The Can’t of Cant, the Can of Candor
by the Reverend Dr. Byron E. Shafer, Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York, New York, 2 November 2002
Scripture Lessons: Matthew 23:1–7, 11–12, 23–24; Ephesians 4:14–15, 25a
A marvelous old word found new life last week in, of all places, a eulogy. In a tribute to the late Senator Paul Wellstone it was said that “he was a man without cant,” c-a-n-t, cant—by which was meant: he was a person you could count on to say what he would do and then do what he had said; he was a person free of hypocrisy, a person whose professed commitment to high ideals and goodness was sincere and without pretense or arrogance. Indeed, many people saw in this contemporary Jewish politician the same quality of candor that characterized the prophets of ancient Israel. Is it any wonder then that a number of Minnesotans who disagreed with Wellstone’s politics voted for him anyway, because they found his candor and character so irresistibly refreshing?
In this, Senator Wellstone stands in sharp contrast to the political and religious leaders who are the objects of Jesus’ scorn in this morning’s First Lesson—for those were men full of cant, persons who could not be trusted to live as they preached, hypocrites whose professed commitment to high ideals and goodness was shot through with humbug, sham, and pretense.
A moral that emerges from Jesus’s words to those leaders of old is this: “Cant can’t deliver; cant cannot lead the people in right paths. But candor can.” Hypocrisy and insincerity of speech-these cannot lead the people in right paths, but transparency and straightforwardness of expression-these can.
Well, if this is Jesus’ message, it should come as no surprise to us that the Letter to the Ephesians, as we have just heard, goes on to admonish and counsel all who want to be followers of Jesus to speak “the truth in love,” to put away falsehood and “speak the truth to our neighbors.”
Jesus’s warning to all leaders, both religious and political, that cant can’t deliver, that cant cannot lead the people in right paths, whereas candor can—that warning applies, I believe, to all of us who are clergy and lay leaders of congregations, and also to all who are political leaders in our city, state, and nation.
As far as churches are concerned, we would certainly be best served by clergy and lay leaders who are without cant, by clergy and lay leaders who are candid, forthright, straightforward—who not only talk the talk but also walk the walk, and do so not in pride but in humility, for Jesus also proclaims in today’s lesson that “the greatest among you will be your servant” and “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, [while] all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Certainly Jesus himself modeled that kind of humble servant-leadership. Jesus himself spoke without cant, spoke with absolute candor, spoke God’s truth in love. And Jesus’s plain-speaking was rooted in an utter humility, in a complete identification of himself as a servant-leader for the people. You see, Jesus was a leader who considered his own well-being to be so much less important than the well-being of those he had come to serve.
This kind of candor and humility modeled by Jesus is essential to sound leadership, essential to a person’s ability to lead others in right paths, not only in the church but also in all other arenas of life.
For example, take the body politic. It, too, would be best served by leaders who are without cant, leaders who are forthright and straightforward—who not only talk the talk but also walk the walk, and do so not in pride but in humility, having learned that “the greatest among you will be your servant” and “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, [while] all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
But why do I get the impression that most politicians, from those in Washington right down to those in the local precinct, seek to excel not in candor but in cant—in the kind of hollow, disingenuous doublespeak practiced by the likes of—well, as this week’s example, the Chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission, Harvey L. Pitt?
Last week, Pitt was cheerily assuring all of us Americas stung by the Enrons and Arthur Andersens of this world that former F.B.I. and C.I.A. Director William H. Webster is absolutely “the best person available” to chair this board newly created by Congress for overseeing the accounting profession. Yet now it has come to light that Pitt was assuring us of this while all the time knowing, but not revealing—even to his fellow commissioners on the S.E.C.—that Webster had served as chairman of the audit committee for the board of a corporation that is now standing accused of numerous accounting irregularities. Yes, Pitt has passed off onto us, as someone to watch over the flock, a wolf—a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Unconscionable”—that’s my word for the cant that is characteristic of the Harvey Pitts of this world. And I call on President Bush to see to it that Mr. Pitt is promptly discharged from his office.
And as if Washington isn’t bad enough, don’t you find the television and radio ads for many of the candidates standing for local election next Tuesday to be just absolutely chock full of cant?
So where can we turn to find models not of how to speak falsehood but of how to speak the truth in love? Where can we turn to find models not of how to lead in ways that are self-serving but of how to lead in ways that serve others? Where can we turn to find persons of candor and humility who can lead us in right paths?
Well, it was while I was asking myself just these questions that one answer came to me from a most unexpected place. Last Tuesday evening, Margaret and I had the opportunity to hear at St. Thomas Episcopal Church a stunningly beautiful concert featuring Benjamin Britten’s rarely performed 1948 cantata Saint Nicolas, with libretto by Eric Crozier. No doubt St. Thomas offered this magnificent hour-long work for the purpose of helping us prepare for celebrating All Saints’ Day this past Friday, November 1—helping us prepare for it by focusing us on the virtues of one particular saint.
Now, we Presbyterians, we Reformed Protestants, are not at all big on celebrating saints or saint’s days, so I was more than a bit resistant to the very idea of a cantata, of a sacred oratorio, devoted to a saint named Nicolas. Besides, who’s to know how much of what is told about this 4th-century bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, is history (probably only a little) and how much is legend (probably a lot). But the music and text of this cantata by Britten and Crozier won me over completely because they conveyed such a powerfully stirring and inspiring portrait of Nicolas as a person without cant, as a person of candor who spoke the truth in love to the power of the Roman Empire, and as a person who served the people with utmost humility. So quite unexpectedly, I found that this cantata offers people a truly gripping image of the kind of candor, humility and servant-leadership that Jesus demands of us.
So let me share with you just a few lines from Crozier’s profound libretto, lines which I have transcribed onto an insert that you will find in this morning’s bulletin. I’ve given you these lines so that you will be able, should you wish, to read them again at home.
First, hear these words from the section where Nicolas is wrestling with God’s calling of him to help redress the great evils in society, the dread plight in which we humans find ourselves. Listen:
Heartsick, in hope to mask the twisted face of poverty,
I sold my lands to feed the poor.
I gave my goods to charity
But Love demanded more.
Heartsick, I cast away all things that could distract my mind
From full devotion to [God’s] will;
I thrust my happiness behind
But Love desired more still.
Heartsick, I called on God
To purge my angry soul,
To be my only Master, friend and guide.
I begged for sweet humility
And Love was satisfied.”
Yes, it was when Nicolas offered God not only money to feed the poor, not only full devotion to God’s will, but also a spirit of sweet humility—it was then, and only then, that at last God, as Love, was satisfied.
Then toward the end of the cantata the chorus offers in song this reflection summing up all of Nicolas’s time as bishop:
For forty years our Nicolas,
Our Prince of men, our shepherd and
Our gentle guide, walked by our side.
We turned to him at birth and death,
In time of famine and distress,
In all our grief, to bring relief.
He led us from the valleys to
The pleasant hills of grace. He fought
To fold us in from mortal sin.
O! he was prodigal of love!
A spendthrift in devotion to
Us all and blessed as he caressed.”
Shortly after these lines, having recounted specific instances in which Nicolas had shown humble kindness to the poor and oppressed, the chorus turns to celebrating the bishop’s quality of candor. It recounts an episode in which Nicolas had spoken the truth in love to even the Emperor Constantine:
He threatened Constantine the Great
With bell and book and ban:
Till Constantine confessed his sins
Like any common man.”
How glorious it would be to be able to sing or speak words such as those in Britten’s cantata about today’s religious and political leaders! How glorious it would be to be able to sing today of persons who have spoken the truth in love and led us in right paths, of religious and political leaders beloved for their candor and humility and revered for their style of servant-leadership!
May the day when we can sing such words come, O God, and soon! Amen.
Early in Saint Nicolas, the chorus sings a particularly beautiful prayer, which, here at the conclusion of my sermon, I wish to offer on behalf of us all.
Let us pray:
Help us, LORD! To find the hidden road
That leads from love to greater Love, from faith
To greater Faith.
Strengthen us, O LORD!
Screw up our strength to serve thee with simplicity.”
By the Rev. Dr. Byron E. Shafer, preached at the Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York, New York, on November 2, 2002, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. Copyright © Byron E. Shafer. Used by permission.