Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, September 6, 2015
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” The first reference to this old adage has been traced back to an African Methodist Episcopal Church publication in 1862, presumably when the elders in the church were trying to teach the children to ignore racist insults.
It is certainly wise advice to practice a little forbearance when we are being insulted. But sometimes it takes more than forbearance when someone’s name is being dragged through the mud and their reputation is at stake. When we first began to hear about the affair website being hacked, some of us may have thought that those who were exposed were simply getting their just desserts. But then extortionists took advantage of their vulnerability and things turned deadly serious. Marriages broke down and some of those exposed took their own lives. We have also seen the devastating effects of social media that trash the reputation of young teens. Reputation matters.
Proverbs 22:1 reads, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold.” Businesses know that what is most important to them is not the bottom-line nor efficiency. What’s most important is the reputation of their name. Multi-billionaire Warren Buffet is widely quoted, “If you lose dollars for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be ruthless.”
We have both scriptural warrant and good business sense that advise us to be concerned about name-calling and about our reputation. It doesn’t take much for our reputation to be destroyed. Benjamin Franklin once said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
I used to play soccer in high school and may have made some good kicks. But the only one I remember, and the only one everyone else on the team remembers, is the one kick that scored a goal. The problem was—I was defence and kicked the ball right over the head of our own goalie to score the winning goal for the opposite team. Just to make sure that my new reputation was cemented in our memories for good, my team dragged me around the field through the mud before I then got in my parent’s car and drove others home.
What reputation do you want for yourself? Our scripture sets a high standard of Christian values for us to build our reputation around. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our reading from Proverbs suggests that those who have money are blessed by God—not because they have money but because can give to those who are poor. The Hebrew word for poor also means weak or helpless. In other words, those who have money are blessed when they use their money to generously share with the vulnerable. Our reading from James reminds us of the Golden Rule shared by many religions that tell us to love our neighbour as ourselves and to show no favouritism to those who are already privileged because God is the maker of all of us.
These are some of the Christian values around which we are called to build our reputation. But sometimes, our egos get the better of us. There is a disconnect between our values and our words or actions. I have found myself arguing over something with family members and have realized that I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to prove my point, where being right is more important than being compassionate. Summer is a time to relax and enjoy being with family and friends, but those old tapes also start playing and tempt us away from the fruit of the Spirit into a defense of position.
During the Prayer of Confession, we wrote on a piece of paper our top values. We then wrote what might self-sabotage these values and asked God to forgive us for these value-blockers. How do others see us? Do we have a reputation for the very values that we hold dear? Or do we have a reputation for those self-sabotaging acts of those values? Our reputation is formed by our outward words and actions, not by our interior values. How do our words and actions align with our values? Socrates is quoted as saying, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.”
None of us is perfect—we all slip up when our egos take over. But this is not the end of the story. Christian values also include confession, humility, grace and forgiveness. When we acknowledge that we have slipped up and say we’re sorry, we’re not only good Canadians, we also help to rebuild a crumbling reputation. Genuine apologies seem to be rare today, but they can quickly turn around some pretty bad mistakes.
In 1888, an obituary was mistakenly published about a man who was still alive. When this man read his own obituary, he was so horrified with the description of his reputation that he decided to devote the rest of his life to changing it. Alfred Nobel worked as a chemist to develop explosives. After one explosion killed many people in his workshop, including his younger brother, he tried to find a safer explosive and invented dynamite. But he couldn’t believe how he was described in the premature obituary. It was titled “The Merchant of Death is Dead” and went on to say “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” When Nobel read this, he set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel prizes, including the most famous Nobel Peace Prize. Only one year later he did die, but this time with a very different reputation and and a very different obituary.
It is never too late to change our reputation. It is never too late to say, “I’m sorry.” It is never too late to accept God’s forgiving grace.
Reputation also matters for communities, such as Westworth. Our mission statement is to be the hands and feet of Christ within Westworth and beyond. Is this how the wider community sees us? Do our words and actions align with our values? We still have lots of work to do on this. But today, I want to say thanks.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude to some of our congregants who are helping us answer “yes” to these questions. Last week Westworth was aflurry with media attention. In response to the tragic refugee crisis, the media was looking for stories of people across Canada who were trying to help. CBC radio & TV, CTV and the Free Press and the National Post have all heard about Westworth helping to sponsor 24 Syrian refugees and have written articles or broadcast interviews with us. You can see articles on our bulletin board and links on our website. Barbara Wynes has become our articulate media spokesperson. Even Sandra Shaw shyly agreed to an interview and it is her story that caught the media’s attention last week.
Sandra’s son, Brian, travelled through Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in 2009. It was Syria where he experienced the greatest kindness and welcome from the people. He was invited into private homes so that he could use their computers to contact his family. As he was standing in line for ice cream, someone bought it for him as a gift simply for being a guest in their country. It was because of Syria’s kindness to Brian that Sandra Shaw wanted to give something back when the refugee crisis hit Syria. Sandra became part of our refugee committee and she organized a group of quilters who have handmade 24 quilts, one for each of the three families that should be arriving by the end of September.
I am so grateful to those in this congregation who are working so very hard to help us live out our values. I’m grateful to those who are keeping our building and finances in order so that we have a place where we can continue to offer outreach to the wider community. I’m grateful to those who continue to support our well-known music program. I’m grateful to those who provide support and care for our congregants and for those who can no longer attend. There’s always room for improvement and that’s what keeps us humble, but today I want us to celebrate and give thanks to those who helping to keep our values aligned with our words and actions.
We can also extend these questions of reputation to our country. What are the values we have as Canadians? What reputation would we like Canada to have in the world? What can we do to better align our values with our reputation?
Reputation matters. It reflects our witness and example to the world. One of the most common complaints I hear from non-church goers about Christians is how hypocritical we are. They have a point. The church is simply a group of sinners who are no better than anyone else. But at least we admit it and, by the grace of God, keep trying to realign our words and actions with the values of Christ.