If you can’t say anything nice…

by jacobjuncker

This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, August 12, 2012.

25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

5 Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Common English Bible

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear, that together we might learn and be inspired to live your Word in the world. Amen.

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Over the last several weeks we’ve been journeying through the Gospel of John. Two weeks ago, witnessed Jesus’ feeding of the 5000+; last week, we considered the way in which Jesus, the Bread of Life, will never leave us hungry or thirsty when we set aside intentional time to be with him. This week, we’re going to be switching gears, looking at the reading from Ephesians.

Paul’s concern, up to this point in his letter to the church in Ephesus, is that the church is divided. In the first three chapters, Paul reminds the church of the grace and faith that unites them. And in chapter four, the reading for last week, Paul hits his stride, making his point explicit: Regardless of what you might think of each other,

Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all.

God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.[1]

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If often takes me off guard how we treat each other in the Church. “Fault lines in the foundation of Christian unity show up all the time. The church is shaken regularly by scandal, ecclesial warfare, fear of the other, difference, and change.”[2] We shoot a glare at that the young family whose child is restless and cries during the sermon. We complain when we don’t like the music during worship. We gossip when we see someone’s significant other missing from an important event. We claim spiritual superiority when someone asks a basic question during Bible Study. We refuse to welcome the person who is of a different race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Friends, we can say we’re friendly. We can say we’re welcoming. We can say we’re loving. And, at times, we just might be those things. But, let’s be honest. All too often we fall short of our highest ideals. We are called to “imitate God like dearly loved children.”[3] And, that begins with how we talk to each other.

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

Or, in the words of my mother—who was much more efficient with her words—“if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

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As a new dad, it is amazing how often those pithy little sayings I heard so often as a kid come flooding back. Stella’s only 7 weeks old, but I can already hear myself saying:

“Eat your vegetables.”
“Share your toys.”
“Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“Clean your plate.”
“Cover your mouth when you sneeze.”

I’m learning that far from being sayings expressed in bouts of frustration, these words are a way for parents to point to a larger truth. They are lessons to be learned: lessons that are offered with love.

In our reading for today, Paul is concerned with the way the Ephesians are treating one another and like a loving parent, he tells them—and, I think, us—“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It is a loving reminder that

words can lift you up or smash you down; words can make you hated or make you loved. Words can build up somebody’s good name or tear it down…

But the big meaning of ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ is real big: you need to praise others just as much as you need to be praised.

All of us human beings need to hear good things about ourselves so that we can believe good things about ourselves. That’s how we’re built. If we’re never praised, we feel like scum. If we’re praised, we feel like real decent people. Once you understand just how important it is to be praised, you will find it a lot easier to praise other people. When somebody you know does something good, tell him or tell her. It will make you feel good, but it will make that other person feel terrific.[4]

Therefore, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. And, when the wrong words are chosen, don’t hold it against one another; rather, forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.”[5]

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In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we learn that God’s word came to earth in the form of Jesus the Christ. God’s Word, Jesus, came so that we could live life to the fullest.[6] God’s Word offered the world grace, love, and life. God’s Word offered the world peace. As imitators of God, our words should do nothing less. Therefore, choose your words carefully. Offer words of grace, love, and life such that you might share the peace of Christ with others. And, “If you can’t say anything nice; well, don’t say anything at all.” Amen.


[1] Ephesians 4:2d—7, Common English Bible (CEB).

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 327-328.

[3] Ephesians 5:1, CEB.

[4] Marc Gellman, “Always Wear Clean Underwear!” And other ways parents say “I love you” (New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1997), 56.

[5] Adapted from Ephesians 4:29, 31-32, The Message.

[6] cf. John 10:10b.

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