“You Have Heard It Said” / Matthew 5:33-37 / 12 February 2017
“You have heard it said, ‘Do not swear falsely’, but I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your word be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’.” Say as much as needs to be said, no more. Don’t wax extravagant with words that you may or may not be able to support with your actions. You don’t know what tomorrow holds. You don’t know how circumstances might change, how life might strip you of the ability to honor the vows and promises you make. You don’t even know when your hair will go white, or if it might just up and leave you before it gets a chance to go white. You don’t know. And you can’t control it. And what good is a promise with neither the knowledge nor the power to enforce it? So let your words be few, and direct, and simple. Sage advice still for an age when words are bandied about, and tossed around like volleyballs, and used as lures and weapons. Just let your yes be yes and your no be no.
The Cohen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is surely one of the funniest movies to come out in the past twenty years. I recently had my eleven and twelve-year old daughters watch it, and they liked it so much they watched it twice. It helps that they like Greek mythology because the movie is supposed to be a retelling of The Odyssey, by Homer. Now, the Cohen Brothers never actually read The Odyssey; they based their movie on the comic book version—which I suppose would be kind of like writing a sermon based on a comic book Bible, except with a twenty-six million dollar budget. And so, it’s a pretty loose interpretation. The film is about three escapees from a prison chain gang in Mississippi during the Great Depression. The leader of the fugitives is Ulysses, hilariously played by George Clooney. Clooney modeled his southern accent on his real life uncle, a Kentucky tobacco farmer who had never been in an airplane until they flew him out to Los Angeles to see the film’s screening. Ulysses is just trying to make it home to his wife and many daughters. It’s a classic storyline. You’ve got it in The Wizard of Oz and Gilligan’s Island and even in the Book of Exodus. Everyone just wants to get home to where they belong. The film deals with all the trials, and temptations, and wanderings, and misdirection that happen along life’s homeward way.
Aside from the comedic behavior of the three escapees, and all the great old fashioned folk music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? it’s also fun to try to find the parallels between the movie and the ancient Greek epic poem. You’ve got a murderous one-eyed Bible salesman for your Cyclops—played by the guy I remember as Roseanne’s husband. You’ve got a band of sultry women, who sing a haunting song and washing their laundry in a stream; those are your Sirens. Most interesting to me, of course, is the congregation of Baptists, all dressed in white robes and filing down to the river to get dunked by the preacher. Two of the fugitives long so badly for redemption that they go bounding into the river to have their sins washed away. The nearest I can figure, the Baptists are Homer’s Lotus-Eaters, who lull the fugitives into apathy and cause them to stray from their course. It seems to be another way of saying that religion is the opiate of the masses. Perhaps you recall the song from that part of the movie; people even sang it in churches for a short while. “I went down in the river to pray,” by Alison Krauss. Around the turn of the 21st century, you would even hear that song in Presbyterian churches, though lord knows we would only pray in a river if our fishing boat capsized. We prefer our baptisms under much more tightly controlled conditions and with a lot less water. Ulysses didn’t get dunked. He’s too smart for religion, and he spends much of the rest of the movie ridiculing his gullible friends for seeking salvation in the waters of a muddy river.
But when the sheriff catches up to the three fugitives and dangles three nooses in a tree, Ulysses the atheist drops to his knees and say, “Please, Lord. I just wanna see my daughters again. I been separated from my family for so long. I know I been guilty of pride and sharp dealin’. I’m sorry that I turned my back on you. Forgive me. Help us, Lord, for the sake of my family. I’ll be good from now on, just let me see my daughters again.” It’s a touching moment, spiritual, pensive, with close-ups of penitent faces, and bloodhounds, and the impatient sheriff, waiting for the prayer to end so he can hang them. In the background, the African American grave diggers start to croon, “You got to go to the lonesome valley. Ain’t nobody else gonna go with you. You got to go there by yourself.” Little rivulets of water start to form on the ground where they’re kneeling. And presently, a flood comes crashing through the trees and bears the three condemned men away from their captors. When they wash up together in safety, one of the baptized fellows says, “A miracle! It was a miracle!” But now that they’re safe, Ulysses is back to his old ways. “Delmar, don’t be ignorant. I told you they was floodin’ this valley.” The other baptized fellow joins in, “We prayed to God, and he done pitied us!” Ulysses replies, “Once again you two hayseeds are showin’ how much you lack reason. There’s a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened. Fact is, they’re hydro-electricin’ the whole state. Everyone is gonna be hooked up to a grid. Yessir, the South is gonna change. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo the superstitions and the backward ways! Yessir, it’ll be a veritable age of reason, like the one they had in France!”
And just like that, a vow made in a moment of fear is forgotten when all is well. C’mon. You’ve done that! I know you have. Admit it. “God, if you magically grant me this request, then I’ll change my ways. I’ll do anything.” But it’s an empty promise. God knows it. The sheriff knows it. The bloodhound knows it. The only one who doesn’t know it is the one who’s making it. I think this is exactly why Jesus tells us not to swear to anything. We could end up unable to keep the promises we make, or we might discover that though we believed it at the time, our belief might wither like moss on a stone. We throw our words around so haphazardly, so cavalierly, so carelessly, to which Jesus—whose actions got him killed, not his words—says, “Hush. Stop talking. Stop making words that you don’t mean. If you mean yes, then just say yes. If you mean no, then say no. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
We’ve just heard a very short segment of Jesus’ most famous discourse, the one we’ve come to call The Sermon on the Mount. In the history of the world, there might be two sermons famous enough to be known by their titles. There’s “The Sermon on the Mount,” of course, and the other is…wait. You tell me which the other one is on your way out of church. I’ll give you a hint: Jesus didn’t preach it, and I sure didn’t preach it, but a guy who shares my taste in neckwear did! But here in the Sermon on the Mount, six times Jesus begins a diatribe by saying, “You have heard it said from ancient times…but I say to you.” He holds up a venerable little tidbit of conventional wisdom, something all his hearers would recognize, then he dismisses it as utter rubbish, replacing it with something heartfelt and new. It’s as if he would say something like, “You’ve heard is said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I say to you that the tree keeps growing until it’s dead. You’ve heard it said that children should be seen and not heard, but I say to you, sometimes kids see past all your drivel to the very heart of the matter. In this way, Jesus dashes sacred tradition to the ground, along with great swaths of the ancient Scriptural text—something we would never dare to do.
Six times he does this in the Sermon on the Mount: “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you.” Rules on divorce, and adultery, and murder, and swearing. He basically says, “Yes, it’s easy to live by rules. Rules are sanitary and safe. But if you could just treat each other with love and respect then the rules would all be moot. Life is better by the law of love than by the love of law. But alas! Rules are a whole lot easier than love. And he makes this simple plea. “Don’t swear to anything. Don’t complicate life with needless words. Just let your yes be yes and your no be no. You don’t need to talk nearly as much as you do. You don’t need to commit yourself to things that everyone but you knows you don’t mean. And you never know where life will take you and whether you’ll be able to stand by your promise when the floods come in. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Then…stop talking.
It wouldn’t be a sermon about swearing if we didn’t pause just briefly to think about “swearing.” Most of the phrases that we consider obscene, or inappropriate, or vulgar nowadays originated as oaths. That’s why it’s called “swearing.” And it’s become a pretty socially acceptable thing to do. Please don’ think that I’m harping and pining for the good old days that I can barely remember. But what happened to the world—or more specifically, to American society—between the days of Jacky Gleason and the days of Chris Rock? Nobody ever swore on The Brady Bunch, unless you count words like “jeepers.” But nowadays, a movie with a G rating is doomed to go straight to DVD. In fact, I read that when Clooney was shooting O Brother, Where Art Thou? he struggled with all of the minor swears because his old tobacco farmer uncle didn’t say those words, and so he didn’t quite know how to pronounce them in a Southern drawl. The Dutch did a study of swearing by politicians and found that the ones who swear win points with voters. People find them more genuine. Think about it: Hilary kept it pretty clean, whereas the current President did not. Even my wife will tell you that in her practice as a therapist, she reserves a certain swearword as powerful proof that, though she’s got nothing to say, she hears you and cares. It lets her clients know that she’s struck by their pain. And though you still might not want to hear your minister using that magic word, there is something about cursing that makes people…trust a person. It proves that he or she is human, prone to frustrations and bursts of emotion. Now, I do not advocate the use of profanity on Scout Sunday! But I do believe that if our society has become so comfortable with obscene language, it’s surely because we’ve felt swindled and disappointed by all the buttoned up professionals who used their polite public vocabularies to hide agendas of racism, violence, and greed. But more than that, don’t you think there’s an anger afoot in our society today, a frustration, a fear that has us all saying…things we shouldn’t be saying, things we perhaps don’t really mean? And this is Jesus’ problem with all the elaborate swearing of oaths, and promises, and vows. They spring from raw emotion that never lasts. Better to dispense with all the words we don’t really mean; better to get a handle on the feelings that give rise to the words. Let our yes be yes.
Oh, I know, your life is made up of your promises, your vows, your pledges and oaths. Every time you write a check, you’re swearing yourself to something. You’ve got your leases, and contracts, and handshakes. Maybe you dropped a cool $25,000 on a cake, a dress, a cellist, and a photographer to stand in this very room and make your wedding vows. There are oaths of office, taken with one hand on a Bible—one with crisp, clean pages and a strong spine, sure and certain evidence that it’s never once been cracked open! Some still make the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm and never to play God. And even just here at church, we’ve got membership vows, and baptismal vows, and ordination vows. Our life is defined by the things we swear to.
I only made it as far as Webelos, but I seem to recall that there’s even a Scout pledge, isn’t there? How did it go? On my honor…do my best…do my duty…God and country…long as we both shall live? These promises are good. How can Jesus be against such things? Well, he’s not. What Jesus is saying here is simply this, “Mean what you say, and say what you mean, then stop talking. And if your heart isn’t in it, if it’s some impulse born of fleeting emotion, then don’t speak at all. Stop filling up your life with empty words that have no meaning. Speak from the heart—not the spleen. Don’t lavish useless words wastefully out into the world, for the world cannot bear any more insincere words. Think about what you say before you say it. And unless you really have a thing to say, then it’s better just to be silent.
In Russia, during the Cold War, a man lived alone with his parrot, and he cursed and complained about the Communist government all the time. One day, his parrot flew out the window, and the man called the police. He said, “If that parrot is found, I want it to be known that I do not share his political opinions.” Words are serious things, and we all know that they can never be taken back once uttered. They break hearts and restore souls. They can give and take, and they can get lodged for years—years!—in our minds and hearts, fostering hope or despair. And we’ve all been to the place where the words run out—even if most of us didn’t have the wisdom to stop talking. When tragedy strikes a friend; when the love, or the pain, or the wonder are too sublime to be named; when the fear, or the affection, or the gratitude is too much for words, then silence is enough. Oh, silence! I don’t know what troubles you face when you leave this place, but have you tried silence? When we learn at last to be comfortable with silence, we are well on our way to wholeness! Cultivate silence. And let your yes be yes and your no be no. Amen.