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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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. 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
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
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj