I gave my first ever sermon this weekend! Kimberley (my fiance) and I were asked to give the sermon this week for the youth service; I did the first half, and Kimmy the second. It was a real privilege to be asked and we had a lot of fun doing it.
Like I said, it’s my first, so don’t expect too much!
If I did it again I’d probably personalize it a bit more towards the end. By that stage I felt I’d lost a lot of people, and the ending was a bit harsh. I’d like to have released the tension with another joke or anecdote.
I’m just going to show a comic that sums up the vibe of what I’m going to talk about.
Someone is wrong on the internet. Has anyone else ever gotten worked up about that? It happens to me in the comments on newspaper articles. Oh, and YouTube videos, have you ever read the comments under those? Oh my goodness.
Well, it’s no secret if you know me, I like a good argument. Lots of people don’t, but I do. But I’ve learned the hard way how badly arguments can go, and how emotional and painful they can be if they happen at the wrong time, the wrong place, or with the wrong people. So I’m going to talk about being wrong, or sometimes right, and we respond to that.
Anyway, I like this comic because it describes how I feel a lot of the time. It can be so irritating when you think people are wrong. I know what happens to me – I get argumentative. I think you have it wrong, so I want to convince you, want to bring you around to a new point of view. For me, it’s not that I get angry (though I sometimes do, I’m ashamed to say), just, well, zealous.
Getting zealous, that’s one of the responses to thinking someone is wrong. There are a few others:
- Getting angry – this one is a classic for couples. I’m learning this … but not from my couple!
- Not wanting to see the person anymore. It all gets too much, you’ve had enough, they’re not worth your time. So you shut them out.
- Make agreeing noises until they move on. That way, you’re not wrong, and hopefully they stop talking soon. I’m pretty sure Kimberley does this to me sometimes.
People definitely respond that way. And sometimes they are healthy responses, but often not. It depends on the situation.
I’m more concerned about the first three – getting righteous, getting angry and shutting people out, because I think those are the most relevant to the church here and now. Not that I’m singling out Burwood – actually I think Burwood is the nicest of churches in this regard – but it can be a bit of a church thing to get righteous about being, well, right.
Maybe you don’t think that’s fair, and you might be right, but people – not just Christians – have taken notice of this. I came across a book recently called unChristian, written by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Have you heard of it? It came out in 2007 and immediately made quite a splash. They surveyed a lot of people – including non-Christians – on their views about Christianity. And what they found was pretty disheartening. Here are some of the stats:
- 85% think that Christians are “a lot or some” hypocritical – that they say one thing while doing another.
- 91% of non-Christians think Christians are “a lot or some” anti-homosexual;
- and 87% think that Christians are “a lot or some” judgmental
So even if we don’t want to believe it about ourselves – lots of people do.
There’s another thing I’m worried about. It’s a phenomenon called the “above average effect”. There was a famous study – you’ve probably heard about it – in the eighties where people were surveyed about what they thought of their driving skills. The result was maybe not surprising: around 80% of those surveyed place themselves in the top 50% of drivers. … Obviously not everyone can be above average! But even for myself I can’t shake the view that I’m a good driver! So these days I just say, to be safe, “I’m an average driver.”
This has been shown in the political sphere. A few studies have shown this – the idea is they ask a bunch of experts to make predictions about the future – it was awhile ago so I think one of the questions for example was whether the Soviet Union would collapse. Apparently I lived through that but I don’t actually remember it. Anyway, experts who make predictions are frequently wrong but give more confidence to their predictions than they deserve. Worse, in fact: the more confident they are, usually the worse the predictions!
And just in case you think – phew, lucky I’m not an expert about anything! – it turns out that non-experts do no better, and usually worse, in the same tests.
It’s not hard to see how this relates to us. Maybe it’s theology, the interpretation of that bible verse, maybe it’s a belief about how a church service ought to be run, or maybe about how we should live as a community. Some of these might not even have clear right or wrong answers. And when we‘re sure someone is wrong, well … we get righteous, we get angry, or we shut them out – or all three.
And I think that’s really unhealthy for any community. But especially for one that’s supposed to reflect the image of God.
I’m not trying to drive you towards a view that there’s no such thing as right or wrong. Far from it, pretty much the opposite actually. It would be hard to give a sermon on any topic under those conditions! But we have to be careful – is it worth hurting or alienating someone, even if they are wrong – and how much worse when we lack the ability to humbly recognize when we ourselves might be in the wrong?
Now this can get a bit tricky because in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 Paul offers some pretty stern advice for dealing with an immoral man within the Corinthian church – they were to excommunicate him! Now, we don’t know all the details leading up this this, so we have to defer to Paul’s wisdom in this case. But I would submit that it wasn’t a normal event – certainly not an everyday occurrence – and I think it’s fair to say that he definitely wasn’t offering it as the default model for Christians to engage with each other.
Here’s the funny thing! No one is blameless, we’re all wrong about something pretty much daily, but it’s a lot easier to notice in other people. And we pick a fight just because we notice them being wrong. But if we never learned their opinion we would never have treated them differently.
If we use the golden rule – do unto others as you would have done unto you – how many of you would say “when someone thinks I’m wrong, I’d like them to treat me badly”?
So is there a good alternative? My hope is that we can shift the emphasis and worry less about who is right, who is wrong, who thinks this and who thinks that.
Instead I think we should care about the contents of peoples’ hearts. And I don’t mean whether their hearts are “good” or “bad” or anything like that. Instead it’s a dialogue of care and time and vulnerability, and the slow mutual revealing of the heart, bearing little resemblance to the piercing, cutting exercise of the intellect.
I guess that makes it sound complicated, but I’m not sure it is. I learned the hard way – by arguing with people and upsetting them – that you have to make sure you know a person well enough before you can have a debate with them. Sometimes you don’t even get to that stage, or they just don’t like arguing, and you need time to figure that out too. For those of us who like arguing it can be easy to mistake the other person getting upset for them getting enthusiastic. But it takes real effort to listen to and be gentle with people. Sometimes it’s really hard!
And in public. I mentioned how many non-Christians perceive Christians. I know I often – not always, but often – cringe when I hear a person who’s supposed to be representing a Christian point of view on talk shows or on the radio. I know most people here don’t go in front of the media very often, so maybe it’s out of our power. But if we were known for our care and compassion, for standing up for those without a voice, for listening to people who don’t get listened to, instead of the very negative perceptions I mentioned earlier – surely that would be better.
My hope is that if we learn the good habits of caring for each and getting to know each other, even those of us who enjoy a good argument can have it without fear of hurting each other.
The Apostle John weighed in on this in 1 John chapter 4, verse 18 to 21:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
There is no fear in love. And on that: listening, respect, but most of all love – we can all belong to a community reflecting the image of God.