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The Harshest Word

February 8, 2016

Notes for a sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 31, 2016.

You know the expression, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Do you have, like I do, entire days when you think the world would have been better off silent because it seems you hadn’t heard a kind or generous word from anyone anywhere?

With the exception of the John Kasich trying to address systemic racism in this country, I pretty much had this thought about the last Republican Debate.

I have also had this thought at home a lot this week. You see, I have a fourth grader.

Children and teens of a certain age (I spent years working with adolescents) put a premium on truth rather than kindness. Even if the truth hurts. Especially if a truth hurts. In my last church the youth group developed the habit of saying “ouch” during our weekly discussions when one of the kids voiced an opinion in an unnecessarily harsh way or said something that might better have been left unsaid. we certainly did not shy away from saying important and difficult things, but we became mindful about how we said them.

Our scripture says that truth is something that should set us free – not wound us. The founding documents of the Presbyterian Church say that “truth is in order to goodness.” In other words, the truths we speak should aid and advance our moral and social betterment.

My favorite contemporary writer, who also happens to be President Barak Obama’s favorite writer, is Marylinne Robinson. Many of you have read her novels -the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, Home, and Lila, or her award winning Homecoming. I first discovered her as an essay writer and amateur theologian. I picked up a copy of her The Death of Adam at the little book store in Penn Station when it came out, and still think her essay on Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) and Marguerite of Navarre is the best short, historical introduction to our Reformed Tradition. In her most recent collection, The Giveness of Things, Robinson offers a penetrating look at our contemporary society and analyzes how we got here.

Last Fall, in a series of conversations with President Obama, Marylinne Robinson said the following about our current culture: We seem to believe that the harshest thing we can say must be the most truthful thing we can say; that the most hurtful things we hear are the truth.

What does this mean? It seems we trust the hurtful words more than we do expressions of kindness, forgiveness, grace, or generosity.

I will let you read Robinson for yourself to discover how she thinks we got to this place, but I know in my gut she is right. All week my son has been super sensitive to criticism, hearing criticism even when it is not there. He anticipates hearing that he is somehow wrong, or confirmation of his worst fears about himself. “I can’t do anything right!” he has said all week. “I ruin everything I do, and the lives of everyone around me!”

I know this feeling myself. I can lie in my bed and remember very specific things people have said that have hurt me – things said years ago can still be fresh. But I can lie there for hours trying to remember a particular words of kindness or appreciation that I cannot doubt or dismiss.

Harsh words have a long shelf life. We collect them, store them up, nurse them. We take them out when we are feeling bad because they confirm our bad feelings.

Why do we do this? I know for me it is because harsh words can touch my own doubts and fears and sense of failure.

But why do we think this is the truth, or the most important truth about ourselves?

When I was ordained, the minister who delivered the charge to me gave me a shoe box. He told me that throughout my ministry people would from time to time write me a note say kind things, describe how God had transformed them through my ministry, or recall thank me for my presence at a difficult time. He instructed me to take those cards and put them in the shoe box, because the day would come when I would need to pull them out and read them. A dark day, a down day, a doubt-filled day.

And it’s true.

I want to ask you today, “What do you keep in your box? Have you looked at it lately? How does it make you feel, and what are you capable of doing, when you remember these truths about yourself?”

We just come through a week of grief together as a congregation. Three funerals and seven days, each filled with beautiful truths about Anthony V—, Doris F-G—, and Ligaya G—. I brought my son to the last service, and afterward he said, wouldn’t it be great if, when we came to church, we could all hear people speak about us the way we spoke about Ligaya? Wouldn’t it? [I heard audible affirmations from the congregation]

So let’s do it. During the next five minutes or so, let’s turn to our neighbors and speak words of affirmation, kindness, appreciation to one another, giving thanks to God that we are here together.

Or something like that. I didn’t actually write the sermon. I had had Marylinne’s comment in my back pocket for a while, and had mentioned it to my son a few times during the week. Knowing that I had limited time after a week of funerals, he actually suggested the idea for the sermon and after the last funeral he suggested the idea of gathering in small groups. (I guess he really does listen when I speak, even if he pretends he’s not.) This was well received and appreciated.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    February 9, 2016 12:41 am

    Thanks for posting it – heard about this sermon and was sorry I missed it.
    I went to you blog a few times to see if you had posted it yet.

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