THE WHAT AND HOW OF TRUTHFUL CONVERSATION
This is an important day at Our Savior's. We have the opportunity to call the next pastor. As we meet to make that decision after the service, in prayerful conversation, our second lesson this morning might provide a good motto: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not lifting up this verse to say that no one should raise any serious concerns, or that the matter is settled, that we should all speak in wholly positive ways. No, this scripture reading begins by encouraging us to speak the truth. The more difficult part is to make sure that we do so in a manner that is upbuilding. That's not always an easy thing, even in the church.
Or should I say especially in the church? I think this is a good time to raise with you a concern I have long held in the church: namely, the difficulty for us to speak the truth in an upbuilding way. I have found the church to often be a place of destructive gossip, and hurtful conversations -- that is, not the place of speaking the truth in love that we are called to be. How we speak to each other is so important. Probably the most everyday we have of interacting together -- of being members one of another, as St. Paul says -- is in our everyday conversations. In short, the way we talk to one another is one of our most important opportunities to love one another.
I bring this up this morning not to now tell you that I think Our Savior's has a terrible problem in this way. In fact, I hope to say some positive things in this regard by way of upbuilding in my time remaining with you. I raise it because it is such a crucial matter, in general, one which in which the church at large has had its share of trouble. How many of the unchurched in our neighborhood have left church over the years because of the hurtful, destructive things we say to each other?
Why is that? Is there a reason for it? If we in the church have had a share -- perhaps, more than our share of destructive talk -- I think it might be sometimes because we have the wrong idea about truth. We think that truth is solely a matter of what you say and not how you say it. But this is simply not the case for a faith for which one its most important truths is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). The chief symbol of this faith is not any particular set of words but a symbol of how the truth of God's love was acted out among in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, not just what we say that counts for the truth but also, and perhaps even more importantly, how we say things to one another that counts for the truth.
There is a seldom used sense of truth that really is the more important one in the Bible. It's the sense of the word true when a wife says about her husband, "He's true to me." The word true here means faithful, loving. In fact, the Hebrew word for truth, emet, is more often translated as "faithfulness" in the Old Testament, than as "truth." When the Old Testament so often speaks of God as abounding in "steadfast love and faithfulness," the word faithfulness is the same word that they have for truth. That's why how we say things to each other matters as much as what we say. We learn to speak to one another as God speaks to us, especially in the cross of Jesus, namely, with steadfast love and faithfulness. Do you see what if a difference that makes? The next time you have a conversation at church, or with a fellow member, what difference does it make to remember that it's not just what you say, but that you say it with steadfast love and faithfulness?
Another important aspect here, of course, is that, when we claim faith in the Word of God who became flesh, our actions -- that is, how we live -- become as important as words. This is what the so-called Generation X often looks for. They look for integrity, for authenticity, for being who are genuine. In short, they look for people whose actions match their words, for people who don't just talk about love but also who behave and speak in loving ways.
This isn't easy, of course. But the Good News is that the Word did become flesh and dwell among us full of grace and truth. In other words, God didn't just tell us to love, either; God came and acted among us in love. Jesus passed it on to disciples. He continues to pass it on today to us through the saints who have gone before us, and through this supper again we share today. He doesn't say, 'This is my body given for you. Believe it.' No. He says, 'This is my body given for you. Do this.'
Our lesson from St. Paul this morning ends, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." This says the very same thing as, 'This is my body given for you. Do this.' We are to imitate God as little children imitate their mommies and daddies. And just in case we think this is a problem with the invisible God, God sent the true Son into the world to be our older brother. Jesus imitated God in love. We are to be imitators of him -- and imitators of one another to the extent that we imitate Jesus.
I was blessed with a nice restful vacation this past week. And the last night of it, I was blessed with a bonus treat, one of my favorite movies that I unexpectedly found while 'channel-surfing.' Now, don't laugh, but that favorite movie is the somewhat dated comedy with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, Groundhog Day. Ever see it?
Well, let me tell you a little about it, and, even if you've always found it funny, see if you don't also find it more than a little profound. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-centered, not-very-likable local weather man, and Andie MacDowell plays Rita, his kind and considerate producer, who doesn't care much for her weather man's self-centeredness. On the evening of February 1, they travel to nearby Punxsutawney, Pa., for a date with that famed weather-prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog. As Bill Murray's character Phil gets up at 6 am on February 2 to be there for Groundhog's Day, he has no idea that a strange adventure is about to begin for him. He goes through the motions, finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney because of a blizzard, and stays another unexpected night. When the alarm clock goes off the next morning at 6am, it's not the next day, February 3. No, it's February 2, Groundhog Day, again, and he discovers that all the events of the day happen just as the day before, with the only variable being him. In fact, he finds himself trapped in a loop to seemingly live this one day over and over again. At one point he is so despairing that he kills himself numerous times -- only to find that he still wakes up again at 6am on Groundhog's Day.
Now, the profundity enters, in my opinion, through his relationship with Rita, Andie MacDowell's character. Phil likes and admires her, but has never had the personality to pull off making any headway in a relationship with her. He figures out, though, that since he alone remembers every detail as they repeat this one day over and over, he can slowly find out exactly what to say to her to have a successful conversation with her. We see repeated conversations between the two of them in which he finds out her likes and dislikes from day to day and puts them to use in the conversation the next repeat of this day. He finds out, for example, that she likes to toast to world peace, so the next time around in that same repeated day he toasts for world peace. He can manipulate the conversation to exactly what he should say in order to win her over. But even at the end of the repeated day when the conversation has gone fabulously, because he's had so much practice, he's still the same person to her. She is a mature and strong person who can't be manipulated so easily. There is a funny sequence of scenes at the end of the day where it concludes with her slapping him to halt his advances.
Finally, Phil gives up this effort at knowing what to say, realizing that Rita is seemingly too good person for him. He kind of relaxes into a forgiving acceptance of himself. So what does he do, without really realizing what he's doing? He begins to imitate her, the kind and considerate person that he knows her to be. He gives up talking to her and instead spends most of this precious day learning to be a good person. He spends time educating himself in the library; he takes music lessons and learns to play the piano. And he has the opportunity to be a bit godlike in learning the details of that day's events so precisely. He knows when an old man is going to die of old age, so he is nice to him in his last hours and buys him meals. He knows when a young boy is going to fall out of a tree, and when the mayor is going to choke on his meat in a restaurant, and so he is there to save them. He spends a near lifetime of days in that one day, learning to be as kind and as considerate a person as Rita. And so, finally, after hundreds, maybe thousands of this same Groundhog Day, he finds himself at the town Groundhog celebration in the evening at which he is a hero to half the town. Rita sees this person at the party, someone well-liked because he has relaxed into being a likeable, kind person, and she and Phil finally have something to talk about. It's not so much what they talk about as how they are now talking. They are now talking more as equals, not in rivalry, but in the commonality of two people whose lives are geared to others. They talk on into the night, falling asleep talking, and they wake up together -- on February 3! Phil is genuinely a new person, who has simply imitated the kind and considerate woman he loves.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in our baptisms, each and every day for us is like Phil's Groundhog Day. We start each day with a clean slate, forgiven children of God. So we don't have to be so concerned like Phil was at first with simply what we say to others, but that we learn how to speak together in love, imitating our Lord, and one another as we learn the way of love. Brothers and Sisters, each and every week, we come here over and over to be nurtured and fed in his example: 'This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' As we grow together in love, we find that we have much to talk about, much in common, both the good and the bad. We find ourselves speaking in ways that build up one another in love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior's Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 10, 2003