Building Others Up

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

 

            Perhaps you have heard of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, written by Robert Fulghum. This book of short essays was released in 1988 and holds some profound truth. I just want to quote some of the sayings from this book:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.

Flughum received some criticism for being too idealistic and overly simplistic in this book. Life is complicated. But I can’t help but think that this guy was on to something.

            Our text for this morning comes from the book of Ephesians. In this book, or letter, “Paul” writes to the Gentile converts to Christianity about the new life that they have been called to live. They are to put away their old way of life and instead clothe themselves in the likeness of God. I love that metaphor, just wrap yourself up in godliness, and live as God has called you to live.

            So today’s passage is Paul’s efforts to teach the Ephesian Christians how they are to live as followers of Jesus. Paul gives them advice on how to live among each other and Paul gives them advice on how to live among non-Christians. Sometimes the Bible tells us how we are to interact within the church and sometimes the Bible tells us how we are to interact with people outside of the church. The language of today’s passage seems to suggest that this is how we are to interact with both people in the church and outside of the church.

            This list seems too simple. I just want to rattle off a few of Paul’s points here: Speak truthfully (v.25). Very simple, right? Don’t lie. That one should go without saying. Don’t steal. Instead work hard and share from your goods with those in need (28). Still nothing earth-shattering here. This is basic, Christianity 101 stuff here. Talk positively about others (29). Okay, that might be pushing it a bit. Then how about getting rid of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, and slander, along with every form of malice (31)? Come on now, is that even a realistic expectation? And finally, Paul says that we are to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving them as Christ forgave us (32).

            We sometimes make Christianity really difficult to understand. We can have academic debates about Christian involvement in war, social programs like welfare, atonement theories, and eschatology. I enjoy talking about those kinds of things, which is why I am socially awkward. But today’s message could be summed up by saying “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” And it could be that when I finish today’s sermon some of you will say that I am being overly simplistic and idealistic like Fulghum’s critics, but I do believe that if we were to follow these simple teachings that the world would be a better place, a place a lot more like the kingdom that Jesus came proclaiming, a kingdom that he prayed would be known here on earth as it is in heaven. Or if you prefer, we can boil these words of Paul down a little more to something that Jesus said in what we call the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

            I enjoy social media. Social media includes websites like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I have been on Facebook since before Facebook was cool. I was on Facebook when you still needed to have a .edu email address to sign up. I should have invested in it back then.

            I love social media for a number of reasons. I love that it allows me to post pictures of my children and my family around the country can see how they are growing and changing. I love the way people are able to post short stories about their lives that bring us up to date on their struggles and their joys. I love the way that I have been able to reconnect with high school and college friends that I haven’t seen for years. I love that you can link to a news article to show others the events that are important and formative in your life. A phrase we often use when talking about the internet and social media is that it “shrinks our world.”

            By “shrinks our world,” we mean that we can instantly be in contact with people and events that take place around the globe, and even off our globe. You may have seen pictures this week from the Mars rover, Curiosity, which touched down recently and has been transmitting pictures back to the earth. And just a side note, I really considered posting a photoshopped picture of a dead cat with Mars as the background with the caption, “Thanks a lot, NASA.”

            But a shrinking world isn’t always a good thing. Because of our shrinking world it is now easier than ever to surround ourselves with people that think just like us. And with social media like Facebook, we can not only find more people who think just like us, act just like us, look just like us, and believe just like us, we can also literally block out anyone that is slightly different than us.

            As much as I like social media, I believe that it is contributing to the on-going polarization of our country. And this isn’t meant to be a rant against Facebook, but I at least want us all to be aware of what this can do to us as a society.

            One thing that people often repost on Facebook is those fun little sayings and quotes, often accompanied by a picture, that reveal the shortcoming of people who disagree with us. Sometimes these things are funny and often they are somewhat accurate. But as most of us know, it is dangerous to lift a quotation out of context and expect it to convey the original message. And you can’t get any context in a single-sentence quotation.

            One of my Facebook friends often posts these out-of-context quotations and it seems that he does it for both sides of the political spectrum, so he is an equal opportunity mis-quoter. This friend then follows up these quotes with a little bit of commentary, which always makes me cringe. Usually it is about how “stupid,” “idiotic,” or “dumb” President Obama or Mitt Romney are.

            Part of the problem is that it is so much easier to say something mean about someone behind their back than it is to say it to their face. I wonder if my friend would say these things to President Obama or Mitt Romney’s face if he ever had the chance to meet them. My guess is no. These men both hold graduate degrees from a little college called Harvard. They are not stupid, idiotic, or dumb. Harvard doesn’t just give out law degrees. You may not agree with what one or both of them have to say, but they are probably both smarter than you and me.

The old adage that my mother taught me still holds true today: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

            The big problem that I see with this ongoing polarization of our country is that it leads to extremism and in some cases something we are calling domestic terrorism. When someone calls someone else evil and says that they are trying to ruin our country, ruin our religion, or ruin our morals, most of us will classify this as hyperbole and take it with a grain of salt. At least I hope you do.

In our country we have radio hosts that we sometimes call “shock jocks.” A shock jock often intentionally overstates issues and only presents one side of an issue so as to try to get more people to vote a certain way or believe something in particular. And this is even more evident today with satellite radio and online podcasts that are exempt from certain regulations.

            These shock jocks exist on both sides of the political and religious spectrum. There are conservative shock jocks and liberal shock jocks. And that is something that we get with freedom of speech. I get that. But the problem is that there are people that don’t understand this genre of broadcasting and they take everything very literally. So if someone says that a particular government official is evil and needs to be taken care of, or if someone says that a particular religious group is going to overtake our country, and a person with some mental issues hears this, what might happen?

I can’t say for certain what causes some people to commit crimes, but I wonder what some of this political and religious rhetoric does to people who are already struggling mentally. We hear stories like that of Jared Loughner, who killed 6, wounded 13 others, including Gabrielle Giffords (US Rep.) on January 8, 2011, because he saw Giffords as bad for our country.

            On July 20th, we learned the name of James Holmes. Holmes allegedly entered into a crowed movie theater armed with guns, ammunition, smoke bombs, and protective gear. He killed 12 and wounded 58.

            Just last Sunday we learned the name of Wade Page, who went to a Sikh temple and killed seven people and injured three others.

Again, I can’t say that these men were influenced by the polarized comments and hyperbolic rhetoric that we hear on the radio or see on social media, but I can’t imagine that it helps.

            These are extreme examples that are all too common. What I want us all to consider is how the words we say and the things we do or the notes that we post might be making this world less like the world and the kingdom that Jesus came proclaiming? Are we living by the golden rule or are we dividing our world into “us” and “them” categories? I think Jesus said something about a house divided against itself falling every time.

            The Bible never tells us that we need to agree with everything that everyone says. Jesus doesn’t say that we need to agree with someone else’s politics or religious views. But what we are told in today’s passage is to not lie, steal, put down, or even be angry at one another. We are to be compassionate and kind, forgiving others as Christ forgave us.

            I have political views. If you disagree with me, I hope that it won’t change how I feel about you. And no, I don’t believe that all religions are the same, but I sure don’t think we are called to kill people with differing religious backgrounds from us.

            Jesus’s disciples included people across the political spectrum: a man loyal to the Roman government, a violent, radical rebel, and disinterested laborers. And when Jesus shared the two most important laws of the Torah, he shared a story about a man of a different religion as the paradigm for a good neighbor; a good Samaritan. Jesus was less interested in having everyone agree with each other than he was with everyone agreeing to follow him.

            My take-home advice for you all today is to never underestimate the power of positive words or kind gestures.

            I heard a pastor talk once about his son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is on the Autism spectrum and is often characterized by significant difficulty in social interactions. This pastor’s son just hated going to school. Every day, when he got off the bus, this pastor would ask him how his day was. The response never changed. It was always, “Terrible, I’m never going back.”

            Of course they made him go back and every day they got the same response. It was all that they could do to get him to go to school and every day he came home and seemed to sink deeper and deeper into depression.

            One day the boy, now in High School, got off the bus and he was just beaming from ear to ear. He was so excited and he ran to his father and gave him a big hug. He didn’t need to ask the question, but he did anyway. Son, how was your day at school?

            His son said, Dad, it was the best day ever! Somebody sat by me at lunch.

            Through tears the pastor asked his son what they talked about and his son told him that they didn’t talk at all. The other kid just sat with him. That was all that it took to make it the best day ever.

            Call me overly idealistic or simplistic, I don’t care. I have seen and experienced the complexities of life yet I believe that if you want to make this world a better place, you start by treating others the way you want to be treated. Paul encourages the Ephesians to speak truthfully, to not steal, to share, to talk positively about others, to get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, and slander. He says be kind and compassionate, forgiving others just as Christ has forgiven you. I can’t say if our negativity and polarization has led to the mass killings and acts of hate in the recent past. But I know that it isn’t making this world any more Christ-like. You want to be like Jesus? Sit with an outcast and eat lunch with them. Say something nice to someone who looks like they could use a kind word today. I am done with this negativity and polarization. Today I am going to do unto others as I would have them do unto me. Today I am building up others as I build up the kingdom.

 

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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