Sunday, October 13, 2013

Running on Empty? Travel Buddies (Ephesians 4:29-5:2)

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. 30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.
Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 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.

God’s grace is a gift to us to help us make our spiritual journey, God is offering us grace all the time so that we don’t feel like we’re always running on empty.  The key is to take advantage of the opportunities we have to receive grace, which brings us to the practices we’ve been examining over the last few weeks.  The more we do all of these things, the more grace we receive in this road trip we call a spiritual journey.  We’ve already said that God gives us grace when we use the right fuel, which is worship; when we check our fluids by remembering the grace of our baptism; when we hit faith’s OnStar button of prayer; and when we eat in the car, which is receiving Holy Communion.

One of the best parts of any road trip is the people we travel with.  Today, we’ll be talking about our travel buddies in our spiritual journey, and how our conversation with them matters.  May we pray.

In my family, the gift of gab is a widely-distributed gift.  We are a family of talkers, which I never really thought about until I met Ashley’s family, who are a bit quieter than mine.  When my extended family is gathered together, everyone talks at the same time – taking a breath in the middle of a story means that you’ll be out of the conversation for the next twenty minutes, and I sort of assumed all families are like this.  Then I met Ashley’s family, where they do the strangest thing – one person talks, while everyone else listens patiently, and then there is silence while everyone thinks about what has just been said, and in a few moments, someone else will begin to talk, and the cycle begins again.  It was the strangest thing I have ever seen!  We discovered that we come from two different families with two different approaches to conversation.  It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, but they are very different!

The human experience requires our interaction with others.  Now, you know as well as I do that not every interaction with other people is a positive or a pleasant interaction.  Some of you heard about an incident that happened to me in a parking lot last week – a lady driving a Nissan Armada parked a foot over the line into my parking space, and while I appreciated the difficulty she was having backing her behemoth vehicle out of the space when it was parked so close to mine, she sorta created the situation.  However, she still felt it necessary to yell at me and give me the Hawaiian good luck sign as she drove away!  Not every interaction we have with other people is going to be a pleasant one!

And yet, as people of faith, we are called to conduct ourselves with grace in all situations, pleasant or not.  Every conversation with every travel buddy on life’s journey is to be seasoned with God’s grace, making it holy conversation.

Holy conversation - it sounds like something Robin might have exclaimed - “Holy Conversation, Batman!”  Or, perhaps conversation between two nuns, or maybe some special way of speaking where we say “Thee” and “Thou” all the time.  It’s a bit simpler than that.  Verse 29 of today’s Scripture reading says, “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.”

When the Scripture tells us not to let “foul words” come out of our mouths, perhaps we think of those four-letter words we didn’t even know were bad until we were told not to say them.  Yet, it 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 when you walk into the house, the only word to describe the odor is “foul.”  “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth” – don’t say things that stink up the place.

I remember a sign that Mrs. Jasper hung in our Sunday School room as kids.  It said, “Before you Speak, Ask Yourself, 1. It is Kind?  2. Is it True?  3. Is it Necessary?”  If the answer to any of those things was “No,” then the appropriate thing to do with whatever we were thinking was to keep it to ourselves.  Again, the Scripture: “Let no 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.”

None of us has any control over what other people say.  We do, however, have absolute control over what we say.  What we say can give grace or give grief, our words can build up, or they can tear down.  Foul words are those that grieve others, that tear them down, that belittle them or are just idle gossip; such speech has no place in the life of a Christian.  Say only what is helpful for building others up and is a benefit to all who hear.  Let no foul words come out of your mouths.

Don’t let them come out of your phone line, or the hushed conversation in the church parking lot after a meeting when you think no one else is listening.  Don’t let foul words – unkind words, untrue words, unnecessary words – come out of your email or Facebook account.  Can I get up on a soapbox for a minute?  Chain emails and Facebook posts that are anything but an attempt to build anyone up or encourage them.  Most of these are filled with distortions, hoaxes, and outright lies – and if that’s not bad enough, most of the people forwarding and posting these things with me claim to be Christians.

The issue is not whether or not we like someone, agree with them, or approve of what they’re doing.  It is easy to be nice and pleasant toward people we agree with; anyone can do that!  The real issue at hand is whether or not we will compose ourselves with civility and grace, especially when we are dealing with someone we disagree with.

Friends, before you hit “send,” before you hit, “share,” take a moment and ask yourself, “Is it kind?  Is it true?  Is it necessary?”  If the answer is “no” or even “I don’t know,” then use your better judgment and keep it to yourself.

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.”  The real art of holy conversation is to leave unsaid what verse 31 warns us against: “bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander,” especially at the tempting moment.

I know that’s easier said than done.  But, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to see the sacred worth in people who are created in the image of God just as we are, including those with whom we disagree, including even those we might consider our enemies.

Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has advocated for women’s rights and access to education, has been in the news again this week.  A year ago, she was shot in the head by Taliban militants in a failed assassination attempt.  She has recovered fully, is continuing to speak out for equal rights, and on Friday, became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  Earlier this week, she sat down with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart for an interview, and in a key moment, Stewart asked her how she responded when she learned that the Taliban wanted her dead.  Here’s her response:

 (3:55 – 5:20)

A friend of mine remarked that her words “seem eerily familiar to Jesus' command in Matthew 5 to love your enemies. There was something about her words that seemed to cut through those religious labels and reveal something deeply, universally human.” (Marta Layton, Facebook: 10/10/2013).

Friends, let us not stoop down to play in the mudholes of personal insult and injury or respond to anger with more anger.  Let us all be better than that!

What we say, or email, or post on our Facebook or do – is a reflection on us, our priorities, and the values we claim to champion.  How we treat others reflects more on us than it does on the person we’re speaking about.  Whether an enemy, a politician, a friend, a church member, a family member, we are called to be people of grace.  Let us lay down speech and actions that tear down and destroy.  Let us, instead, as followers of Jesus, lead the way in speech and action that builds up and encourages.

Verse 32 says, “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.”  Friends, let us never forget who we are and to whom we belong!  Our identity is, first and foremost, defined by our relationship to God!  That identity comes ahead of our political party or nation or even family, and we are called to conduct ourselves with the love and grace of Christ.

God has forgiven and accepted us through Christ, even while we were yet sinners – in full rebellion against God, in full opposition to God, at the farthest distance we could get from God – even then, God extended his love and grace toward us and offered us a relationship with him through the sacrificial love of Jesus.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other.  Don’t belittle people or their position – love them as Christ loves you, and I guarantee you will start to see them differently.
What we say not only reflects on us, but affects us.  Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving – you may never change the other person, but you, most certainly, won’t be the same.  There is an old Cherokee legend of a grandson who came to his grandfather after some friend has wronged him, full of rage and spewing all sorts of hateful things about his friend.  The grandfather listened and said, “Hate and anger will wear you down more than your enemy.  Hanging onto hate and anger is like drinking poison yourself, in the hopes that he will die.  I, too, have struggled with these feelings many times.”

He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me.  One is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with those around him, neither seeking to offend, nor taking offense when none was intended.

“But the other wolf, is full of hate and fear and suspicion.  He looks out only for himself, and is consumed with blind rage and anger.  He fights everyone, for no reason.  He cannot think for his anger and hatred are so great.

“It is hard to live with both, for every day, a fight rages inside of me as each tries to dominate my spirit.”

The grandson said, “Which one will win?”

The grandfather smiled and replied, “The one I feed.”

So it is for us.  We have a choice, between words that tear down and destroy or words that build up and encourage, words that give grief and guilt, or words that give grace.  When we choose the words that give grace, we find that we also receive grace.  In your bulletin is a little card, “Guidelines for Holy Conversation.”  Put it somewhere you’ll see it, and think about those guidelines every time you go to speak.  I guarantee that if you do, others will find grace in you and in your words.

We have a choice – between words that stink up the place and those with the fragrance of God’s grace and love in Christ. Negative words cause us and those around us to feel like we’re running on empty.  Words that encourage and build up – those fill everyone up with grace.

On the human journey, our travel buddies are among God’s greatest and most sacred gifts to us.  Yes, it’s true that not every interaction we have with others is going to be a pleasant one, and we still have no control over what other people say or do, but as people who are committed to seasoning our interactions with grace, we can disagree on things without becoming disagreeable. As followers of Jesus, let us imitate Jesus – not a broken political system, not cable news networks, not sensationalist journalists and bloggers – don’t act like them, show them how to act by acting like Jesus!

God, help us to see people by the light of the faith we profess, that we may check in ourselves all ungenerous judgments and all presumptuous claims.  Help us to see the needs and rightful claims of others, remove old hatreds and rivalries, and hasten new understanding.  Use us, our words, and our actions, to show your love and grace to all your beloved children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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