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“The Most Careful Speech of All”
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
“Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
With those words from this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus called us to the most careful speech of all; speech that is so careful to be so truthful that it never needs any extra anything to punctuate it, no swearing or vowing or promises or oaths or anything; just “Yes, Yes” and “No, No”; a way of speaking which is the most careful speech of all; the simple, clear truth; plainly, clearly spoken.
I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I sometimes write those words, Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No,” in my daily prayer journal, as a way of reminding myself to keep practicing the ever elusive skill of careful speech; speech which is content to operate within the boundaries Jesus established for his followers when Jesus said, Let your word be “Yes, Yes,” or “No, No.” Anything more than this comes from the evil one; speech which is, in all moments, situations, circumstances and conversations, what the Quakers call “gentle and plain.”
In my experience, that way of life and speech is a difficult discipline; one at which I continue to fail more often than I succeed. And, I think I know at least one of the many reasons why that kind of careful speech is so elusive for so many, myself included. Perhaps, one reason why careful speech is such a difficult discipline is that many of us learned, early in life, to make our way through life by using words in ways which work to our advantage. For as long as many of us can remember, we have been making it through life by using the tactics and strategies of exaggeration, sarcasm, flattery, relentless teasing, smooth spinning and verbal bullying; just one strategy after another, which is how we learned, early on, to make our point, advance our agenda, win our argument, and just generally make it through life.
And, then, along comes Jesus, in this morning’s lesson from Matthew, with his simple words about words; Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.”
That kind of speech is a spiritual discipline at which we get better the same way we get better at playing the piano, hitting a baseball, cake baking, brick laying, chemistry, surgery, calligraphy, crochet, croquet, and ballet; by practicing. As the great thinker Evelyn Underhill once said, “We must reach for what we do not have by the faithful practice of what we do have.” We do not have a life of always thoughtful and mindful speech, but we reach for that life, which we do not yet have, by the faithful practice of what we do have; which is the longing to live, and speak, and be that way.
One small way to begin the long, slow journey to the most careful speech of all might be to memorize Matthew 5:37, Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.” Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
If we can get those words down there in the reservoir of our memory and spirit, we may discover that they might eventually, actually start getting in our way. Not always, of course, but, at least, sometimes. So, we’re about to jump into a conversation with our juicy bit of information which is going to impress our friends, but then it hits us that what we are about to say is graceless speech, so we don’t say it; sometimes, even, stopping in mid-sentence. Or, we’re about to make our contribution to that wireless world of boundariless speech, Facebook, and we pause long enough to wonder, “Am I about to release into the world a word of grace and truth, or just more syllables of sarcasm which will only add to the already over-wrought volume of the vitriol?
It isn’t easy, of course, making those kinds of changes, partly because our friends have grown accustomed to us having a less thoughtful and careful way with words; so now, it’s almost impossible to change.
If, for example, we start challenging the exaggerated choice of the false option, which fills the airwaves, confronting things that are not true, refusing to talk about people in their absence in ways we would never talk about them in their presence, being careful not to over-sell, spin or exaggerate even when it would work to our advantage, and, eventually, someone may say to us, “You seem different.” And, then, we might have to say something awkward, like, “Well, actually, I’ve recently decided to try to practice becoming a person of more mindful, thoughtful, careful speech, because I have come to believe that to live that way is part of what it means to live as a Christian in this world. And, then, they might say, “Isn’t that difficult?” To which we will say, “Yes, Yes.” And, then, they might say, “Well, then, if it’s that difficult of a discipline, do you think you might eventually give up on it?”. To which we, of course, will say, “No, No.”
And that’s all.