THE EXCELLENT WAY, 10: LOVE IS NOT RUDE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016; non-lectionary sermon
Proverbs 11:5-13; Luke 19:1-10

“[Jesus] looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry
and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’”
Luke 19:5

I ran across something weirdly fascinating in the newspaper this past week. The New York Times had an article with this headline: “A Traveler’s Guide to Customs: When to Shake Hands, Hug or Kiss.”

Imagine you’re traveling to a country you’ve never visited before. Someone’s waiting at the airport to greet you, someone you’ve never met. As you walk through the security gate and that person calls out your name, what do you do?

Do you put out your right hand, American-style? Do you put the palms of your hands together, as they do in Thailand? Do you make a little bow, Japanese-style? Or do you walk up to your new acquaintance with both hands extended, asking for a bear hug?

Whatever you decide to do could make a big difference in whether your new relationship gets off on the right foot (or the right hand, as the case may be).

Here are a few things I learned from the article about what’s expected in different parts of the world.

If your new acquaintance is a Maori from New Zealand, you may do well to submit to the traditional nose greeting: placing your nose against your new friend’s forehead, then having them do the same for you.

If you’re in Rio de Janeiro, the protocol is three kisses on the cheek. But if you’re just a few hours to the south, in São Paulo, one kiss is good enough.

If you’re in Beijing, no kisses at all: a nod and a smile is quite sufficient.

In some parts of the world, the air kiss is the thing: just like a kiss on the cheek, but no contact. This is true throughout the Middle East: although if it’s an Arab country, you only do it between members of the same sex.

In France, it seems, the air kiss has evolved to a fine art. There are different air-kiss protocols for different parts of the country. If you’re in the city of Nantes, you can expect four air kisses. In Toulouse, just two. In the city of Brest, just a single one. (They don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves in that town.) The article says, about French air kisses: “The general rule is that lips should never touch cheek, though a faint smooching sound is expected.”

In many countries, the handshake’s the thing: but the question is, how firm? In India, it’s supposed to be a limp handshake. In Russia, for two men meeting each other for the first time, the handshake “can feel like a test of strength with near bone-crushing results.” But be careful: it’s bad luck in Russia to shake hands as one of you is walking through the door of the other’s home. You’re supposed to wait till you cross the threshold, then shake hands.

Finally, if you’re visiting Tibet, you may encounter one of the most unusual greeting gestures of all. Each of you is expected to stick out your tongue.

I’ll bet you never knew greeting a stranger could be so complicated, did you? People will go to extraordinary lengths not to come across as rude.

*****

1 Corinthians 13:5 says, “love…is not rude.” The Greek word is a very unusual one. It occurs only two times in all of the New Testament, both of them here in 1 Corinthians. Besides meaning “rude,” the word can also be translated “dishonorable, unbecoming, disgraceful, shameful.” Love, Paul says, is none of these things.

Our English word, “rude,” comes from the Latin originally. The word rudus means unworked, uncultivated, or broken — as in broken stone. Something that’s rude is rough around the edges. It hasn’t been completely finished. If someone builds a rude chair, that doesn’t mean the chair is shouting out insults. It means it’s probably made of two-by fours rather then fine walnut. It may wobble a little when you sit on it, but it’s better than standing.

To treat another person with rudeness means both these things. It means you’re being socially awkward. It also suggests you don’t care enough about the relationship, in that particular moment, to develop it to completion. You’re content with the rough edges, no matter how badly that makes the other person feel.

*****

So, what’s the motivation for rudeness? What makes people be rude to each other?

I’m not talking, here, about unintentional rudeness: the social faux pas, the failing to realize that in one French city you give four air kisses, in another only one. When Paul says “love is not rude,” he’s not concerned with innocent breaches of etiquette. He’s talking about deliberate rudeness: behaving in a course and callous way because you want to make the other person uncomfortable.

One of the great things about a marriage, or any intimate relationship, is that when two people come to know each other well, they don’t need to be phony with each other. You don’t need to dress up for each other every day, like you would for a first date. You feel secure enough to let your hair down. You can be yourself. There’s something freeing in that.

However… if you eventually stop paying attention to your appearance altogether, if you transform yourself into a total slob whenever your spouse or significant other is around, your partner may well come to the conclusion that you’re being rude: that you’re expressing a subtle form of contempt, that you no longer care enough for the relationship to expend even a minimal effort.

Rudeness matters: because it’s an indicator that love for the other is diminishing, that there’s an underlying condition interfering with love.

*****

Let’s look now at what some of those underlying conditions could be.

First, rudeness can imply superiority. People are generally not rude to others who are more important than they are: they’re rude only to those they consider inferior. How many people do you know who are rude to police officers who’ve pulled them over and have asked for their license and registration? In that particular situation, the officer is their social superior. The law empowers the police to determine whether a violation has occurred. Even drivers who are feeling angry about being pulled over are not generally so stupid as to let their frustration show, saying something rude.

Now, imagine that the driver has successfully avoided a ticket by treating the officer with respect. A half hour later, in a roadside restaurant, the driver is full of complaints about the service, and just unloads on the poor teenager who’s waiting on tables, then leaves a lousy tip. There was nothing wrong with the service, but the person felt entitled to treat the server rudely — for no other reason than a sense of being socially superior. Anyone who’s ever waited on tables can tell stories about being treated rudely by customers. It goes with the territory, unfortunately, in a service profession like that.

You could well say that the opposite of rudeness is courtesy. Courtesy is an interesting word. It has within it the word “court.” The word goes back to the days of monarchy, when any self-respecting king or queen was at the center of the royal court. The court was where noble families who were aspiring to higher social status sent their sons and daughters when they came of age. Before they did that, though, they would teach them certain customs and protocols that everyone followed at the royal court. For young men this meant a certain courtly bow before the king or queen, or anyone else higher up the ladder than they. For young women, this meant a “curtsey” — a feminine bowing of the knee and holding one’s dress out to the side. The word “curtsey” is just a shortened form of “courtesy.” And courtesy is court behavior, admitting you are of inferior rank than the person to whom you’re bowing.

Rudeness is the opposite. It’s saying to the other, “I’m more important than you are, so I can act any way I want.” For the person on the receiving end, that can be humiliating. And when the relationship is a marriage or deep friendship, in which both parties are meant to be equal, such rudeness can — if it becomes a regular thing — endanger the future of the relationship.

*****

The second thing we can observe about rudeness is that it’s inconsiderate. Rude people may not be consciously thinking they’re superior to the other person; they may not be thinking of that person at all.

Imagine there’s a line of people at a store counter, and someone barrels up to the front of the line, expecting the clerk to drop everything and ring up their purchase. For those standing in line, such rude behavior makes them feel as if they don’t exist. Their fellow customer who charged right by them was thinking of nothing but his or her own busy schedule, and how important it was to make the purchase and move on to the next thing on the to-do list. The others might as well have been invisible, as far as the inconsiderate person was concerned.

In a marriage or other committed relationship, such lack of consideration can be very painful. If one partner habitually makes plans without consulting the other, it’s a form of rudeness that’s more a sin of omission than a sin of commission. But it can be equally destructive.

There’s an old story — that may or may not be true — about Queen Victoria of England, and a state banquet she once held for a visiting African king. Now, in front of every place at the dinner table was something you rarely see anymore. The only time I’ve ever seen such a thing myself was at my grandmother’s house — she had all the bells and whistles to put on fancy dinner parties. This thing was a little silver bowl, filled with water, with a slice of lemon floating in it.

It was a finger-bowl. If the menu offered something greasy that got your fingers dirty, you could use the finger-bowl to clean them.

The visiting African king at Queen Victoria’s banquet was a stranger to many customs of the Europeans. He didn’t know what those little bowls of water were for. Soon after sitting down at the table, he reached for his finger-bowl, picked it up and drank from it.

Well, he was the guest of honor and all eyes were on him. The other invited guests looked back at him with horror. It was obvious what he had done; it was a breach of protocol at best, an act of rudeness at worst. The question was, what would the Queen do?

Queen Victoria, they say, didn’t hesitate for a moment. She reached out for her own finger-bowl, and drank from it!

The visiting King was not, in fact, being rude. He just didn’t know the custom. When the Queen drank from her own finger-bowl, she was expressing the utmost consideration and kindness for her guest. She was willing to make herself look foolish, in the eyes of others, for the sake of strengthening the relationship — and for the sake of diplomacy.

*****

The last thing I’d like to say about rudeness is that sometimes it’s not about making oneself higher than another, nor is it about lack of consideration for the other. It can also be about discounting the other person, actually dragging that person down in the eyes of others. This is perhaps the most damaging form of rudeness of all.

Such rudeness says of the other, “I’m going to do what I want because you’re not important at all, so I don’t care what you think.”

This is the sort of rudeness practiced by bullies. It’s seasoned with contempt and cruelty.

When our kids were younger and went to our Presbyterian Camp Johnsonburg for the summer, one of the camp rules they learned was called “No Discount.” I believe they still teach that rule at Johnsonburg to this day. It’s one of the most important rules at that Christian camp, and the staff are encouraged to teach it at every opportunity.

What “No Discount” means is that no one is to discount a fellow camper. No one is to value anyone less than others. No one is to bully or tease another so as to damage their reputation. Sure, people make mistakes in games and other camp activities, and you can point out their mistakes, but you can’t use those mistakes to criticize others for who they are. You can’t discount them as human beings. If a camper does treat a fellow camper that way, then the counselor takes the person aside and uses the incident as a teaching moment, saying, “Remember our rule: No Discount.”

Generations of campers have come to love that simple rule — and to love even more the open, affirming community it creates for that special week. It’s a community that’s very different than what some of those kids experience in their schools, their neighborhoods, and even — for some — in their homes. It’s Christian community: a community of love.

*****

Let me close with a story that comes from Thailand. In 1954, a community of monks was constructing a new monastery building to house the focal point of their worship: a large plaster statue of the Buddha, more than ten feet tall.

When the time came to move the statue, they found that task to be harder than they’d imagined. When a group of them tried to lift the statue, they could not. Thinking at first that it was anchored to the floor, they examined the base and found that it was not cemented down. It was just too heavy.

They brought in a crane, but even the crane had a hard time moving it. The ropes holding the statue broke, and it fell hard to the ground. Not knowing what else to do, they stopped work for the day. Besides, it had started to rain. The abbot of monastery threw a tarp over the Buddha statue, to protect it.

That evening, he walked out to have a look at the statue, to make sure it was staying dry. He lifted up a corner of the tarp and shined a flashlight on it. He was surprised to see something shining back at him. Something gold.

He fetched a hammer and chisel from the monastery and began to chip away at the clay. As he knocked off pieces of clay, the little gleam grew brighter and bigger. It quickly became clear that the statue wasn’t clay at all. It was solid gold.

How could this be? Some historians knew the answer.

Several centuries before, the statue wasn’t in Bangkok at all, but in a small monastery out in the country. The Burmese army was about to invade Thailand (then known as Siam). Knowing the attack would soon come, and knowing their golden Buddha was too heavy to move very far, the Siamese monks covered their precious statue with an outer shell of plaster.

The deception worked, because the invading army left the plaster Buddha alone. But unfortunately, the invaders slaughtered all the monks from that particular monastery, so no one survived who knew the secret.

The statue was moved to the monastery in Bangkok. Generations of monks came and went, but no one knew what treasure was hidden underneath the clay. No one, that is, until that remarkable day in 1954. The statue, now known as the Golden Buddha, has a special temple dedicated to it: far more elaborate than the simple, tin-roofed pagoda where it once sat.

The Golden Buddha of Bangkok weighs just over 6 tons. The gold in it is valued at over 250 million dollars.

There’s a certain sense in which all of us are like that statue. Others look upon us and consider us rude — not in the behavioral sense, but rude in the sense of appearing rough, unfinished and unworthy. And so they treat us rudely at times.

If only they could know what treasure hides within!

From the opposite perspective, as you and I relate to others, we have little idea what treasure there is inside them. We may be tempted to treat them with equal rudeness.

The love of God, though — that love we come to know especially through Jesus Christ — penetrates that hard outer shell like an x-ray. It sees and appreciates the golden splendor within: as Jesus did with that little man Zacchaeus, in the story we read earlier. Who knew that a conniving tax collector like him could have such a generous heart? Jesus knew.

So, too, with the love we extend to others in Christ’s name. That love is never rude. It always seeks, discovers and appreciates the God-created value in others. And it makes them shine.

May you learn, ever more fully, how to give such love to others: and may you have the joy of receiving such love in return!

Let us pray:

When we were wandering and lost, O Lord,
You have sought us and found us.
You have stilled our rude hearts with your word of consoling.
Wrap now your peace, like a mantle, around us,
Guarding our thoughts and our passions controlling. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.