Integrity of Word and Deed
When I was a freshman in college my mother gave me a poetry textbook that she had had in college, and I’ve enjoyed it constantly since. One of the poems I first cottoned on to is by Carl Sandburg, and it reads:
“Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard hats; they walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling –
Look out how you use proud words.”
From a 2,000 year-old grave in Judea the writer of the Letter of James yells out, “Amen!” He knew this phenomenon very well – out of pride, or hurt, or jealousy, or fear of discovery, words come out of our mouths that we really should not utter, and that we can never take back. They walk off from us. They take on a life of their own. They create in others the effect we had subtly, boastfully intended. They make others feel small, or they cover up an embarrassment of ours, or they make us seem larger than we are. But they also come back to bite us – they show that we are boastful, or small, or mean. They reveal that we are often more willing to make another person look bad than to take deserved blame or scrutiny upon ourselves. We throw other people under the bus rather than admit to what is really going on.
James writes, “[t]he tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” One of the three main themes of James’ letter is just this – right speech, and the conforming of Christian speech to Christian practice. How can Christian speech ever set another child of God on fire? How can it diminish and demean? How can it lie about circumstances? How can it boast, and place oneself in exalted status, when the ethic of Christ is one of total humility?
And how can Christian speech not be followed by Christian action? How can we say, “I love the poor,” and do nothing to end poverty? How can we tell others, “I so respect my colleague,” but then demean her, privately, to her face? How can we say that we are for peace while we call for the destruction of communities we decide are evil? Sometimes our tongues say things that are base, but sometimes they say things that are out of the heart of the gospel, and our challenge is that we fail to follow them up with righteous action.
I spent this last week in Albania (yes, Albania!) at a conference sponsored by the global lay Catholic community of Sant ‘Egidio. Some of you may remember that this Chapel co-hosted a conference on Poverty and Peacemaking with Sant ‘Egidio here on campus one year ago. In Albania the meeting brought together people from every religious community and from all over the world on the topic “Peace is Always Possible.” But the unofficial theme of the meeting (and not at all unrelated) became the crisis in Europe because of those fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The violence facing refugees on the border between Serbia and Hungary was only a few hundred miles away from us. Participants in the conference were clergy and lay leaders from those countries, but also many from Italy, Germany, Sweden, Austria, France, and every place touched by the challenge of hundreds of thousands of desperate human beings fleeing for their lives. And with us, too, were bishops, priests, and imams from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey – people who were ministering to those who would ask them, “Should I stay? Should I go?” It was heartbreaking testimony – clergy who loved their people, wanted them to stay, wanted somehow to protect them, but knew if they did stay they had a very real chance of dying, and that if they did go they also might die on the way. There may be some here today who have had to face such an unconscionable choice.
And for those at our gathering in Albania who were from Europe, such agony. To see the suffering of the migrants, to see the prejudice, greed, and closed hearts of some of the politicians and neighbors, and then to read the Bible and be reminded over and over again of the Gospel imperative to give to all in need, regardless of creed, regardless of everything. They wanted to make sure that I and others saw in the media not just the police brutalities, the internment camps, the traffickers and smugglers, the journalists kicking and tripping running migrant children. They said, “Do you know that in Germany citizens are at the train station to greet migrants, give them food and a bed? Do you know that Austrians are driving over the Hungarian border illegally to pick up migrants in their cars and bring them to Austrian shelters? Do you know about the Greek woman who sails out in her boat to meet the migrant rafts, to welcome them on to her boat with a hug, and bring them safely to shore? Do you know that the Pope has begged very parish to take in a family?” I know of all this, and now you do, too. I was blessed to find myself amongst people whose faith-based commitment to human well-being wasn’t brand new, emerging with this crisis, but who had worked with refugees, the poor, the violated, all their lives. At our concluding prayer session, the Christians among us reflected on Hebrews 13: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The great gift to me of that meeting in Albania was the depth of faith in those around me, and their commitment to conform what they say and believe to what they actually do. They live with such integrity of word and deed, as instructed in the Letter of James.
Our passage from the Letter of James also has a short, passing sentence that I don’t want to permit to escape our notice. He writes, “For all of us make many mistakes.” As we start a new academic year together, and as we welcome the newest Princetonians to our midst, let us remember this little sentence, for it is true: “all of us make many mistakes.” We can’t help it. We are human. So let us be Christian as we make our mistakes! And by that I mean, let us begin by being grace-full and mercy-full to ourselves when we mess up. If God can forgive us, who are we not to forgive ourselves? Sometimes we can have mercy and grace for the rest of humanity when they fall short of being the kind of person they want to be, but we have no mercy for ourselves. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We really are to practice mercy on ourselves. But we are not to make our mistakes again and again, refusing to admit to the error of our ways. We learn a lesson once, then work to get it right ever after.
To those of you who are new students at Princeton, we know you’ve gotten a lot of things right in order to be here. You’ve worked very hard. But while you are here, because you are human, you will make many mistakes. Some will be small social gaffes. You’ll figure out the social code here soon enough! Some will be larger things that you regret for a while. Do show yourself mercy. Those larger regrets will undoubtedly come at the times when you do not act in accordance with what your faith teaches you to be true. You may see someone who really needs a friend, and decide that compassion doesn’t fit in your schedule. You may see that a group or an issue needs your voice, too, to take a stand, but you decide that that might be risky to your social reputation. You may feel called to study a particular topic and prepare for a particular profession, only to be lured into something with higher status or outside of the ethics with which you are comfortable. Or maybe, in a moment of jealousy, you may say something cutting to a person who is vulnerable. Ah, the tongue! All of us make many mistakes, so let’s be gracious to ourselves and others as we practice the lifelong project of learning to follow Christ.
And from our text from the Prophet Isaiah, a lesson always to respond with humility and humanity when it is others who use their tongue against us. It is so hard not to respond in kind, but that does not commend the faith that is in us. We don’t have to respond in kind when we remember that, as Isaiah writes, “it is God who helps me.” When our words and deeds retain their integrity – when our Christian speech conforms to our Christian practice – we actually become the teachers of whom Isaiah and James write. We become the people whose example instructs others. We’re no better than any one else, but by God’s grace we are currently getting it right!
How exciting to be on the cusp of a new year all together! What wonderful opportunities lie before us to make new friends, explore new passions, and live into our faith. We will make many mistakes, but it is God who helps us, and that is always more than enough.
Let me conclude by repeating one of the stanzas from the anthem just sung by our fabulous choir:
But move through us in deeds that spell your name as Love and Light,
for faithful actions far excel beliefs that we recite.
Let naming you through how we live become our public creed:
the clearest witness we can give in meeting human need.