Sermon: Just Plain Good Advice

August 12, 2018
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Have you ever noticed that people sometimes resist good advice?

Yesterday at the airport waiting for my flight back to Hilo I watched a young mother follow her toddler around the seats in the waiting area. The child was clearly new to walking and also clearly enjoyed this new skill. Trouble arose, however, when she (or he; I couldn’t tell) spotted a couple noodles that somebody had dropped unnoticed from their lunch.

The noodles did not go unnoticed by the baby, whose hand darted out to grab them. The mother was faster still. “No, no, dirty,” she said, and swooped the child up into her arms and carried him (or her, I couldn’t tell) off to another section of the waiting area.

The toddler, deprived of both noodles and walk, started to cry, but fortunately found something new to do a few minutes later and forgot about resisting good advice.

A lot of parenting young children consists of giving good advice that the children don’t want to hear, and would ignore if they could, and then carrying them off somewhere else when they resist.

I wish resistance to good advice was limited to toddlers, however. Adults have a similar, curious reaction. Good advice isn’t good if it’s just advice. Scott Shauf, in his commentary on this passage, writes, “Our passage gives mostly very specific moral instructions. What makes the passage rich and not merely pedantic is that these instructions are grounded in the earlier theological ideas.”

Dr. Shauf is quite right that the good advice here is very closely based on the summons to unity that we heard last week. As he points out, the direction to speak truth is based on our being members of one another. The advice to give up stealing is based on having a virtuous way of obtaining something to share with others. Why give up evil talk? So that the community can be built up.

I guess I’m a little more pragmatic than Scott Shauf. Or perhaps a little more desperate. This world is so filled with falsehood and sin, so rife with theft and evil talk, so overwhelmed with bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice, that if somebody wants to do all this just because it’s good advice: I’m OK with it.

And it is not just the world, it is the Church. Richard Ward writes: “There is nothing wounding the body of Christ today that this writer has not already seen in an earlier version. Understandings of the Christ even born within Judaism and ‘pagan’ cultic practices are in conflict behind this text, and the bitter fruit is evident: lying; anger that festers in the heart; stealing!; evil talk, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, and slander, all of which grieve the Holy Spirit of God. What a picture! Who would want to join First Church of Ephesus?” (Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3)

The simple truth is that we resist these simple truths at our peril. We see every day what happens when people speak evil about one another. We see it in our homes. We see it in our workplaces. We see it in our organizations. We see it in our governments. We see it in our games. We see it in our Church.

Whether it’s the irresistible bit of gossip, or the sad shaking of the head at some defect of attire, or separation of people into the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” or the dismissive campaign declaration, or, saddest of all, “How can that person call themselves a Christian?”

Do any of these build up? Do any of these do anything but grieve the Holy Spirit of God?

I can’t help wondering what life would be like if people gave up stealing so that they’d have something to share. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like it would be that big a change. In 2016, just two and a half percent of Hawai’i County’s population suffered a property theft crime. That’s too many, but that’s also a lot of people who didn’t.

The problem is, I see a lot more stealing around, some of which is a crime, and some of which isn’t. I keep going back to the bond and derivative markets of the early 2000s. The financial products – does it bother anyone but me that we talk about dealing with money, which is a symbol of value, with the word “product,” which suggests something that exists in the real world? – the financial products obscured the value of the properties within them. It made it possible to set a price based on… what?

When neither buyer or seller have a good notion of the value of something, or worse, when one does and the other doesn’t, that may be legal, but it’s also theft.

I also call it theft when people work hard and don’t get paid enough to live on. I admit it. I don’t want to pay a lot for a hamburger. I don’t want to pay a lot for a loaf of bread. I don’t want to pay a lot for a clean floor. But why should my reluctance to pay determine that someone else has to choose between filling their prescriptions and filling their refrigerator? Why should I or anyone determine that my work is worth a living wage, and yours is not?

What would this world be like if we gave up stealing from one another?

What would it be like if we could be angry but keep ourselves from sin?

In a 2014 interview, comedian Dave Chappelle asked the great poet Maya Angelou about anger, the anger she experienced during the Civil Rights movement and amidst the wave of assassinations. She told him this:

“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes, you write it, you paint it, you dance it, you march it, you vote it, you do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

I hold these words close as I await word from Washington, DC, about the gathering of white supremacists and those who gather to stand against them and speak for justice today.

Anger arises when we get hurt – hurt by those who love us, hurt by insensitive strangers, hurt by governments that enshrine injustice. Anger rises so that we know we have been hurt. Anger rises so that others can tell us that they’ve been hurt.

What if we could be angry but did not sin?

What would our world be like then?

I resist good advice with the best of them. I resist good advice with the worst of them. I’m going to guess that most of you are pretty good at it as well.

Let’s see if we can take more of this good advice, though. Neither you nor I need to make that comment about someone else. Neither you nor I need to take our hurt and anger and make someone else suffer for it. Neither you nor I need to take advantage of anyone else. Neither you nor I need to speak or repeat an untruth.

What we do need, as hard as it is – and it is hard – is to imitate God, the God who came to us in Jesus Christ. We need to imitate the God of loving compassion. We need to imitate the God of kindness and tenderheartedness.

We need to imitate the God who forgives.

It is, after all, just plain good advice.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

There may come a day when the prepared text exactly matches the final recording. This, er, is not that day.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on August 12, 2018

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