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Sermon Podcast: "In Truth and Action"

In Truth and Action

(1 John 3:16-24)

John appears to be hunting big game today—perhaps the favorite target of everyone sensitive to religious excesses.  As far as the quarry goes, it’s huge, slow, and tough to miss.  As I said last week, I don’t know of any studies, but just going on my own experience, I’d be willing to bet that it’s the most frequently cited reason for giving up on Christianity—either leaving the church or deciding never to start up.  

Oh sure, some will say that the problem of evil sits at the top of the list.  And other folks will mention the church’s irrelevance in a modern, scientific culture.  But for my money, you’d have a hard time beating hypocrisy as the favorite choice of the religiously disenchanted.  

So, when John says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” it seems he’s on the trail, about to bag the big one.  Seems pretty clear what he’s getting at, doesn’t it?  Word and speech occupy the realm of the fluffy and insubstantial on this reading.  

You know what I’m talking about.  Show me a sermon, don’t preach me one.  Conventional wisdom in some circles has it that the church is populated with hypocrites—people who’ve got the “word and speech” part down, but are a little light on the “truth and action.”

When I was in middle school, we got a new student from Detroit—Wesley.  Wes was a nice guy.  We liked him.  But, boy, he told some whoppers.  He said he was related to Magic Johnson, that he played pick-up ball with NBA players over the summer.  That kind of stuff.

One day, Wes was late to school.  We asked him where he’d been.

“Well, man, it was awful.  I was walking to school, like I always do.  I looked up, and saw this red Ferrari coming down the road, straight at me—like 100 miles an hour.  I didn’t have time to do anything, so I jumped up straight in the air—and that car went right under me.  The thing is, I didn’t get quite high enough, and the roof clipped my heel.  I flipped like three times, and landed in the ditch.  I don’t know how long I was there.  When I finally woke up, I was a little wobbly.  But I knew I had to come to school—so here I am.”

“Where are the marks.  You look fine to me.”

“I got hurt mostly on the inside—where the marks don’t show.  Man, I was lucky.  I coulda been killed.”

Ever know anybody like that?  So many stories—too good to be true stories—you find it hard to believe them.

The first question that pop into your head is, “How do I know that’s true?”  I mean, anybody can say stuff like that, right?  The world is full of people claiming to be something they’re not.  Talk’s cheap.  You don’t get to be that interesting in my mind until I’ve seen some results.

We learn early on to negotiate the world, more or less, in precisely this fashion.  You remember from the playground.  There was always that kid who was your rival.  There was this kind of competition.  Unlike many adults, for whom the response to rivals is passive-aggression—kids haven’t yet learned all the subtle nuances and are completely satisfied with just plain old active-aggression.  “I’m faster than you.”  

“I can draw better than that.”  

And what’s the standard reply to the “my old man can beat up your old man” strategic assault?  

“Oh, huh.  Prove it.”

So when John throws out “truth and action,” over against “words and speech,” we figure he’s calling Christians on their commitments: “Prove it,” John says.  

And that’s just it, isn’t it?  On a casual reading, it looks like he’s merely saying, “Refrain from being a hypocrite.  It’s more important to do it than to talk about it.”  And, to be honest, I have some sympathy for that reading—except, of course, when it can be applied to me.  

But you know what I’m saying.  Gandhi said, “Be the change you want the world to see”—the implication of which is, “Don’t just talk about change—do something.”  I’m sold.  Part of my job as a minister is to convince people that that’s true.  We’ve got things that need doing around here, and I’m supposed to persuade you to do them.”

On the other hand, I also get paid to muck around in a garden of “word and speech,” so I don’t want to walk exclusively down the other side of the street.  In fact, I’d make the case that words are a form of action.  I believe words do things.  They don’t just fill the space between our mouths and our ears.  

In fact, the Hebrew word davar stands for both word and act.  When God speaks a word in the Jewish Scriptures, for instance, God’s already acted.  When God says, “I will bless you,” God doesn’t say, “I intend to bless you—all things being equal and the transmission problems on my Dodge Omni don’t turn out to be serious.”  Rather, for God to speak a word is already to have that word realized, enacted, alive, moving.  Think the incarnation.  Think Jesus.

Jesus stands right smack in the middle of what John is trying to say in our text for this morning.  Rather than merely arguing against hypocrisy (Who, after all, would argue in favor of it?), John is driving at something else. 

Notice the parallel construction of verse 18: “word and speech” are set against “truth and action.”  In other words, John opposes “word and truth,” and “speech and action.”  

Now, of course, we get the “speech vs. action” part—the hypocrisy clause.  What seems less clear is the “word vs. truth” part.  In the binary word/truth, “word” obviously means falsehood.  That is to say, John’s not coming down on words, in general, as necessarily inferior to action, but rather words that are spoken falsely.

But what kind of truth is John after?  What kind of action would qualify, on John’s reading of things, as truth?  Simply put, according to John, those actions are true that are loving.  We act in truth when we act in love.  

We hear that, though, and we say (rightfully, I think), “Loving in what sense?  Love how?”  We live in a culture that has systematically worked love over—from “Love is all you need” to “What’s love got to do with it?” from “Love is the answer” to “Love stinks.”  So, we may be forgiven for wondering just how it is that “love” answers the question about truthful action.  After all, a lot of horrible, unspeakable things are done in the name of love.  People kill and manipulate and abuse, claiming love as the motivation—so love as a generic principle proves less than satisfactory as a set of moral guidelines.

But John doesn’t let love stand alone—a word without content.  He puts some flesh on it, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  According to John, we aren’t to love falsely by saying pretty things, while living another way. 

We love in “truth and action,” the way Jesus did—which is to say, sacrificially, sold-out, all-in.  We follow Jesus in offering up ourselves to be used by God for God’s purposes rather than our own.  

It’s not enough to avoid hypocrisy by acting in congruence with our words—that is, it’s not enough just to be who we say we are.  Realistically, who would ever argue otherwise?  

Moreover, we’re not just trying to be loving by some broad calculation of human niceness.  Rather, we’re trying to be loving in the way Jesus was loving.  

The truth we’re after is not the truth of love defined as the world defines it—in a million different ways—most of the roads of which lead inexorably back to me and my grasping, clutching little self.  The truth we’re after is the truth of love demonstrated in Jesus, who gave himself up, who laid his life down.

And all of this might remain at the level of abstraction if we left it there.  It would be possible, if that was all we said, to leave here feeling edified, having been exhorted to lay down our lives like Jesus laid down his life.  “That’s nice dear, but what’s for lunch?”  

John’s not satisfied with abstraction, though—not content to let us feel affirmed in our determination to live quiet, honest lives—uncontaminated by controversy or expense.

John gets particular: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Ouch!  Give preachers enough time and we’ll find some wiggle room in there for you—but I’ve got to tell you, it’s hard.  John doesn’t seem to be opening things up for a long series of qualifications: “I would help, but you know the kids have oboe lessons, and the in-laws are coming for the weekend.  The Dow’s down, and if things don’t improve, we’re going to wind up having to dip into savings to maintain the box at the race track.  Times are tight.  

“Plus, if you start helping those people, pretty soon they’re going to start expecting it.  Then, what’re you gonna do?”  

In fact, there are some politicians who think the best way to help those kind of people is to cut ‘em off, let them learn to start doing for themselves.  Don’t help them more; help them less.

John’s not having it.  He’s got a pretty narrow view of this issue, if you ask me: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”  

I much prefer conditional sentences: If the brother or sister in need seems redeemable, then you should help.  If he’s an American citizen who appears to bathe semi-regularly, then it’s o.k.  

If she keeps having babies when she can’t afford it, then you don’t need to worry about her.  

If they were smart and got a good, fixed-interest rate mortgage they could afford, then maybe they’re worth helping.  

Conditions.  Simple, really.  If this, then that.  In not this, then don’t bother with that.

John’s not into conditional sentences, though; he’s full of declarative sentences: “Do this, whether or not that.”  He says, “Little children, let us love . . . in truth and action.  Obey God’s commandments.  Love those in need.”  I’d love to find some wiggle room in there, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.

Mother Theresa, the saint of the gutters, who gave herself to the dying on the streets of Calcutta, had a hard time following God.  You’d think with spiritual superstars that it’d be easy.  But, as most of us have probably heard, Mother Theresa struggled mightily with her faith.  She regularly questioned the existence of God, feeling alone and isolated, abandoned by the one she felt called to serve.  But, in spite of doubts that would paralyze most people, serve she did.  

In August 1982, Pope John Paul sent her to war-torn Beirut so that the victims of war would know of his solidarity with them.  Mother Theresa determined shortly to go into the heart of the killing fields in West Beirut to rescue a small group of the victims of the violence.  Everyone warned her against going.  It was too dangerous.  She would only be able to help a handful.  It wasn’t worth it.  

She ignored them, and said she’d pray for a cease fire.  On August 12 at 4:00, she lit a candle she’d brought with her to Beirut, and started praying.  At 5:00, the shooting stopped.  Shortly thereafter she went to a place where there were 38 Muslim children, ages 7 to 21—all mentally or physically handicapped—all starving, dirty, and frightened—for all practical purposes, left for dead.  She organized their extraction from the war zone.  Two days later, she went back and brought out 27 more children.  

Before she came, nobody wanted these children.  Too sick, too much trouble, too much else going on.  After her journey into West Beirut, however, people began to step up.  Neighbors started bringing food.  Pretty soon the government officials and the doctors showed up.  

One of the Red Cross officials who admitted quite candidly that his initial reaction to Mother Teresa’s presence had been that a saint was not what he needed most, afterwards acknowledged that he’d been astonished at the efficiency and energy that went hand in hand with her spirituality.  She was, he said, “a cross between a military commander and St. Francis” 


Mother Theresa, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech said, “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,’“ since in dying on the Cross, God had “[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate (,8599,1655415,00.html).  

That’s how Mother Theresa said it.  The way John said it was, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  

So how do we know love?  According to John, we know it when we see it.


Sermon Podcast: In Truth and Action

Sermon Podcast: That Kind of Church

 That Kind of Church 

(Luke 24: 36–48)

As a kid growing up in the Evangelical heartland in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the things I learned early on was that God expected me to evangelize. We called it witnessing. You know, tell people about Jesus.

I believed in some vague way that God would hold me accountable for the people I failed to lead to Jesus through, what occurs to me now was, a kind of celestial sales pitch.

Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not making fun of my upbringing. I’m not ashamed of where I come from; there are some sincerely wonderful Christians who—like the rest of us—are working their way toward God in the best way they know how.

But this whole witnessing thing weighed heavily on me. On the one hand, I’m a pretty good talker. I think I can be fairly persuasive when necessary—a quality much prized by those who took evangelism seriously.

On the other hand, I’m an introvert. I’m shy. Oh, I’ve learned how to act like an extrovert when I have to—my job sometimes demands it. But temperamentally, witnessing always struck me as the same kind of affair as cold calling as a Cutco knife salesman—a job at which I failed miserably.

There was always this premium on having the right words at exactly the right moment. If they say this, then you can counter by saying that—which sounds good, until you’ve had somebody do it to you. Then it’s not brilliant verbal jiujitsu that gives you control over your conversational opponent; it’s just annoying.

“Mr. Penwell, what would say if I could save you 50% on your monthly long distance bills?”


“I’m really not interested.”

“You’re not interested? So, you like giving money your money away.”


“Yes, I like giving my money away. It saves me the trouble of having to pretend that I want to talk to people who call me on the phone in the middle of supper.”

Being a verbal ninja for Jesus was always a big deal growing up. Unfortunately, it felt too much like being a telemarketer—always trying to steer people in the direction you want them to go, having to be unwilling to take “no” for an answer.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing words. I love words. I use them frequently—every so often, well.

One of the problems with words, however, is that in order for them to be helpful (persuasive even), they have to line up with reality.

The fifth step on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is “Right means of livelihood”—meaning, the way you make your living matters. In other words, if you’re seeking enlightenment, there are certain jobs you cannot do.

When I talk to my students about this, someone will invariably say, “What I do isn’t who I am. It’s my job. It’s not me.”

“The Buddha would say, however, that if you’re walking along a certain path to a final destination, anything that causes you to turn around and walk in the opposite direction is leading you away from where you’ve said you want to go.”

Puzzled looks. Then, I say: “If your life’s work and passion is to see equal treatment for women, you have to live and work in certain ways to sustain that passion and see it succeed. If your day job is as an advocate for women’s rights, you can’t punch out at the end of the day, and go to your second job as a pole dancer. It just doesn’t work like that.”

When I speak with my students about the “Spiritual but not religious” question, many of them are really positive about “spiritual,” but really negative about “religious.” That’s not unique to my students, though.

When I ask why, it usually comes down to two complaints: 1) Dead structures and rituals, or 2) Hypocrisy.

“What do you mean by hypocrisy?” I ask.

“You know, people saying one thing and doing another.”


And there it is: Words are important, but they have to have at least a vague relationship to reality, which is to say, the words and the actions have to occupy the same conceptual space.

What the young people want to know is: Do you actually live this stuff, or do you just talk about it?

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus ends his appearance to the disciples by saying, “You are witnesses of these things.”

What things?

The suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. “And that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

As our text for this morning opens, the disciples have heard a story from Cleopas and another unnamed disciple, who’ve met the resurrected Jesus on a road trip to Emmaus; and Jesus was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. So, the disciples are listening to this bizarre tale when Jesus all of a sudden appears in their midst, saying, “Peace be with you.” Luke tells us that the disciples were “startled and terrified.”

And who could blame them really. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often.

The disciples keep trying to figure out how a man, who just a few days before had been laid out cold on a slab, could be standing there asking whether anyone had saved him his 3-piece fish combo from Long John Silver.

What are they supposed to do with this?

Jesus says, “All this stuff? The stuff I’ve taught you, the stuff you’ve seen? Go. Be my witnesses. Do something.”

And do something they did. Acts, the second half of Luke’s account of the early days of the Jesus revolution, reports that the disciples witnessed every chance they got. They could hardly keep their mouths shut.

The early church produced some notable preachers. People good with words. Their words get a lot of attention.

Peter preaches on Pentecost and over 3,000 people convert. Paul gathers people together whenever he goes to a new town, preaches, and BOOM! A church is born.

See, but here’s the thing: These words came at great cost. These words weren’t carelessly strewn about. No, sir!

The words of witness did things. Acts shows us that speaking these words built churches, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and provided for the poor. Heck, these words even got people killed.

As angry folks raised the stones they would eventually use to kill Stephen because he wouldn’t shut up, nobody stopped to wonder: “You think he meant that?”

No. Everybody knew. And they killed him for his words. Those are words that do something, words backed up by a commitment to being something, someone.

You see, that’s the thing with witnessing. For a witness to be successful, she has to be believable. And in order to be believable, her life has to correspond to the words she speaks.

“Of course,” you say.

“Everyone knows that,” you say.

Unfortunately, at least according to my students, most religious people with whom they come in contact aren’t able to pull it off. A recent Georgetown University and Public Religion Research Institute study found that young people (those born between 1980 and 1999) are leaving the church in record numbers. The fastest growing religious self-designation among this demographic is “none.”

In fact, while only 11% of young people were religiously unaffiliated during childhood, fully one quarter now don’t affiliate with any religious body—a 14% increase of people walking away from religion over the course of a few years!

The church across the board is losing people, in large part because who we say we are, and how we live seems too far apart. Our witness, if you will, apparently leaves much to be desired.

But the good news is: When we get it working together, when our words and our actions line up, when our witness is solid, we can change the world—or at least that part of it we occupy. And that’s a start.

Tony Campolo, a sociologist and theologian from Eastern College in Pennsylvania, tells the story about a time he went to a conference in Honolulu.

One of the things about Honolulu is that if you’re from the East Coast, you wake up at 3:00 in the morning because of the time difference. So, Campolo woke up and went out to find something to eat.

He wandered up a side street and found an all night greasy spoon. After sitting down at the counter with a cup of coffee and a donut, he looked up to see 10 or 11 prostitutes come in. The sat down around him.

Campolo says that the one sitting next to him was extra boisterous, and she leaned over to one of her friends and said, “You know, tomorrow’s my 39th birthday.”

Her friend said, “What do you want me to do about it? Sing ”Happy Birthday?“ Get a cake? Throw you party?”

“I don’t want you to do anything. I was just telling you it was my birthday. Why do you have to hurt my feelings? Besides, I’ve never had a party in my whole life. I don’t expect one now.”

That did it. After they left, Campolo called the guy tending grill over. His name was Harry. And he said to Harry, “Do they come here every night?”


“The one sitting next to me? The one with the birthday?”

“Oh, that’s Agnes.”

Campolo said, “It’s her birthday tomorrow. What do you say we have a party for her tomorrow night? She’s never had a party in her whole life.”

Harry grabbed Campolo’s hand and said, “Mr., that’s beautiful! Beautiful! Nobody ever does anything for Agnes, and she’s one of the good people in this town. I know what she does for a living, but she’s a good person inside.”

The next night Campolo went into the diner at 2:30 in the morning, and decorated the place. Put crêpe paper all over, put a big sign on the mirror behind the counter that said, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”

Word got out. “By 3:15,” Campolo said, “every prostitute in Honolulu was crammed into that diner. Wall to wall prostitutes.”

At 3:30 Agnes and her friends walked in and everybody screamed, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”

He said, “I’ve never seen anybody so stunned in my life. Her knees buckled. We sat her down on a stool. We sang happy birthday. But when they brought out the cake, that was it, she lost it.”

After the candles got blown out, she turned to Campolo and said, "Mr. I don’t want to cut the cake. Do I have to cut the cake?

“It’s your cake. You can do what you want to with it.”

“I want to take it and show it to my mom.”


“I just live two doors down. I’ll take it and bring it right back.  I promise.”

She lifted the cake like it was the holy grail, and she walked out.

Campolo said, “We were all just standing there. Awkward silence.”

Finally, he said, “Would it be ok if I prayed?” A request, that in retrospect seems like a crazy thing to do under the circumstances—a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at 3:30 in the morning. But it turned out to be the right thing to do.

He said, “I prayed that God would deliver her from what filthy men had done to her, probably starting when she was too young to know what was going on. That’s how these things start, you know, some kid gets messed over by some filthy slob, and she’s destroyed, and we blame her when we ought to be blaming him. And I prayed that God would make her new, because we’re here to give witness to the claim that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, Jesus can make you new.”

Campolo said, “When I finished, Harry said, ‘Hey, you said you were a sociologist. You’re a preacher! What kind of church you preach in?’”

And in one of those moments, when you come up with just the right words, Campolo said: “I preach at a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

And in an unforgettable response, Harry said, "No you don’t. No, you don’t. I would join a church like that!

“Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning? I’ve got news for you, that is the kind of church Jesus came to create.”

I can talk all I want, witnessing about how people need Jesus. But until I’m prepared to start throwing parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning, until I’m ready to live all this stuff out, what good is going to do? And maybe even more harm, once people see I don’t actually live what I say I believe.

Until the church can be that kind of church, it better prepare for even more young people to keep walking back out through those doors.

But if we were that kind of church? What if we were that kind of church?

Who knows what kind of craziness God could unleash through us?


Sermon Podcast for Sunday, April 22, 2012