Meaning What We Say – and Believe

9-10-17  Scripture:  Matthew 18:15-20

Theme:  We say we believe in the truth, and this is well and good so long as we confine that understanding to God’s revelation in Christ.  But often we resist another form of truth that is all too commonplace, and all too real – the truth about ourselves.  We hate reproof, we detest criticism, we fear the terrible monster of guilt – and hence we are all too prone to avoid telling each other the truth, about ourselves, but especially about someone else.  “It’s none of our business,” we tell ourselves; but the objective of the Christian life is to develop such a love-centered community that we are able to tell each other the truth about ourselves, and share the truth we see in others, without becoming defeated.  We need both the good news and bad news in order grow into Christ.  This is the challenge of fully being Christ’s body.

An efficiency expert was giving a lecture on techniques for improving business practices.  He concluded a lecture with a note of caution: “You don’t want to try these techniques at home.” 

“Why not?” asked someone from the back of the audience. 

“I watched my wife’s routine at breakfast for years,” the expert explained. “She made lots of trips to the refrigerator, stove, table, and cabinets, often carrying just a single item at a time. ‘Honey,’ I suggested, ‘Why don’t you try carrying several things at once?'” 

The person in the audience asked, “Did it save time?” 

The expert replied, “Actually, yes. It used to take her 20 minutes to get breakfast ready. Now I do it in seven.” 

 The truth in this story is self-evident — you’ve got to be careful what you say!   Words are our main tool for communication, and it’s amazing how easily they are misused, misunderstood, maligned, misinterpreted, or just plain simply missed.  Many times the problem lies with the one who is talking – they don’t realize what they are saying, they haven’t thought about how it’s coming across, or they haven’t really considered who they are talking to, or where they are doing their talking. 

I tried to download a commercial from Superbowl 39 which illustrated this truth extremely well.  A man walks into a convenience store with one of those ear-cell-phone things – it attaches to your ear, and somehow you can talk so that it will pick the words up.  He’s talking to the person on the other end of the cell phone about the other man’s recent purchase of a stereo deck.  “How much did you pay?” he says.  “You paid that much?  That’s way too much.”  In the meantime, he moves to the counter.  At once, he says, “You’re getting robbed.”  The man behind the cashier, whose back is turned, hears those words, instantly grabs a can of pepper spray, turns it on the man, grabs a baseball bat, slugs the poor fellow; out of the back of the store comes yet another clerk, who gives the coup de grace with an electric cattle prod.   

You’ve got to be careful what you say!  And where you say it.  And who you say it to.  We all know this is true.  But there’s a deeper, more subtle manner where words fail us – when we don’t use them when needed.  Just as we’ve got to be careful about what we say, we’ve got to be careful about what we hold back. 

Case in point – a few summers ago, I had a wonderful time up at Flathead Lake leading a class for the School of Christian Mission.  One day, I was delighted to see a full salad bar in operation for lunch.  I had a wonderful salad full of spinach and sprouts, and even those wonderful bacon-bits that just about break your teeth.  After lunch, there was a meeting that I attended for all the leaders.  We spent about an hour going through a lot of details; it was a fun meeting, where we got the business done in the midst of sporadic laughter.  We laughed a lot, it was a good group.  Then I returned to my cabin, to get ready to lead my class, and that’s when I looked in the mirror.  I was horrified to see a great big piece of lettuce lodged between my front teeth.  Very obvious.  You couldn’t miss it.  No one had said a thing, but I know many people in that meeting saw it – I had smiled and laughed a lot, and when I do so, my teeth really show.  I feared being known as that leader with the green thingy in his teeth. 

I wish someone had said something, sooner rather than later.  I wish someone had pulled me aside and simply said, “YOU’VE GOT SOME GREEN GUNK IN YOUR TEETH!”  I wish someone had told me the truth, rather than simply been polite. 

It made me think – why is it so hard to be honest with someone else?  Lettuce in the teeth aside, there are certainly more important things to be honest about.  How someone makes us feel.  When someone tells something untrue.  When someone is doing something that hurts another.  It’s pretty obvious – it’s hard to be honest with someone because we usually fear one of three things: 

  • we might hurt them;
  • we might make them mad;
  • we might be wrong!

But here is Jesus, telling us that we need to try.  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Many have taken this passage to imply a kind of  “three strikes and you’re out” policy that Christ is advocating, but I don‘t think so.  After all, how did Christ treat Gentiles and tax collectors, so-called sinners of his day?  Did he not reach out to them even more, offering them the gift of grace, saying “I have come not for the righteous, but for the sinners?”  Does not scripture relate that Jesus shared a constant love for the righteous and unrighteous, even advocating that we are to love our enemies, and that the Son of God was came to the world for the sake of those who were lost and broken?  

I believe that the problem with such “correction” is that we are trained or acclimated to leave out the love part – we correct others out of a desire to improve efficiency, effectiveness, or out of a desire for revenge or justice, or out of a desire to improve or correct, but rarely do we correct out of a sense of purely loving the individual –and it shows.  We truly are quick to judge, and slow to love; Christ would have us reverse that order.  Larry W. Osborne put it this way:  “Needing the precise scalpel of correction, we often experience the blunt ax of criticism.” 

There is a better way, pointed out wonderfully by our own founder of United Methodism, John Wesley.  Under Wesley’s guidance, people met together in little communities to help hold each other accountable for their deepest values and most important decisions. Wesley had a beautiful phrase for this: He called it watching over one another in love. 

Before someone entered into this community, they would be asked a series of questions to see if they were serious about living in mutual accountability.  These are the questions: 

  • Does any sin, inward or outward, have dominion over you? 
  • Do you desire to be told of your faults? 
  • Do you desire to be told of all your faults—and that plain and clear? 
  • Consider! Do you desire that we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear concerning you? 
  • Do you desire that in doing this we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom? 
  • Is it your desire and design to be on this and all other occasions entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart, without exception, without disguise, and without reserve? 

What do you think would happen if we stopped right here in this worship service, turned to each other, and asked each other these questions?  I can tell you what would happen – DEAD SILENCE.  We don’t talk about such things in church, do we?  Too personal, too intimate, too confessional, too invasive – and TOO HONEST.  We might not like the answers we discover inside of ourselves, especially at the encouragement of someone else doing the asking, and receiving the answers.  Yet, isn’t this what Jesus is talking about?  The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about ourselves?  That is the goal of faith, to be honest with God, AND WITH  EACH OTHER.  It is only possible where great love is present, where trust has grown into something unconditional, where grace leads us on in relationship with each other.  Some of us have this kind of relationship with others in this church; some are beginning on that path right now.  But that is the goal for the body of Christ, wherever it finds its expression – to watch over one another in love, to hold each other accountable, not in judgment, but in expectation of growing towards God. 

So I ask you this morning, as an exercise of faith, to consider these questions in the depths of your hearts, trying to be honest with God.  Let’s do this in an attitude of prayer, that in our silence we may be more direct with God. 

 

  • Does any sin, inward or outward, have dominion over you? 
  • Do you desire to be told of your faults? 
  • Do you desire to be told of all your faults—and that plain and clear? 
  • Consider! Do you desire that we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear concerning you? 
  • Do you desire that in doing this we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom? 
  • Is it your desire and design to be on this and all other occasions entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart, without exception, without disguise, and without reserve? 

 

These are tough questions, impossible questions, troubling questions – yet they are also essential questions, honest questions, important questions, that can lead us closer to God, and to each other.  These help to identify what the body of Christ is to strive towards – a community of faith that operates so fully in the bounds of God’s love that anything can be shared. 

 

 

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