12 August 2018
There is a phrase: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. What does this mean? (If you can’t say something that’s helpful or kind, then stay quiet.) There is an alteration of this quote that I’ve been thinking of lately: If you don’t have something nice to say, come sit by me.
In our society, “nice” doesn’t usually mean kind, truthful, or helpful. Usually, “be nice” means “don’t make a fuss” or “just go along with it” or “don’t be loud” or “stop making such a big deal”. Being nice often means less about fixing a problem and more about pretending there is no problem. When I think of the stress I feel on a daily basis, when I think of the news stories we hear, when I think of people who are being hurt daily by situations that are alterable or preventable, I want to say, “Yes! If you don’t have something nice to say, come sit by me.”
I don’t want to hear nice things. I want to hear honest things. I want to hear hard conversations. I want to hear about broken hearts, deep frustrations, apologies, forgiveness, and change. I want to hear people talk about how to change systems like racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, LGBTQ-exclusion, injustice, inequity, mental illness, addiction, and the brokenness of cultural norms, ethics, and systems. I don’t want to talk about nice things. I want to talk about truth. If you don’t have something nice to say, come sit by me, because I don’t want nice.
The writer of Ephesians, using Paul’s writing style, is communicating with the church at Ephesus, reminding them of what it means to be the community of Christ. The reading we have today from Ephesians (4:25-5:2) shows a communal path with niceness and wrath as pitfalls on either side. The life of a Christian is a community life- lived together for support of one another and for work together for the sake of the world. Slander, bitterness, and unmitigated anger with one another mean that the community will be stunted in growth, failing to support one another. Niceness- surface relationships and conversations- means that the community will never take seriously the issues within and without that need attention, repair, and prayer.
It is the path of truth, the path of honesty, forgiveness, and grace, which leads us to where God wants us to be. Anything else, any other type of action, grieves the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to grieve the Spirit? If a child asked, it would be easy to say, We make the Holy Spirit sad when we make bad choices and when we don’t do the things we know are right. Most of us, however, are adults and need more solid spiritual food. As adults, we can handle more solid spiritual food.
How do we know what the Holy Spirit does? We are taught about the Spirit from the scriptures and from the documents of our faith that come through the traditions of the church. The Holy Spirit moved over the void at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1) and She breathed holy creative order over the chaos that previously existed. Creative ordering is the work of the Spirit and we see that outlined further, then, in the Apostle’s Creed.
The Holy Spirit brings order through the gift of the holy catholic church- where people gather in truth and power to worship, share what they have, and work for the sake of Christ in the world. The Spirit creates eternal stability for us, and all people, through the mysterious connection and hope of the communion of saints- the way we are interconnected with all people in God. The Spirit creates order through the forgiveness of sins- making it possible for us to trust one another and have faith in God’s mercy. The Spirit brings about the resurrection of the body- a wholeness that is our hope and God’s promise. And the Spirit continues the work of creation by the transformation that is and will be the life of the world to come.
This is the work of the Spirit. Speaking truth about this work and living lives that do not undermine this truth is what brings joy to the Holy Spirit. A bland niceness that fails to wrestle with the doubts and effort it takes to trust in mystery does not create community. Spiteful gossip or frustrated bitterness turns away people whom the Spirit is driving toward our community. Those are the things that grieve the Spirit. The path of discipleship, the way of Christ, the walk of life together means speaking truth to one another, being kind, forgiving, and being willing to ask for and accept help from each other.
It would be easier, sort of, to talk about the John reading today- to say Jesus is food for everyone. There’s enough Jesus to go around. God will feed us. That would be a nice sermon. I could do it. You could like it. We’d be fine. But I don’t have anything nice to say because nice is not what the world needs now. Nice is not the Spirit moving over creation. Nice is not the meaning of Easter resurrection or the promise of God with us.
Nice isn’t enough. And the opposite of nice isn’t mean, it’s ambivalence. It’s feeling helpless and hopeless and defeated. It’s feeling alone, ineffective, and unimportant. There is no space for nice in a healthy community of Christ. Not in the time of the Ephesians, not now. If you feel that way, and you might, if you feel that way, sit by me. If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me. If you have something you want to change, something that breaks your heart, something that you need to address, come sit by me.
Now, who else is willing to be a partner? Who else is willing to open a seat? Who else is willing to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sit by me because I am ready to be part of God’s work”?
The writer of Ephesians says, Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2) Imitators of God- that’s a broad expanse of possibilities- imitating God. We can create, unite, heal, feed, free, forgive, build up, put to rest, restore, listen, speak truth to power, rest, befriend, and so many other things. If we wonder what imitation might look like- we have Jesus as the pioneer of a faithful life, worthy of imitation. Jesus was not nice. I’m sure he was pleasant and affable, but his definitive state wasn’t to talk about the weather, the lamb, and the price of olives in the market. He made relationships, spoke truth, and showed compassion.
He was a companion- a bread friend- to the people who traveled with him, who he met on the way, and to the people who were otherwise shut out of his society. If you don’t have something nice to say, sit by Jesus. And we are now his hands and feet, we are now his ears and words, we are now the workers in the kingdom. We are called to the imitation of God in Christ. We are called together- as community- to help one another in the imitation of God in Christ. We are called to help one another, to hold one another accountable, to be truthful and generous to one another in the imitation of God in Christ.
The Spirit draws us together, tethers us through her creative ordering, for the sake of one another, for the sake of Spenard and Turnagain, for the sake of Anchorage and Alaska, for the sake of our country and the world, for the sake of others and the world that God made, as it says in our baptismal vows.
Here we are- you and me. There are many chairs, but if you don’t have anything nice to say, please- come sit by me.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth (Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest daughter) had a sofa pillow that said, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, come and sit by me.” All variations of this quote are usually traced back to reporter commentary on that decoration.
Companion comes from words meaning bread (pani-) and with (com-), making the word mean something more like messmate or bread friend, describing someone with whom you eat more than simply an acquaintance.