“Speaking Truth with Love”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
3 February, 2019
Epiphany 4C
Jeremiah 1:4-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Jeremiah.  Most of us, when we realize the challenging task God is calling us to undertake, don’t leap up with confident enthusiasm saying, “Yes! I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this!”  Because usually, God’s expectations for us involve stretching and growing, some sort of transformation that requires us to trust God more than our own ego.  Usually, when we’re listening to what God is saying to us, we realize that we need to abandon our preferred, safe, comfortable way of doing things—where we feel strong and in control—and instead lean in to a trust-fall where we discover the strength in being vulnerable as God works with and through us.

When the young man heard the LORD saying, “Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born, I chose you to speak for me to the nations,” his first instinct was to shrink from it.  He replied, “I’m not a good speaker, LORD, and I’m too young.”[1]

Jeremiah knew that people are petty and dismissive. He knew that most folks don’t really listen, except for what they want to hear; they tune out quickly, preoccupied with their own agendas.  And sometimes, when what they hear doesn’t align with they wantto hear, they can become defensive and mean, attempting to destroy not just the message, but also the messenger—his credibility, his character, his effectiveness.

But God—who created Jeremiah, and who knows all his abilities and his possibilities better than the creature himself does—responds, “Don’t say you’re too young. … I promise to be with you and keep you safe, so don’t be afraid.  … I am giving you the words to say, and I am sending you with authority to speak to the nations for me.  You will tell them of doom and destruction, and of rising and rebuilding again.’”[2]

Well, who wants to hear that there’s a reckoning coming to them, even if there’s a promise of resurrection to follow? Probably not the people who most need to hear it.  You can see why the young prophet would want to beg off.  And he wasn’t wrong: people did despise and persecute Jeremiah for the words of challenge and hope he brought.  But God never abandoned him, and he accomplished far more lasting good with his life than he would have had he remained safe and silent.

Jesus had a similar experience.  Although we didn’t read it aloud this morning, today’s lectionary Gospel text tells the story of what happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth one time.  Luke Chapter 4 describes how Jesus went to the synagogue during his visit, and got up to read from the scroll where the prophet Isaiah says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]  At first, his audience murmured about him with admiration and amazement—so proud that he was a home-grown boy.

But then he continued to speak.  Jesus said things that made them confront their insularity, their hypocrisy, their lack of faithfulness to God in their unwillingness to draw the circle wider, to include more of God’s beloved children, to accept “outsiders” as equally precious in God’s sight and therefore worthy of their own compassion and concern.  And they did not like what he was saying.  In fact, the people in the synagogue became so incensed that Luke tells us, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”[4]

It goes to show how quickly public mood can shift when the message shifts—especially when the audience recognizes an uncomfortable truth about themselves.  Especially when they’re not open to changing or being changed, not even by the love of God that calls us constantly to widen our welcome.  It’s a theme that recurs throughout the Bible, and continues right up to today.

Both Jesus and Jeremiah stood out against the backdrop of their respective communities, because they had the courage to speak an uncomfortable truth with love.  They spoke with a commitment to God’s truth, which is not always what we want to hear and is inclined to dismantle old ways of being.  But it always seeks a greater wholeness and more abundant life in the end.

Too often, we’ve grown so accustomed to the cultural soup we swim in that we just don’t notice how it’s impacting our spiritual health. These days, we are so steeped in rhetoric that carves us up into adversarial tribes of “us” and “them”—so saturated by suspicious and reactionary language, memes, and activities that discourage thoughtful reflection and mutual dialogue—that if we’re not careful, we’ll discover we’ve adopted these behaviors ourselves.  And this compromises our commitment to Christian virtue.

If we were to step back and examine our personal speech patterns, what would we see ourselves saying, in public and private places, out loud, or on social media, in our minds, and with our actions, or inaction?

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul wrote two thousand years ago.  It’s as apt today as it was then.  The passage is often read at weddings, but Paul was writing to an entire community of people—he wasn’t referring only to the ways we should relate to our spouse. In Christ, we learn that God calls us to love any and every neighbor as surely as we love God, and just as we love ourselves. In what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment, love is the fundamental requirement.

Jesus taught by living example what love looks like in action; he doesn’t seem to have spelled it out for his disciples as literally as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13.  Paul’s letter puts into words how love-in-action behaves.  “Love is patient,“ the apostle explains.  “Love is kind.  It isn’t envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love isn’t irritable or resentful.  It doesn’t get all gleeful when someone does something wrong, but it does rejoice in the truth, when things are made right.”

In other words, love is hard work—it takes discipline, attentiveness, and practice that spans a lifetime.  And as I acknowledge in every wedding sermon (where a lifetime commitment to the work of love is always the theme), I think one of the most important acts—perhaps themost important act—of love is listening. True listening that doesn’t just hear words, but actually seeks genuine understanding of the other.  There will be moments when love comes easily to us, and others when Paul’s declaration that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things” will prove that while God’s perfect love accomplishes all this, human love often falls short.

Two and a half years ago, in June of 2017, after a rash of incidents at different sporting events that culminated in some really hateful episodes at a Red Sox game, leaders from the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox, and Revolution all partnered on an initiative with political and community leaders that aimed to change the discourse and foster greater diversity and a more genuine spirit of inclusivity.  Among other actions, they developed a Public Service Announcement that you may have seen: Star players from the hockey, basketball, football, baseball, and soccer teams in turn acknowledge that championships have been won by our New England teams.  But, they say, “It didn’t happen by accident.  It took a team.  A town.  And a lotta noise.  Doing it the right way.  United. With decency and fairness.”

“Now,” they continue, “we’ve got another challenge.  To step up when a line gets crossed, and the words we hear cause pain, anger and divisiveness.  It starts right here.  In our town, and in our house.  If you hear something wrong, offensive, or hateful, speak up.  Say something.  Stand for our teams.  But don’t stand for racism. We can change the game. In a way that’s more positive.  More inclusive.  More empowering.  And just as loud.  SO,” they conclude, “I’m taking the lead.  I’m taking the lead. . . and you can, too, in the fight against discrimination, inequality, and racism.  Because if we all take the lead together, hate falls behind.”

It’s a powerful ad.  Given that sports teams are effectively the object of many peoples’ worship and devotion more surely than God is (how many people spend more time following the game than they do praying or nurturing their relationship with God, for example?  And how many devote more money to their favorite team than they spend supporting their church or other forms of mission and ministry in the world?), this PSA is a demonstration of God’s creative ability to speak through anyone and everyone, whether they’re aware that they’re speaking divine truth or not.  It’s a message of faith, hope, and love.

The call to speak up when we hear words that cause pain, anger, or divisiveness is a call to holy courage.  Including when the words are coming from people we consider members of “our own team.”  As J.K. Rowling wrote (in the discerning voice of Albus Dumbledore), “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”[5]  Too often, things don’t change because good people remain silent in the face of diminishing behaviors.  It’s possible to speak God’s truth with love, while firmly rejecting fear-based, hateful, exclusive rhetoric and behaviors, especially when we trust that God is with us and will give us the words we need in that moment of challenge.

The call to change the game, to draw the circle wider, in a way that’s more positive, more inclusive, more empowering—this is a summons to engage the power of divine love and put it into action. It takes patience, kindness, and humility.  It requires setting aside irritability and resentment, it means practicing forgiveness when others mess up (the same forgiveness we hope to receive when we mess up), and rejoicing in each and every success—honoring every individual’s contribution.  In the apostle Paul’s words, it requires putting an end to childish ways[6]and coming to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.[7]

It can be daunting for many of us, just as it was for Jeremiah.  God didn’t promise that it was going to be easy or carefree.  But we have thispromise, just as Jeremiah did, and Isaiah, so many others, and Jesus himself: our God, who is pure Love, is with us—ahead of us and behind us, having known us and assigning to us our purpose before we were knit together in our mother’s womb.  And that Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer will not abandon us.  Furthermore, we know there is no greater reward than the satisfaction and peace, the eternal salvation derived from living a life devoted to truth, grounded in love’s listening and love’s speaking out.  “For now faith, hope and love abide: these three. And the greatest of these is love.”  Amen.

[1]Jeremiah 1:4-6, CEV.

[2]Jeremiah 1:7-10, CEV

[3]Luke 4:18-20, quoting Isaiah 61:1-3, NRSV

[4]Luke 4:29-30

[5]Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 6.

[6]1 Corinthians 13:11

[7]Ephesians 4:13

 

“Speaking Truth with Love”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
3 February, 2019
Epiphany 4C
Jeremiah 1:4-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Jeremiah.  Most of us, when we realize the challenging task God is calling us to undertake, don’t leap up with confident enthusiasm saying, “Yes! I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this!”  Because usually, God’s expectations for us involve stretching and growing, some sort of transformation that requires us to trust God more than our own ego.  Usually, when we’re listening to what God is saying to us, we realize that we need to abandon our preferred, safe, comfortable way of doing things—where we feel strong and in control—and instead lean in to a trust-fall where we discover the strength in being vulnerable as God works with and through us.

When the young man heard the LORD saying, “Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born, I chose you to speak for me to the nations,” his first instinct was to shrink from it.  He replied, “I’m not a good speaker, LORD, and I’m too young.”[1]

Jeremiah knew that people are petty and dismissive. He knew that most folks don’t really listen, except for what they want to hear; they tune out quickly, preoccupied with their own agendas.  And sometimes, when what they hear doesn’t align with they wantto hear, they can become defensive and mean, attempting to destroy not just the message, but also the messenger—his credibility, his character, his effectiveness.

But God—who created Jeremiah, and who knows all his abilities and his possibilities better than the creature himself does—responds, “Don’t say you’re too young. … I promise to be with you and keep you safe, so don’t be afraid.  … I am giving you the words to say, and I am sending you with authority to speak to the nations for me.  You will tell them of doom and destruction, and of rising and rebuilding again.’”[2]

Well, who wants to hear that there’s a reckoning coming to them, even if there’s a promise of resurrection to follow? Probably not the people who most need to hear it.  You can see why the young prophet would want to beg off.  And he wasn’t wrong: people did despise and persecute Jeremiah for the words of challenge and hope he brought.  But God never abandoned him, and he accomplished far more lasting good with his life than he would have had he remained safe and silent.

Jesus had a similar experience.  Although we didn’t read it aloud this morning, today’s lectionary Gospel text tells the story of what happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth one time.  Luke Chapter 4 describes how Jesus went to the synagogue during his visit, and got up to read from the scroll where the prophet Isaiah says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[3]  At first, his audience murmured about him with admiration and amazement—so proud that he was a home-grown boy.

But then he continued to speak.  Jesus said things that made them confront their insularity, their hypocrisy, their lack of faithfulness to God in their unwillingness to draw the circle wider, to include more of God’s beloved children, to accept “outsiders” as equally precious in God’s sight and therefore worthy of their own compassion and concern.  And they did not like what he was saying.  In fact, the people in the synagogue became so incensed that Luke tells us, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”[4]

It goes to show how quickly public mood can shift when the message shifts—especially when the audience recognizes an uncomfortable truth about themselves.  Especially when they’re not open to changing or being changed, not even by the love of God that calls us constantly to widen our welcome.  It’s a theme that recurs throughout the Bible, and continues right up to today.

Both Jesus and Jeremiah stood out against the backdrop of their respective communities, because they had the courage to speak an uncomfortable truth with love.  They spoke with a commitment to God’s truth, which is not always what we want to hear and is inclined to dismantle old ways of being.  But it always seeks a greater wholeness and more abundant life in the end.

Too often, we’ve grown so accustomed to the cultural soup we swim in that we just don’t notice how it’s impacting our spiritual health. These days, we are so steeped in rhetoric that carves us up into adversarial tribes of “us” and “them”—so saturated by suspicious and reactionary language, memes, and activities that discourage thoughtful reflection and mutual dialogue—that if we’re not careful, we’ll discover we’ve adopted these behaviors ourselves.  And this compromises our commitment to Christian virtue.

If we were to step back and examine our personal speech patterns, what would we see ourselves saying, in public and private places, out loud, or on social media, in our minds, and with our actions, or inaction?

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul wrote two thousand years ago.  It’s as apt today as it was then.  The passage is often read at weddings, but Paul was writing to an entire community of people—he wasn’t referring only to the ways we should relate to our spouse. In Christ, we learn that God calls us to love any and every neighbor as surely as we love God, and just as we love ourselves. In what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment, love is the fundamental requirement.

Jesus taught by living example what love looks like in action; he doesn’t seem to have spelled it out for his disciples as literally as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13.  Paul’s letter puts into words how love-in-action behaves.  “Love is patient,“ the apostle explains.  “Love is kind.  It isn’t envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love isn’t irritable or resentful.  It doesn’t get all gleeful when someone does something wrong, but it does rejoice in the truth, when things are made right.”

In other words, love is hard work—it takes discipline, attentiveness, and practice that spans a lifetime.  And as I acknowledge in every wedding sermon (where a lifetime commitment to the work of love is always the theme), I think one of the most important acts—perhaps themost important act—of love is listening. True listening that doesn’t just hear words, but actually seeks genuine understanding of the other.  There will be moments when love comes easily to us, and others when Paul’s declaration that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things” will prove that while God’s perfect love accomplishes all this, human love often falls short.

Two and a half years ago, in June of 2017, after a rash of incidents at different sporting events that culminated in some really hateful episodes at a Red Sox game, leaders from the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox, and Revolution all partnered on an initiative with political and community leaders that aimed to change the discourse and foster greater diversity and a more genuine spirit of inclusivity.  Among other actions, they developed a Public Service Announcement that you may have seen: Star players from the hockey, basketball, football, baseball, and soccer teams in turn acknowledge that championships have been won by our New England teams.  But, they say, “It didn’t happen by accident.  It took a team.  A town.  And a lotta noise.  Doing it the right way.  United. With decency and fairness.”

“Now,” they continue, “we’ve got another challenge.  To step up when a line gets crossed, and the words we hear cause pain, anger and divisiveness.  It starts right here.  In our town, and in our house.  If you hear something wrong, offensive, or hateful, speak up.  Say something.  Stand for our teams.  But don’t stand for racism. We can change the game. In a way that’s more positive.  More inclusive.  More empowering.  And just as loud.  SO,” they conclude, “I’m taking the lead.  I’m taking the lead. . . and you can, too, in the fight against discrimination, inequality, and racism.  Because if we all take the lead together, hate falls behind.”

It’s a powerful ad.  Given that sports teams are effectively the object of many peoples’ worship and devotion more surely than God is (how many people spend more time following the game than they do praying or nurturing their relationship with God, for example?  And how many devote more money to their favorite team than they spend supporting their church or other forms of mission and ministry in the world?), this PSA is a demonstration of God’s creative ability to speak through anyone and everyone, whether they’re aware that they’re speaking divine truth or not.  It’s a message of faith, hope, and love.

The call to speak up when we hear words that cause pain, anger, or divisiveness is a call to holy courage.  Including when the words are coming from people we consider members of “our own team.”  As J.K. Rowling wrote (in the discerning voice of Albus Dumbledore), “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”[5]  Too often, things don’t change because good people remain silent in the face of diminishing behaviors.  It’s possible to speak God’s truth with love, while firmly rejecting fear-based, hateful, exclusive rhetoric and behaviors, especially when we trust that God is with us and will give us the words we need in that moment of challenge.

The call to change the game, to draw the circle wider, in a way that’s more positive, more inclusive, more empowering—this is a summons to engage the power of divine love and put it into action. It takes patience, kindness, and humility.  It requires setting aside irritability and resentment, it means practicing forgiveness when others mess up (the same forgiveness we hope to receive when we mess up), and rejoicing in each and every success—honoring every individual’s contribution.  In the apostle Paul’s words, it requires putting an end to childish ways[6]and coming to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.[7]

It can be daunting for many of us, just as it was for Jeremiah.  God didn’t promise that it was going to be easy or carefree.  But we have thispromise, just as Jeremiah did, and Isaiah, so many others, and Jesus himself: our God, who is pure Love, is with us—ahead of us and behind us, having known us and assigning to us our purpose before we were knit together in our mother’s womb.  And that Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer will not abandon us.  Furthermore, we know there is no greater reward than the satisfaction and peace, the eternal salvation derived from living a life devoted to truth, grounded in love’s listening and love’s speaking out.  “For now faith, hope and love abide: these three. And the greatest of these is love.”  Amen.

[1]Jeremiah 1:4-6, CEV.

[2]Jeremiah 1:7-10, CEV

[3]Luke 4:18-20, quoting Isaiah 61:1-3, NRSV

[4]Luke 4:29-30

[5]Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 6.

[6]1 Corinthians 13:11

[7]Ephesians 4:13

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC