Last week I preached on how loving one another is hard and involves being patient, kind and truthful. I said that sometimes the being truthful part is especially difficult. But that loving one another doesn’t just mean being nice, but really means being willing to help one another grow – which sometimes means telling people truths that may be hard to tell, truths that may be hard to hear.
Well today I want to follow up on that with the other side of the coin, because, as some have pointed out, there are some people who, in the name of “truth,” are also nothing but critical. Often these people are also critical in a way that is impossible to hear, and impossible to actually grow from. And I just want to assure you that this was not what I am advocating. Again, if loving is working towards the highest spiritual good for the other, we have to find ways to live in truth and peace with one another that won’t tear each other down.
Todays’ reading from Matthew is very clear that we are to confront each other when we have been injured by one another – something we’ve talked about not just last week, but other times as well. Still, when we do tell the truth, when we do confront one another, we have to find loving ways to do this. Because while the passages that encourage truth telling are important, we have more passages that tell us that first and foremost the job is to support one another and uplift one another.
For example, Romans 14:10-13 says, “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written: 'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.' So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way.”
Romans 12:9-10 “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
Romans 12:15-20 “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink."
And, as we read from Luke today, Jesus is clear that we are not to be critical of one another without serious introspection, and self-reflection first. We are to look at our own flaws first and work hard to remove them, before we ever even consider saying something to someone else. Jesus still says that we do this in order to help the other. “first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” So, we still aren’t let off the hook from helping one another grow, too.
But again, we are first called to look at our own flaws, our own challenges, our own areas of growth. These, then, can help us to help one another.
A young couple moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap."
Her husband looked on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hung her wash to dry, the young woman made the same comments. A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? "
The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows."
But today I especially want to talk about how we discuss our criticisms with others.
In book two of Anne of Green Gables series, Anne of Avonlea, Anne has made friends with a crotchety old man who is very critical of others. (p.66 – 67)
“That old nuisance of a Rachel Lynde was here again today, pestering me for a subscription towards buying a carpet for the vestry room,” said Mr. Harrison wrathfully. “I detest that woman more than anybody I know. She can put a whole sermon, text, comment, and application into six words, and throw it at you like a brick.”
…(Anne replied), “The trouble is, you and Mrs. Lynde don’t understand one another,” she explained. “That is always what is wrong when people don’t like each other. I didn’t like Mrs. Lynde at first either, but as soon as I came to understand her I learned to.”
“Mrs. Lynde may be an acquired taste with some folks, but I didn’t keep on eating bananas because I was told I’d learn to like them if I did,” growled Mr. Harrison. “And as for understanding her, I understand that she is a confirmed busybody and I told her so.”
“Oh, that must have hurt her feelings very much,” said Anne reproachfully. “How could you say such a thing? I said some dreadful things to Mrs. Lynde long ago but it was when I had lost my temper. I couldn’t say them deliberately.”
“It was the truth and I believe in telling the truth to everybody.”
“But you didn’t tell the whole truth,” objected Anne. “You only tell the disagreeable part of the truth. Now, you’ve told me a dozen times that my hair was red, but you’ve never once told me that I had a nice nose.”
“I daresay you know it without any telling,” chuckled Mr. Harrison.
“I know I have red hair too.. although it’s much darker than it used to be.. so there’s no need of telling me that either.”
“Well, well. I’ll try and not mention it again since you’re so sensitive. You must excuse me, Anne. I’ve got a habit of being outspoken and folks mustn’t mind it.”
“But they can’t help minding it. And I don’t think it’s any help that it’s your habit. What would you think of a person who went about sticking pins and needles into people and saying, ‘Excuse me, you mustn’t mind it. It’s just a habit I’ve got.’ You’d think he was crazy, wouldn’t you? And as for Mrs. Lynde being a busybody, perhaps she is. But did you tell her she had a very kind heart and always helped the poor, and never said a word when Timothy Cotton stole a crock of butter out of her dairy and told his wife he’d bought it from her? Mrs. Cotton cast it up to her the next time they met that it tasted of turnips and Mrs. Lynde just said she was sorry it had turned out so poorly.”
“I suppose she has some good qualities,” conceded Mr. Harrison grudgingly. “Most folks have….”
As Anne put it so eloquently, it isn’t the whole truth to just criticize. And we have to be careful about judging others. You know the quote, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose to be kind.” Wayne Dyer.
I don’t know if any of you know anything about William’s syndrome, but it is a disease in which the person who has it cannot be discriminating and instead just loves and trusts everyone. There is gift in that. But sometimes people become extremely uncomfortable with that kind of care and love from a total stranger. There was a show on PBS that was talking about this disease and a mom was sharing that her daughter had this condition. People who didn’t know that she was struggling with a condition would sometimes yell at the mother out of their own discomfort or fear for the girl, “Haven’t you taught her to be careful of strangers? It is extremely dangerous for her to just walk up to someone and sit on their lap, or climb in their car, or take someone’s hand! What’s the matter with you for not teaching her these things?!!” And we understand their judgment. When we do not understand the whole of any situation, it is easy for us to judge. Who here does not have judgment about someone about something; Something someone said, something someone has done, something someone believes, something someone is?
I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the things that you judge in others. Are there specific things or attitudes or behaviors that you find yourself judging in others? Are there reasons why you have those specific judgments? Past experiences? Maybe it is hard to understand certain things? As the Matthew passage tells us, even as the Luke passage tells us, in the case of our families, our friends, our church communities, and even others, there is a time and place for the gentle corrections that lead to growth. But we have to speak without judgment. We have to speak because of a genuine desire to serve the other. We have to speak out of love. If we aren’t, if we are speaking in anger, or judgment, or worse, in hatred, then we are not doing what we are called to do. Speak your truth…speak with love….but try to speak the whole truth, including the good stuff.
Psychologists give us a formula for this, a formula for confrontation which may seem hokey, but at least for me, I have found it to actually be very affective, very helpful. It helps me to speak my truth. More importantly, I believe it also helps the other person hear what I’m saying. The formula is something like this: 1. You speak your care for the other person. 2. You speak an affirmation about what is going well in the situation. 3. Then you talk about the thing that has upset you in terms of your own feelings and the way the other’s behavior has affected you. For example, “I love you. You are wonderful as a parent/teacher/friend. AND, when you do x, I feel __________.”
Today’s passage in Matthew follows the mandate to confront by telling us that we must forgive. Forgiveness is also a part of all of this. But as you see, forgiveness does not mean just forgetting about what someone has done, or failing to hold someone accountable. Instead, it means dealing with a problem and then letting it go. If you can’t deal directly with a problem because the person you are upset with isn’t willing or isn’t available, then you finally have to work it out within yourself, bring healing in yourself and forgive for your own sake. As I’ve talked about before, our anger only hurts ourselves. But most of the time, we are simply afraid to speak our truths.
Loving is not easy. It involves kindness, it involves truth. It is all the things that last week's passage from 1 Corinthians 13 mentioned: patience, faith, steadfastness. But the author of love itself is there to help us. And that is good news indeed.