“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted,
forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Scripture: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Our New Testament passage from Ephesians focuses on the Christian life and the different ways in which we can be more whole and Christ-like. It begins with the importance of our speech. There are two basic assumptions about speech that I think we might benefit from looking at more closely: 1) there is a power to our words. 2) The power of our words has an impact on our faith life. Let’s look at these shall we? The power of our Words …
“Sticks and stones …” We’ve all heard the childhood rhyme that children cry out, claiming that words will never hurt them. It’s a child’s way of re-claiming power, saying that you can’t break my spirit with just words … but is it true? Or can we be wounded by words? Kids that are teased as children are often haunted later in life, hearing the words that were used as weapons over and over again in their head. There was a young girl whose “friends” wrote her a letter in middle school. The letter said that she could no longer sit with them at lunch because they didn’t like the way she looked and because she laughed funny. That same young girl might turn into a young adult who is self-conscious about her looks and refrains from being herself around others in order to avoid experiencing that same kind of rejection. She has trouble trusting people to not hurt her.
As we just talked about with the children, words have a certain kind of power to them. Perhaps this is why God resists being named, and when Moses asks who God is, God merely says, “I am that I am,” which can also be translated “I will be who I will be.” That is to say that a name cannot define or limit God. How many of us wait for a friend who’s having a child to tell us what the baby’s name will be and then make a judgment on what kind of person that child will be based on their name alone? I have certainly felt, at times, that the different spelling of my first name made me unique and possibly even quirky. But it is, after all, just a name. What’s so important about one little word?
Our story about the young girl illustrates the power of just a few words from a few silly girls. But the power of words could have gone in a different direction in that story. The young girl who was so hurt by those words hid in her woundedness and decided to be a victim. I wonder what might have happened if she had chosen to respond to the girls and tell them how much they hurt her with their letter, how they made her feel unimportant and isolated from the group. Quite possibly, they would have still been mean, but maybe one of the girls would have recognized how mean they were and would decide not to be so mean again, maybe she even leaves that lunch table to sit with the young wounded girl. Maybe they reconcile and become best friends. But the young hurt girl will never know if she hangs on to her hurt instead of seeking out community. How often do we hang on to our hurts when we have been offended in order to feel the self-righteous anger of being a victim? How many of us assume the other person knew how much they hurt us, when maybe they really didn’t?
Truth as a weapon. The concept of truth in this passage presents another way in which our words may affect each other. We are entreated by the writer to speak the truth to our neighbors, but truth must be tempered by kindness. If we look to the many television shows that feature crime, they are all looking for the truth. What really happened that night? What’s the truth behind this person’s actions? In the shows that feature the court, each lawyer picks a piece of the truth and uses that to their advantage, claiming the power of truth to win the jurors over to their side of the story. Even children recognize how “truth” can be used as a weapon, running to tattle on a sibling or tell their side of the fight before the other so as to get the other sibling in trouble or stay out of trouble themselves. Often speaking the truth in love has come to mean confronting another with the error of their ways, which can come across as combative and just sets up a fight. Really, speaking the truth in love should involve approaching the other in such a way that they are open to hearing the truth.
Truth is not always easy to swallow. Sometimes the truth makes us bitter and it’s often easier and safer to feel resentful than to be honest with another person. The passage today stresses “putting away falsehood” which may require putting away the cynical way that we often look at a situation or individual. The writer of Ephesians seems to understand that anger is a normal part of human life. The writer also recognizes the danger present in unresolved anger and bitterness so he then focuses on the importance of productive emotions and actions that will build up and not destroy a person’s character. This is why kindness is stressed – because kindness is the most Christ-like answer to almost any dilemma. Although not a Christian, Plato perhaps recognized a piece of this truth when he said, “Be kinder than necessary – everyone is fighting some kind of battle.” Whether that battle is fatigue, illness, or a troubled family situation, sometimes there are concerns people carry with them that they cannot or will not share with others. Treating people with kindness, then, involves a generosity of spirit – a willingness to grant someone the benefit of the doubt, believing that God can work in situations where we cannot.
There is a poem entitled “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye in which she says:
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
Deep sorrows and hurts in life never really go away, they stick with us for years. Regrets over a lost friendship, grief over a beloved one, disappointment … sorrow seems to haunt us. The only thing that really helps heal these wounds, as Naomi Nye points out, is kindness. After you experience deep sorrow, you are often balled up inside, holding the hurt tight and trying to stop the hemorrhaging hurt. Someone says something, anything, in a gentle way and you are touched by their caring. Suddenly, you find yourself a little bit more open, a little more willing to see the light in the world. Once you experience that kindness, you have to share it.
Really, this passage acknowledges that it is not easy to be a Christian. In fact, Karl Rahner, a German theologian states that it is better to say we are becoming Christians instead of simply being Christians. There is an assumed growth in being Christian in which we can never really just sit and be a Christian. We are always growing and striving to be more Christ-like in our living, both individually and communally. This passage is written to a church because just as soon as we think we are truly Christ-like, we encounter life with others and find that we still have plenty of learning and growing to do. Life in community is complex; there are no easy one-size-fits-all Bible passages or lessons. What is required is a willingness to work at community, to put in the effort that it will take to make community life and church life a positive experience for as many as possible. Sometimes that may mean sucking in our pride and changing a long-held opinion. Other times it may mean stepping out on a limb to try something new. Most of the time it will mean trusting in God to work in and through you as we become imitators of God, beloved children in the same family, living in love and offering our lives up as fragrant offerings to God.
Let us pray, most precious God, help us to understand the depth of your kindness, and give to us the compassion that you had for all of humanity. Teach us to live out that compassion in our daily lives and in this church here. Bless our actions with a grace that may reveal you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.