Words Matter -- A Sermon
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
On more than one occasion Rial has said that “Words Matter.” I think that what he means is that a word has a definition and we should pay attention to it. I agree, but words also have nuances, and context often determines meaning, especially in the English language. Now, I realize that you didn’t come to church today to get a lesson in English grammar, but I believe that Paul has something important to say about words in our text. It’s not an issue of grammar or definitions, but whether our lives match our words.
Because Paul was a traveling preacher, he was something of a talker, but unlike many other contemporary preachers of his day and ours as well, Paul was a straight-talker. He said what he meant and meant what he said, and so people could have confidence in his message. Paul’s own confidence in God’s calling on his life gave him confidence in his message as well. Therefore, he had the courage to proclaim the good news of Jesus, even in the face of opposition, because he aimed to please God, not mortals.
In doing this, Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus, who also spoke with boldness and authority. Both Paul and Jesus consistently confounded their critics, because whenever they tested them, they would walk in defeat or in anger.
Paul’s confidence comes from his own sense of integrity. He writes that when he spoke, he did so without deceit, flattery, or insincerity. Because he had been tested by God, he didn’t fear any human being, and so the Thessalonians could trust his word.
As I think about Paul’s story, I can’t help but think of modern politicians, who have learned an important lesson. They’ve learned that if you want to get elected or stay elected you have to tell people what they want to hear. I don’t think most politicians are necessarily evil or deceitful people, but they learn quickly that we will reward them with our votes if they tell us what we want to hear. So, if a politician tells you that they can keep the library open seven days a week at no extra cost, even if the librarian tells you that there’s not enough money in the budget to sustain that kind of service, many will believe the politician rather than the librarian.
And, don’t you find it interesting that while only 15% of Americans like the way Congress is doing its job, we keep reelecting the incumbents? Why is this? I guess it’s because we seem to think that the problem is with the other representatives, not ours.
Politicians who speak honestly, often are sent packing for home rather than head off for Congress. That’s just the way it is. Although people sometimes remember with great fondness Harry Truman’s alleged straight talk, as I remember from my reading of American history, he wasn’t all that popular in his own day!
Of course, what happens in politics happens in other areas of life – including church life. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that prophets weren’t especially popular folks. From Isaiah to Hosea to John the Baptist, prophets had a hard life, especially when they spoke truth to power. I doubt Nathan was all that popular with David, after the prophet confronted him about his affair with Bathsheba and his complicity in the death of Uriah. And you know what happened to John the Baptist and to Jesus. No, we don’t reward those who speak boldly, especially when they say things that make us feel uncomfortable.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to say whatever comes to mind. There are some things best left unsaid. But, integrity is important. Paul is comfortable enough with his own integrity that he feels comfortable offering himself up as an example. This isn’t ego or bravado or arrogance. He seems to have what one writer on leadership development calls “true self-confidence.” In Paul’s case that was an inner sense of who he was before God. It was this self-confidence that led people to trust him and his message. Although he could have used his position for his own benefit, he chose not to do so.
As I was thinking about what Paul was saying to the Thessalonian church, a slogan from my childhood came to mind. Remember those Texaco commercials about trusting your car to the man who wore the star? Now, I wasn’t driving back then, so I can’t give a testimony to the integrity of that slogan, but the idea is clear. When you pull into a Texaco station, you can trust that attendant or the mechanic will do the right thing. Well, Paul seems to be saying the same thing about himself.
In making his claim for their attention, Paul offers us a look at the flip side of things. Not only does he tell us who he is, he also tells us about what he’s not. And there’s a word that sticks out in this letter. It’s the word flattery.
We all know what it’s like to flatter and be flattered. We learn early in life that flattery will get us a lot of things. Perhaps it will get us everything! While this word is useful, I like one of the synonyms for flattery even better. Don’t you love the word “obsequious?” Doesn’t it sound absolutely slimy? Even if you don’t know the meaning, you know it’s not a good thing to be obsequious.
Flattery and obsequiousness are all about power. We use flattery in order to get something we want, often by pretending that we like something or that we want to be friends. In the end, however, we’re more concerned about gaining power than we are about that person. Flattery is really about manipulation.
In years past, before the women’s movement took hold, women weren’t allowed to have overt power. In some places that’s still true. But even though they couldn’t have overt power, many women gained power by manipulating the men in their lives with their “feminine wiles.” Remember that phrase – the “power behind the throne?” In other words, you don’t have to be out front to have power, if you know how to play the game. And what many women were taught is that men have three weaknesses. They like to eat, they enjoy sex, and they need to have their egos stroked. If you can cook, can offer them pleasure, and tell them how wonderful they are, then you can control a man, and get whatever you want in life.
The textbook for this kind of “power” was written back in the 1970s by Marabel Morgan. Some of you may remember her book, The Total Woman, which gave instructions on how to gain power through manipulation. One of her most famous suggestions to wives was that they might want to greet their husbands at the door wearing nothing but cellophane. Well, my suggestion is that you better know who is at the door, if you decide to try this at home!
It’s interesting that this book came out at the same time as the Women’s Movement was gaining steam. It appealed to women who were afraid that equality might jeopardize their power. This fear led many women to oppose women elders and women clergy. If we all agreed that women and men are equal, then we’ll have to play by a different set of rules. So if words matter, does the way we live give integrity to these words of ours? As we consider this question, may we hear Paul’s appeal, his word of encouragement, and his plea that we live lives worthy of the God who called them and us to live in God’s kingdom and glory.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2011