Sermon: Oh, Those Virtues

August 8, 2021

1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

by Eric Anderson

An ‘amakihi and an i’iwi were having a conversation. Well, a discussion. Well, an argument. Well, perhaps a screaming match.

The i’iwi was probably the louder, or at least the most aggressive. It shouted over every word of the ‘amakihi, who was doing its level best to shout over every word of the i’iwi. It just wasn’t as good at it, or didn’t have the lung power, or something.

The content of the argument was… Well, it was boring, to be honest. You’ve heard similar things, I’m sure.

“I’m the best and the brightest!” yelled the i’iwi.

“I’m the best and the brightest!” shouted the ‘amakihi.

“Red and black is the best feathering!” yelled the i’iwi.

“Green and yellow is the way to go!” shouted the ‘amakihi. Rhyming didn’t seem to win it any points.

“You just squeak without a long curved beak!” yelled the i’iwi, who had apparently joined the rhyming game.

“Short beaks all week!” shouted the ‘amakihi.

“Short beaks are weak – and so are you!” yelled the i’iwi, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve had just about all of this that I can take.

Later, the ‘amakihi sought comfort from one of his uncles, who listened understandingly and didn’t say, “Don’t let these things bother you,” because the uncle knew that these things bother us whether we want them to or not. He just said, “He’s wrong – but so were you. Green and yellow isn’t any better than red and black. Short beaks aren’t any better than long beaks – OK, they’re better if you want to eat bugs, but the i’iwi doesn’t want to eat bugs. As for being the best and the brightest, who knows about such things?”

“But how do I get him back?” asked the young ‘amakihi, to whom this seemed important.

“You don’t,” said the uncle. “You tell the truth, and you tell only that truth that makes things better for you and for him and for anyone else. That’s how things become better. You already know how things get worse.”

The next day, the ‘amakihi struggled to hold its tongue – and not to bite its tongue – as the i’iwi launched into another round of insults, once again at the top of its lungs. It didn’t seem to notice that there weren’t any replies. Bullies are like that sometimes.

The i’iwi also failed to notice the ‘io taking interest in all this noise – and that it had identified that spot of red and black amidst the green. The ‘amakihi froze for a moment, but then uncle’s words sounded in his memory: “Tell the truth that makes things better.”

“’Io!” he shouted and dashed further into the branches. “’Io!”

The i’iwi froze himself for a moment, but gained the shelter of the think foliage just ahead of the ‘io’s talons. The frustrated hawk soared away to find more careless prey.

The i’iwi looked at the ‘amakihi and asked, “Why did you do that?”

“My uncle said to tell the truth,” said the ‘amakihi, “but only the truth that makes things better.”

“I’ve been a jerk,” said the i’iwi after a moment.

The truthful answer was, “Yes,” but the ‘amakihi didn’t think that would make things better, so he said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” said the i’iwi. “Will you forgive me if I do better?”

That was something the ‘amakihi could say “Yes” to with all his heart.

Truth. Maturely managed anger. Honest labor. Sharing – as Scott Shauf writes at Working Preacher, “Note that the prohibition of stealing is based not on the notion of respecting others’ property but solely on the motive of helping others in the community.” Gracious, nurturing, uplifting speech. Kindness. Tenderheartedness. Forgiveness. Imitation of God.

Such precious and powerful virtues. And…

Why don’t they work?

I mean, they work. Truth, sharing, supportive words, forgiveness: these are the actions that make for healthy families. They are the governing principles of our nursery schools and kindergartens. These are the actions that win gold stars carefully glued to the big paper with all the names on it.

But somewhere along the line, other things win greater value, don’t they? It’s easy to blame politics, but I’ve got to start somewhere: What are our political campaigns but bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice? I’ve been wondering for years why political candidates believe I’m more likely to vote for them if they behave in ways I wouldn’t tolerate for a moment in a five year old? Why must they behave like jerks, leaving us with the unenviable choice between which one is the lesser evil?

Truth has not been winning elections much in recent years, but then, it rarely has. The wholesale abandonment of truth in certain circles has its antecedents in many places, including pre-Fascist Europe, mid-19th century America, and the political maneuvering in Hawai’i from before the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 to the overthrow in 1893. In these days of global pandemic, truth has so little power that leaders are explicitly preventing schools from requiring the most basic of precautions – a mask – in an environment that we know will spread disease.

I usually don’t like to talk about the process of writing a sermon, but at this point in the writing I had to stop, turn off the computer, and walk away. You see, I was on a roll. I was ready, willing, and able to call out lies, wrath, legalized theft, evil talk, and other ways to grieve the Holy Spirit, all of them ways that have won great reward for their practitioners alongside suffering for everybody else.

All of which might be true, but how will we stop it?

The time-honored Christian response is that we have to live out these values ourselves: speaking truth to our neighbors, avoiding sin even in anger, laboring honestly and giving generously, speaking only what builds up, declining to grieve the Holy Spirit of God. All of that, plus kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness, or in short: imitating God. The time-honored Christian response is absolutely right: without we do these things, these things may well not be done at all.

OK. We will give ourselves to those virtues.

Beyond that, we need to encourage those virtues in others, in people above the age of five. We need to expect that adults, not just kindergarteners, will speak honestly, will control their anger, will work honestly and reward work honestly, will open their mouths to support those around them. We’ve got to expect that of ourselves and we’ve got to expect it of one another. We’ve got to reward it in others when we see it. We’ve got to honor the truth-tellers, those who let their anger fade with the sun, those who don’t exploit others, those who lift those around them. That’s why I choose to celebrate today some Olympic stories covered at GoodNewsNetwork.org:

Last Sunday during a semifinal for the men’s 800 meter run, American Isaiah Jewett and Botswanan Nigel Amos went down together in a tangle of limbs. The two athletes picked one another up, realizing that they were no longer in the competition. They threw their arms around each others’ shoulders and finished the course side by side. That’s grace. That’s handling disappointment and anger.

On Monday the 26th of July, the American 4 by 100 relay team received their gold medals, but one swimmer was not on the stand. Brooks Curry had swum in the preliminary races, and Caeleb Dressel had taken the first leg in the final. After the award ceremony, Dressel walked to the stands and gave his gold medal to Curry, acknowledging his role in the victory. That’s honest labor. That’s sharing.

Also last Sunday, Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy had completed their round of pole vaults and achieved the exact same height. They were tied for the lead. As NPR covered it, an official told the two athletes that they needed to have a “jump-off,” a round to see which could outlast the other. Barshim asked, “Can we have two golds?” and that is precisely what could and did happen. That’s building up.

And then there’s Simone Biles, who is, let’s be honest, one of the most talented, skilled, and dedicated gymnasts the world has ever seen. After one rotation of the women’s team competition, she withdrew. Because of a mental health condition known as “the twisties,” she could not maintain awareness of where she was in the air – and you can’t land a twisting jump without that awareness. She told the truth. She told the truth.

As well as living by these virtues and supporting those who live by these virtues, we also can stop rewarding those who live and profit by their opposites. Politicians who lie? No votes. Not any more. Those who use their anger to gain power over others? They don’t get what they want any more than a four-year-old throwing a tantrum. Those who exploit others’ labor for their own profit? We’ll shop somewhere else, thank you very much. Those whose words and actions contribute to racist and sexist systems, to structures of injustice, well: They get shown the door. “Thank you for your service, but we don’t need that kind of thing, and frankly, we never did.”

Can we build a society based on those virtues? I don’t know. I know we can build one based on their opposites – and I don’t like it that much. I think we can do better. I really want us to do better.

Let’s do better.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of August 8, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

Prepared sermon manuscripts aren’t a rule; they’re more of a guideline. Right?

The image is Elijah Awakened and Fed by an Angel in the Desert by Jacopo Vignali (between 1625-1635) – Scan from MNBA catalogue., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12149495.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on August 8, 2021

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