Sunday’s sermon: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick


Sermon title: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Texts used – Isaiah 12 and Ephesians 1:11-23

  • It was January 26, 1900. The then-governor of New York was writing a letter to Mr. Henry L. Sprague, a member of the New York state assembly from New York County’s 13th The letter read as follows: “Dear Harry; — Your letter of the 25th really pleased me. Of course, I shall not feel real easy until the vote has actually been taken, but apparently everything is now all right. I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ If I had not carried the big stick, the Organization would not have gotten behind me, and if I had yelled and blustered as Parkhurst and the similar dishonest lunatics desired, I would not have had ten votes.”[1] Roughly 18 months later, that same man, now Vice President of the United States, gave a speech at the Minnesota State Fair that would later be dubbed his “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” speech. In it, he said, “A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.’ … So it is with this nation … Let us make it evident that we intend to do justice. Then let us make it equally evident that we will not tolerate injustice being done in return. Let us further make it evident that we use no words which was are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.”[2] And only a few short weeks after delivering this speech, upon the assassination of President William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt would be sworn into office as President of the United State of America on Sept. 14, 1901.
    • “Speak softly and carry a big stick” sort of became America’s foreign policy motto for a long time
      • Roosevelt’s own foreign policy dealings[3]
        • (Probably) most well-known: establishment of the Panama Canal (1901)
        • Also: mediated the end of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) → earned him a Nobel Peace Prize (first American to do so – 1906)
      • Other e.g.s
        • Actions and attitudes that led the U.S. into WWII
        • Actions and attitudes that carried the U.S. into and through the Cold War
        • And I’m sure we could think of a lot more.
    • Look up the meaning of phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick” in a phrase dictionary = “a proverb advising the tactic of caution and non-aggression, backed up by the ability to do violence if required”[4]
    • But as Christians, how are we called to go about being in this world? How are we called to intertwine our actions and attitudes with our faith? In what way are we called to speak? And what are we to carry with us?
  • BEFORE WE CONTINUE: I have to take a minute to explain to you how I plan my sermons. Trust me … today, it matters.
    • Explain sermon planning retreat – May 2014 (1.5 yrs ago – planned all the Scripture readings and main ideas through the end of this year) → foundational planning ahead gives me the chance to get more done during the week in general.
    • Certainly nothing set in stone – make adjustments here and there as my schedule or as current events dictate → But that’s not what happened this week. These are the Scriptures I planned to use a year and a half ago. This was the general theme that I chose a year and a half ago. I truly believe that the appropriateness of it in the face of all that is going on in our country right now is one of those funny God moments in life.
  • So when you look in the bulletin this morning, you’ll probably notice something a little different about the sermon title. You should have seen the look on Sue’s face when I told her that yes, I did indeed want it crossed out like that in the final copy of the bulletin. J “Speak softly and carry a big stick” … crossed out. Here’s the thing: I think that as Christians, we are called to do and be and say and act exactly the opposite of this.
    • Is passage = great testament to how we are supposed to speak … And here’s your spoiler alert: nothing about it is soft! – text: And you will say on that day: “Thank the Lord; call on God’s name; proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples; declare that God’s name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth.” Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you.[5] → Doesn’t sound a lot like “speaking softly” to me. But we don’t just have to take Isaiah’s word for it.
      • Ps 98: Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth! Be happy! Rejoice out loud! Sing your praises![6]
      • Rev: Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.”[7]
      • 2 Chr: Moreover, [the people of Israel] made an oath to the LORD with a loud voice, with shouting, with trumpets and with horns.[8]
      • And that’s just a few examples. Over and over and over again throughout Scriptures, we are encouraged to give voice to our faith strongly, boldly, loudly and exuberantly, with great gusto and joy! “Speak softly” is not a part of that.
        • Plenty of Scripture about speaking from a place of honesty, a place of compassion, a place of wisdom and self-awareness … but always comes back to the Good News of God being shared with conviction and passion → And for anyone who’s ever tried, speaking about anything quietly but also with conviction and passion is basically impossible! You get excited. You get worked up. And you just can’t keep it in anymore! That Good News has to just explode out of you!
  • 2nd half of the phrase – tackling the idea of “carrying a big stick”
    • Inherently threatening
    • Inherently aggressive
    • Inherently forceful
    • If the first half of the phrase is the “diplomacy” portion, this is the “my way or the highway” portion. This portion implies the notion that, if we can’t come to an agreement or a compromise through dialogue, not only will I take my blocks and go home, but you’d better believe I’ll take your blocks, too. And probably the bag they came in … just for the principle of the thing! → certainly not the way we are called to go about being in this world as Christians
      • Jesus’ own words
        • In Lk: But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.[9]
        • In Mt: You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.[10]
        • “Golden Rule living”: Do to others as you would have them do to you.[11] → sort of flies right in the face of the whole “carry a big stick”/” the tactic of caution and non-aggression, backed up by the ability to do violence if required
      • Other Scripture
        • 1 Jn: The one who claims to be in the light while hating a brother or sister is in the darkness even now. The person loving a brother and sister stays in the light, and there is nothing in the light that causes a person to stumble. But the person who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and lives in the darkness, and doesn’t know where to go because the darkness blinds the eyes.[12]
      • Also about representing God and Christ appropriately – Paul in Eph: We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ.[13]
        • Gr. “honor” = praise, approval, recognition → Our lives are to be that living testament to God’s goodness and glory – the love that God shows us, the grace that God freely gives to us, the way that God cherishes our uniqueness, the way that we are – each and every one of us – made in the image of God, carriers of the divine spark.
          • Similar sentiment (stated a little more clearly) in Col: Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.[14] → That doesn’t mean God has given us carte blanch to do whatever the heck we please as long as we tack Jesus’ name on to the end of it. Far from it. We are to act as Jesus would have acted … and something tells me that in all his dealings with the sinners and the lepers, the women and the tax collectors, the demon-possessed and the Samaritans and the prostitutes and all the “wrong people” … something tells me Jesus wasn’t wielding a big stick.
            • Wielding compassion
            • Wielding a helping hand
            • Wielding open arms full of welcome
  • And yes, we’re going to go there. We’re going to address the elephant in the room. Because I believe in my heart that we can’t not address it this week. The election. Now, before we go further, hear me this morning. I’m not talking about who won or who didn’t. I’m talking about the ugliness that has followed. I’m talking about all of the pain and anger and hate that have completely boiled over and turned this entire country into one that I don’t recognize anymore. Friends, this is not how God calls us to be!
    • Pastor friend’s comment about everything being out in the open: “Now we know. We’ve been hiding how broken we are for a long time. It’s out. No more lies and pretending. We are a hot mess and the whole world knows it. There is some relief in having the secret finally out for all to see.” → We have long tried to tell ourselves that we are a better country, a safer country, a country that has evolved beyond the point of blatant and vicious discrimination based on race, gender, country of origin, etc. We have tried to tell ourselves that – to reassure ourselves that the smattering of stories that made it into the news were anomalies. That’s not how most of us feel or think or, even worse, act. But friends, this week has shed an ugly, ugly
      • Just a few of the stories
        • Graffiti in neighborhoods: “Black Lives doesn’t matter and neither does your vote”
        • Women grabbed in appropriately on the subway, not surreptitiously but openly and deliberately and unashamedly
        • Kids in school taunting their Hispanic classmates by chanting “Build the wall!”
        • Muslim women having their head scarves ripped off in public à also lots of accounts of Muslim women forgoing wearing their head scarves out of fear of being recognized
        • Anonymous notes and death threats left for same-sex families (families, ya’ll … including children)
        • Running errands with the boys this weekend – wore a shirt that says “Just love, No hate” → And I was nervous walking through Walmart! Not for myself. I’m a big girl. I can handle it. But I didn’t want that ugliness to rear its head in front of my boys. I don’t want them to see that.
        • And all sorts of vitriol and violence and evil spewing from people’s mouths that I cannot read from the pulpit. And yes, some of them have happened and are happening in Minnesota.
      • Important distinction to make: speaking BOLDLY and with gusto ≠ hurling slurs and obscenities as loudly as possible at everyone not like you → Frankly, I think that all of this hate and ugliness would have boiled over no matter who was declared the winner on Tues. night/Wed. morning! Yes, as Christians, we are called to speak loudly, but we are also called to speak from a place of love and compassion and appreciation of the many and varied gifts that God has given to us and to the people around us.
        • Paul in Eph: I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming power of God’s greatness that is working among us believers.[15] → It’s about being confident in our faith but humble enough to share it in ways that are life-giving, in ways that glorify not ourselves and our walks of life but God and God alone.
          • Quote from Glennon Doyle Melton: I am confident because I believe that I am a child of God. I am humble because I believe that everyone else is, too. They go hand in hand. They’ve got to. If I am humble but lack confidence, it is because I haven’t accepted that there is a divine spark inside me. … If I am in the habit of turning my back on others, it is because I haven’t learned that God approaches us in the disguise of other people.[16]
  • Leaving you with an object lesson this morning – explain safety pins
    • Began when UK voted to leave the EU back in June (referred to as Brexit) → unleashed a lot of racism and violence against immigrants in Britain
    • People started wearing safety pins – signify they were safe
      • Safe to talk to
      • Safe to sit next to on the bus or the subway
      • Safe … period: A marginalized person who is being harassed will look to you to help keep them safe. By wearing the safety pin you make a public pledge to be a walking, talking safe space for the marginalized. All of the marginalized. You don’t get to pick and choose.[17]
    • The pin is not about fighting back. It’s not about shouting down the aggressor or challenging them. It’s about the victim. It’s about engaging not with the hate but with the one who is vulnerable and afraid – seeing her, talking to him, placing yourself between the hate and the target. Be safe, obviously … but not too safe. Because that is where we are called to most boldly and passionately declare God’s Good News – to the dark places, the hard places, the uncomfortable places, the fringe places, the places of pain. Amen.

[1] From the “American Treasures of the Library of Congress” website,

[2] Ben Welter. “Sept. 3, 1901: Roosevelt ‘Big Stick’ speech at State Fair” from Yesterday’s News blog via the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, Posted Sept. 2, 2014, accessed Nov. 10, 2016.

[3] Jonna Lorenz. “Theodore Roosevelt’s Accomplishments: Teddy’s Foreign Policy Legacy” from NewsMax, Posted Aug. 26, 2014, accessed Nov. 12, 2016.

[4] “Speak softly and carry a big stick” from the Phrase Dictionary website,

[5] Is 12:4-6 (emphasis added).

[6] Ps 98:4.

[7] Rev 19:6.

[8] 2 Chr 15:14.

[9] Lk 6:27-28.

[10] Mt 5:21-22a.

[11] Lk 6:31 (NRSV).

[12] 1 Jn 2:9-11.

[13] Eph 1:12.

[14] Col 3:17.

[15] Eph 1:18-19a (emphasis added).

[16] Glennon Doyle Melton. Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. (New York, NY: Scribner, 2013), 174, 175-176.

[17] Isobel Debrujah. “So You Want to Wear A Safety Pin” from her blog What a Witch, Posted Nov. 12, 2016, accessed Nov. 12, 2016.

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