Loving Creator and Sustainer, you are the God who is still speaking to your people in so many ways. In this time of worship and reflection, may we listen for your voice and your call to us. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Today, we are concluding our sermon series, Goodness Grace Us, in which we are exploring three important facets of the life of faith. Over the past couple of weeks Pastor Dave reflected first on doing good works – how those acts of service and care we offer help us live out the call to love our neighbors. And last week, good thoughts – how our minds, and hearts can be shaped for the good by going deeper in our faith and in our lives. And today, we’re focusing on good words.
What good words do we have to offer? How do we engage in good dialogue, good conversation, with others (especially when talking about difficult subjects)? How might our words help bring more healing, peace, awareness, and other good and needed things into the world around us? And how do we heed the call from Ephesians that we heard a little while ago to “speak the truth in love?”
We’ve all heard the old adage, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We also know that it’s a bunch of baloney. Of course, words can hurt. Words can do great damage. Words can be weapons that inflict spiritual and psychological violence upon people.
There are the obvious examples of this: hate speech, derogatory words, name-calling, berating, belittling, or demonizing another person. But there are more subtle versions of this too: the brush-off, the dismissal of another person’s feelings, the flippant comeback, those words expressed in a moment of anger that we later regret. Most of us, at one time or another, have said something we later regretted, something we wished we could take back but… the toothpaste was already out of the tube (as I told the kids).
And, of course, words get misused not only in our personal relationships, but also in the public sphere. The hostility that can pervade politics and social media platforms is simply outrageous sometimes.
And when it comes to social media, it certainly seems that both the distance from others that virtual platforms provide, and the seeming lack of consequences, enable this and makes it worse. Sometimes people post what they would never say to someone face-to-face. That’s one of the reasons that cyber-bullying is such an issue among adolescents today. And we know that those words can do great harm to young people.
So, how can we do better? How can we communicate better with one another?
Some of you know that my husband, Dave, teaches a class on technology and ethics at Cal State Long Beach. And I asked him the other day for his thoughts on free speech. I asked him because, in our society, we value freedom of expression and free speech. But sometimes free speech gets lifted up as an ideal by people who seem to be fighting primarily for the right to say hateful things (the Ku Klux Klan, for example). What do we do about that? What can we do about that? How can we simultaneously value free speech and recognize that not all speech is appropriate?
It’s complicated to figure out how to deal with this on a legal, public, and societal level. But what Dave said got me thinking primarily about how we as individuals can ethically and mindfully express ourselves – how our free speech can also be good speech. He said that he thinks we ought to always hold up three things when considering freedom of speech – rights, responsibility, and respect. These three things ought to always be in relationship and dialogue with each other. We have a right to say what is on our mind. But we also have a responsibility to speak the truth to the best of our ability and to exercise care in the way we use our words. And everything we say should be grounded in respect for all people.
Rights, responsibility, and respect. Good, right? He’s insightful, my husband! And wouldn’t it help improve the way we collectively communicate if everyone thought through these three things each time before we spoke, or wrote, or posted on social media?
Humanity has always struggled with this. And we won’t ever be perfect. We’re going to make some mistakes and misspeak from time to time. But we can strive to do the best we can.
“Speak the truth in love,” said the writer of Ephesians.
Truth is one of those words we need to unpack a little, isn’t it? Sometimes factual evidence leads us to an understanding of the truth. But there are also other truths we lift up. The truth of our convictions. The truth of our experience. The truth of our faith. Our own Bond of Union here at Bay Shore Church states that “we cherish for each person the fullest liberty in the interpretation of truth, and we gladly grant others the freedom we claim for ourselves.” That says something about how we understand and share our truths here at church.
“Speak the truth in love.” This passage from Ephesians holds together a concern for both truth and love – what we say and how we say it are both important.
And so, the writer of Ephesians continues: “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. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
As I said, humanity has always struggled with this. Clearly, the church in Ephesus needed to hear these words too, just as we do. Let your speech build one another up. May your words give grace to others. Be kind. Forgive. Our words to one another ought to be good words; words that serve and lift up each other, the Body of Christ, and the world.
This can, actually, be pretty easy to practice much of the time in our various relationships and communities. It’s good to be nice to each other. It feels good to be nice. It’s good to be kind. And it sure feels good when others are kind to us. Our words of greeting, and care, and compassion, and encouragement, and hope, and love are all good words we share with each other.
But it can be more challenging when we have to say something hard or when we have to address a tough situation, a problem, a dilemma, a conflict, a big issue. We are still called to speak the truth in love, but sometimes the truth (or our perception of it) is challenging. Sometimes we don’t want to hear the truth (or another person’s truth). Sometimes saying what we need to say or hearing what we need to hear can be awkward, uncomfortable, or difficult.
And yet, we still need to have the conversation. And we want to do that well.
That’s where love comes in. We have to figure out ways to have hard conversations that are grounded in love. We have to figure out how to share our truth honestly and lovingly. We have to practice listening to another’s honest truth with love also.
And perhaps, in doing so, our harder words, our tougher truths, our more challenging conversations can become good for both us and for the world. Our good conversations, even the tougher ones, can ultimately lead to healing, and can help make peace, and can help build bridges and build up the beloved community of God’s people.
Whether it is in our families, communities, or the broader world, I don’t think heated arguments and yelling often gets us to where we really want to be. Instead, even though it may be harder and take longer, dialogue grounded in love and respect can bring us to a better place.
There is another side to this subject of good words that is worthy of our attention and reflection. And that is the temptation to try to smooth out and tame another’s rough and tough speech to make it more palatable. And I can think of at least a couple of different ways this temptation expresses itself in our public discourse.
On one hand, we can make excuses for another person’s bad speech. “They said that. But they didn’t really mean it.” How many times have we heard that or said that?
But to dismiss the harm caused by another person’s words can actually cause more damage. So, instead, how can we recognize the harm, own up to the harm, and find our way to deeper and better discourse.
A totally different way this temptation manifests itself is in the temptation to tame the prophets. In this case, the rough and tough speech we encounter might actually be what we need to hear. Isn’t it the case sometimes that the truth we need to hear is sometimes expressed in anguish, in lament, and even in rage?
When speaking of the biblical prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “the prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels a blast from heaven.” In other words, a prophet’s truth-telling is meant to wake us up from our complacent slumber, to alert us, to call our attention to what needs our attention in the world around us – the injustices that need to be addressed, the wrongs that need to be made right.
Rabbi Heschel was himself a prophet. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. He marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He saw the realities of the war abroad and the racism at home as issues of “moral urgency” and proclaimed that “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
And as the sole Holocaust survivor in his own family, Rabbi Heschel knew firsthand the dangers of staying silent. How was it that the Nazi regime was able to gain such power and get as far as they did in attempting to destroy an entire population?
When people would later ask him, “where was God in the holocaust?” He turned the question on its head and asked “perhaps God was wondering, where were you?” Where were all of us? Why did so many good people stay silent in the face of such evil?
I think that question fueled his own fiery passion for justice. He wasn’t going to stay silent.
Speaking the truth in love is more than just being nice. Being nice is good. But sometimes the truth, spoken in love, isn’t exactly nice, isn’t pretty, isn’t easy to hear. Sometimes the prophets in our midst offer their words with a bit of harshness, a bit of an edge. But those words are still offered in love – a fierce and faithful love that is grounded in the fierce and faithful love of God. Perhaps we are all called to offer such words prophetic words at times.
Our words do matter.
And so, in all conversations, whether it be in our personal relationships, our families, our communities, and as we collectively wrestle with the big cultural and societal challenges of our day, may we speak our truth in love and may we strive towards good words – sincere, wise, compassionate, encouraging, and even challenging – words.
And may our speech always be grounded in the fierce and faithful love of God who spoke words of creation over the face of the deep, who called us into life and faith, who encouraged and challenged us through the words of the prophets, apostles, and Jesus Christ. And may we continue to listen for new words of love from our God who is still speaking. Amen.