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First Reading = Ephesians 4:1-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” 9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until 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. 14We 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. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from 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.
We are continuing our series about real relationships. We have learned how to accept ambiguity and focus on commonalities. This week we are going to talk about honesty and kindness. They are kind of a package deal, so we’ll take them together.
I have lived in Texas, where Southern hospitality sometimes makes kindness more important than honesty. If you hear, “Well bless your heart,” be prepared for a sugar-coated insult.
And I have lived in Pennsylvania, where honesty sometimes takes the form of bluntness without regard for kindness. “Lemme tell y’ens somethin!”
And here in Colorado, sometimes people avoid kindness and honesty by just saying, “Sorry, can’t talk, I’m headed to the mountains!” Every place has its quirks when it comes to honesty and kindness.
And the early churches had their quirks with honesty and kindness, too. We heard in our first reading from Ephesians the admonishment to speak the truth in love. Both things – speak the truth – and speak it in love. And our second text in Colossians has a similar message with just a little different flavor.
Sermon Text = Colossians 3:8-17
8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! 12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Well I have something to tell you. It’s a bit awkward, but here it goes. You’ve got something in your teeth. Has anyone had to tell you that?
My wife and I have been watching the show Ted Lasso, which is about an American college football coach who gets hired to run an English soccer team. He and his assistant Nathan are on their way to formal dinner, and Ted asks him, “Nate, I got somethin’ to ask you. Are you the kinda guy who wants me to tell him if he’s got somethin’ in his teeth?”
Nate replies, “Well yes, yes of course.”
And Ted says, “Great. Because that suit doesn’t fit you.”
“Oh…um…it’s my dad’s. I don’t have a reason to wear a suit much.”
So Ted smiles at Nathan and takes him to get a suit and pays for it.
And that is a fabulous example of kindness and honesty together. Ted first asked Nathan if he wanted to know potentially embarrassing but helpful honesty. He didn’t assume, he asked. Then he was honest instead of beating around the bush. And then he helped Nathan solve the problem.
That’s kind honesty! That’s speaking the truth in love, to use the phrase from our first reading today.
Our text from Colossians says it this way, “8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”
There are three components in that section.
First, be kind. That means getting rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language, to use the exact list from Colossians. The church needed to hear that list 2000 years ago. Do you think we still need to hear that list? Have we gotten rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language yet? Probably not.
So if we speak from anger, we aren’t ready to be kind yet. If we speak from wrath – the desire to destroy – we aren’t ready to be kind yet. If we speak from malice – intentionally harming someone – we aren’t ready to be kind yet. If we speak slander or abusive language, we aren’t ready to be kind yet.
Second part of this text is to be honest. This one is pretty direct – “Do not lie to one another.” Lies can be actively committed. Lies can be by omission – leaving something critical out. Lies can be letting other lies or unkindness go without trying to speak truth in love. So be honest.
And the third part of this text is to model our daily behavior on that of Jesus Christ. The text says to strip off the old self and clothe ourselves in Christ. That means our model isn’t what’s generally accepted in our culture or church today. No, our model is the life and words and sacrifice of Jesus.
Tools for Kind Honesty
So I see a few tools we can use to cultivate kind honesty with our inner selves, with our visible actions, and with our audible words.
The first, easy tool we have for cultivating kind honesty is to copy State Farm. They have the discount double check to save money on insurance. We can have the Kind Honesty Double Check. I’ve heard Rick Warren say, “Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true.” So take a moment and double-check. Is what I’m about to say really true? Really? And you can double check your kindness, too. Am I granting myself or others grace? Am I about to be kind? Really? Am I about to be kind with my body and my tone and my words? Really? Do a double-check. We heard the list of things we should get rid of, but our text also gives us a list of things we should seek more of. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.” So do a double check against that list. That’s a very easy tool to cultivate more kind honesty.
For the second tool, let me share some wisdom from Greg Funfgeld, the traditional music director at my previous church. This was a big moment for me, so I want to give him credit. We were pretty disciplined about evaluating our big events and initiatives so we could learn and improve. We had goals ahead of time, and we evaluated ourselves against those goals.
But Greg said in one meeting, and I’ll never forget this, “We always spend our time talking about what went wrong. Can we spend some time talking about what went well?” So from that point on, I have used a simple framework for evaluating: let’s talk about our hits, our misses, and our “next times.” And let’s talk about them in that order. Start with the hits. Start with what went well. Then let’s talk about our misses, what could have gone better. And then let’s solidify those into the things we want to intentionally keep and the things we want to intentionally change for next time.
It is just as honest to highlight that something went well as it is to highlight that something could have gone better. Speaking honestly isn’t just telling someone when they have something in their teeth or their suit doesn’t fit. Speaking honestly is also telling someone when they look sharp in their suit or when they nail the speech or organize something well.
So the second tool is to intentionally speak honestly about what went well. Find the reasons to celebrate – and be just as disciplined about finding those good reasons as you are about noticing what should be better next time. Honestly celebrate the good. Don’t just honestly point out the bad. Our main text says it this way: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” Intentionally noticing the good is the second tool for cultivating kind honesty.
The third tool is to give yourself the grace to slowly improve and grow in kind honesty. You’re not going to get from where you are to how Jesus modeled in a lifetime, let alone thirty days from now. So take an honest look at the gap between your kind honesty and Jesus’ kind honesty. Be honest about the size of that gap. Look with clear eyes. But then be kind to yourself by just taking one step.
How can I be one step more honest with my family? How can I be one step more honest with myself? How can I be one step more honest at work? How can I be one step more honest?
And how can I be one step more kind with my family? How can I be one step more kind with myself? How can I be one step more kind at work? How can I be one step more kind?
Just take one step toward being more kind and honest. Shrinking it down to one step is the third tool for cultivating kind honesty.
Kind Honesty for FPCL
So let’s practice some of these tools. Let’s practice these tools by examining this church, this congregation, this pastor with kind honesty. We’ll get a chance to talk and listen much more at the annual meeting next week, but let’s get started today. Let’s set the stage for that speaking and listening next week by getting some kind honesty.
I think the weirdness of the last two years should give us a chance for fresh perspective. I think my sabbatical gave us a chance for fresh perspective. And I think Pastor Carol’s announcement of her retirement in March should give us a chance for fresh perspective, too. So let’s get another step toward kind honesty.
Before the pandemic, when people asked me if First Pres Littleton was growing or dying, I would always tell them we were staying about the same. I felt like we were reaching new people in our community at about the same rate that people moved out or found a different church or moved on to heaven. That’s how I honestly felt.
But it wasn’t true. When I did a double-check by looking at the worship attendance and membership numbers going back many years, it painted a different picture. We have actually been slowly shrinking during my time – about twenty members a year. And about half of that in average worship attendance shrinking each year. Just slow enough to not feel like a big problem, but just fast enough to be a big problem.
If we continue to lost about twenty members per year for various reasons, this church will be dead in thirteen years. If this church continues to be every bit as loving, every bit as serving, every bit as kind as it has been, it will need to book itself a spot in the Columbarium by the time my younger son is a senior in high school. That was a sobering double check. But a needed one.
But let’s use tool #2, finding the honestly good things. From everything I have heard, I believe this church responded and stepped up in a very admirable way when I was gone last summer for my sabbatical. Mary asked the congregation to step up and get engaged, and you did! We asked Lynda and Carol to work together to provide stable leadership during that time, and they did! I asked the church to invest in relationships while I was away, and with a game night and a summer music concert and reconnecting at worship, you did!
If you rewind further, do you remember when Carol was away for her one month sabbatical? Do you remember when Carol was away for a while with a broken hip I believe it was? When Carol had some extended absences before, the church stepped up! I asked the Deacons and neighborhood stewards to be even more involved, even more connected with their neighborhoods, even more willing to call someone or visit someone. And then let me know who needs or would appreciate a little extra outreach from me. And they did it!
We asked for blankets and you responded with a huge pile out there. We asked for people to get Christmas presents to fill those shoe boxes to send around the world, and you did it! We asked for people to fill backpacks with school supplies for kids who needed it, and you did it! We’re asking people to help fill welcome baskets for Afghan refugees resettling in our area, and I bet you’ll do it! I have confidence! That’s in your wheelhouse!
So we can honestly say that this church has the ability to respond, to step up as a group. It’s not one person doing it all, it’s a bunch of people doing it together. It’s the church being the church. That’s honestly good!
Alright, let’s use tool #3. Let’s get one step more honest and one step more kind. So let’s get more honest. With Carol retiring, does anyone here honestly think I’m going to be able to replace everything she has been doing? Honestly, I can’t do that. In fact, no one can. No…one…can.
But the Deacons and neighborhood stewards and people on care teams have demonstrated that they can…together. No ONE person is going to replace what Carol has been doing. But if more people step forward to be Deacons or to assist with pastoral care teams we can actually do even more than Carol has been doing. That’s not easy, but it’s possible. This church can do it! When it comes to your ability to care for each other, I believe in you! That’s honestly in your wheelhouse, too!
So taking one step forward would require more people who have been Deacons or neighborhood stewards or on care teams or maybe previously trained as Stephen Ministers to re-engage with caring for the people of this church. That’s one step forward.
I’m going to get risky here, though, let me talk about two steps forward. Risky, I know. But let’s see if we can find pavement instead of ice with this second step.
I’ll start this with kindness. It is very common and understandable when someone wants the pastor to be the one visiting them when they’re sick or struggling or recovering. I totally get that. Very common. Very understandable. Very relatable. I, like every pastor, am honored to walk with people through every phase of life.
Now for some honesty to go along with that kindness. When it only counts as a visit if it’s from the head pastor, that’s not biblical. If a Deacon visits someone in the hospital, and they say, “No one visited me” because the pastor didn’t arrive – that’s common and understandable but it’s also not biblical.
Did Jesus visit everyone? No. He sent his followers out two by two to minister in his name. Did that count? It sure seems like it counts in the Bible!
In the book of Acts, in chapter 6, when the early church was being formed, they started the first Deacon ministry. The disciples needed to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word, so they picked out seven – not one, seven – people to focus on caring for the people in the church. Did it count when Stephen visited people instead of Peter? It sure seems like it counts in the Bible! Did it count when the disciples taught the Bible instead of Jesus doing it himself? It sure seems like it counts in the Bible!
In Jim Collins’ famous book, How the Mighty Fall, he talks about the five stages of decline. Remember what I shared about how this church has been actually shrinking, not staying the same. So think about where we are in these stages.
Stage one is hubris born of success – things are going well so you think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.
Stage two is undisciplined pursuit of more – we need more of everything! Even if it stretches us too thin in our core.
Stage three is denial of risk and peril. This is like the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail refusing to admit that King Arthur cut off his arm.
Stage four is gasping for salvation – thinking there’s just one person, one key program, one miracle that will make everything better again!
And finally stage five is capitulation to irrelevance or death. It’s too late, it’s over.
I don’t think we’re that bad. Yet.
But we’re probably in late stage three – just realizing there’s real risk and peril. Thirteen years if we do what we’re doing! But the temptation from here is to gasp for salvation, to find the one magical person, to find the one silver bullet, the one new program to fix it all.
Ain’t. Gonna. Happen. That’s honesty.
But the kindness is that there’s hope. You exit the stages of decline, not by finding a savior or something totally new. Organizations typically exit the decline by recommitting to the core of what made them great to begin with.
This church has demonstrated a core competence of caring for each other. This church has demonstrated a core competence of creating meaningful and lasting relationships. This church has demonstrated a core competence of responding to needs in the community.
So I believe the answer is for the church to be the church. A pastor can’t be the church. It takes a whole church to be a church. So two steps forward would be for this church to awaken to its potential to be the church again. The staff can’t be the church. The staff can equip and organizing and multiply your efforts. But only you can be the church.
Jesus said the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. We have a lot of potential laborers for the harvest here. Many hands make light work. A little bit from a lot of people is more than any one person or two or three or four people can do. You can do this! You’ve done it before! You count! If you’re willing to step forward, you count!
Sisters and brothers, real relationships require kind honesty. Real relationships require speaking the truth in love. So I hope we will all cultivate more kind honesty by doing a double check, by noticing what’s honestly good, and by taking just one or two steps further.
Jesus rose again from the dead. He can raise you up in your life again. And he can raise up this church again, too. Amen.