The Language of Actions

Sunday, July 7, 2001

Location - Wayne
Attribute - Spiritual Disciplines
Bible Verses - Isaiah 29:9
Luke 29:45


Wayne 7-15-01

Isaiah 29:9-14 Luke 6:41-49

Why do you call me "Lord, Lord" and not do what I say?

Luke 6:45

In I Corinthinans 12:3, Paul writes that "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." This seems to be at odds with Jesus's own words and certainly with our own experience; but I want to suggest this morning that if we look at the statements in their contexts, there is no real contradiction.

First of all, we might take a few moments to look at the relationship between words and deeds. It is no secret whatever that there can be a difference. "Actions speak louder than words," we say, and "What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say." Yet in many circumstances, words are deeds. They have powerful effects. The help or harm. The difference between telling the truth and telling a lie can be the difference between life and death.

At this point in our national history, we are struggling with the boundary between freedom of speech and responsibility for the consequences of what we say. We do have laws against slander and libel and against advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence. We do not have laws against the verbal abuse of children in the home, even though that abuse can have just as disastrous, lifelong effects as the physical abuse that is prohibited by law.

On the other side of the equation, actions need to be understood in their cultural contexts. Some years ago, a visitor from Germany was horrified to discover that it was perfectly legal for private individuals to own shorefront property and to prohibit trespassing on it. In her experience, shorefront property was by definition open to the public; and presumably in that context this privilege was not abused. Our accepted practice struck her as blatant selfishness; yet the people who own properties around the lake or on the coast are not necessarily being any more selfish than people who own houses in town.

We need to realize, that is, that there are different languages of behavior. What seems to be the same act will not have the same meaning in one local culture as it does in another. Some people are raised in a culture of physical violence, for example, where what most of us would regard as simple courtesy would come across as abject surrender. I do not know whether studies have been made of the "behavioral language" of maximum-security prisons, but I suspect that such a study would be illuminating. I am quite sure that every new inmate has to learn that language, has to learn how to behave in order to get along.

Bearing in mind, then, that the line between actions and words is not an impenetrable barrier and that there can be different languages of behavior, let us look at the two Scriptural statements we started with. "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I say," and "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit."

The first statement by itself would seem to present no problem. It is simply a case of saying one thing with words and the opposite with deeds--a case, then, of lying. The clear assumption is that, as our saying has it, the actions speak louder than the words.

In fact, though, things are not quite that simple. It may have been clear in Gospel times what Jesus was telling people to do, but for present-day Christians, things are not all that clear. For example, some are saying, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and deny women the right to choose," while others are saying "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and permit abortions"? On any number of issues, there are real and honest differences of opinion as to what the Lord is telling us to do.

Let us turn, though, to the second statement. Here, I would suggest, the context of the times makes an immense difference in the way we understand it. It is one thing to say that Jesus is Lord in the context of a Christian worship service, safely surrounded by people of the same mind. It was quite another thing to say it when it might well lead to your arrest and execution. Then the contrast was not between saying and doing, because saying was doing. The contrast was between speaking out and remaining silent; and in Paul's time and place, every public proclamation of his faith put him at risk.

We are called to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). To the extent that actions do speak louder than words, this is not really a matter of going door to door with literature to hand out. It is a matter of doing, to the best of our ability, what the Lord says. The Gospel of John says this in its own way: "Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another" (John 13:35).

Let me put it negatively for a moment. How much harm has been done to the church, how much harm is done to the church, when its members in their private and public lives are more concerned to insist on their rights than they are to accept their responsibilities? How much harm is done when we are more concerned to be ministered to than to minister, when we treat sales clerks as servants, for example, instead of as human beings beloved by our Lord? "Traffic" is all those other cars that are getting in our way.

No, "traffic" is just as much we as it is anyone else, and every "car" is a person in a car and an immortal soul in that person. Everyone we meet is a miracle of unfathomable depth, a history of the Lord's providence. We can go nowhere where the Lord's grace has not preceded us, nowhere where the Lord is not present and waiting for us.

One of the little experiences that has served me as a parable happened in Bath when I was home on vacation from college. To make a long story very short indeed, I was at an auto dealership and walked face first into a sheet of plate glass than had not been there on my last visit. One of things this says to me is that we do not react to things that we do not see. If we do not see the Lord's presence in the life of someone we are talking to, we do not respond to the Lord's presence. If we do not see another's hopes and fears, we do not respond to them. I have heard recently of a couple of doctors who have themselves been hospitalized and who have been shocked to discover what it is like to be a patient. I find it alarming to think that doctors could practice for years without ever knowing what it is like for their patients during all those hours when the doctor is not there.

Think for a moment of some of the people you deal with every week. What is their life like when you are not there? Think of "the traffic," of the people in the other cars on the road. They do not cease to exist when they pass out of our consciousness. They go on to be with other people, to affect their lives and to be affected. Think of the people behind you, in front of you, beside you in this sanctuary. Each one is somewhere on that journey from cradle to grave to eternity. Each one is the focus of the Lord's love and care.

One of the things that is happening in our country is the growing presence of non-Christian faiths. There have been more Muslims than Episcopalians in Chicago for some years now, for example. I suspect, by the way, that our country's position among the nations of the world is going to be enhanced to the extent that we deal constructively with this pluralism, but that is another story entirely. I would focus on the way awareness of Eastern religious practices has led to a growing interest in something called "spirituality."

This is another huge subject, and I would focus in on just one aspect of it, namely the extent to which spirituality is seen as an inner concern and associated with private meditation. True spirituality, I would suggest, means more than awareness of the spiritual dimension of my own life. It means awareness of the spiritual dimension of your life as well. It means living, as best I can, with a consciousness of your value in the Lord's sight.

There has actually been a crisis in American Buddhism with the discovery that some gurus of extraordinary insight and appeal have been sexual and financial predators. It seems that their spirituality has been such a private matter that it did not include any real awareness of the substantial spirituality of their disciples. They could not have treated those disciples as they did if they had seen them as priceless individuals rather than as means to their own self-gratification. Their enlightenment seems to have been a spotlight focused solely on themselves.

If you were to walk through a week with me, you would be able to identify the things that I value because you would be able to see that I treat them with special care. You would be able to identify the people I value by noticing where I bestow my time and attention--including what I do in their absence. In a very real way, the gospel that we are to preach to every creature is the good news that every one of us is both known and loved by our Lord, that we are of value; and we cannot preach that gospel with integrity unless we treat each other with care. Then we begin to say "Lord, Lord" by doing what he says; and then if we talk about the message of the gospel, people may actually be able to understand what we are talking about.


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