Ephesians, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Proper 14B, Sermons

Before You Speak

(A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 12, 2012–Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

It’s a Sufi saying: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself ‘Is is true.’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary.’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind.’

Evangelist Alan Redpath formulated a similar rubric, using the word “think.”
T—Is it true?
H—Is it helpful?
I—Is it inspiring?
N—Is it necessary?
K—Is it kind?

Redpath added, “If what I am about to say does not pass those tests, I will keep my mouth shut!”

“…don’t say nothing at all.”

Here’s another rendering of this principle, one you may remember from the movies.
Mrs. Rabbit cautions her son: “Thumper!”
Thumper: Yes, mama?
Mrs. Rabbit: What did your father tell you this morning?
Thumper: [clears throat] If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.

Any principle so broadly accepted that it is espoused by Islamic mystics, evangelical Christian ministers and Walt Disney must have something to it.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear…Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:25-27, 29, 31-32, NRSV)

This is part of a letter addressed to the members of a very young church, intended to help them live together in their new relationship as a community of God’s people. Changed by their devotion to Jesus Christ, they struggled, as did all the early churches, to live out their new commitment in the ways they interacted with each other and with the community around them. If we’re looking for guidance, we find the same advice across time and faiths and even in popular culture, don’t we?

“If you can’t say something nice…don’t say nothing at all.”

Lucy is up at Pilgrim Lodge this week, having a second turn this summer serving as a CIT, a sort of Junior Counselor. As we turned down the dirt road at the entrance, she breathed a happy sigh and said, “This is the best.camp.ever.” She says that now knowing what goes into making it such a special place. And she would tell you that it came as a slightly disappointing surprise to take the CIT training last year and learn that so much of what she thought just HAPPENS at Pilgrim Lodge is in fact intentional.

The rules, the boundaries, sure, she knew those must be thought through and planned for good reason. The schedule, the option times and special activities—yes, those require planning. But what surprised Lucy is that the counselors, junior and otherwise, learn how to create the atmosphere of trust and acceptance and gentle discipline that IS Pilgrim Lodge.

The labyrinth at PL–read more here.

It’s true that the spirit of the trees and the lake make it easier. Campers—and counselors, too—are unplugged from the world and have a chance to be more present. They swim and sing and walk the labyrinth and pray in the chapel and wake up the echo and listen for the loons. But the intentional work of the staff and the volunteers maintains what they call being “Pilgrim Lodge-ical.” And that means treating each other the way the epistle teaches, with kindness and an understanding that we are all part of the body of Christ.

It sounds so beautiful.

But I have a confession to make. When Lucy told me she needed to bring a watch and couldn’t find the one I got for her before camp last summer, my response was *not* Pilgrim Lodge-ical. I did not take the time to think before I spoke. I walked through my thoughts through no three gates. I most assuredly didn’t say “nothing at all.”

Not my daughter’s dresser.

And while it might be true that the top of someone’s dresser is a mess, the way I named it was not helpful, or inspirational, or necessary, and it wasn’t even close to kind.

Before you speak – maybe you do better at this kind of thing than I do. Maybe in a moment of frustration you can walk through those three gates and hold yourself back. Oh, there are times I get it right, but I absolutely get it wrong, too.

We didn’t stay mad long enough – yes, we were both mad, but mostly me—to have to worry about the sun going down on our anger. But I’ve been known to hold onto things. You? If you haven’t, God bless you. Speaking the truth while being kind, being angry but not sinning—these are not easy things to do. They never have been, and I’m afraid living in the modern world in which we have so many more ways to fly off the handle at each other makes it even more difficult. There are too many ways to respond instantly. Just read the comments on almost any newspaper website.

Actually, don’t. They might make you despair about humanity.

Christians are just as apt to live by the 21st century rules as anybody else. We carry out our arguments about God and what we think the Bible means and who we think Jesus was and who he would have approved and disapproved in every kind of public forum we can find. We leave nasty comments and accuse each other of not being Christian at all. In America, we mix up our national identity with our faith identity and that just makes us meaner to each other.

We let the sun go down on our anger as regularly as the sun goes down.

That’s the big “we,” the overarching “we,” and you and I can’t do much to change the way the big “we” does things. We might wish the world were more like how we do things at our house (well, except for yesterday morning at mine). But we can only change the way we, little “we,” this us right here and the you and me who form it. We can only change ourselves.

Now, we know the things we read this morning are good ideas. Agreed? Speak kindly, treat each other well. Think it through. Evaluate. T.H.I.N.K.

Walk through the gates, before you speak: is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?

And if you can’t say something nice…Well, maybe not that one, not all the time. It’s not bad advice for a young cartoon bunny. But the reality of grown-up life, in families and in churches, is that sometimes we need to tell somebody something that isn’t all that nice, but needs to be said anyway, because it’s true and because it’s necessary.

Then the key is to be kind.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32, NRSV)

There are people who come to this naturally. I have the greatest respect for them. They are wired for respectful kindness and tenderhearted patience. They are saints, really. But most of us need to work at it. Kind communication is a tough spiritual discipline. It takes intention and practice.

~before you speak~

• We remind ourselves what is “Pilgrim Lodge-ical”…or not.
• We put a list on the Sunday bulletin, or the classroom wall.
• We write ourselves a note, or draw a picture of the three gates.
• Or maybe we start with Thumper, picturing a bunny and quietly, kindly biting our tongues until we find the right words.

It’s hard. I’m afraid I say that a lot. Being a Christian is not easy. But listen to this:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2, NRSV)

Christians, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. We aren’t out here doing it alone. We are loved by God, loved so much that God became one of us in Christ Jesus. I believe God is working for us and in us and through us, calling us to be beloved children and to live in love.

Live in love.

Maybe that’s the intention we need, before we speak. Amen.

John 6, Proper 14B

Jesus in a leather cowboy hat

In this Olympic season of measuring the superiority of one person over another by their speed or ability to throw or jump, it’s interesting to take a look at the ways Jesus is measured in John 6. It doesn’t matter how many people he heals or feeds miraculously. Familiarity breeds contempt. People know him. They knew his father. They know his mama.

Won’t he just shut up already?

No. He goes on and on and says he is the bread come down from heaven, and it’s not just that he says he is bread, which is weird, but it’s also that he says the bread is from heaven, which is really kind of self-important sounding, isn’t it?

Also possibly a little crazy.

Maybe he’s not florid, but there’s an intense quality that might worry some people, no?

Sometimes someone turns up at my office door who might be defined the same way. A person who exhibits some grandiosity. Frequently that person carries a perfume of alcohol. (Usually smoke, too, but the real problem with that is being closed into my small office with the aroma.) Sometimes that person is just plain florid, without the help of substances. Often he or she has some big ideas. Mostly they are big ideas about themselves and what the church can do for them.

I try to contain the situation. Once I got a call that such a person had turned up at my first church, not for the first time, and had been told to come back when I was there the next day. I brought my big dog with me, just in case. In my current setting, people drive by, see a church, and decide to give us a try, and there is nearly always a story of complexity and tragedy and homelessness and a need for a bag of cat litter from the Pet Pantry we run. (That last one is real.)

And I think the people who knew Jesus’ parents were putting him in that category. Maybe.

Jesus makes it easier for them.

Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:43-33a, NRSV)

In other words, cut it out. I don’t care. You only understand me if my Father wants you to understand.

Still, he goes on explaining.

I want to think, when I read the other gospels, that there was a concerted political effort to shut up a person whose philosophy threatened the authorities and their way of life, that they couldn’t see past their own security to his divinity. But when I read John 6, I begin to wonder about all this rambling musing over bread and feel a little uncomfortable. This is not an accessible sermon he’s preaching.

I once spent an hour in my office with a tattooed guy in a leather cowboy hat who wanted the church to give away some money, but only by his rules.

I have also sat at lunch with men in neckties who wanted the same thing.

And I have been guilty of wanting to go along with the latter and hoping the former will leave and never come back.

Because I am thinking, “I know his Mama. I know his story. What can he possibly have to tell me?”

I am guilty.

From Cowboy Hat Jesus, I kid you not.

While I was writing this post, one of the above showed up unexpectedly and asked to stop in for a chat. It’s 6 o’clock. I am alone in the building. I begged off, saying I have a meeting at 7 (true) and need to finish preparing for it (somewhat true). Yes, it’s sensible not to meet with people when I am alone in the building. Yes.

But I am guilty.

I’m not sure I would have put the other type off that way.

So Cowboy Hat Jesus, I confess. Forgive me for my bias, my sense that I know it all, and my fear of men who show up at the backdoor unannounced. I hope it wasn’t you this time. I hope it wasn’t you.