THE WORD Matthew 5:21-26 (from The Message)
You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother of sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, to go to this friend and make things right. Then, and only then, come back and work things out with God.
Or, say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
“Be Impeccable with Your Word”
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” This is a verse from Psalm 19 that many preachers recite before they begin their sermons. It’s a prayer that I wish some politicians would recite before they open their mouths or issue tweets these days. Maybe it would cause them to stop and think about the impact their words are having on others, including God. To be fair, it’s not just politicians, but all of us, who need this reminder from time to time.
Words can be used to please God, ourselves and others, or to do harm. They can be a blessing or a curse. We’ve all used them for both purposes. We’ve all been the recipient of words that fill us with love, or fill us with fear.
40 years after the event, I still remember walking down a street in the west village of NYC one night, minding my own business, when a man walking toward me stopped and yelled at me, calling me a name I cannot repeat in public, let alone from this pulpit. It sent a shock wave through my body. I didn’t know this person from Adam. And even though I knew that his outburst had nothing to do with me personally, the memory has stayed with me all this time.
Our words begin with what resides in our hearts and minds. I can only imagine what resided in his. Those thoughts alone create energy that is released into the world. But it is our words, spoken or written, that have the greatest impact for good or evil, because those words get manifested into our actions and those of others.
We all want to feel safe. We all want to be accepted for who we are. We all want to be loved. When someone makes fun of you, belittles or ridicules you, makes you feel bad, inferior, in order to have power over you, or to justify their own point of view, demanding that they have a corner on the truth, then they have crossed the line. That is happening far too often in our public discourse these days.
“The simple moral fact is that words kill.” You might remember the trial and conviction of Dharun Ravi, a student at Rutgers University. Six years ago
it was the highest profile gay-bashing trial of the decade, and became a symbol of how our words can kill, even if unintentionally. His words and subsequent actions drove Tyler Clementi to jump off the George Washington bridge. If only they had been able to follow Jesus’ advice, Tyler would still be alive and Dharun would not have spent years in prison while his lawyers filed appeals.
Thirteen million students will be bullied this year in our country. Thirteen million! What does that say about our society and what we’re teaching our children? 160,000 kids will skip school each day because of bullying. This is nothing new. My sister reminded me how her class in our Catholic high school mercilessly made fun of one of their classmates. They had all kinds of excuses why he deserved the unfair treatment he received. Back then it was face to face bullying. Today it’s like a virus that spreads over social media. The one being bullied can’t escape those hurtful words. They follow him or her home. And it’s not just children and teens doing this. Adults are too, they call it trolling - a new word for me.
There’s a book I’ve drawn from more than once. It’s called “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz.” It’s a Toltec Wisdom Book. Thousands of years ago the Toltec were known throughout southern Mexico as women and men of knowledge. Toltec knowledge arises from the same essential unity of truth as all the sacred esoteric traditions found around the world, and in it I see parallels to Jesus’ teachings here. According to Ruiz, when we hear an opinion and believe it, we make an ‘agreement’ and it becomes a part of our belief system. He says,
“The belief system is like a Book of Law that rules our mind. Without question, whatever is in that Book of Law is our truth. We base all of our judgements according to the Book of Law, even if those judgements go against our innermost nature.”
This begins when we are little children, and our parents, or others in our lives, tell us things over and over again. We learn by repetition. We become culturally conditioned by the agreements we make. Many are handed down from generation to generation. And some of these agreements can literally put us in a living hell.
But there comes a time in most of our lives when we need to break some of these agreements we’ve made in order to be true to our innermost selves, to connect to God. In his book Ruiz talks about four agreements we need to make in order to create our own personal heaven within. The first of these relates to the message this morning: Be impeccable with your Word.
Impeccable comes from the Latin word “pecatus” which means “sin”. The “im” means “without,” so impeccability means “without sin”. Ruiz describes sin as “anything you feel or believe or say that goes against yourself.” Saying something negative to another person is also using the word against yourself, because the other person is going to react negatively toward you. How often have you experienced that? This is what Jesus is addressing in this lesson.Make things right with that person.
Ruiz describes our Word like a “two edged sword: one edge is the misuse of the Word, which can create a living hell.”
We misuse words when we use them to curse, blame, find guilt, destroy, instill fear, express anger, jealousy, ridicule, envy and hate - between different people, between families, between nations. “Mis-use of words is how we pull each other down and keep each other in a state of fear and doubt… Violent words create violent actions.”
Hitler is a prime example. By use of the Word, based on fear, he generated beliefs and agreements that manipulated a whole country of intelligent people to commit atrocious acts of violence. That’s an extreme example, but I see it happening in lesser ways in our politics today.
We are constantly making agreements that become part of our belief system. When people are encouraged to chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!” day after day, rally after rally, those crowds will begin to believe she really is a criminal. When they are told over and over again that Muslim terrorists are coming into the country and making us less safe, they will start to believe it and be filled with fear. When they are told that those undocumented workers are taking their jobs and threatening their way of life, they will believe we really need a wall to keep them out.
And creating even more chaos, our air waves and social media today are filled with false news, gossip, and now, “alternate truths”, being repeated over and over again. It happens on both sides of the aisle. What kinds of agreements are you making?
The other edge of the sword is the impeccability of the word. It begins with using the word to share our love, beginning with ourselves, so that we can then share it with others. “Use the word,” Ruiz instructs us, “to break all those teeny, tiny agreements that make us suffer - to take away fear and transform it into joy and love.”
One of Paul’s disciples instructs the Ephesians “Do not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful in building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
The early Christians obviously couldn’t control their tongues any better than we can, as a letter from James testifies. Once again I’m reading from “The Message;”
“It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A carelessly or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can to that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.”
Strong words, and ones we need to be reminded of today. Josephine caught me letting slip a, should we say, uncomplimentary name for one of our politicians. “You shouldn’t say that. You’re a minister.” She’s right, and I’m also human. But that’s no excuse.
Many of us have been struggling with how to be vigilant in following important decisions being made in this country without being pulled down in the mud, filling ourselves with anger and fear. It’s a challenge. We can’t control what’s coming out of others’ mouths but we can be impeccable with our own words. Would God find them pleasing?
Terry Hackford sent me an email recently, saying that a Muslim friend and her two children were harassed verbally last week on a Cambridge bus, and no one stepped forward. Terry wanted guidance on what do do if she found herself witnessing such an interaction.
I got to thinking, “What would Jesus tell us to do?” And I think it would be similar to what a Muslim artist named Maeril suggested in her blog that Terry send me.
Engage in conversation. Go to them, sit beside them and say hello. Try to appear calm, collected and welcoming. Ignore the attacker.
Pick a random subject and start discussing it.
Keep building the safe space. Keep eye contact with them and don’t acknowledge the attacker’s presence. The absence of response from you two will push them to leave the area shortly.
Continue the conversation until the attacker leaves and escort them to a safe place if necessary.
In other words, be impeccable with your word, using it to share love, create a safe environment, and overcome fear. I think that’s what Jesus would say.