…speaking the truth in love…
September 16, 2018
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Bias and prejudice are in many ways built into our very language itself. The words, the phrases we use which in many cases we do not even notice as having other hidden or potential meaning, shape the ways we understand and interact with society and one with another. Phrases or expressions that are just one of the many ways we have always said or indicated something, may in fact have become imbued with other meaning…meaning that for some of us may present a problem or reinforce a particular bias or attitude.
And as those who have been called to speak the truth in love, as those who have decided that we wish to pattern our lives, our work, and our daily reality around the example of the one we call Jesus of Nazareth, we have a responsibility to be sure that the ways we live out our lives in faithfulness are actually reflective of the nature of the message and character of him.
Which all sounds like something we have heard before, sounds like something that should be obvious to all of us, like ‘what’s the mystery’, ‘what is new in that’, ‘what are you trying to tell us that we do not already know or have not heard before’? And it is here that we need to listen ever so closely.
For as much as we support the call to be loving and kind, as much as we acknowledge the need to be generous and compassionate as followers of our faith, there is much in our ways of being and communicating that is behind the scenes…much that is usually out of our view or understanding regarding the ways in which the words and phrases we choose actually inform the conversations we have…sometimes steering them in ways that may be in fact less than loving and perhaps unknowingly deeply biased towards a brother or sister in Christ.
When I chose the title, ‘Speaking the Truth in Love’, I did so for a very particular reason. Namely, that we need to listen closely not only to one another but perhaps more importantly we need to learn to listen to ourselves. For in an age where our society is openly confronted with what seems to be a rise in bias-related issues and the injustices birthed by those biases, it seems only right as those who claim to follow Jesus, for us to be sure that we are part of the solution and not simply bystanders or worse, unwittingly complicit in those injustices.
And again, I would not be surprised if you were saying to yourself, ‘What has this to do with me? I am kind, I don’t feel as though I have these harmful or hurtful biases…why do you seem to be implying otherwise?’
Throughout the short history of our nation the predominant bias, the stubborn and persistent institutional or systemic bias or prejudice, the most openly recognized form of this unloving aspect of our social fabric has been and continues to be racial bias and in particular against those with some vestige of African descent. And although self-protective blinders of denial lead us to forget the prejudice that was visited tragically on the first peoples of this continent and others of Asian descent who were virtually enslaved to build the foundations of this nation, it is the blacks who have always been the recognized target of bias and prejudice for almost the whole of our history.
And yet, most, if not all of us would claim loudly that we do not consider ourselves to be racist or even to have any racial bias within our conscious self-understanding whatsoever. And that may in fact be true. But that in no way diminishes the truth that there is a vast system of bias and oppression built into our social fabric, into our language and within our words and idiomatic expressions. Bias and prejudicial undertones that, unknown to us who are not of African heritage, is still deeply hurtful or oppressive. And perhaps even worse, much of this bias-laden baggage from long ago has become so common, so generic, that no one sees or hears it at all anymore, and instead such words, ideas, attitudes, or phrasing with their hidden and sinfully rooted meanings are allowed to persist within our common conversational exchange…allowed to go on reinforcing an underlying narrative of hurtfulness and injury.
‘Whoa! Slow down’, you may say…for all this sounds so abstract and in so many ways inaccessible. ‘What do you mean’, you may ask?
What I am trying to say in insisting that we become so very careful in what we say and in the words we choose…in how we are called to be those who speak the truth in love…is that there is much that we were taught as children, there is much in our language and in the ways we casually speak to one another that needs to be heard first within our inner heart of hearts to be sure that we start getting into the habit of loving one another not just in deed…but in all our words as well.
What, how, who, where, when? How is it possible to listen to ourselves before we speak? How is it possible to intercept these supposedly biased words or phrases before they escape our lips…and is it really such a big deal anyway?
As I mentioned, the primary bias throughout our history has been rooted in the relationship between those of European heritage and our brothers and sisters who somewhere in their past had African descendants. It has always been an issue of black and white. There, did you hear it? When I said black and white did that phrase itself jar you at all? What do you think of when you hear ‘black or white’? Is it not that black is somehow the lesser and white is the more preferred? That is just one minor example. How about the fact that ‘black’ and ‘dark’ seem to connotate scary or somehow less than ‘good’? How about a ‘white lie’? Isn’t that somehow not as bad as a regular bald-faced lie? Why is such a supposedly lesser untruth given the adjective of white? And why in the Authorized Translation of King James is there a translational change in language in the book, Song of Songs in Chapter 1 and verse 5 where the author is referring to a woman of African descent which when written in the original Hebrew said, ‘She is black and beautiful’, to, ‘She is black but beautiful’? Why are there so many of these small turns of phrase or expressions throughout our language that mostly silently reinforce an anti-black sentiment and understanding?
I bring this up as a topic for our third Sunday Lord’s Table today because bias and prejudice in America and across the world is no longer primarily just about race, even though that is still the original sin of America. In truth I am just as concerned about growing resentment against all peoples of color other than the color white, along with a deepening and hateful bias that is growing against people of other faith understandings than Christian, as well as a pervasive and stubborn bias against women all across the board.
As those who seek to imitate the marginalized refugee and unjustly oppressed teacher known as Jesus we must find all those ways in which our witness and message can be made more loving, more inclusive, and less tolerant of all that would seek to divide and separate us. We must covenant to speak ever so carefully, and to change our ways whenever we are shown by others or by the Spirit to be speaking or communicating in ways that are less than loving. We need to be willing to ask ourselves, ‘Would Jesus have said the things I just did’? And if not, we must repent and work harder to make our words be ones that build up and do not tear down. We need to become sensitive to the built-in biases within our language and the understandings of our upbringing…unafraid to stand against what to many may seem like so much unnecessary ‘political correctness’ to put it in contemporary terms.
Any words we use and conversations we are involved in that in any way reflect implicit or explicit bias or ill will towards another…towards a person of a color other than white, towards a woman or person of another faith heritage must be intercepted, must be halted, and must be turned around to reflect the true unity our Lord intended that we, as his disciples ought to embody and reflect.
But how? By drawing closer to the Lord in open and personal relationship. Paul tells us in Romans that we must by completely transformed by a renewing of our minds, and again in Philippians that we must have the mind of Christ. But again, how…how can we even begin to do this?
Years ago, when I was young in the faith, when I was just beginning to experience the fellowship of the faith and was involved in truly intentional worship and diligent searching for answers to some of these very same questions, I was told by a close friend that I needed to ‘read the bible’. And not in some random way but deliberately and frequently, and perhaps most importantly, using a translation that was easy to understand and accessible to my understanding…a translation in what I would call ‘common language’.
So, I chose the Good News Translation and began to read. And I read and read, focusing on the New Testament and especially on the four Gospels. And as I did, I came to know Jesus in more than word and verse, I began to understand that there was a deep consistency and pattern to his teachings and a common thread of loving without condition running through them all. But even more than that I began to hear the words of scripture in my daily walk through life…as though I could hear what Jesus would have said, or how he would have responded to a particular situation in my daily walk.
I had unknowingly allowed the words of the gospels to become a part of my conscious thought and mental processes. I guess I had to some extent begun to ‘take on the mind of Christ’ and was able to hear in my own heart how I imagined the Lord would have responded…most of the time. For I was still human and able to act and think very much like David from time to time as well.
But more than being able to sense how Jesus would have responded to a particular situation I was also beginning to hear things as they were said by people around me, or see things as they were done that were out of line with what I felt would be pleasing to the Lord…words or actions that seemed out of line with his command to truly love one another. I became more able to sense injustice all around me as it was spoken or acted upon…and I found that I felt compelled to call it out and to engage it. Intentionally becoming immersed in the words of the gospels gave me the ability to begin to sense how Jesus would react and what he might say.
And secondly in terms of how to begin…we need to practice being open to fresh input and guidance from the Spirit…and to constantly guard against presuming you already know the answers. For in this way it is possible to avoid legalistic behaviors or attitudes that can result from taking the word of God and forcing it to stand still and static, as though each and every situation you may come up against is exactly the same. In truth, the word of God and the action of the Spirit is active and alive and needs to be applied directly to each instance of need as though it was unique for that moment…for often you may find that actually is the case.
So, first immersing yourself in the word…second, learning to live in openness to the Spirit, and then finally…practice, practice, practice! For in that continual openness and exercise of your will in seeking to hear and to imitate our Lord you will find that you are on the road to a deep and meaningful relationship. A relationship that will inform your every moment and enable you to begin to hear every little thing that would have bothered Jesus…including all those ways in which our ways of speaking and communicating are still to some extent held captive to ways of injustice and oppression. For unless and until we learn to speak the truth in love always and in every way, there will still be many who are kept outside and far away.
So, let us speak the truth of our Lord as it is revealed deep within our soul, never settling for anything less in all our words and ways…for in that we will truly begin to love every one another…
An Order for the Lord’s Supper
‘…speaking the truth in love…’
(Note: ‘Leader’ in regular print, ‘All’ please respond with print that is in bold)
Friends: This is the joyful feast that is offered to all the children of our God! And though our table itself is unconventional and probably raises a few questions, we approach it in order to celebrate the goodness and grace with which our Lord has so richly blessed us. And as we do, we affirm that we will seek to accept the call to truly engage as a people who find it in their hearts to turn to the Lord as we turn away from all that is within us and within others that would promote, encourage, or permit the oppression or injury of any of our brothers or sisters as a result of a careless word, phrase, thought, or habit of behavior All this in the blessed hope that we would study and learn more closely our Lord’s call to become truly one with the poor, the broken, and the oppressed among us. Oh Lord, give us the grace to hear within our hearts and within our words, and even more so, to notice within our actions anything that would diminish or injure one of these your children, our fellow seekers of your love and mercy. Help us ever to seek the unity of life that all God’s children must pursue as the brothers and sisters we truly are…
People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.
Lord may it be increasingly so that our ministry of love and compassion in your name reaches more and more of your people in need, as our awareness of and engagement with all that would continue to divide or separate us as your family begins to break down the rank prejudice, bias, and absence of love that so stubbornly persists in the backwaters of our language and our history of the mistreatment of any who reflect your image in a way we refuse to acknowledge as one that is actually yours. Give us courage and willingness to walk along this path of deep inner soul searching, submitting to your Spirit in a willingness to be corrected and made into a closer reflection of your love and grace. Help us to be servants of love in searching out ways to go and to dwell in a place of needful dependence upon you in all our ways and in all our words. Help us to be a light that shines ever brighter in a world darkened with the plight of those most injured and captive among us and throughout your good earth.
This morning’s altar truly is one of our Lord’s tables. It is meant to be a symbol of the ‘World’ or the earth as a whole. A simple box altar covered in black and white and posted with some of the inscriptions most often spoken that perhaps unwittingly continue a culture of injustice and harm due to prejudice or bias. It is mounted on a swivel base both to imitate the rotation of the precious planet upon which we live (a small and insignificant bit of matter in the universe, but, the one chosen by our Lord to harbor the beloved), as well as to allow for it to be turned around to a brighter day when indeed we shall reflect that we are one body, one people, one family of God. This table is meant to challenge and prompt us to find it in our hearts to begin to authentically echo our Lord as we speak words of truth in love.
And it is from this table that we will receive the bread and wine of our sacrament this day…a table of language and habit, of hidden meaning waiting to be brought forth into the fire of God’s love that all that is false may disappear as all that is truth brings blessing, equality, justice, and community.
It is truly a table meant to challenge and discomfort…a table that is easily ignored and only truly engaged with hard work and a passionate commitment for justice for all of God’s children…for the call it issues to each one of us is a call away from life as we know it to a place of careful introspection and a willingness to stand up and be counted as those who are willing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus regardless of the cost.
This is the table to which our Lord desires we come today, that we might commit our lives to hearing, noticing, and acting on all that would preserve and promote injustice and inequality within our own hearts and words as well as within our culture and society. Oh Lord our God, help us to be a light that refuses to hide in the darkness of ignorance or denial and instead takes steps by your Spirit’s power and grace to change our words and our inherited weaknesses in order to silence division and prejudice once and for all, that we may dwell together on the just and level plain of your blessed community…indeed a place where all are free to come from the east and the west, and from the north and south.
Our Lord and Savior Jesus invites all those who trust in him to come and share this meal which he has prepared for us to receive even from this table of a call to ‘righteous thought and word’. Our Lord invites all, without exception, and beckons us as well towards ever greater awareness and willingness to be vessels of love in response to the Spirit’s every request…for the freedom Jesus offers waits upon our willingness here…
According to Luke, when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples, he took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And in that moment their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
The table of ‘speaking the truth in love’ here before us this morning is holy because our Lord has made it so through our recognition of the faithful challenge it offers up before us…and because our Lord is always present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the one cup.
Let us reverence this meal shared together in love, may it bless our bodies just as it moves us to greater compassion and clarity of discernment in all the ways we are led to become one with our every brother and sister in need, even and especially in ways of thought or speech not formerly seen or acknowledged. Give us the sensitivity, the wisdom, and the willingness of heart to let go of past understanding whenever your Spirit insists that only new wine skins can be filled with new wine…
And, as we receive this meal may our eyes be opened as well to the great need for love that knows no bounds when it comes to sharing our all, that everyone may know of your love and grace. And in doing so, may we all come to know the freedom that can only come from trusting in your steadfast love and your cup that runneth over with grace. Amen
Litany of Confession
Leader: Father of the Heavenly Lights, you brought us to life by your Word of truth,
People: We were made in your image, sons and daughters of all colors.
Leader: The cancerous wickedness of racism has caused your children to suffer. Prejudice, discrimination, and hatred have led to brokenness, violence and even death.
People: We confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have allowed the sin of racism to divide us in what we have done and what we have not done; what we have said and what we have not said.
Leader: Purify our hearts and tame our tongues, we pray;
People: Give us courage to repent, to fight for righteousness, and to love and embrace one another…
Leader: In the name of Jesus, Our Lord…
(Rev. Rhea Summit, Pastor, New Alexandria UMC)
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give God our thanks and praise
It is right, it is good, it is joyful to be able to give thanks to you, Oh God of mystery and miracle. When there was only darkness, you made light. When we cried out to you from captivity, you claimed us to be your own. When we forgot our love for you, you did not forget us, but sent your prophets to turn us around. Over and over again you renewed your promises…with a bow in the sky, the parting of the sea, bread from heaven and your own beloved Son. And so we praise you, joining our voices with the songs of the angels and with all those who sing in heaven and on earth saying:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.
(All please come forward and stand in a circle around the communion ‘table’)
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this, remembering me.”
In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this, remembering me.” Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.
(Distribution of the bread- all wait to be served before partaking)
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Everyone who comes to me will never be hungry; all who believe in me will never thirst.” (Partake of the bread)
(Distribution of the cup-all wait to be served before partaking)
Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing. This then is the cup of our salvation. (Partake of the cup)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen