Perhaps you were here last week, and you heard me preach against publicly shaming other people for what you perceive to be moral failures on their part. I said that we were called to imitate Jesus, who resisted the invitations he constantly received to pile on and point fingers at those who had fallen.
That sermon made sense, at least to some of you. I know that because a few of you said things like, “Thanks for the reminder, Dave,” or “I need to go home and think about my own dirty laundry before I go looking through someone else’s…” I am glad for such feedback.
However, the message was incomplete. Sometimes, you have to say something. Sometimes, you see someone engaged in a behavior, a relationship, that is just wrong. Perhaps it is causing harm or pain to someone else. Maybe it’s self-destructive. At any rate, I don’t want anyone to think, “But wait – did Pastor Dave say we weren’t supposed to say anything?
No, that’s not what I said – or at least, not what I meant to say. As our reading from Proverbs implies, sometimes friendship requires difficult conversation. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to stop pretending that everything is ok and to go ahead and name what is wrong and bring it into the light.
How do we do that? There are many models in scripture; I’d like to look at Colossians 3 as one guide for having difficult conversations.
The first thing that we want to consider is the fact that this part of the Bible is attributed to the Apostle Paul – a man who by all accounts had an incredible track record for irritating other people. He was accused of being a hot-head with a quick temper. I might suggest that at least some of what is written here in Colossians 3 is written after some serious self-reflection.
When it’s time to say something, Paul writes, we need to start by remembering who and where we are. We belong to Christ. We are located with him, or in him. Our primary identity, says Paul, is that of “Christian.” He reminds us to live into our baptisms each and every moment.
OK, that sounds good, but how do we do that? Well, we clean house. We put to death the things that are not right within us. We get rid of pride, lies, anger, and greed. We need to do some serious self-reflection: if I feel compelled to talk with you about something that you are doing, it had best not be because I am envious of you. For instance, if I am secretly jealous of how much money you have, I’m probably not the person who ought to sit down and talk with you about the importance of tithing. Someone else’s attempt to engage you in conversation about the way that you treat your wife ought not to be related to the ways that that person is feeling intensely lonely. Do you see: if the only reason I want to talk with you about some supposed “sin” in your life is because I’m jealous of you for it, or because I need to feel superior to you because of it – then I’m no friend of yours.
I can only approach you in the humility that is born of knowing that I, like you, am a forgiven sinner. I have died to any notion of my own moral superiority. I can only approach you as one who has stripped away all pretense.
But Paul goes on to say that I dare not approach you naked (a bit of advice for which we can all be grateful this morning). No, he says, after I allow all of my own delusions and self-righteousness and self-importance to be stripped away; after I own all of my own baggage, then I am free to put on what Christ gives to me: I can be clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
I’d like to say just a few words about one of those words, “compassion”. It’s a compound word that comes from two roots: pata, meaning “to suffer”, and cum, meaning “with”. We approach each other in compassion.
I think what that means is that unless you have received a specific call from God to be a prophet sent to publicly unmask someone else’s sin, then that’s not your job. The normative thing is for you and I to suffer with those who struggle, not to point out all the places where they are screwed up. Instead, I look to you and I think, “Wow, that must hurt to carry that kind of load… I wonder what has happened to bring you to the point where this was the best choice you could make…
Is your friend in a broken sexual relationship, or hiding in a web of lies, or somehow being engulfed by the darkness? If so, you do not have the right to saunter into that person’s life and turn on the big old Truth Light, point your fingers, and say, “You’re welcome” just before you walk out of the room.
No, you are called to have compassion – to suffer with that person. To look for the pain in her life and to enter into the pain. When you’ve done that, then you can speak the truth in love.
When you’ve come to that person in a profound awareness not only of your deep sinfulness but this other person’s ambiguity, confusion, or pain, then you are prepared to love like Christ and to forgive like Christ.
And when we’ve gotten that far, then, according to verse 16, we can teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. In fact, Paul says, you probably don’t have the right to address a brother or sister’s brokenness unless you are able to sing together.
And, for the record, I know what this sounds like. This sounds like old Pastor Dave is about to get all “Kum ba Yah” on you. This sounds corny. It sounds fake.
I get it. And if you see a child being harmed, or someone being attacked, or some grave danger, then you need to step in and stop that from happening. Sometimes, there’s no time for singing.
But can we, who bear the name of the body of Christ, seek to love each other enough to be friends? Can we care enough more about each other than we care about being right, or about winning the argument?
This morning, we are going to commission the Cross Trainers ministry staff. Let me direct a few words to them by way of example.
You guys know that you are about to embark on a full summer program. There will be a number of long, hot days ahead. If you do not know this now, you will by this time next week: sinfulness is not limited to specific age categories. These little angels who will fill our building tomorrow? They can be tough. They can be mean. They can be terribly obnoxious.
And whenever it strikes you just how tough, mean, and obnoxious they can be, your first temptation will be to show them how tough, mean and obnoxious you can be. You’ll say to yourself, “OK, self, it’s time to show them who’s boss.” You will want to take charge. You will want to unleash the power of your voice, your intellect, your presence on them. You will want to lay down the law.
But I’m here to ask you to work a little harder when that happens, and don’t worry so much about laying down the law as about laying down the love.
Your goal this summer is not to run a precision camp populated only by impeccably behaved children who will sit quietly in classrooms because they are afraid of you.
Your goal is to help some beautiful and flawed little children learn something about what it means to fall in love with Jesus. The only real hope that any of these kids have of surviving some of the horrors through which our world has already put them is if they get a glimpse of Jesus.
Some of the kids you’ll meet have an amazingly great grasp on that already. But a lot of them? They’ve never seen Jesus. They’ve never begun to even imagine someone like Jesus… But they’ll see you.
So right now, this morning, in the quietness of this room… Right now, before those kids irritate you, or offend you, or disappoint you in some way – I want to ask you to decide to love them. Love them anyway. Love those kids. Love that neighbor. Approach them as God in Christ has approached you.
It’s been said that people care what you know when they know that you care. Brennan Manning once said, “How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indication of my reverence for life than the antiabortion sticker on the bumper of my car.”
Don’t bumper-sticker people. Love them.
Some day – hopefully, a long time from now – you’ll be invited to come into a room and look at a few photos of me. Then you’ll take me out to a field somewhere and throw dirt in my face and come back to this building and eat cheesy potatoes and talk about how it’s too bad that I had to die like that.
And if I did it right, then there will be at least a couple people here who will come sort of grudgingly. If you get them talking, they might say something like, “You know, I didn’t agree with that guy. In fact, I thought he was a real knucklehead some times. But you know what? I think that he loved me.”
If the person you seek to correct is sure that you love them as Christ has loved you, then you have a chance to be heard as you come alongside them. If people are convinced that you love them, we might just have less screaming and more singing. Singing! Thanks be to God for that. Amen.