“What did you REALLY mean to say?”

Mt. 21_23-32 (MSG)
South Presbyterian Church – September 28, 2014
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

Today is one of those days when I want to remind you that it’s my job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

We hear a statement a lot:  “Say what you mean … and mean what you say.”

Pretty simple concept, isn’t it?

Yet how infrequently do we find that happening in our world?

Lately it feels like everybody wants to put a spin on what they’re saying so they don’t offend anyone else. Now … that is NOT the same as being Politically Correct (or PC). We can CALL things being Politically Correct, but really what it is when we are being PC is being MINDFUL of including others because over time our shortcuts and our stereotypes have taken over. Being PC is NOT about being POLITICALLY correct … it’s about being CORRECT and using language that includes … that doesn’t EXCLUDE.

For instance “Happy Holidays.” We’ll be hearing that a lot pretty soon.

Those of us who are Christian sometimes feel like, “What the heck… it’s Christmas and everybody KNOWS it’s Christmas, so just SAY Christmas.”  But that ASSUMES that everybody hearing your greeting celebrates Christmas. And we just can’t assume that in this country. Many of my friends DON’T celebrate Christmas … they celebrate Solstice … or Hanukkah … or Kwanzaa. And every time we use Christmas they are reminded that we aren’t TALKING to them … that THEY don’t fit in. See what I mean? Our assertion that we have the RIGHT to refer to one of our high holy days puts us in the position of making an assumption of PRIVILEGE, and that’s just not what Jesus taught us to do.

So that’s ONE way that we need to be careful of what we say.

But another way is when “what we SAY” ends up being in opposition with “what we DO” … and by that I would also include the extension of it that is “what we BELIEVE.”

An elected official who touts Immigration Reform but who hires undocumented workers … a teacher who lectures her students on  honesty but who then plagiarizes a colleague’s publication … a minister who rails against the sins of the flesh but engages in a secret affair with the church secretary.  We would call those hypocrisy, I think, wouldn’t we? They are people whose motto is “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Well, today’s story raises the question … is it better to say you not do as you’re asked and then do it anyway … or to say you’ll do it but never really do it at all? And the answer, of course, can be summed up by one of my grandmother’s teachings:  Actions Speak Louder Than Words.  What you DO matters more than what you SAY.

But I’m here today to challenge the conventional thinking a little more and say that what you say DOES matter … and it matters as much as what you DO. It’s NOT either / or … it’s not either “say it” or “do it,”  it is BOTH / AND.  We are charged to both say AND do what we believe in our hearts God would HAVE us say and do.

A LOT of us say things we don’t mean … especially in church:

“I’m sorry” when we don’t really feel SORRY … we might feel embarrassed or wish we hadn’t said something PUBLICALLY, but we’re not really SORRY.

“I believe in the Virgin Mary.”  Do you really? Do you really think that Jesus was born by virgin birth?

“I believe in the Resurrection.”  Really? What does that mean to you? What do you think happened? If you’d been standing right there on that Sunday morning, what do you think you would’ve seen?

“I think that every single word in the Bible was written by God.”  You DO? And what language was that written in?  Do you trust that the translators made the best choice in their selection of words and meanings?  Are you willing to stake your LIFE on it?

And so we come back to today’s lesson.

People will know what we believe by how we ACT … true enough. They’ll also know us by what we DON’T act on. 400,000 people acted last week  and marched in New York City’s People’s Climate March.

Most of us here think the planet is pretty important.

AND most of us here were not at the march last week.

So how CAN we get involved?  Well, as an example, here’s a list of groups that we COULD follow up with right from the comfort of our arm chairs. I’m going to read very quickly because the list is long and I’ve deleted two-thirds of it:  The Arctic, Arts, Beekeepers, Bicyclists, Buddhists for Climate Control, Cape Cod and Islands, Anti-Capitalism, Challenge Corporate Power, Clean and Green Business, Climate Convergence, Climate Literacy, Communications, Divestment, Environmental justice and Frontline Communities, Elders for Future Generations, Food Justice, Fossil Free, Fracking, Housing and Displacement, Immigrant Communities, Indigenous Peoples, No nuclear Weapons, Nuclear-free, carbon-free, Pagans, Peace & Justice, People’s Climate Train, People of Color, Presbyterians for Environmental Concerns, Quakers, Queers for the Climate, Renewable energy and climate solutions, Skaters, Tar Sands Bloc, Techies for Climate Justice, Vegans, White Anti-Racist Workers, Women Elders, Yoga and Spirituality.

I’m not saying that we as a church should be involved in any of these. But I’m saying that if YOU, individually, preach concern for the environment and we just had the largest environmental demonstration on the PLANET … why aren’t you involved?

That’s what I mean when I say they will know us by what we do and what we DON’T do.

They will also know us by what we SAY … or DON’T say.

And they will ESPECIALLY know us by the RESONANCE of how what we say MATCHES what we do … or the INCONGRUITY of how our actions and our words DON’T match.

Every once in a while I like to see how the world views people like me … in this case Christians.  And one of the easiest ways to find out anything like that is to go to Google and type in “Christians are …” and leave it blank after that to see what comes up.

I did that yesterday.

Here are the top 10 words to complete that sentence in order of their popularity in the international search engine. The top 10 words that appear completing that sentence. Christians are:

  1. Hypocrites
  2. Delusional
  3. Narrow-minded
  4. Hate-filled Hypocrites
  5. Like Manure. Spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.
  6. Vain
  7. Ignorant
  8. Crazy
  9. Annoying
  10. Idiots

Harsh. For those of us who work hard to NOT be those things, it’s frustrating to know that that is how we are perceived. And yet I can completely understand why those are the impressions that many people hold. Can’t you?

We say we believe in peace and yet we have churches clamoring for war against ISIS or ISIL because Christians have been beheaded.

We say we believe in fairness and acceptance and yet we have CHURCHES that demonstrate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

We SAY we believe in forgiveness and yet we have church LEADERS who preach revenge and retribution.

And so those 10 adjectives describing what Christians are are formed when we say one thing and do another. And EVERYONE is watching us whether we know it or not.

In the Bible it addresses this just a little when it says, “So I will spit you out of my mouth, because you are only warm and not hot or cold. (Rev. 3:16)” Hot OR cold isn’t bad … it’s being luke warm … being hot and cold at the same time … talking out of both sides of our mouths that’s bad.

Having questions about our faith isn’t BAD. In fact … it’s GOOD.  Thomas had doubts. Remember? He’s the one who wasn’t around with the other Disciples to see the Risen Christ and he said that unless he saw him with his own eyes and put his hands in Jesus’ wounds, he wouldn’t believe it was Jesus.

So what happened?

Jesus appeared to him and said, “Here, Thomas… put your fingers in here.”

Y’know the interesting thing?

Thomas didn’t DO it.

He never touched Jesus.

It was enough for him that he had the CHANCE to … that his doubts were accepted … that Jesus answered his QUESTIONS.

And that’s what WE have to embrace.

Our doubts are accepted. They’re ok.

It’s OK to be either HOT about your faith … or COLD about your faith … but it’s not ok to talk one way and act another.

Put up or shut up.

Walk the walk and talk the talk.

So what do we DO when something comes up … even in CHURCH … that we just don’t BELIEVE IN or accept?

Well, when I was growing up there was Dick Gustafson. He was a math teacher at Oneonta State. Sang bass in the choir. He was TALL … well over 6 feet so your eyes were kind of DRAWN to him. He was my Sunday School teacher one year. And every week we’d say the Apostles’ Creed … right? And he would always STOP when it came to “born of the Virgin Mary,” and he’d pick it up again with “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

And I asked my Dad … how come? And he said … “probably the same reason I won’t say ‘he descended into hell’.  I just don’t believe it. Dick’s a smart man … probably thought a lot about this … and he just can’t buy into that part.”

Well, I ask myself as a MINISTER … what do I BELIEVE in … and what do I just accept because my people BEFORE me accepted it.

Y’know … it’s like the story about the ham that we’ve told here before. This woman was cooking the Easter ham and every year she’d cut off the end of it, put the end of the ham in one pan and the ham, itself, in another pan and roast them. She didn’t know WHY she cut off the end of the ham but it was written there on her grandmother’s recipe card. So one year she decided to ask her mother … and SHE didn’t know, either, but she’d always done it that way. It had just always been done the same way. So the FOLLOWING year when the whole family was together, she asked her grandmother, “How come you say to cut the end off the ham, grandma?”

And her gram smiled and said, “Oh, that’s easy … because my pan was too small. It couldn’t HOLD the whole thing.”

We do things out of habit.

We hold on to ideas and beliefs sometimes that have outlived their usefulness.

People used to think it was okay to smoke cigarettes. Now we know they cause cancer.

We used to think nothing of driving in a convertible with the top down and no seat belts on because there WERE no seatbelts (unless you were on a plane).

We KNOW better now.

Things change.

Our experiences change us.

The WORLD changes us yet we feel we mustn’t ever QUESTION things because it will mean we have no FAITH.

{BUZZER SOUND} All that really means is that when we dare to question, our faith grows larger to HANDLE those questions. We have to be more like Thomas. He had integrity. He doubted and he said so. And as a result, he got the reassurance he needed.

When our beliefs and our actions AGREE, we say they are INTEGRATED … and we have INTEGRITY.

People notice that.

We spread the Good News about God’s love when we have integrity.

Personally, I think a lot more people would be interested in learning about Jesus if they knew that HE had doubts (like in Gethsemane) … or that he changed his MIND sometimes (like with the Samaritan or Syro-Phoenecian woman) … or that he got ANGRY (like with the money changers in the temple).  He wasn’t just some goody-two-shoes … he was a REAL guy like us. We change and we grow … and so did HE.

There was a time in my life when I needed to use ONLY female pronouns for God. It was important to me for a time. Now …  it’s still important but not in the same way. I’m not THERE anymore. I grew and I changed.

God doesn’t want us to fake it.

And God doesn’t want a lot of Yes Men or Yes Women.

God just wants to be in RELATIONSHIP with humanity … whatever that looks like. And sometimes it gets VERY messy … because we are constantly growing and changing.

So to have INTEGRITY … we HAVE to think about what we’re saying. We HAVE to question. We HAVE to wrestle and argue with God, with each other, and with our SELVES in order to figure out what works for us and what doesn’t. And there can’t be ANYTHING off limits for those discussions and arguments because … well … frankly … if we believe that God is in EVERYTHING and God is EVERYWHERE … then  everything is fair game to be questioned and dealt with.

It is that integrity that provides the COMPASS for how we move through life. INTEGRITY brings with it Righteousness because it is Honorable.  A person with Integrity is Truthful and Blameless. They are Graceful and Upright. They are Disciplined and Faithful. A life built on Integrity is a HOLY life because it is a life based on our values and not on any personal gain we might derive from what we say or do.

So starting right now, I challenge each one of us … myself included … to only say what we mean and mean what we say. And probably at the end of the day when we’re lying in bed and reviewing how the day went, we will hear Jesus whisper in our ear … “Okay … so what did you REALLY mean to say?” And, God willing, we will have another day to try and do it better.

We have got to stop telling God we’ll tend the field and then not doing it. We HAVE to start TENDING the field … but we also have to say YES, I’ll tend your field and then go and DO it. It’s not for someone ELSE to do … it’s for US.

If not us … WHO?

And if not now … WHEN?

NOBODY is off the hook. Read. Write letters. Sign petitions. Say prayers. There is always SOMETHING that we can do in order to LIVE OUT our faith so our actions match our words.

May the Spirit lead and guide us to those acts that have meaning for us … and may God grant us the strength to live our lives with Integrity for that is the greatest honor we can pay to Jesus.       Amen.



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