Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 12, 2012

Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2


So as many of you will have gathered by this point, having heard a few of my sermons, by now, I am just a little bit of a news junkie.  And that’s an understatement.  But something’s kind of happened recently, and it’s been strange; I’ve become a little bit wary of turning on the news, whether it’s turning on the radio or going online and looking at the headlines – which are my two primary sources of news.  Because recently, I have begun to feel sort of bombarded with hate every time the news comes on.  Whether it’s the Westboro Baptist Church, and I use the term “church” very loosely here, picketing yet another military funeral; whether it is Bryan Fischer, the Director of Issues Analysis at the American Family Association, who actually called this week for the children of same-sex parents to be kidnapped and be stolen away by underground railroad so that they wouldn’t be harmed any further – which seems a little bit to me like incitement, but apparently it’s not, and apparently neither is all of the music that Wade Page listened to, before he opened fire in a Sikh temple: the songs about white power and supremacy, the songs about violence and murder.  And, of course, then, you know, what was it, two weeks ago now, there was this whole huge Chik-Fil-A mess?  And the worst of that was the huge long lines of people waiting to buy a decent – not better than that – chicken sandwich, not necessarilyeven because they agreed with the owner’s views, not certainly because they actually knew where his money went, but because they were standing up for the right to free speech.  It was all over the news.


You know, in a world where someone’s right to speak becomes more powerful, inherently, than the words that they actually use, I’m not sure it’s any wonder that I hesitate now before I turn on the radio or scan the headlines.


We’ve been reading Kate Braestrup’s book about bringing prayer into life during our Tuesday morning Bible Study/prayer group study.  In the chapter we read this week, she talked about something that I totally and completely get: she talked about being a word geek.  She said that when you’ve got a writer, a preacher and a theologian – she falls into all three categories and, let’s face it, so do I – you are bound to have a word geek on your hands.  And so she says, and I’m right there with her most of the time, she says her prayers take the form of words.  She has to put her prayers into words, write them down, have them in some tangible form.  Which, I suppose, also made it handier to write a book on prayer, let’s be honest.  But I was reading that section again this week after we discussed it on Tuesday, and I think it speaks to something deeper within all of us, this need for words.  Even if you’re not a writer, and preacher, and theologian, at some level words relate us one to another.  Words are essential for how we relate in and to this world.  Language inevitably mediates our perception, it colors how we see, how we think, how we worship.  Language is our primary form of communication, after all, I’m up here talking to you.  It’s our primary form of communication, it’s our primary form of community-building, of relationship-building, among ourselves and with God.


Words have, in our hearts and in our minds, tremendous power.  Which is, I think, a lesson we all learned early.  We all heard the rhyme, when we were kids, and probably because we all needed to hear the rhyme.  Go ahead, say it with me: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  There wasn’t a single person here that didn’t know that rhyme.  A couple of you even knew where I was going before I started, which is just a little bit frightening.  Now: the real question is not how old were you when you learned it, but how old were you when you learned it really wasn’t true?  How old were you when you realized that the names you were called on the playground by some bratty little five-year-old would have so much power over you?  Would leave the scars that would last so much longer than the pebbles that they threw at your head, for instance?  How much older were you when you realized that it was the words that they used that really left a mark?


I did a little internet poll this week, and came up with just the most innocuous of them here:  fat; dumb;  useless;  shrimp; teacher’s pet; queer; mama’s boy; ugly… I got that in the first minute.  That’s what facebook does, folks.  How many more can you think of?  I bet there’s a fair few.  These are the words that cut us more deeply than any of us can ever really realize.  And whether we like it or not, these are the words that make us who we are.  These are the words that, when they are spoken, bring us back to the little five-year-old body, and the little five-year-old hurt, and they make us curl up and whimper.


They’re just words.  But while sticks and stones breaking bones is grounds for assault, name calling?  that’s free speech.


“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths”, says Paul.  I know Paul was familiar with hate speech, it was rampant throughout the epistles, we hear him arguing back against it, against what those churches must have been saying to each other and about each other, and about themselves.  Paul argued with the churches in Corinth, in Ephesus, in Rome, in Galatia, for that exact reason, because Paul recognized that there are consequences to what we say to each other .  He recognized that speech, in any society and in any context, cannot really be free.  We may be able to say whatever we want – and you know we can, and that’s the amazing thing – but there are going to be ramifications, no matter what.  There will be consequences: the breaking down of trust, the breaking down of community, and inevitably, the breaking down of the Body of Christ.  And this is Paul’s recurring theme, in every major letter, that there is nothing – NOTHING – more valuable than the unity that we can find in Christ.  So is it any wonder that he argues so vehemently, so often, so passionately, against the breaking of trust, the breaking down of communities, the erection of barriers the individualism and sectarianism that plagued the ancient church – that plagues the church still! – because it is damaging.  It is breaking and tearing apart the body of Christ.  The words that we speak, these words divide us.  They have the power to tear us one from another, to do again what the Roman soldiers did: as we speak we are, as surely as they were, driving nails into Christ’s body.  Except that this time, we are hurting ourselves in the process. This time, we are both crucifier and crucified.


You know, as a I sat there last night, and the night before that, and the night before that, and I wrote those words, and I looked at them, and I thought.  I thought about taking those words back.  I thought about not saying that we are complicit in the crucifixion.  But I can’t.  Because I don’t think it’s saying too much.  I think that when you can get a four year old to sing in a North Carolina church – and please excuse the words, this is a quote: “God don’t love no homo”, and have the whole church laughing, and thinking it’s cute; when you can have a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby, in a “White Power” onesie at a skinhead rally, you can’t tell me that we’re not doing some damage with our words.  You can’t tell me that we are not tearing apart both those who participate and those who bear witness.  We can’t disguise hatred with love, and expect our love to go untarnished.[i]  We cannot witness hatred in silence and expect our love to go untarnished.


Everywhere, recently, there have been incessant examples of the power of words to isolate, to wound, to kill.  You just have to look at the rash of teen suicides to see that one.  Worse still, though, is the power of these very words to divert us from their very power, to dull our senses and become innocuous.  To make us believe that indeed, our speech might ever, actually, be free.  Paul knew better.  Jesus knew better.  It is not enough to be free of hate.  It is not enough to not speak hate.  Because there is a second part to Paul’s directive.  It doesn’t end where I ended it a moment ago.  It is not just “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths”.  No, Paul goes on.  He says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”  It’s not enough not to be Dan Cathy, the owner of Chik-Fil-A.  It’s not enough not to be Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association.  It’s not enough not to be Wade Page, with his white supremacist music, and his horrible acts of violence.  Because Jesus didn’t actually say “Don’t hate your enemy”, did he?  The injunction is deeper and it is far more powerful and the implications are far, far stronger.  Because Jesus said what any good word geek would say.  Jesus chose his words as every bit carefully as any good writer, preacher, or theologian, of which he was at least two, out of three, I don’t know about the first.  Jesus said  “Love.”  He said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart”, and he said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”


Love is the test.  Not hate.  Because even seemingly harmless words can be tremendously damaging, can split us apart at our very core.  The words that we use to label people, as though people were objects.  The words that we use to keep from actually having to see someone else’s pain and suffering in this world, from actually having to see their humanity. My other internet poll on this took about as long as the first one did, and came up with words like Crazy, Homeless, Gay, Welfare Mother, Drunk, Muslim, Disabled, Addict.  The people who may be, you know, “not actually worthy”, because that’s all they are.  The people who don’t really exist.  Because those words, let’s face it, they’re not hateful.  They’re not hate speech.  They might even be true, to some extent.  But when they’re labels, when they’re excuses, where is the love, and where is the Body of Christ?


We have the right to speak.  But that does not make what we say inherently right.  We have this freedom.  But we are not free.  We are not free from one another, we are not free from the commitment that we have made to being disciples in Christ Jesus. We are not free from the consequences of our words, nor shall we ever be.  And we are not free, my friends, from the damage that we consistently, all of us, inflict upon the entire Body of Christ.  If we are free, it is only to the extent that the entire body is.  It is only to the extent that all of us, who are called to unarmed truth, and unconditional love[ii], may beloved in return.  Alleluia.  Amen

[i]  “The Chik-Fil-A Show: To Get To The Other Side.”

[ii] from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964