Sermon: Epiphany 4 RCL C – “Speaking in Love”

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

Triboulet was the court jester for King Louis the XII and Francis I. One day, as the king passed, Triboulet smacked him on the backside, which enraged the King. The King said that he would forgive him if he gave an even more clever response for his actions. Without missing a beat, Triboulet said, “I’m so sorry… I mistook you for the Queen!” When he was sentenced to death, the king allowed him to decide how he would die. Triboulet chose old age. Astonished, the king set him free.

An old proverb, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke” even if the King does look like his Queen. That said, no matter how the truth is spoken—jokingly or sincerely or in anger—it is not always appreciated, but that does not mean we stop speaking it. In writing to a friend, Flannery O’Connor (she was a devout Catholic) wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” (Source) But it is still the truth, therefore it should be spoken. This is what was happening in our Gospel reading today.

Jesus is speaking to the people of his hometown, Nazareth, but the people respond by essentially saying, “Who do you think you are? We’ve known you all our lives and you’re just a carpenter.” In response, Jesus does not perform any miracles for them, instead he speaks the truth to them by reminding them of two separate incidents in their history.

The first incident deals with the prophet Elijah. There had been a famine in the land and all the Israelites were suffering, but when Elijah demonstrated the love of God through a miracle, it was not an Israelite who profited. It was the “widow at Zarephath in Sidon” who was a gentile.

In the second incident, Jesus reminds them about the Hebrew prophet Elisha. An army commander was suffering from leprosy in the land, so he came to Elisha seeking to be healed. Elisha had pity on him and told him to bathe in the Jordan River seven times. The commander did and was healed. Who was this commander? Naaman the Syrian, another gentile.

In reminding the Israelites of Nazareth of these two events, Jesus is speaking the truth. He is saying that God the Father has many times sent to them those who could bring them into the saving knowledge of God, but that they did not listen or return to God, so instead of blessing the Israelites, God chose to bless the gentiles. Jesus is saying that God is about to do the same thing. “If all you want are miracles, then God will give the knowledge of salvation to the others—to the gentiles.” Did he tell them this just to make them mad? No. That was the outcome—they tried to throw him off a cliff—but Jesus was trying to force them into seeing the error of their ways and to repent. I don’t know of many who like to be corrected for the errors, but when Jesus revealed the truth to them, they found it repulsive.

This incident shows us that we must be prepared to speak the truth, but to also hear it for ourselves when we need to be corrected. How do we go about this?

Within the Christian faith and civilized society, there are rules of engagement. There are things such as Robert’s Rules of Order, but there are even greater underlying rules. St. Paul speaks of these greater rules in his letter to the Ephesians: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

“Speaking the truth in love.” It means being sincere and honest with one another, but before we can speak to one another in such a way, we must first mature as Christians and become a community that is founded in forgiveness and mercy. We must be those who see the love and image of God in the other. Why? I’ve seen way too many people who claim to be speaking the truth in love but use their opinion or version of the truth to browbeat those who disagree with them. The truth we are to speak has nothing to do with personal revelation or preferences. The truth is founded in Holy Scripture and revealed in love. If we are mature in our faith and are certain of our love and motives, then we should go to one another and speak openly and honestly; keeping in mind that, before we go off and speak to someone, we must also be prepared for someone to come and speak to us in the same manner, because it is certainly not about being the one who is always and insufferably right.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another. It is inconceivable that things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another… The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not given help… This recognition [as sinners and God’s child] gives to our brotherly speech the freedom and candor that it needs. We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.” (Life Together, p.105-6)

Will these kind of tough conversations always go the way you plan them and will they always have the results you were hoping for? Absolutely not, but as Bonhoeffer said, we have a Christian responsibility to one another. Will everyone walk away feeling happy and delighted with the conversation? Not a chance and even if both are firm in their Christian faith, there’s still the chance of someone being hurt. As I said earlier, no one enjoys being corrected. You might even find that the one you’re speaking to becomes angry, but if you have their trust, built up over time, and were truly speaking the truth in love, the other will likely come to understand that you were not accusing them, but were in fact… loving them.

What underpins both the giving and receiving of speaking to one another in such a way is humility. My friend, Thomas a Kempis writes, “Do not think yourself better than others. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. Turn your attention upon yourself and beware of judging the deeds of other men, for in judging others a man labors vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins; whereas, in judging and taking stock of himself he does something that is always profitable.” In other words, speak the truth in love to yourself before you decide to do the same to another.

St. Peter in his first epistle tells us, “Love each other deeply from the heart.” It is in loving each other in this way that we are able to come alongside one another and speak those things that are sometimes difficult to hear. If done in faith and charity and humility, the result will not be a pushing apart, but a much deeper binding of us one to another and to Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray: 

Lord, make us an instruments of your peace:
where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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