Excerpts from a sermon preached on Sept. 2
The Chapel of St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, MA
I once was having lunch with a friend, who remarked that somebody had “Jewed me down” in a business transaction. I was appalled. I hadn’t heard that phrase in years, maybe decades. Without hesitating, I responded with alarm: “You can’t say that.” My friend replied, “Why? It’s true.”
After composing myself, I explained that such a remark was offensive and anti-Semitic. My friend shrugged, and the conversation moved on. Was the impact of this remark understood? Will this interaction make my friend think before speaking in future situations? Will it affect our friendship? I’m not going to write my friend out of my life, and I hope it goes both ways, as this person is dear to me. Ultimately, time will tell. But it was important that I didn’t let this hurtful remark pass, and I pray my friend won’t use it again.
Conversations like that happen all the time. During a recent dinner gathering, Jack Smith, Retired Priest of The Chapel of St. James the Fisherman, suggested a wise, gentle and faithful approach to such a situation. He spoke of sitting with neighbors in front of the liquor store on Main Street in Wellfleet most evenings. Once in a while, one of them will make a cruel and inconsiderate remark. Jack responds: “I know you, and you are better than that.”
I think Jack’s remark might be the best response to our current crisis of civility, decency, compassion, respect and honor. And more often than not, this crisis is undergirded by so-called “religious beliefs.”
I can’t bake your wedding cake or issue your marriage license. I can’t welcome those people into my club, church, neighborhood or country. I can’t acknowledge climate change. I can’t support gun control legislation, reproductive choice or the right to die with dignity. These so-called “religious beliefs” are informed by various interpretations of the Bible and the Constitution, deeply held personal convictions, inherited biases, misinformation and political party loyalty.
What is true religion, and how is it reflected in the way we speak and act?
The author of James answers: If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
In other words, it’s not good enough to be hearers or speakers of God’s word; the Word has to be put into action, like caring for the young, the elderly and those in distress and despair. James reminds us that it’s important to protect the vulnerable, rather than attack or scapegoat them, or remain silent as they are attacked and scapegoated by others. James also insists we learn to rein in our words, if they do not promote peace, justice and well-being for all God’s creatures.
In case we’ve missed the point of these sacred texts, Jesus clarifies them in his teaching: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” They say they love the God whom they can’t see, but they sure don’t love the neighbor standing right next to them.
When I was a little girl and complained someone had said something mean about me, my grandmother would reply: “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” However, if I said something unkind about someone else, she would remind me that, “Words once spoken are like eggs once broken; they can never be repaired.”
The tongue is a small part of the body, but think of the good or damage we can do with the spoken word.
Silence can be a powerful weapon in nonviolent resistance to oppression. As I reflect on the life of Senator John McCain, many of whose political positions and choices I did not agree with, I can’t help but admire this hero who bore captivity, interrogation and torture in silence, thus frustrating his captors and inspiring fellow prisoners.
Speech is also an essential ingredient in life. In fact, as Jesus demonstrates, sometimes our faith demands that we speak out when it would be a lot easier to remain silent. Silence and speech is a delicate balance.
The bridge between too much talk and utter silence is listening. Only one who has learned how to listen will be able to hear the cry of others, as well as the call of God.
It’s been a long time since my grandmother took me on her knee and whispered her kernels of wisdom into my ear. And while I can still hear her voice, I now know that words alone might not break bones, but they certainly can hurt, especially when they promote and invoke violence, which can and does break more than just bones. I’ve also come to believe that words once spoken, in fact, can be repaired. It takes a lot of effort, time and determination. It demands humility and graciousness of heart. It is at the heart of what we call the work of reconciliation.
May we all listen carefully to hear our God who is still speaking. May we speak our truth with love and graciousness. And when we or someone else who speaks or acts in a manner that feeds the crisis of civility, decency, compassion, respect and honor, let us recall and (when appropriate) repeat Jack’s wise response: “I know you, and you are better than that.”