Sunday, August 12, 2012

Proper 14

Ephesians 4.25-5.2
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 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.

Surely I’m not the only one here who watches the olympics and thinks ‘how can I get in on this?’

Travel, new friends, celebrity: and all you need to do is find your event. Obviously anything athletic is out. Middle-middle-age is no time to start sprinting or lifting more than my own body weight. Also, eliminate anything that involves yachts or horses that walk sideways. Too rich for my blood. Shooting: too violent. Winter sports: too cold. I’m at a bit of a loss here.

Maybe an alternate olympics, an olympics for the church, where we compete with say, Presbyterians, for suppremacy. Best baked goods. Longest sermon. Pew jumping. Kindness.

Kindness, now there is an event we could all get behind. We would need impartial judges, maybe some Baptists, who could watch us for a while and decide if we are living up to Paul’s admonition found in Ephesians:

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

In a sense, we could simply let Paul be the judge, or God thorugh Paul, or Jesus in God through Paul, or whatever theological formulation you prefer. It would be a race to see who could be kind longest, fastest, most thoroughly, and so on. It should be an even competition, since we are mostly in the kindness business, or at least we should be.

So looking once more at the list, I can see the kindness branch of sports, and the forgiveness group, but what about this tender-hearted command? What does tender-hearted even mean, and how could be begin to measure it in our hypothetical competition?

One of the preaching rules I strive to follow is ‘never do I detailed word study in Hebrew or Greek.’ It’s generally too much, while good people are waiting for lunch, to torture them with original languages. I will pay for these comments later. However, when we are stumped by a word like tender-hearted, I seem to have no choice but to break my own rule and do a word study. So put on your Greek thinking caps, because we’re going in.

εὔσπλαγχνος, (eusplagchnos) pronounced “yoo-splangkh-nos” means tender-hearted, merciful, or compassionate. Easy so far, but what does it really mean, the word that sounds somewhere between spitting and exploring caves. Eusplagchnos appears a couple of places in the New Testament, here and in 1 Peter, and over there it is commonly translated kind-hearted, so that gets us no closer to the meaning.

Broken down, which is what makes Greek truly fun, we find the meaning: the beginning “eu” is a prefix that indicates goodness, and “splagchnos” means the visceral organs, the guts and the bowels. I told you Greek could be fun. So literally, eusplagchnos means ‘good-guts’ or ‘living with guts’ or most simply showing heart on a gut-level, like compassion or kindness.

So there you have it, the world-class event that we in the church should have mastered: gut-level compassion, kindness you can feel in your gut. It is the kind of reaction that is visceral, which means you feel it long before you think of it or react to whatever demands compassion. I think it will vary somewhat from person to person, but a simple list would begin with unnecessary suffering, or profound loss, or anything that hits us on a gut-level.

A quick look around Weston-Mount Dennis, and there is plenty of tender-hearted activity happening already, much of it begun and sustained by the churches. The foodbank, the drop-in, Fun Fridays: all or these began because a group of people felt in their gut that something should be addressed, or something should change, or something should be provided. It is the visceral response, the gut-level feeling we get in the face of suffering or neglect or injustice that drives us forward, gets us out of the chair and into action, and the same gut response that keeps it going.

All of this leads, it would seem, to the question ‘what else should we be doing?’ What is our gut telling us? Is there something that we are neglecting to do that tender-heartedness demands?

Now, before I delve too far into the topic of ‘what else should we be doing’ I want to introduce you to the Steam-Whistle Principle, name, of course for the brewery here in Toronto. Steam-Whistle, you see, has a very compelling slogan that goes like this: “Do one thing really, really well.” In their case that would be make beer, and I have it on good authority that they have met their goal.

If we apply the Steam-Whistle Principle to the church, we get both a caution and some encouragement. We are encouraged to do our best, to do whatever we do as well as possible, really, really well in fact, and that is always good advice. Like the gut-level response, doing our best is something that we best not ignore, because it becomes a mark of character, a sign of who we are.

As a caution, it goes hand-in-hand with encouragement, because it reminds us that if we can spread ourselves too thin, take on too much, we can diminish the good work we do simply by taking on too much. We feel a strong desire to be tender-hearted, we feel it in our gut in fact, but it always happens in the context of what we are already doing and how well we can manage more.

Overall, it is God that speaks to us through our gut. And God is the source of all compassion, and goodness, and tender-heartedness. So it follows that day-by-day God will present us with examples of brokenness in need of mending, or profound loss, or hurt that is hard to heal. And it is God that will address these needs, that will give us the discernment to pick up some and leave others, and it is God that strengthen us to serve, now and always, Amen.


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