Sunday, August 9, 2009

Speaking Truth, Speaking Love

Speaking Truth, Speaking Love

Third in a series from Ephesians
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
19th Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 9, 2009

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Dear Abby: “My mother-in-law has moved in with us. I am not sure if I can continue to take her constant comments about my housekeeping and my cooking. Every time we go out to eat, she is critical of the expense, yet when we eat at home, the food we prepare is never up to her standards. My husband says I should just appreciate how much she did for him when he was growing up and think of this time she is with us as our opportunity to return the favor. Abby, she didn’t raise me! It’s getting harder every day to bite my tongue and avoid lashing out at her. What should I do? Sign me ‘Boiling in Boise’.”

Dear Abby: “My wife’s best friend is over at our house all the time, and I am getting sick of it. She has been out of work for over 18 months, so she whines to my wife about it constantly, and my wife gives her groceries and even some spending money out of the little bit that we are able to bring home from our jobs. This woman has had several opportunities to go to work to pay some of her bills, but she just won’t get motivated. My wife says we should help her out, because she has children at home and they shouldn’t starve just because their mother is lazy. Worst of all, we have been finding little items missing from the house after she has been here, like my wife’s pearl brooch and a radio I keep in the garage. Not too long ago, my wife found a several of our CD’s at her ‘friend’s’ house, which she said she had just ‘borrowed.’ Abby, I want to be compassionate, but this is just too much. How should we deal with this? Sign us ‘Desperate in Des Plaines’.”

Dear Abby: “My friend, I’ll call him ‘Ned,’ never has a nice word to say about anybody. I like Ned, but every time we get together, the conversation always turns to the things that are wrong with all the people he knows. I have heard him heap abuse on some people that I know pretty well, and they aren’t nearly as bad as he makes them out to be. He seems so bitter, but it’s like his hobby: gossiping about other people seems to be the thing he’d rather talk about than anything else. I’ve begun to wonder what he says about me when he’s with other people. How can I help Ned get a better attitude? Sign me ‘Slandered in St. Louis’.”

If you were Abby, or her daughters, or whoever is writing the column now, how would you respond to these letters? Abby might trot out her laundry list of time-worn advice-column items. To “Boiling in Boise,” she might respond with the old “No one can take advantage of you without your permission. You need to tell your mother-in-law how you feel, and your husband needs to back you up...” To “Desperate in Des Plaines,” Abby might say, “Unload this so-called ‘friend’ pronto! She needs counseling...” She might advise “Slandered in St. Louis,” “Ned’s got a real problem with his self-esteem. He needs counseling, and as his friend, you should suggest it to him. Why not leave a copy of this column under his plate the next time you have lunch together…?”

We all value truthful speaking, but only to a certain extent. We hear people say, “Isn’t she refreshingly candid?” or “At least you don’t have to guess where he stands.” Of course, some people are just characteristically negative, no matter what light we throw on it. But we also know people who can be candid – that is, speak the insightful truth as they see it – in an unvarnished yet positive way.

I think Paul received similar questions from people in the churches he started, but he had something behind his answers that set them apart from any advice column. Abby and Ann Landers and all the rest have given a list of do’s and don’ts over the years that look very similar to Paul’s:

  1. Speak the truth
  2. Acknowledge your anger
  3. Labor and work honestly
  4. Share with the needy
  5. Say what is useful for building up
  6. Be kind to one another
  7. Forgive one another
  8. Live in love
  1. Lie
  2. Let the sun set on your anger
  3. Steal
  4. Engage in trashy talk
  5. Grieve the Holy Spirit
  6. Be bitter, wrathful, angry, quarrelsome, slanderous, malicious

But as Paul writes us these words of advice which sound like advice we might get anywhere, we might write back: “Dear Paul, you told us we should do this and that, but why should we?” Signed, “Effective in Ephesus.”

Paul’s response is the place where we begin to realize that, for all its similarities to a modern list of good advice for moral behavior, Ephesians is so much more than that. Why should we try to walk by principles such as the ones listed here? Because of these two sentences: “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. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us...” It’s very unlikely that we will see those lines in any upcoming newspaper advice columns.

We should strive to live a new life, not because Abby said that by trying harder we can be effective. Our trying may never be effective. But it is empowered by the knowledge that we are called to act toward others the way God acted toward us. We must speak the truth in love because we are members of one another in the same sense that an arm or a leg is a member of the body. One member of a body trying to deceive another is senseless. Someone once said that the New Testament does not give us directions, but direction. When we fail to live up to the code established for us and begin to wonder why we should try, the gospel directs us toward Jesus, who gave up everything in order that we might know the love of God.

Why act a way that is different from all other people? Because that is the way God is. One little side note, since this is the Bible passage that includes the proverbially famous line about not letting the sun go down on anger. The admonition sounds like a command: “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Actually, it needs to be heard more this way: “You may be angry, if you can’t help it, but don’t let that anger become an obsession,” one nursed to the point that makes it a fixation, an immovable object in the way of reconciling with others and imitating Christ, who, after all, prayed even for those who took up hammers and nails to attach him to the cross. Anger is admitted as a natural emotion, but upon recognition, it calls for a decision. Paul tells us to decide the way Christ did.

Tennyson’s poem, Maud, includes the line

And ah for (one) to arise in me,
that the (one) I am may cease to be!

The one who may arise in us is none other than Jesus Christ, Son of God, Christ in us. It is a prayer that we might decrease so that Christ might increase in us.