Name-calling, 8th July 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 123

2 Sam 5: 11 – 13, 17 – 25

2 Corinthians 13: 4 – 13


Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,   O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19: 14 NRSV

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.” These words, first recorded in the mid-19th century, are one of those children’s ditties aimed at encouraging children who are being verbally bullied. As a child I remember being terribly proud of hurling the words at my perceived enemies of the day, but had barely thought of the rhyme until the horrible spat of the past weeks between two senators who should know better. Not only are they an embarrassment to themselves, but they hardly set an example as leaders of the country. The rhyme is actually not true at all and, as most of us know, name-calling can indeed hurt a person. We have only to think of recent tragic instances of young people who have been the victims of suicide! It is clear that words, the calling of names, and the hurling of verbal abuse, can do a great deal of harm.

But what to do about it? Let us begin by recognising that many people and organisations are working hard to do something about verbal bullying and the often tragic consequences – not only in the deaths of some, but the broken lives of those subjected to this sort of abuse. Increasingly we are being given the vocabulary to be able to speak out against this. Some are taking the insults and turning them into badges of honour – reclaiming power in the situation and refusing to be stigmatised by labels.

Does the church teach us and encourage us to do anything? Over the past decade and more the Diocese of Adelaide has been in the forefront of developing intentional safer ministry practices. Sadly this came about, not because of any far-sighted intention, but as a reaction to the appalling history of sexual abuse of children, particularly boys, in our diocese. All who hold any form of office in the church, whether paid or unpaid, and all who work, or come into regular contact, with children (those under 18) must undergo regular safer ministry training, are subject to police checks, and must ascribe to the current edition of the national Anglican Church document “Faithfulness in Service.”

There are many biblical examples we could look at which speak into the topic. Tonight I suggest three.

  • The first are the great commands found in the Old Testament and brought together by Jesus Christ. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – and Love your neighbour as yourself. (Luke 10: 27)
  • The second is a short passage found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 7 and revolves around criticising and judging others. Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?” (Matthew 7: 2)
  • The third is the 3rd to last verse of 2 Corinthians – almost the last lines of tonight’s 2nd (2 Corinthians 13: 5 – 13). “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” These four instructions come at the very end of what must have been a difficult letter for Paul to write. The church in Corinth reflected the norms of the city – bringing into it the divisions, name-calling, competition, and divisiveness so evident in the city. Paul does not mince his words, appealing for unity, for a faithful living of the Gospel, for a genuine and sustained living into the baptism in Christ. We don’t, of course, know exactly what was going on, having only one side of the conversation, but Paul is pretty strong in his words: “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” In other words, pull yourselves together, get on with being the Body of Christ, reflecting the love of God, caring for each other in the best possible way.

These words could well be said to our Senators and other politicians who so often degrade the high office to which they are elected. But they could equally be said to today’s church in any number of circumstances.

Let me offer you something quite different now in the way of name-calling. It is a story that has been doing the round on social media for some time, but came to my attention this week when I found myself struggling with the disrespectful, indeed shameful, behaviour in the Senate. Entitled “All The Way Shay!” the author is unknown.

“At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves learning-disabled children, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question: ‘When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?’

The audience was stilled by the query.

The father continued. ‘I believe that when a child like Shay, physically and mentally handicapped comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child.’

Then he told the following story:

Shay and his father had walked past a park where some boys were playing baseball. Shay asked, ‘Do you think they’ll let me play?’ Shay’s father knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but the father also understood that if his son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.

Shay’s father approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, ‘We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.’

Shay struggled over to the team’s bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. His father watched with a small tear in his eye and warmth in his heart. The boys saw the father’s joy at his son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as his father waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay’s team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.

At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.

However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay’s life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.

The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game.

Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman’s head, out of reach of all team mates. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, ‘Shay, run to first! Run to first!’ Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.

Everyone yelled, ‘Run to second, run to second!’ Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman’s head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home.

All were screaming, ‘Shay, Shay, Shay, all the way Shay!’

Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, ‘Run to third, Shay, run to third!’

As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, ‘Shay, run home! Run home!’ Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.

‘That day’, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, ‘the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world’. Young Shay would never forget what it felt like to be a hero that day. Neither would the other boys.”