbis translated the Hebrew bible into Greek. That version is called the Septuagint. The Septuagint was what was in use in the New Testament era. Pretty much all of the quotes from the Old Testament found in the New Testament are from this Greek Septuagint. The word for God used in this version was kyrios, the Greek word for ‘lord’, and was used even for the not-to-be-pronounced name Yahweh.
So, when it came to translating the bible into English, the use of ‘Lord’ was already pretty established. They did have a bit of a dilemma in that there were two different names of God using one word. So, to differentiate them translators used ‘Lord’ with lower-case letters for Adonai and Elohim and used ‘LORD’, all capital letters, for the name, Yahweh.
It should be said, however, that this usage is merely tradition. The preface to the version of the bible we use here, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), uses terms like “the traditional manner” and “long established practice” and “following the precedent of the ancient Greek.” In other words, the use of LORD and Lord for the names of God is only tradition.
But if ‘Lord’ has been used for the name of God since ancient times and its usage is so common why do we have issues with it? Well, it’s about culture. The ancient Mediterranean world was culturally hierarchical and patriarchal. It was the underlying view of the world, under and behind any and all religious traditions and scripture. Men of power and authority were in charge and everyone else was beneath them. It was assumed this was the way things are and should be. They were the Masters, pure and simple. Anthropologists call this a patron-client system. Those on top were the patrons. They might deign to stoop low to deal with their clients but it was always understood that they were doing them a favor; they did not deal with their underlings out of obligation. In contrast, the underlings’ obligation was to show fealty to their master, to their lord. In this kind of world, the ultimate Patron or Master was God. So, in a hierarchical, patriarchal world, God is the ultimate Lord. It was just assumed.
But cultures change. And in time this hierarchical, patriarchal view of the world has undergone considerable reconsideration. Many no longer see the world this way, in part, because we have seen how abusive and unjust this system was and is. Men (again, always men) in power have oppressed and trampled and done violence. Jesus, two thousand years ago, said as much: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” And it continued that way, unabated, throughout history.
But things have changed, thanks, mostly, to the courageous persistence of women. In significant ways, our culture has evolved to see that a hierarchical and patriarchal view of the world is just too limiting and too often leads to the abuse of power. The word ‘lord’ just has too much baggage. So, following Jesus’ example and teaching, we deliberately eschew the notion of ‘lordship’ and adopt his teaching, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Of course, we still have vestiges of this hierarchical and patriarchal system in our culture. OK, not just vestiges. There is considerable pushback against the idea of making our culture more inclusive and empowering for all. There are strident voices, both religious and political, that are striving mightily to reassert the power-based system of male authority. They claim that God has ordained this traditional hierarchical and patriarchal system and those who try to change it are sinfully out of line. To question their authority is to question the very authority of God. They are the ‘lords’ ordained by the ‘Lord’ God.
But they are also afraid, feeling quite threatened. Of late, the #metoo movement has caused much consternation among power-based men. Outrage and exasperation from the most vocal of them. “Men can’t be men anymore?” What we have these days is a “war on men,” rages a TV commentator. “Men are being emasculated,” they cry. In other words, we ‘lords’ should be in control and you all are trying to take away our rightful birthright.
The outrage of ‘lords’ who feel threatened has been on display in recent days. We saw men who believe they have a right to be on top, to call the shots, and to diminish those who they believe are beneath them. They show contempt and disdain for any who would challenge their authoritative position of power. They have pedigrees, they have status, they have honor. And don’t you forget it. And they have what is called ‘authoritative truth’. Authoritative truth is the truth that comes from power. It doesn’t matter whether it is factually true or not. This is the power of institutions, like governments and the church, or the power people who are legitimated by those institutions. Their truth is not to be questioned.
This is the reason why authoritarian institutions demand that they are to be believed over the testimony of those who have been abused by them. This is the reason why a woman, at great cost to herself and her family, with death threats and public outrage, will not be considered credible unless she can have a specific, detailed memory of her alleged assault. And then that account will be scrutinized to the nth degree. Meanwhile the accused can angrily rant and rave about how his life is now destroyed and he might never be able to coach the girls’ softball team again because of this outrageous allegation. How dare some no-account woman challenge the honor of his name. In the end, her allegation can be completely dismissed, not because it isn’t true, but because it isn’t the authoritative truth that comes from someone who might call himself a ‘lord’. This is an example of what Jesus meant by “their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”
Here at Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church we reject such ‘lordship’. Here we don’t look to God as one who “lords it over us.” Here we see God as the one who comes along side, to lift up and empower. Here we see God who is Love, vulnerable and responsive. In short, how we think about God matters. And that’s why we de-Lord our scripture readings.