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Monday, May 14, 2007

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Jon M. Richardson, seminarian
May 13, 2007
John 14:23-29; Easter 6C
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul; Chatham, NJ

+In the name of God…

“Actions speak louder than words.”

That’s what she would say to me.

I haven’t heard those words in years, but I can hear her saying them to me as if she were standing next to me – that’s probably because I heard her say them more than once. More than a dozen times, even.

“Actions speak louder than words.”

I was what an unsuspecting bystander might have chosen to call a “precocious” child. I was smarter than I had any right to be and I knew how to use the cuteness of my youth and the sweetness of my proper Southern upbringing to weasel my way out of almost any trouble that I might get myself into.

Yes, people who knew no better might have called me “precocious” but my mother did know better. She knew that I could be, as she sometimes described me, a “pill”. She knew that I was smart, but she also knew that I would occasionally use that to be “smart mouthed”.

She believed that I was cute, but she usually refused to allow that to color her experiences of me when I had misbehaved. She would occasionally melt under the sweetness of my proper Southern upbringing, but usually she could see right through it. She had, after all, instilled it in me.

I wasn’t a bad child. Just a “pill”. And despite my mother’s nearly limitless patience, I would occasionally push even her limits and she would have to firmly put me back into my place. On those occasions I would realize that I had overstepped some boundary and that I would have to summon all of the sweetness of my proper Southern upbringing if I were to salvage the moment.

Somewhere along the way I learned that I could stop, look up at my mother with the sweetest and most innocent eyes that I could conjure, and say, “Momma… I love you.”

Of course she crumbled… What God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth, saint of a woman like my mother wouldn’t? Who among us wouldn’t absolutely melt in the presence of a sweet, proper child professing his innocent love for another?

Yes, the first time I did that she crumbled in my hands. Even the second time I tried to pull that little trick she backed down from her posture of annoyance. I thought that I had struck gold!

I found three magic words, which, when properly blended with calculated postures of vulnerability, would yield the inconceivable – I had single-handedly, upset the power balance between parent and child! No longer would I be bound by good-behavior or manners. No longer would I be forced to do what I was told. There was a new sheriff in town.

But then I tried my little trick a third time. I had been misbehaving. More than likely I was being “asinine” – which I understood to be like unto being a “pill” but much more severe. When I had gone too far and when I was on the verge of making my mother extremely angry, I stopped and interjected a profession of my love for her.

And then I heard those other magical words that would change my life:

“Actions speak louder than words.”

Though my love for my mother was genuine – I wasn’t lying when I told her that I loved her – but my use of that love had not been borne of pure intentions. And to my surprise, she was able to see right through it. What I had misperceived as her weakness that I could exploit, I found instead to be a sign of her desire to teach me a deeper understanding of love – a kind of un-tethered love that is too profound and too sacred to be captured by empty words. It was the kind of love that she obviously held for me.

Through these past weeks, as we have journeyed together through Eastertide, the reality of Jesus’ love, like that of a mother, has been pressed upon us and offered to us for deeper consideration.

Just a few weeks ago we heard the story of Peter, who despite having denied the love of Jesus three times on the night before his death, was found three times to be professing his love to the risen Christ. Each time Peter was instructed to respond to that love with active love for others.

Christ said, “Feed my sheep,” but it might as well have been my mother saying, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Last week we were reminded of the new commandment of Jesus: to love one another as Jesus has loved God’s creation. He is not calling us to immature love characterized only by words, but to a deeper understanding of love that is characterized by presence and participation in the lives of others. Through that presence and participation in the lives of others we will experience the presence and participation of God in our own lives.

And in today’s readings we enter what some have called “the Advent of the Spirit” – the unofficial time of preparation for Pentecost, when we will celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit by God in the name of Christ – the giving of God’s wisdom and love which moves among us.

And even still, Jesus is reminding us that love requires action. He says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Not only is our love to be expressed through the action of keeping Jesus’ word – to love one another – but that love will be shared with us in kind by God, and it will be made known to us through God’s continued presence and participation in our lives.

This is the central message of our Baptismal Covenant. We recite the ancient words of the creed as an affirmation of our faith, but we recognize that our words are not enough if we fail to support them with action.

So the Covenant goes on to ask five questions – each of them designed to direct us to action. They are designed to pull our focus away from the serenity of the font. Like the light of the Paschal Candle, the impact of our Baptism into the Body of Christ should radiate out into the world. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” It is not enough for us to confess our love. That confession must be matched with our presence and our participation in the lives of each other.

I sometimes wonder if my mother knew the impact that those five simple words would have on me throughout my life.

“Actions speak louder than words.”

In teaching me that lesson, she was giving me a call to action from which I could never turn. She was right. And even though, in that moment, I was being an asinine child, I was stopped in my tracks.

Oh I tried to argue with her – because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my newfound power. But my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. I knew that she had revealed an essential flaw in my thinking. I knew a little more clearly in that moment what love could be. And I knew that I was, like all of us are, called to share it.


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