Sweet Talk

Can hard words be made softer with love?

Epiphany 4c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All in the synagogue spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

Our second reading this morning is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. One might say, as Katharine Hepburn famously said of calla lilies, that it is suitable for any occasion. In addition to its use in regular Sunday worship, it is also read at weddings and funerals alike. Given the many people only attend church at weddings and funerals, this may be one of the few texts of Scripture that such unchurched people hear, the only portion of Scripture they are likely to know when at all. Who can forget Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reading of this very passage at Princess Diana’s funeral. That was seen by millions on television around the world, some of whom never darkened the doors of a church after their baptism, or will again until they are carried in and out by the staff of a funeral home.

But to return to our text, it is indeed a particularly beautiful passage, and in addition to its beauty it carries an extremely important message, similar to that from last week’s reading about how an apostle speaks — whether in preaching, teaching, or prophecy — must be imbued with love. Otherwise, a message delivered without love will be like the disruptive clamor of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. In short, the teacher or preacher is advised to sweet-talk: to speak with gentleness and patience and grace — and above all, love.

The problem, of course, is that the message a preacher is sometimes called to deliver is not in itself very sweet. There are times when difficult things have to be said. Adding a spoonful of sugar to a batch of nasty medicine is not always easy. This is a perilous balancing act — even for one who is the soul of diplomacy and tact.

You may of heard the old story of the three old Cajun fellows who were out one night in the bayou, driving their backwoods Lincoln Continental — a pickup truck — after they’d all had rather a bit too much to drink. Although it’s hard to tell sometimes how much is too much to drink, when you’re dealing with an old Cajun fellow. At one point the truck swerved but the tree didn’t and the driver, one Boudreaux by name, went to meet his maker rather sooner than he thought he might. The other two were shaken up but drunk enough to stagger away from the wreck. René said to Pierre, “This is terrible. Who’s going to tell Mrs. Boudreaux?” Whereupon Pierre volunteered, “I will handle this. I am the soul of diplomacy and tact.” And so the pair staggered off to Boudreaux’s house.

Pierre stepped up and knocked on the door and Mrs. Boudreaux answered. Said Pierre, “Are you the widow Boudreaux?” The startled woman replied, “Why I am Mrs. Boudreaux, but I’m not a widow.” To which Pierre, summoning all of his diplomacy and tact, said, “The hell you ain’t!”

Surely preachers are called upon to deliver their messages in a truly more tactful and loving way. But sometimes, sometimes the word the preacher is called to preach, the word placed in his mouth by God himself — as we saw God do in the case of young Jeremiah — sometimes that word will be a word of plucking up or pulling down, a word of destruction and overthrow, as well as building up and planting. As you likely know Jeremiah did have some hard things to say to the people to whom God sent him, and for his thanks got thrown down a well and later put into prison.

And let’s face it, even our Lord Jesus Christ himself did not fare much better when he went to his hometown of Nazareth and began to preach in their synagogue. And if you’ve ever wondered why more isn’t said about Nazareth in the Gospels — this is why. He received no welcome and once he left he left it for good. Oh, it all started off fine, as the people observed how nicely he spoke and how gracious were his words — but then of course a few of them began to say, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?” — as if to say, “Where did this carpenter’s boy get to talk so fancy?” Jesus of course saw through this at once and challenged that congregation with a reminder of the fact that the greatest miracles and the most powerful prophecies are not worked or spoken in the hometown setting — in large part because of the doubt those in the hometown hold about the one who would work miracles — if the people would only believe and trust instead of doubting. So Jesus reminds them of figures from Jewish history — foreigners for whom miracles were worked by the greatest of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. He’s only telling them the truth, mind — it’s all in the Scriptures, it’s just the history — and he’s still doing it graciously, not calling anybody names — and yet they are thrown into a rage of anger and set to throw him, not just down a well, but off the cliff at the edge of town. As I said, if you wonder why he never went back to Nazareth...

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So how does one sweet talk when the things one needs to say may be received as bitter? How does a preacher preach the truth if people would rather hear sweet lies and comforting words that do them no good? How do you sweeten bitter medicine that might save a sick soul’s life?

I answer that it is in the “doing good,” it is in the “saving” that provide the clue. For it all depends on what you think love is. There is, as novelist Iris Murdoch noted, a vast difference between being “nice” being “good.” Loving words are loving because you love the one to whom you speak — not because the message itself is sweet and nice and pleasant. The medicine you need to survive an illness might taste awful, but it will do you more good than the sweet-tasting stuff that does nothing for you. Love may have to say some difficult things sometimes, but can do so with patience and kindness; without envy or boasting or arrogance or rudeness. Love does not insist on its own way, nor is it irritable or resentful — but nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing, for it rejoices in the truth. And so it is that sometimes love must speak a hard truth but in a loving way in order to reach the one who needs to hear that word — for the good of his or her soul — perhaps a word of challenge or of reformation, or of repentance. And if that word is spoken in and out of love and concern for the salvation and well-being of the one to whom it is spoken, and if it is received with that same spirit, then truly even a hard word can be spoken with love and heard and received with love.

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Once in the early 19th century, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright was told that President Andrew Jackson was going to attend worship at his church that morning, and he was advised not to be provocative — contrary to his reputation. This was an era of hellfire and brimstone preaching, and Cartwright was known to be able to make the sparks fly.

When the sermon time came, Cartwright mounted the pulpit and began, “I have been told that President Jackson is here this morning; and I have been asked to be subdued in my remarks. But I would not be true to my God and to the commission placed upon me, were I to guard my words with anything other than the truth itself. And the truth is that President Jackson — much as any sinner in this place — will go to hell if he does not repent.”

You likely could have heard a pin drop at that point as all eyes in the congregation turned to look at Jackson, sitting stony faced in his pew. But after the worship Jackson, as he left the church warmly took Cartwright’s hand, shook it fervently and said to him, “Sir, with a regiment of men like you I could whip this world into shape.”

Sometimes a hard word has to be spoken; sometimes a hard word has to be heard. But speaking the truth in love does not mean speaking lies with love — in fact, if you’re lying you cannot be loving. But hard things can be said if they come out of love for the one to whom you speak, and it they are said in love for the one to whom you speak, and if the hearer knows as well that love is where those words come from, and receives those words with love. And if their ears are tuned to the notes of love they will hear your words with the intent and purpose to build up rather than to destroy.

May all our words of truth be spoken in love and heard with love, that good may come of them, and God’s name be glorified, to who, as is most justly due, be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.