SCRIPTURE – 1 Peter 4: 10-11
10Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
I believe at this point in our lives, we are all familiar with the
phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” I also believe that if we are all honest with ourselves and with others that we would readily admit, that a lot of the hurt we have experienced up to this point in our lives has come from words that people have said to us or about us. I think we all know the power that words have to do both good and harm.
I’ve always sort of thought in the back of my mind that I would
do my best to avoid getting on a soap box when preaching, but tonight I just couldn’t avoid it. I’m in the midst of reading a rather recent book called, UnChristian, and as I read through this book, the power of words and our need to be aware of our words and how we use them is becoming painfully clear to me. The book, which will be an option for upcoming study with the Wesley Center this semester, emerges from extensive research about what it is about the modern church that is keeping “outsiders” out of the church. The research focuses primarily on people in your age bracket, with specific interest on 16-29 year olds. I will admit to you that the book is both quite fascinating and terribly disturbing. So tonight, with that book haunting the recesses of my thought, I want us to think about the words they say and how they reflect on our identity as Christians.
I love Lady Vol basketball, and every winter, as the football
season winds down and basketball picks up, I follow the Lady Vols very closely, especially when March Madness begins. As many of you are probably aware, the Lady Vols have won the National Championship for the last two years. In 2007, they defeated Rutgers. The next day, as radio host, Don Imus and his sports announcer shared news of the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship game the night before, Imus referred to the Rutgers team as “Nappy-headed hos.” Suddenly the glory of a well-played game was overshadowed. Needless to say, Imus promptly lost his job and was asked to give a formal apology, but what sticks in my mind from the days following that National Championship game are the faces of those Rutgers players. They had gone out and played a game that they loved, and played it well, and in the end they had lost. As if that did not hurt enough, enter Don Imus and his totally unnecessary and very degrading words. The result: a stone-faced, stoop-shouldered Rutgers team, whose defeated outward appearance probably in no way matched the great defeat and hurt they felt within.
Words do hurt. Words do have a lasting impression, and the
words we say reflect greatly on our character and values. This is no less true for us as Christians, and in fact, our identity as Christians often brings our words under and an even more critical eye. To use the words of Biblical scholar, David Bartlett, we “are to be as upright as the most upright of [our] neighbors.” We have to set ourselves apart as Christians, but in doing so we cannot put ourselves in conflict with others. I think if you look at religious life in America right now, you will see that we have not done a very good job of that! According to the passage you heard a few moments ago from 1 Peter, we are gifted by God to speak, and we are gifted by God to act on behalf of one another. The logical conclusion, then, is that our words should be used for the service, well-being, and building up of those around us. Yet, as we admitted to one another, it is often words that cause hurt in our lives. And such hurtful words are not easily forgotten.
Think again about that Rutgers team. I saw an interview Oprah
did with their coach, Vivian Stringer, a few weeks ago. Though the painful National Championship loss and subsequent Don Imus berating were well over a year past, Oprah brought up the topic with Vivian Stringer. Coach Stringer’s words and emotions in response to Oprah’s question made it clear that Imus’ actions were still causing hurt in her life and in the life of the Rutgers players, and that they had all lost any and all respect for Don Imus and were likely never to regain any such respect for the man. Just a few words was all it took for lives to completely change and for lifelong impressions to be formed. The same thing is happening in Christianity today. In UnChristian, David Kinnaman reveals that there are a rapidly growing numbers of young people who are not only not involved in the church, but are completely disillusioned with the church, and this disillusionment stems not just from the actions we take, but also from the words we say.
So here’s where the problem lies. The gospel message is a
message of love; a message of God’s deep and abiding love for a broken and lost humanity; a love so deep that God incarnate came to this earth and died on a cross for His love of us. Most everybody in this world knows this to be the message of Christianity, that message that Jesus brought to this earth 2000 years ago. Yet, when these same people look at Christians and listen to the words that Christians are saying, they are not able to find that message of love. And often in it’s place lies a message of hate or hurt. One segment of society is demonized because they say that marriage is between a man and a woman, while another segment is called out because they advocate for gay rights. A family is ostracized because they have immigrated from Guatemala, or Iraq, or China. Thousands of women have never darkened the door of a church because they have been judged by Christians for an abortion they had. A homeless man living on the streets is quickly brushed off by a wealthy businessman walking out of a church meeting. You see what’s happening here? Maybe it’s only one group here or one person there, but the little things add up, and suddenly there’s a whole segment of society that doesn’t want to have anything to do with Christians, or Christianity, or the church. All because of a few misguided words; misguided because we have lost our focus.
We have lost the focus of love. God’s entrance into this world
was entirely selfless. God didn’t send Jesus Christ for any reason other than his love of humanity. We are to love one another as God loves us. But we’re not doing that. We’re skipping right over the love part straight to the issues part. We’re telling people they’re wrong or right for believing this or that. We’re focusing on trite issues that have no lasting significance, and in the process people are being hurt. We are more concerned about fulfilling our own needs than sharing the blessing of God’s love with people around us. And in the midst of what is beginning to look at lot like chaos, there rings this message from Peter that our words should be the very words of God, and we should serve with the strength of God so that in all things it is God in Christ Jesus who is glorified. The Bible doesn’t tell us to do anything according to our own agenda or self-righteous resolve. All of our words, all of our actions are to bring glory to God; Jesus says it, Peter says it, throughout the Bible we read this message.
I’m not telling you all anything you do not already know. You
know the gospel message, you know the importance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and you know the deep love that God holds for all humanity. But here at the beginning of the New Year, let me tell you why it is important to me that we hear this message again. It is because it is OUR generation, the 16-29 year olds that are most disillusioned with the church right now. If perceptions are going to change, it is going to have to begin with us. These are our friends, they are watching us, they are questioning us, and if they are going to know the love that God holds for them, they will have to see it in us and they will have to hear it in our words. So I want to say this: I think it’s time we simplify. I think it’s time we just let some things go. We are spending too much energy on things that are ultimately beyond us, and we are forgetting to follow God’s very simple and yet terribly profound commandment. Let’s drop the agendas, let’s let the trite issues go, let’s let God be the judge; and instead, let’s just focus on love. Through our words and our actions we need to show that Christ is real, and that Christ’s presence in our lives really does make a difference, and that the community called church really is the body of Christ.
I’m tired of being called a hypocrite, and I’m tired of people tearing down the church. But I know that if those hard feelings continue, it is because of our failure to love. And I know that if anyone is going to change those perceptions, it is going to be you and me. We can’t let ourselves get bogged down in the mundane, we have to remember the message that came in Jesus Christ and we have to live that message in our actions and share that message in our words. If we buy into the status quo, we are no better than Don Imus, and we can expect a lot more hurt feelings and disappointed looks. So we just need to let that stuff go for a while and we need to embrace the message of love. I truly and earnestly believe that if we seek to live in love as Jesus commanded us, then all the other issues will work themselves out. We have to talk to our friends, the very people most disillusioned with Christianity, and we have to share love with our generation. If we can’t share these words, then I fear the gospel message will be lost on a whole generation, and maybe more. It’s really simple and at the same time terribly difficult, but at the very least we have to try. We have to love.