Laughter, psychologists tell us, is a pleasant reaction to surprise. That is why jokes are only funny the first time you hear them. When you know what the punch line is, it isn’t funny any more. But there are situations that are funny.
I have stood inside and laughed until my sides hurt watching squirrels trying to reach a bird feeder that is situated just beyond their grasp or jump. I have hours of hilarious film of my daughter as she learned to feed herself, decorating her face and hair with strained spinach. And, I will admit, if I am going to watch anything at all on TV, it will probably be stand-up comedy.
I love to laugh. I love a good comedian, but sadly, I think that we have to make the observation that virtually every joke has a victim. The victim may not mind it, they might be a good sport or they may even enjoy the attention. The victim might be a child who doesn’t know they’re being laughed at or squirrels who have no concept of laughter, but there is a victim. It is interesting to note that if we listen to recordings of famous comedians of the past, they just don’t seem that funny. Will Rogers, who is famous for his sidesplitting humor, is almost intolerably dull to modern listeners.
There is a reason for this. Will Rogers was funny because he was able to surprise people with his shocking humorous accusations against political figures and publishers. Fifty years ago, people generally, out of courtesy, refrained from publicly criticizing community leaders, Will Rogers gingerly stepped across that line and the shock delighted his audiences who roared for more.
In our day, however, we are so accustomed to deeply biting commentaries and satire that you have to go way over board to draw a chuckle. Only the most clever and creative comedians can successfully entertain a crowd of jaded listeners these days without tearing someone apart or going to the extremes of bad tastes in sexual content.
What an incredibly powerful thing is the ability to speak! Words have no intrinsic mass, no weight, size, or shape. Words, as mere sounds, have no intrinsic meaning but the meanings we give to them. Speech has no intrinsic value but the value we choose to assign it. Yet a person’s whole life can be either elevated or crushed on the strength of nothing more than words.
Jesus Christ came into the world teaching, healing and performing miracles. His message was about the coming Kingdom of God. His death and resurrection established the church — the Kingdom community which awaits the Lord’s return.
The church did not change much in its first decade of life. It was as though the gospel itself was waiting for the apostle Paul. It was Paul who had the vision to take the message of the gospel beyond its native land, to travel all over the known world preaching a message of salvation in Jesus Christ and establishing churches wherever he went.
We know Paul primarily through the letters he wrote back to those churches to encourage their life of worship and witness. It is amazing to read these letters through, paying attention to the primary themes of his writing. Some of it is confessional, some is theological instruction, but most of it, the greatest part of his writing, is instruction in how they are to treat one another. It is teaching in how the church can be the church. It is advice in how to live with one another and speak to one another.
In our text today, Paul tells Timothy to warn the churches to avoid senseless wrangling over mere words, which is like gangrene that will spread through the body and destroy it.
He tells the church in Rome to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”
To the Corinthian church Paul wrote the beautiful “ode to love” in 1 Corinthians 13, charging them to love one another without selfish regard.
The apostle warned the church in Galatia, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
Most helpfully, Paul wrote in the letter we call Ephesians, “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…Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Speech is a powerful tool for building a person up or it is a powerful weapon for destroying their sense of self worth. During the fourth century A.D., a group of monks lived in the deserts of Alexandria, attempting to perfect their own souls in a very disciplined life of prayer, work and self denial. These desert monks tended to speak very rarely, realizing that they could easily lose their way in too much talking.
The most famous of the desert fathers, Abba Poeman said, “If man remembered that it is written: ‘By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned,’ he would choose to remain silent.”
The style of the day is negative humor. I know that I have been guilty of hurting others by simply trying to be funny and stepping over the line of jocularity into aggression. And I know that I have been slain by the quips and pot-shots of others. I am ashamed to admit how vulnerable that I still am to the cracks and criticisms of even totally disreputable people.
Recognizing the power of our words then, we should resolve to use that power well. The speech that has the power to destroy also has the power to build up. There is a kind of competitiveness to negative humor in which we jockey for position, advancing ourselves by cutting others down. Paul suggests a different kind of competition: “out do one another in showing honor.” Be better than everyone else at finding things in others to compliment, to praise, to draw attention to.
Yet I have noticed that there is a strange and inexplicable lack of balance in language. One compliment does not balance out one insult. For some reason, we tend to find people to be more believable when they are being critical than when they are being positive! That’s why negative campaigning works.
Many people have been trained in false humility to discount any compliment you try to give to them. The first time you try to tell someone that you really appreciate or admire them, they may feel compelled to laugh off or completely deny what you are saying. Often, you have to make the approach over and over.
If you had the cure for cancer in the tip of your finger, wouldn’t you go around touching people — the people whom you knew had cancer and the people whom you thought just might — or you might start touching everyone you met, in the neighborhood, in the grocery store aisles, in the pews.
And in a very real way you do have a cure for something as bad as cancer because people all around you are dying for want of kindness. People all around you, professional people, attractive people, the last people on earth that you would ever believe ever suffered from the moment of self doubt, people who look for all the world like they have got life by the tail. People are dying from a lack of self-esteem, and you have the cure.
Listen to the power in kind speech:
– I really appreciate your leadership on the committee.
– I really appreciate your willingness to teach my child’s Sunday School class.
– I want to thank you for the work you did on the property.
– I need to tell you that the letter you wrote really meant a lot to me.
– I can’t help noticing what a good job you’ve been doing.
– I’ve got to thank you for the energy you bring to our office.
– I really appreciate seeing how you treat your children with such love and respect.
– I know it seems funny to hear me say it but I want you to know that your friendship is very valuable to me.
The famous prayer of St. Frances of Assisi captures the paradoxical truth that in order to have self-esteem we must first give esteem to others. We can only really have what we are first able to give away:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sew love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master,
grant that I might not seek so much to be consoled as to console others,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love others.
For it is in giving that we receive,it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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