A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho, September 16, 2012
Americans pride ourselves on free speech. We like to know that we can say whatever we want, whenever we want to say it. Even if it allows people who are universally seen as repugnant and reprehensible to also practice free speech, we have, in general, seen their offensiveness as a price we are willing to pay to uphold free speech.
So the people from Westboro Baptist are allowed to hold up their ugly signs at funerals. Even though I want NOT to allow it. I want to take away the ability for Mr Phelps to call himself a “pastor”. I want to pass laws that keep that hate group from calling what they do “church”.
But free speech wins.
And I am very thankful for that, most days. How could I freely proclaim the Gospel in this pulpit each week, if I were worried that the government might imprison me? Free Speech is a privilege and a gift.
One thing I have considered this week, as the Middle East has exploded because some crackpot in the US made a movie that insults Islam, is that free speech is not a universally understood philosophy. I mean, I understood that it wasn’t protected or allowed in many countries around the world. But it hadn’t really occurred to me that it wasn’t necessarily ADMIRED in those places where it wasn’t allowed.
I am not terribly proud to publicly acknowledge how insular and American my free speech understanding was before this week. But there it is.
We look at the news and think, “why would you protest at an Embassy because some lone, radical person makes a movie that nobody is going to watch?” It seems beyond absurd to us, because we are used to crackpots, politicians, and our favorite uncles at Thanksgiving dinner, saying things we don’t like.
But if Free Speech isn’t a belief of yours, then the government can be held responsible for the news that is reported, for the movies that are made, and for anything that a private citizen is allowed to say, no matter how much those thoughts may be in the minority.
But even as we join together to speak against violence as an answer to anything, even as we mourn the deaths of innocent people who died in this recent violence because protesters had no moral restraint, and even as we acknowledge and come to understand that much of the world doesn’t see the freedom of speech as we do, these passages we read this morning have me wondering about the value of what we say.
Sure, we CAN say what we want to say, but SHOULD we?
Did that movie, that has been the excuse for so much violence, need to be filmed? Is there value in a film so full of lies, hatred, and intention to divide us?
The author of James would say “NO”.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire,” he writes.
“From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”
James wants us to understand that it doesn’t matter how many great things you say, all of them are erased when you then utter hateful speech. “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.”
In the South, they have this charming tradition of trying to erase their insults by adding the phrase, “bless her heart.” The Urban Dictionary calls it a “phrase used by Southern women to excuse themselves for speaking ill of someone else.” And then they offer this illustration:
“She’s as ugly as a mud-fence, bless her heart.”
Here’s another one.
“He’s so bucktoothed, he could eat an apple through a picket fence. Bless his heart.”
Southerners aren’t the only ones guilty of such double speak, of course. Anytime you hear someone begin a sentence with, “I don’t mean to be criticial, but ….”, you know they mean exactly that. James would clearly challenge us when we speak out of both sides of our mouths like that.
Free Speech may be a particular American blessing, but it is not necessarily a Biblical value. James is not the only writer to caution us on our speech.
Ephesians 4:29 reads, “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.”
In our passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus is also concerned with what we say, although not in the same way as James. “Who do you say that I am?”, he asks the disciples.
Peter, in one of his finer moments, gives the right answer. “You are the Messiah.”
And then Jesus tells them not to speak about it. “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Jesus is not interested in free speech about his being a Messiah.
What Jesus does want to talk about, though, is about how “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” Free Speech about suffering and rejection? Sure thing.
I often wonder why sometimes Jesus wants to keep some things a secret and then turns around and says other things quite openly.
Peter seems to also wonder about this.
And Peter tries to be a good disciple…Say it with me now…bless his heart.
“Jesus, I just proclaimed you Messiah! I gave the right answer! This is the good news! And you told me to be quiet. You are going to save us from these nasty Romans! You are the hero for whom we’ve been waiting! Why do you want to talk about suffering? Quiet down about the rejection and pain already. Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Jesus rebukes Peter. “Get behind me Satan.”
Were Jesus a good southern boy, he would have rebuked him with:
“Get behind me Satan, bless your heart.”
So, while Jesus does care about what is said, and what is kept quiet, he gives us a different way to understand James. Because Jesus is not afraid to say things that James would not like, bless his heart. Jesus seems to want his followers to let go of their notions of easy fixes, of super hero messiahs, and wants them, bless their hearts, to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about what a life of discipleship is like.
And we recognize that tension. Sure, we want to do as James says, and use our words to speak words of love and praise.
But there are times when those are not the right words. There are times when we need to speak difficult words. When we have to tell people we love, like Peter, they are using their speech to share the wrong message about the meaning of Jesus’ Messiah-ship. There are times when we need to stand up to people whose words wound others.
James’ writing frustrates me because it seems to presuppose that if we are just nice and kind in our words, then everything will be rainbows and puppies. And I’m sure it is true that kindness can start with us, should start with us. That people should look at us, and know from the words we say that we follow Jesus and that it is a good thing. And perhaps, if we all changed the focus on our speech, that the world would become kinder, and more gentle, and more sparkly.
But I am choosing to also believe that there is room in James’ letter for us to freely speak truth to injustices and to people who use their words to promote hatred, bigotry, and pain. I don’t recommend “get behind me Satan” as our chosen words when we offer reproof. There are some things that Jesus can get away with more easily than we can.
But I invite you to spend some time with these texts this week, resting in the tension between them, thinking of them as this story plays out in the Middle East. I invite you to consider these texts as the election gets closer too. I do want to cross stitch these verses from James and put them on a pillow and send them to just about every politician and pundit and talking head on the cable news.
I can’t do that.
But I can start with myself. As James writes, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Maybe that is the Freedom of Speech we can all support.
And I’d like to close with the final of our scripture readings for the day, which offers us a view of cosmic Free Speech. From Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
May the words of our mouths,
and the meditations of our hearts,
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
our rock and our redeemer.
May it be so.