Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 21, September 27, 2015
“Let the words of my mouth . . . be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” Amen.
On the evening of January 7, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords wrote an email to an old friend. Giffords, a Democrat in Arizona, was writing to Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State, Trey Grayson. Earlier that day, it had been announced that Grayson would be resigning to become the Director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Giffords congratulated her friend on this wonderful news and hoped that, after he got settled there, she could talk with him about working together because “we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”
The very next morning, at a constituent meeting in the parking lot of a supermarket in suburban Tucson, Giffords was shot through the head at point-blank range. Eighteen others were also shot by the same gunman, and six of them died, including a 9 year-old-girl. Giffords survived with some permanent physical limitations but eventually resigned her seat in Congress to focus on her long-term recovery.
Many of you will probably recall that the commentary swirling around the media like a hurricane soon made a direct connection between those killings and militant political rhetoric. On the one hand, it was unfair to connect those dots too quickly in the absence of facts about this horrifying example of gun violence. But I do think it’s appropriate, even necessary, for Christians to reflect on the ways that our speech can and does have an effect on the people around us. I think about that daily as someone who tries, however imperfectly, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
In the 15th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus gathers a crowd and says to them,
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
It’s not hard to see, therefore, that Christians have a particular obligation to use words carefully, regardless of how others might choose to use them recklessly.
“How do we use language? In many ways,” notes preaching professor Tom Long:
. . . to tell jokes, to cry out in loneliness, to calculate the speed of light, to gossip about a neighbor, to speak of love, to sing joyfully, to curse our back luck, to call somebody else a hurtful name, to cheat people out of what is rightfully theirs, to establish justice, to comfort someone in distress, to declare war, and to proclaim peace. We have an almost infinite capacity to use words for good or ill, but Christians believe that we are truly human only when we use words like Jesus used them: to bless and not to curse, to build up and not to tear down, to point to the mystery of God pervading all of life and not to refer only, always, and incessantly to ourselves. What we want is to do nothing less than the psalmist’s plea, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Christian ethicist and native-Texan Stanley Hauerwas loves language, including more than a little salty language. I’m excited about the fact that he’ll be one of the main speakers next month at the clergy conference for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. And this is what he has to say about our use of words as people of faith:
Christians are . . . committed to plain speech. We seek to say no more or no less than what needs to be said. Speech so disciplined is not easily attained. Too often we want to use the gift of speech as a weapon, often a very subtle weapon, to establish our superiority. To learn to speak truthfully to one another requires that we learn to speak truthfully to God, that is, we must learn to pray. That is why the Psalms are the great prayer book of the church because they teach us to pray without pretension. The Psalms allow us to rage against God and in our rage discover God’s refusal to abandon us.
The Psalms, moreover, train us to speak truthfully because they force us to acknowledge our sins or at least to have our sins revealed. Jesus is God’s psalm . . .
Throughout this week, the image of Jesus as God’s psalm, revealing our sins and allowing us — through the scandalous forgiveness of the cross — to speak truthfully, has remained with me as a welcome companion in this broken world. Thus the quote from the final verse of Psalm 19 at the beginning of this sermon, words that were also appointed to be read this morning in worship:
Let the words of my mouth . . . be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
That seems like the right introduction to speak from the pulpit and, quite frankly, to speak from anywhere else. It’s not just a prayer for members of the clergy to use for ceremonial purposes to adorn things like a flower arrangement. It’s a beautiful and necessary prayer for all of us — no matter who we are, no matter where we are.
Several years ago there was a public conversation with Stanley Hauerwas on “Being a Christian in Today’s World” that was sponsored by the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. The conversation was led by the Rev. David Crabtree, a local news anchor in Raleigh, North Carolina, who’s also a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Here’s how he wrote about what happened after they had talked about everything that he’d expected to talk about on that particular evening:
Then the hammer fell. As I sat, spellbound and favored to be directing the queries for the evening, this astute servant of God looked me squarely in the eyes. His countenance was pleasant but stern. His voice soft yet solid. His message direct and piercing: “David, if you really want to live as a Christian in today’s world . . . never lie . . . never lie.”
After that, I don’t remember what was spoken by either of us in the closing comments of the conversation. Those two words kept reverberating. Why? We’re taught that lesson as early as we can begin to process right from wrong. But my ears heard it differently this time. “Never lie.” Those two words touched me deeply in a way I never expected.
Stanley Hauerwas has become a dear and trusted friend. We have talked numerous times since then of the challenge of those two words. “You know David, sometimes to avoid lying, you just have to be quiet,” he says. “It’s amazing what you can hear in the quietness.”
I don’t know about you, but I look forward to the moments of silence that follow the sermon and the invitation to confession in the liturgy here at Palmer. They are moments of hesitation before we feebly attempt to speak the truth about God and about ourselves. They are also moments of holiness, pregnant with the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is evident in those moments of truth that God’s love, which is stronger than death, can set us free to come to this Table at peace, reconciled with our sisters and brothers in Christ, forgiven by God and forgiving of others.
So today embrace the words of Psalm 19 as your words too. Regardless of what the politicians and the pundits and the people around you are screaming at full volume, let the words of your mouth — uttered carefully, thoughtfully, and truthfully — be acceptable in the sight of the Lord, your strength and your redeemer.
1 BACK TO POST Eric Lach, “Giffords Sent Email on Eve of Shooting Calling for Toned Down Rhetoric,” Talking Points Memo, January 10, 2011.
3 BACK TO POST Matthew 15:10-11.
4 BACK TO POST Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004) 5.
5 BACK TO POST Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) 71.
6 BACK TO POST Psalm 19:14.
7 BACK TO POST David Crabtree, “Never Lie,” Perspectives 2010-2011 (Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina) 3.