Right Speech: Buddha, Jesus, MGK, and Gollum

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
February 3, 2019
Scripture: Pali Canon
Proverbs 25:11-12

My favorite band of all times is Queen, and last week Youth Sunday was like the beautiful display of hope and energy Queen brought to the Live Aid Concert in the summer of 1985. Can you imagine following Queen’s awesome orchestration of inspiration? I can relate. Thank you to all who have invested in our youth–their parents and this faith community. I really love our youth, spending time with them, because one, they are awesome, and two, I feel younger when hanging out with them, until I play GaGa Ball and realize mentally, I am young, but physically, not so much 🙁

OK–so today, sermon title, “Right Speech: Buddha, Jesus, MGK and Gollum.” We continue our Sermon series on the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. I can hear someone thinking, “Why are we talking about Buddhism in a Christian, Protestant, Methodist, American church?” Great question! I offer this—because what if the story of Christianity we’ve followed since it became the religion of the Roman Empire misunderstood the teachings of Jesus? A quote I heard sums up the path of Christianity: “Jesus started a movement; this movement found its way to Greece and became a philosophy called Christianity; Christianity moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.”

Possibly, the way we’ve learned Christianity is not what Christ intended. When the Roman Emperor Constantine designates Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, many different interpretations of the life and teachings of Christ existed. Wanting to unify a divided empire, Constantine brought together over a thousand bishops, known as the Council of Nicaea, to come up with a One Church Plan that would bring unity to the Church (church with a capital C).

So why are we learning about Buddhism? For me, Buddhism lifts the veil of rewritten Christian teaching that started with Constantine’s unification plan that sets Christianity on a path of beliefs and creeds to follow, not as a way of life. The parallels between the teachings of Buddha and Christ are remarkable, as both grounded their message on the foundations of love and compassion. Not judgment. Or revenge. Or righteousness. Or sin.

But the most evident similarity between Jesus and the Buddha? They were teachers of wisdom. Buddhist monk, Jack Kornfield, and Marcus Borg, write in their book, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, “If we could read, listen to, take to heart and enact even one verse from these teachings, it would have the power to illuminate our hearts, free us from confusion and transform our lives.”

But maybe skepticism still lingers among us. Buddhism, really? Fourth largest religion that originated in India 600 years before Jesus was born…what possible application could it have in 21st century postmodern America?

Buddhism is more than a religion, more than a philosophy, it is a way of life. Christianity was meant to be a way of life as well, not a set of creeds and beliefs determining who goes to heaven and hell. Right speech is everything. “Right” is not a moral judgment to be contrasted with the dualistic thinking of bad or wrong, but involves that which leads to joy for oneself and others

And so the words we heard in our reading that the Buddha spoke, “Speak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others” are timeless. Religion has, in my opinion, really failed at right speech when it comes to women, to people who don’t have white skin, and the LGBTQ community.

While Queen remains my favorite rock group, Friday night I had the opportunity to hear one of my beloved groups-any guesses? Panic! At the Disco. Awesome concert, and brilliance upon brilliance regarding “Right” speech in relation to bringing joy. Arriving to our seats at the CHI Center, Century Link, Qwest, whatever name you refer to it–fans found hearts on our seats that read, “Hold up and shine your phone light through during Girls/Girls/Boys,” a song that emphasizes that love is not a choice. And so when the song came on, the colors of the rainbow illuminated the arena as other sections had orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet hearts. I thought, “Wow, that would be cool to do during worship!” Yet it would have to be a bit darker in here…

My thesis in seminary involved the perceptive way musicians use words, for lyrics to songs can unify an arena of thousands as they sing together. Musicians have a way of putting into words what they hear others expressing.

One of our deepest needs is to be heard. But so little listening happens anymore. That’s why I think Youth Sunday is vital to the survival of our faith. We have to listen. That’s why I think Easter on Earth Day is so profound. We must listen to Creation. If we stopped to think about all the conflicts in our family, in our church, in our community, in Omaha, in our country, in the world, a huge step towards peace and reconciliation would be to listen to one another. But those in poverty are drowned out by greed. Children are punished before asked what is wrong. Fear shadows seeking truth.

We’ve institutionalized equality. We’ve institutionalized education. We’ve institutionalized speech. And we’ve institutionalized Christ. That’s why I think listening to the teaching of Christ through the lens of Buddhism can be very important, to hear Christ as a teacher of wisdom, not morality.

I can get so tunnel-visioned and judgmental when it comes to Right Speech as I struggle with the moralistic aspect of speech, illustrated by one of the short-sighted decisions I made in seminary. Christian ethics was a required course, and taught by a professor whose books occupy an entire book shelf at home, and who Time magazine named America’s best theologian. But I did not sign up to be in Professor Hauerwas’ class because he used profanity in his lectures. I was still emerging from my fundamental stage of theology where I read the Bible literally and to me, Right Speech meant not swearing.

In seminary, my Greek professor, Dr. Levinson, was awesome–he taught us how to conjugate Greek verbs to songs such as Louie Louie and We Will Rock You. We had daily chapel and one morning Dr. Levinson was the preacher for worship and gave a sermon I will never forget. The Scripture was our reading from the Old Testament, from Proverbs:
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear.
Dr. Levinson then went on to talk about compassion and how in the minutes he had been speaking, at least 200 children died in the Congo, and then he uttered in his sermon a really BAD word, a wash-your-mouth-out-with-Lifebuoy-soap word. He then commented that more people gasped at his use of profanity than at the number of deaths of children. I was guilty—I was more shocked at his swear word than I was of the awful reality that while safely sitting in chapel, children were being killed. It was a wise rebuke to my listening ear.
In his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr, for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, writes:
Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.”

Anyone know what MGK is an abbreviation for? When I know I need to listen, I confess it isn’t the words of Jesus or Buddha that come to mind when I think about Right Listening, but a song that was the Thursday Night NFL Theme song (that’s my contextual observation that it is Super Bowl Sunday), by rapper Machine Gun Kelly, MGK, given that name for his rapid fire speech—the chorus goes:
I hear voices in the air, I hear it loud and clear, Telling me to listen. Whispers in my ear, Nothing can compare, I just wanna listen.

Right speech involves listening. And restraint—asking oneself, “Is what I am about to say really necessary?” And that takes great self-awareness. I believe the path to self-awareness must involve meditation. The concept of meditative speaking has been very critical for me in race relations. When my perspective is shaped in a system where the racial ideology that dominates in our country rationalizes racial hierarchies as the result of some sort of natural order resulting from genetics, individual effort or talent, then I have to deconstruct my perspective and really think before I say something that deviates from the foundation of uplifting a.k.a. Right speech.

But my mind rapid fires thoughts, ideas, concepts I want to communicate, and then I find myself in what I refer to as Gollum-mode. And that brings us to Gollum. Gollum, a fictional character created by JRR Tolkien, is one of the few characters who appears in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He talks to himself, and struggles aloud with right speech. Driving to work, if someone cuts me off, I go into Gollum mode: Nasty Omaha drivers. Cynthia wants to see them pulled over by police. No—they probably have to get to the hospital. I should pray for them. Prayer doesn’t work for bad drivers. Prayer works for everyone. Nope. Not everyone Yes. Everyone.

OK—either you appreciate my Gollum analogy or you think I’ve lost it…..But the turmoil experienced by Gollum truly captures a struggle I have with Right Speech when I think of it in the moralistic “right v wrong” dualism that automatically comes to play when I hear the word, “right.”

I tend to not use profanity, and I have my own personal struggle with certain vernacular phrases of English that I perceive to be in conflict with the Third Commandment, taking the Lord’s name in vain. My soul hurts when I hear someone combine the name of God with the use of the word damn. All this goes back to my upbringing to read the Bible as if dictated from God, not as a human response to God. While that’s an entirely different sermon, what I am saying is that when the Ten Commandments or interpretations of the Bible do not pass the litmus test of Right Speech, of unifying community, then is our understanding of Scripture really aligning with a God of Love and Compassion?

I hope something I’ve said makes sense, because honestly, I really grapple with Right Speech.

Illustrated by my struggle with my favorite Panic! at the Disco song, Miss Jackson. I love the beat and combination of notes, but the song repeatedly uses what I perceive as taking the Lord’s name in vain. And so I actually used Garage Band to edit the song and cut out the phrase so I could, in my mind, be a faithful Christian AND listen to this song. Those who have been gripped in the tentacles of a literal interpretation of Scripture can probably relate to my process of nonsensical rationalization.

So, Friday night, while enjoying the concert, I wondered what the Buddha and Jesus would’ve thought. Machine Gun Kelly would have rocked out. Gollum, who knows, either would have infiltrated the concession stand or tried to steal the precious gold microphone from the lead singer. I think Jesus and Buddha would’ve been moved by the overall atmosphere after the concert—it was one of kindness and compassion. It is my hope that one day the Church (with a capital C) can create the same sort of unifying experience like Queen did at Live Aid and our Youth brought last Sunday.

Attributed to Sam Pascoe, 17th century American scholar. I first heard this quote in a prayer on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1987
Borg, Marcus and Jack Kornfield. Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition. Introduction.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Pg. 86