Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 12, 2018
“Chipping Away, Tweet by Tweet”
Ephesians 4:29-5:2 – NRSV
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. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Tasuku was a stonecutter. His job was to cut blocks of stone from the foot of a mountain. Day after day he stood at the bottom of a mountain and chipped away at the hard rock with his little chisel. One day he saw a prince who passed by wearing beautiful, colorful clothes and Tasuku envied the prince. He wished he could have that kind of wealth and power. The Great Spirit heard Tasuku and granted his wish. He became a wealthy prince.
Tasuku was enjoying his silk clothes and happy with his powerful armies, until he saw the sun wilt the flowers in his royal garden. He wished he had the kind of power the sun had, and his wish was granted. He became the sun, with the power to parch fields and humble the people with their thirst.
Tasuku was happy to be the sun, until a cloud covered him and blocked his powerful heat. With that, he made another wish, and the Spirit complied. Tasuku became a cloud with the power to cover the sun and send powerful rains and floods and storms to destroy whatever he wanted.
Tasuku was happy to be the cloud, until he realized the mountain stood solid despite all his storms and floods. So Tasuku demanded to be the mountain. The Spirit obeyed. Tasuku became the mountain and was more powerful than any prince, the sun, or a cloud. And he was happy, until he felt a chisel chipping away at his feet. It was a stonecutter – cutting blocks from the foot of the mountain to sell for his daily living. What do you suppose he wished to be then?
There is an obvious moral of the story that when we wish to be something we’re not, we’ll eventually find ourselves wishing to be who we were in the first place. Being someone else just brings its own set of problems. So, accept yourself and appreciate your gifts.
But as I came across the story again this week, it made me think how every day, little by little, tweet by tweet, a stonecutter is chipping away at the foundations of decency and democracy. In his first year, by means of 2,568 tweets. Since he started tweeting, 222 that call someone dumb, 183 that call people stupid, 156 that call someone weak, and 234 that call someone a loser, which I thought was a pretty low number. Little by little, tweet by tweet, chipping away.
As you likely know already, today is the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that claimed the life of Heather Heyer. And the debauched claim of the Sympathizer in Chief of “very fine people on both sides” among those white supremacists, neo-nazis, and members of the KKK. Ask the 400,000 Americans who died fighting in World War 2 whether nazis aren’t such a big deal. But little equivocations like “both sides” chip away.
The Pulitzer prize winning journalist Connie Schultz was on TV the other day and someone tweeted at her, “the horizontal wrinkle between your eyes is distracting. Botox can fix that.” Connie, who by the way is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, admired the person’s ability to focus on her nose as she discussed the continuing crisis of family separations and then explained it’s not a wrinkle but a scar. When she was 8, her father put a swing set in the backyard. She peered up, hands shading the sun from her eyes, and thought how cool it would be to climb to the top. Her father, sensing this, said “Don’t even think about it.” Mom added, “You could get hurt. And even die.” Connie climbed it anyway and fell facedown into the glider, slicing open the space between her eyes. You can imagine the sight of an 8-year-old with blood seemingly streaming from her eyes. As they left the emergency room, her mother said “You’re going to have a big scar, young lady. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.” “Which I was,” Connie said, as she admired the black threads of the stitches between her eyes, “but I wasn’t going to say it.” She replied to the tweeter, “This is what 61 looks like. And reminds me of a girl who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. This little scar inspires me.”
Little things like a scar can build us up, remind us of courage and tenacity, and little things like a tweet can chip away until the mountain has fallen. A mountain no one ever thought could be brought down. Perhaps by a missile but not with a few words typed on a screen. More disturbingly, however, the abundance of words not spoken.
The more egregious the tweet, the more united you would think the country would become as we recognize the threat to our shared existence on this land. Or at least you would think as Christians – whether liberal or conservative – we would be united against this threat. We share the same scriptures, like this one today from Ephesians. And with Muslims and Jews and Christians, we share the same God.
I have a book on my desk I’ve been meaning to read again. It’s Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, written way back in the quaint old days when life was simpler in 2011. As I look at it on my desk, I keep thinking, yes, that’s what we need to prepare ourselves for. We need to help heal our country.
And how might we begin? First, by knowing what we are, and who we are, seeking to become. Today’s text from the Book of Ephesians provides a pretty good description of an old life and a new one in Christ. It begins by providing some powerfully descriptive words for our present state: Wrangling, bitterness, wrath, slander, and malice.
Those are fascinating words. I had a little fun with a thesaurus and followed a trail of synonyms. For example, if you turn in the middle of your bulletin, you will see the word wrath, with its descriptors of rage and anger and frenzy. But then follow those words. They include the imaginative richness of words like rant and rave, blather, nonsense, irritation, obsession, and whirl. Might another word for whirl be chaos? We can certainly picture the malignancy of malicious tweets full of nastiness, cruelty, spitefulness, and vindictiveness. The Book of Ephesians vividly and remarkably describes the world in which we are living.
Obviously, the early Christians struggled with this in their day too or these words would not have been chosen. Perhaps it is cold comfort to know we are in good company, or bad company, that is. But, whether it was 60 years after the death of Jesus when Ephesians was written, or 2,000, I find the description of a new life in Christ compelling.
Healing our divided world is one thing. But must we not also address the divided church of evangelicals and conservatives vs. moderates and progressives. The divisions in the early church were often related to differences between Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were not. You know, of course, that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was prophet who loved his own. It all simply started as a reformation movement. But, Jesus had a way of drawing Jews and Gentiles together. And after his death, the question was, must Gentiles convert to Judaism first? Ephesians was a letter that circulated among many Christian communities that, among other things, addressed this conflict.
The author made unity a central theme. But also described this unity as already achieved. In chapter two it says, “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near… For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Consider our current context in these ancient words. But notice, the healing of this division is not something yet to be accomplished. It is in the past, settled, resolved.
There is another passage you’ve likely heard before from Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and through all and in all.”
If what you heard in my sermon last week is that evangelicals and progressives are divided, this text is a correction. We are united by one Lord, one faith, one baptism, even though we may disagree about its meaning and implications. Our unity exists. Though it may be easier to see the divisions among us. But, like Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eyes before noticing the speck in your neighbors.”
No one can change the ways of our Tweeter in Chief, but we can change ourselves. Plus, as Grace Aheron, a campus minister in Charlottesville, tweeted, “Jesus didn’t spend time trying to change the mind of Caesar. He was demonstrating the kind of world that could exist.”
Today’s verses are remarkably tweetable and even fall within the requirement of the number of characters Twitter allows. They also demonstrate the kind of world which stands in contrast to Caesars, then and now, whether in Rome or Washington.
With 132 characters:
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up so that your words may give grace to those who hear”
And with 104 characters:
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice”
“be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you”
And finally, another 146 characters:
“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”
Among these words, my favorite descriptor of a new life in Christ is “forgiving.” At first blush, not the most exciting. It seems a little bland, ordinary. But follow the synonym trail: “Merciful, magnanimous, big, generous, liberal, open-minded, unprejudiced.”
Have you ever described “forgiving” in that way? That’s our calling if we seek a life whose foundation is Christ. That, to me, is compelling. To set aside bitterness toward our neighbors and rather be magnanimous, liberal, open-minded and unprejudiced, through acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and compassion. Just as Jesus has done toward us. A mix of doing and being.
What then, however, does that say about our response to those very fine neo-nazis who went on a murderous rampage one year ago today? That’s our constant challenge. To be compassionate, but not accomplices to injustice. Gentle, but not appeasers of racists. Thoughtful, but not silent to violence, whether it’s the violence of the KKK or that which has been done to kids in cages.
We might be intimidated by the size of the mountain in front of us. But slander, malice, and wrath are not made of granite. And those tweets will eventually vanish into thin air. The mountain of their invincibility is just an illusion. It’s just a pile of sand, and that doesn’t require the skill of a stonecutter but just a bunch of us with buckets. And little by little, we can bring it down until it has fallen into the dust heap of history. And while some are tearing down, others can be rebuilding, brick by brick, stone upon stone. It’s the little efforts by all of us that will build us up and heal the heart of our democracy.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world