Sunday, September 16, 2012
The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Holy Conversation (Ephesians 4:29-5:2)
Today we are wrapping up a series of messages we’ve been in for several weeks, called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.” Just as a hitchhiker is dependent on the generosity of someone else to make a journey, so too are we spiritual hitchhikers, dependent on God’s generosity for our spiritual journey. Over and over, the thing that God gives us is grace.
Over the last several weeks, we have talked about practical, proven ways that we experience God’s grace - where God’s love and God’s presence are made tangibly real in our lives. The image I’ve asked all of us to keep in our minds is of God driving around in a great big bus just overflowing with grace, making periodic stops along the way where we can get on the bus and make the journey with God. The stops are places where we receive grace from God, so long as we do two things, the first is to----show up, and the second is to----have an open and willing heart.
So far we have made stops at Communion, Baptism, healing, prayer, and worship. Today, we make one final stop, and even though we’re looking at this one last, it might be the most important one of all. Today we talk about how we experience God’s grace through holy conversation. May we pray.
Holy Conversation Applies to Everyone
Question for you this morning - if you never speak to, listen to, or otherwise interact with other people, would you please raise your hand? Raise it high and leave it up, if you would! If your hand is raised, you are free to check out right now, because today’s message is only applicable to those who do speak to, listen to, and otherwise interact with other people.
Today we’re looking at how we experience God’s grace through holy conversation. It sounds like something Robin might have exclaimed - “Holy Conversation, Batman!” Or, perhaps it sounds like conversation between two nuns, maybe it sounds like the content of conversation taking place in or about church, or maybe some special way of speaking where we say “Thee” and “Thou” all the time. Yet, holy conversation is less about the content of our conversation and more about the spirit in which we converse, and we are called to practice it every time we open our mouths.
Today’s Scripture reading couldn’t be clearer in this regard. Verse 29 - “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. “Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” If ever there was a blueprint for holy conversation, for the type of speaking and interacting that gives grace, this text is it.
When the Scripture tells us not to let “foul words” come out of our mouths, perhaps we think of those four-letter words, those naughty words - words we didn’t even know existed, much less knew were bad - until we were told not to say them. Yet, this reference to “foul words” is more like what happens when you go on vacation and your fridge breaks down while you’re gone and everything in it spoils, and you walk back into the house and the only word to describe the odor is “foul.” “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth” - in other words, don’t say things that stink up the place.
Easier said than done - especially less than two months before a national election. We are a divided and polarized people. Have you seen the image: “I desperately need a ‘hide political posts’ button on Facebook so I can still like my friends after the election is over”? It is fine to have disagreements and genuine difference of opinion - that’s just part of life and being connected to other people - we need to remember that just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable.
Our civilization lacks basic civility, filled with labels that we use as weapons to demonize people who are different from ourselves: conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, fundamentalist or radical. These labels allow us to marginalize people as “out,” rather than “in,” as “against us” rather than “with us” - and then we hear the Scripture - “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth [Don’t say things that stink up the place]. Only say what is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”
What we say can give grace or give grief, our words can build up, or they can tear down. Foul words - those that stink up the place - are those that grieve others, that tear them down, that destroy others, that pridefully exalt ourselves and belittle others; such speech has no place in the life of a Christian. The text makes it even clearer in verse 31: “Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.”
None of us has any control over what other people say, but each of us is responsible for our own words. When I was a kid in Sunday School, Mrs. Jasper hung a sign in our room that said, “Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” If the answer to any of those was “no,” the most appropriate thing to do with whatever you were thinking was to keep it to yourself. Don’t say things that stink up the place.
Dorothy Neville says, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” My wife always has the perfect comeback an hour too late. I have the opposite problem - a snappy retort is sometimes past my lips before my brain can say “WAAAAIT!” and in the end, neither is particularly desirable. It’s not only saying the right thing at the right place, it’s leaving unsaid the wrong thing when tempted (bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander).
Rubber and Glue
What we say is a major reflection on who we are. When someone said something bad about us or insulted us when we were kids, what did we say - “I am rubber and you are glue. What you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” It’s just something we used to deflect whatever they said, but there’s a lot of truth in this playground comeback line. What we say, particularly what we say about others, reflects more on us than it does on the person we’re speaking about. Just as the odor of spoiled food indicates a broken refrigerator, so too does the odor of foul words - words that tear down rather than build up - indicate a broken person.
Who we are on the inside will make itself known in the words that come out of our mouths. The question I would like each of us to consider this morning is this: what do our words smell like? When we open our mouths to speak, are our words foul or sweet? Do our words build up, are they helpful, do they benefit those who hear them, do they give grace - or do our words tear down, are they hurtful, do they grieve those who hear them? When we open our mouths to speak, what smell are we making?
Putting it Into Practice
I have prepared some cards for each of you to take with you today. They say, “Guidelines for Holy Conferencing,” and when they are practiced, can help us sweeten our conversation with God’s love, that our words might give grace to all who hear them. I’d like everyone here to take one of these cards home, and put it in a place where you will see it every day, and every time you go to speak, think about these guidelines and how they can shape your conversation. I guarantee that if you follow them for everything you say, those around you will find grace in you and your words.
“Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth” - don’t let them come out of your email, either, or your Facebook feed, or your phone line. Don’t let them be exchanged in the parking lot before church or after the meeting, in your yard, at your party, at home, at work, at school, or wherever else you find yourself this week. Why? Because you’re better than that. That’s not who you are - you and I are members of the body of Christ, and as such we are called - commanded, even - to make sure that our words never tear down but always build up, that our words are never giving people grief but always giving them grace - and to the extent that grace is experienced through what we say, then our conversation is holy.
Paul spells it out even further in verses 32 and following: “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2). The cure for words that stink up the place is the self-sacrificing agape love of God in Christ, a love lavished upon us not because we deserve it, but simply because that’s who God is and that’s what God chooses to do. Holy conversation is a means of grace because its source is grace. We call it holy conversation because through our words, people can see beyond us and glimpse the holiness of God, the love of Christ, and the breath of the Spirit that shapes and forms our words so they give grace.
The Answer is Always Grace
And when it all comes down to it, for followers of Jesus, those who are trying to imitate God and follow the example of Christ, it really is all about grace - receiving God’s grace, using God’s grace, giving God’s grace to others. Our theology, our practices, our understanding, our relationships, our way of being followers of Jesus in the world - all of that is rooted in our experience of God’s grace.
Every message in this series - every stop along the route of our grace bus - is a means of grace. These are basic practices given by God to the church in order to lead people to Christ and keep them connected with him. The means of grace are foundational gifts from God intended to be practiced frequently in order to help us be the best we can be.
From now on for the rest of your lives, my hope is that every time you have an opportunity to practice these means of grace, you do. I hope some lightbulb goes off in your head around these things that makes you say, “Grace! I need grace! I want grace, and I know where to go to get it.” I hope you remember that all of these are places you can go get some grace - in the frequent celebration of Communion, in frequently remembering the covenant made at our Baptism, in seeking healing, in prayer that involves as much listening as speaking, and in joining together with others in the public worship of God - that you will seek out these opportunities frequently, and find God’s grace made real in your life because of it. If you do, then this whole series of messages will have been worth it.
For today, may you fulfill the Scripture, to “be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32). May the fragrance of the words you say and the spirit in which you say them be sweet. May what you speak build up and give grace. May all your conversation be holy.