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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 27
“Good Character”
October 19, 2014 - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         A friend of someone we know just started dating an abuser. She’s very excited about her new relationship. The person we know called Friday to ask our advice about how to rain on that parade and save her friend from disaster.

         Our text for this week was timely. I quoted verses 5 and 6 about open rebuke being better than hidden love and that a friend can inflict well meant wounds. Better the pain of hearing what you don’t want to hear and losing what you thought was love than the physical and emotional pain of abuse. As I’ve noted all along through Proverbs, the wisdom being taught here is practical, moral wisdom, aimed at developing good character in a young person’s life, but with application for us all.

         Chapter 27 teaches that development of character is not an individual, solitary pursuit. I can’t just decide to become a better person by my own efforts, whether it’s better perception about relationships or how to speak honestly but gently. You might make a little progress alone, but real, solid development of character takes friendship and community.

         So the person in that dangerous relationship needed to hear gentle truth from the person we know, and that friend of ours needed to hear what we had to suggest about how to offer that truth. We formed a little chain of help so that the right thing can be said and done. In this case it went in one direction, but that kind of encouragement also, and in the best cases, goes both ways.

         Verse 17 is the central theme of this chapter, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.” That’s not exactly how it goes in Hebrew, nor how it goes in the translation from which I read, which says, “and one person sharpens the wits of another.” Sharpened “wits” is how I always took this verse before studying it. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, discussion and argument over a philosophical point or even a bit of trivia like whether the newer “Star Wars” films are any good. Wits are sharpened clashing against another set of wits like an iron blade is sharpened by clashing against another piece of iron.

         The word which English versions often leave out altogether is not “wits,” but “face.” We sharpen each other’s “faces.” We sharpen for each other the “face” we present to the world around us, not physical appearance, but the personality and character we display in the ways we behave and interact with others. So this verse and this chapter are not just about getting intellectually “sharp,” but about sharpening and shaping who we are in the deepest and most important ways. That’s what our friend wants to do for her friend. That’s what we are all called by God to do for each other.

         You’ve heard me talk many times about being an introvert, and I’m going off tomorrow to be pretty much alone for a week. So I’ve been really slow to learn the lessons this chapter wants to teach us, that good character is a cooperative venture, something we work at together. But I can look back over my life and see it at work even when I didn’t realize it.

         I am blessed was a good friend I met in college. Our friendship developed while we skipped the mandatory chapel service at our school to play chess, yet managed to get ourselves counted as attending nonetheless. Jay and I saw nothing wrong at the time with dishonestly flaunting that silly regulation and avoiding even sillier chapel talks. But our talks over a chessboard began to form in us both a character which now decades later would want to handle the problem of a lousy chapel program with more integrity.

         As Beth and I often say, and as some of you probably heard this morning in her class, the big moral questions are not about what we should do, but about what we should be. As the Ebola virus creeps closer to where you and I live, lots of people are debating what’s to be done. Should we block travel from western Africa? What emergency procedures should our hospitals set up? How shall we protect ourselves?

         Yet the true and big question for us as Christians, and for anyone in the world, is what kind of people do we want to be in the face of such dangers? Yes, will we be prudent? But even more will we be compassionate? Will we act out of fear or out of courage and hope? What kind of character will underlie and shape our response to those affected by Ebola?

         Proverbs 27 tells us that we can help each other know and shape the character we want to have in an Ebola crisis, in an economic crisis, or in a family crisis. And more importantly, we can help shape each other for all the much more ordinary times of our lives, when we simply want to be good people as we live day by day.

         Verse 19 says, “Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another.” There is the key to how we can sharpen one another toward good character. By reflecting back to one another those good virtues of the heart we all want, we help each other grow good character.

         My new friend Mark Alfano has written a book in which he argues that we can take an active part in forming good behavior in each other by the simple act of labeling each other as good in some way. He cites a study done in 1975 with fifth graders. One group was asked to be neat, by the principal, the teachers, and the janitor. “Keep your classroom tidy.” Another group was instead congratulated on being the tidiest class in the school. Over several days they received praise from the teacher, the principal and in a note from the janitor regarding their neatness. Both groups improved and were more tidy, but it lasted much longer for the second group. Mark argues that the same kind of thing happens when we praise each other for generosity or compassion or honesty. We can help one another make lasting improvements in how we act.[1]

         Like my first take on verse 17, I’ve changed my take on verse 21 here, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, so a person is tested by being praised.” Initially I thought that had to do with whether praise would go to a person’s head, making them boastful and proud. But I wonder if it might not also suggest just that kind praise in regard to character, that the real test is whether a person praised as wise or kind will in fact start to show more wisdom or kindness.

         We are in fact doing this kind of thing for each other all the time as Christians. You see our banners, listing the “fruits of the Spirit,” from Galatians 5. Paul offers those virtues as a summary of Christian character. But look how he does it. He first lists a bunch of sins like jealousy and quarreling and drunkenness and tells the Galatians essentially, “That’s not you. People like that are not inheriting the kingdom of God.” Then he tells them that they live by the Holy Spirit, and here is what the Spirit produces. “That’s you,” he implies, “you are people who live by the Spirit in love, joy, peace, patience, and all the rest.”

         Paul does it again in our lesson from I Thessalonians, praising that church for their hospitality to him and for their commitment to the “living and true God,” telling them they are an example to other believers around them. He’s encouraging the Thessalonians to be those things, to have that character, by praising them for the start they’ve already made.

         Psychologically, praising someone for a virtue only helps them behave that way if it’s plausible. There has to be at least some bare minimum of basis for commending a person for their goodness. You can’t just go around telling random strangers they are kind or generous or honest and expect it to make any difference. You aren’t going to change the self-concept out of which they act if they have no reason to believe you know what you’re talking about.

         That’s why the fact that we believe we are people filled with the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ and the fact that we come to know one other together in the church helps us encourage good character in each other. I have good reason to believe that deep down in you the Spirit is working to make you more patient or generous. So if I offer you a compliment on your patience or generosity, I’m not just talking through my hat. It’s because I know that the grace of Christ is truly at work in you.

         Mark Alfano has also told me in conversation that some virtues seem to work in pairs to encourage each other. If Sally is generous to George, it encourages George to be grateful. But if George expresses his gratitude to Sally, it encourages her to be more generous. And it can go back a forth that way, gratitude fostering generosity and generosity fostering gratitude. Trust is like that as well. Place a little trust in someone and they will be encouraged to be trustworthy. Then their trustworthiness will help you be more trusting.

         And it’s old wisdom that to have a friend you need to be a friend. By being friendly to someone you help them be more friendly to you. That’s why verse 10 stresses the importance of maintaining friendships, not forsaking them. Those relationships can be as strong and good as, or sometimes even better than, family.

         We want to be a family of friends like that here, because that is what God is. Every Sunday we sing “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to Holy Ghost,” and usually another doxology that praises God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our faith is that God’s own self is a three-person family, with each one distinct and yet all united in one God. That’s what we are about here, that kind of relationship with each other.

         In our Gospel lesson Jesus took that coin He was handed and basically told the folks who were worrying about the morality of paying taxes to give it back to Caesar. It had Caesar’s image. It was Caesar’s. But then He said to give God the things that are God’s, in other words, whatever is stamped with the image of God. That’s you and I and everyone we meet every day. We are people made in the image of God, who is a perfect community of love and generosity and trust and peace and joy and all the rest. And because of that we rightfully belong to God, belong to that blessed community of love.

         So God has given us the privilege of inviting, of welcoming each other into that good family of friends which reflects His own being. Part of the way we do that is by recognizing and affirming that image of God when we see it in each other. And when we do that, the image becomes clearer, brighter, more true to God’s own self.

         I’ve spoken before about the work of Father Greg Boyle who ministers with Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles. He has helped hundreds of hard core, tattooed, violent, drugged-out, ex-con young men and women begin productive new lives. Honestly, as I read him telling his story I was a bit put off. He kept talking about telling those gang-bangers how God sees them all as beloved children, no matter what. I kind of wondered why he didn’t talk more about getting them to acknowledge their sins and seek forgiveness. But he just kept finding good in these young people in the smallest ways. A boy from the parish school came in with a report card of straight Fs, but Father “G,” as they call him, searched that card until he notice that the boy had zero absences and said, “Lula, nice goin’, mijo, you didn’t miss a day—you didn’t miss a day!” Then he gave Lula a high five.[2]

         It worked. Lula managed to survive in the barrio, grow up and have a son of his own. A small affirmation made him feel like someone who could be different from what he was. Father Greg does get to the need for forgiveness and redemption, but he constantly understands that we receive that grace from God as we offer it to others around us. We join with God in making each other what we were meant to be.

         Good character is the mutual work of friends, of a community, of the Church. It’s a large part of why we are here, as we said at the beginning of this service. Stories like Lula’s give us hope that it will be fruitful work, that the fruit of the Spirit really can sprout and grow among us. Our friend is going to talk to her friend about that bad relationship in the strong hope that it will make a difference, that the friend’s course will be changed. By the grace of Jesus we live in that kind of hope for each other.

         So the fact that we actually can make a difference in each other’s character’s is truly hopeful, but it’s also challenging. It’s just plain hard work to think about what we say to each other, and how our words might affect someone else. And it doesn’t always work out well. Beth just called my attention to a small passage in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, where he reflects on “stupidity.” He doesn’t mean intellectual deficiency. He means a moral deficiency that, under the pressure of a bad community like Nazi Germany, fails to see what is right and wrong. He says that kind of “stupidity” is worse than simple malice. It just won’t listen, won’t accept any encouragement to change.[3]

         Verse 22 points to what worries Bonhoeffer by saying, “Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, but the folly will not be driven out.” There are those who will persist in their moral blindness, in their bad character, but Bonhoeffer still affirms hopefully that the grace of God is powerful enough to overcome stupidity or foolishness and that it “utterly forbid[s] us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance.” In other words, Jesus invited anyone and everyone to come to Him and receive the gift of new life. He does not give up on anyone. Nor should we.

         And we can get it wrong. We can think we’re doing each other good by what we say and yet totally blow it. So verses 14 to 16 give us a little comic relief as a caution, a loudmouth waking up his sleeping neighbor with a cheery good morning and a nagging wife driving her husband to distraction. It takes care and thought and effort to say the right thing at the right time in the right way.

         Mark Alfano explains that the same psychology which makes praising another person so helpful makes negative labeling of others utterly disastrous.[4] Just as we can make someone more generous by calling them generous, we can make someone more stingy by calling them stingy. That’s why Bonhoeffer rightly warns us to be careful about calling too many people “stupid” in that morally blind sense. What we tell each other can work both good and bad on our characters.

         Yes it’s hard work. The closing image of this chapter is on the surface simple advice about good care for one’s land and animals. If you take the time and do the long slow work of tending the land and giving proper attention to your sheep and goats, they will feed and clothe you and your family and the people who work for you, even in hard times. That’s the obvious truth, but underlying it is the biblical understanding that people are God’s flock, and that we are called to the long slow work of joining Him in caring for each other.

         That’s why I am intrigued by the book, Slow Church. If our calling as Christians is not just to get people to believe in Jesus and be saved, but to also work alongside Jesus in helping each other grow good character, grow into the people God means us to be, then it takes something like the attention and effort that goes into farming, into raising and caring for a flock or herd. We won’t get there by implementing a program. We will do it by simply paying attention to each other and speaking graciously and hopefully to each other.

         You do it. You are generous with each other, whether it’s money or tools, clothes or food. You are kind and patient toward each other, putting up with quirks and political differences and even a little meanness now and then. I thank God that you are kind and patient with me when I don’t give you a hug or preach like Rick Warren.

         You are the people of God, followers of a Savior who gave His life for you. So you give your lives to Him and to each other in this community, a family of friends who know and care and build each other up in virtue and faith. That’s why we’re here.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1]See Character As Moral Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), especially chapter 4.

[2] See Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010).

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 43, 44.

[4] Character As Moral Fiction, p. 94ff.

Last updated October 19, 2014