"Being Aware Of Our Shadow"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 6/22/1997

I Samuel 17:32-49; Mark 4:35-41

     Most of us know the story in our Gospel lesson where Jesus calmed the wind and commanded the waves on the lake to be still. We can come away from reading this passage with the thought, Jesus really had and has great power over every storm that might rage in human life. We might even say to ourselves, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have Jesus physically available today." We could take our frustrating life issues to him and have them resolved. The Church has actually taught this for centuries by telling us, "Take your problems to Jesus." Every Christian has heard that some time in their life.

     We might believe that this is an accurate way to understand our relationship with Jesus were it not for two questions in this lesson. Jesus asked, "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?" Jesus would have never asked these questions if he enjoyed his role as the problem solver every time something unsettling occurred in the lives of the disciples. As long as he was around to fix things, to hold their hands, to pick up the pieces, and to make sense out of their circumstances, the disciples would never learn to make decisions for themselves.

     The Gospels bear testimony to this. Mary and Martha both came to him with identical words, "Had you been here, our brother would not have died." Once the disciples came to Jesus and said, "We have found someone casting out demons in your name but he is not one of us." We can remember the disciples bringing people to Jesus who they could not heal. We can remember people coming to him to settle arguments over such things as a family inheritance.

     If Jesus were alive today, he very well might turn to some of these similarly thinking people and say in a very gentle and loving way, "When are you people going to get a life? When are you going to grow up? I can't make all of life's decisions for you."

     He would be right! His questions of, "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?" apply to us each time we are tempted to take our troubles to the Lord in prayer. I do not mean to appear as though I am making a fun of that great hymn of the church, but if there was one thing Jesus wanted us to overcome it was fear. And when we have faith and confidence that God loves us, that God wills the best for us, and that what is coming up for us is exactly what we need for our growth, there will be no need to respond like the disciples, fearing our boat will sink.

     It was such episodes like this that made Jesus realize that he had to leave the earth. Even during the last night he was alone with his disciples, he well understood how little they had learned. Thomas said, "Lord we don't know where you are going, how can we know the way?" Philip said, "Just show us God and we will be satisfied." Jesus' response was, "Have I been with you this long and you still do not know?" What school teacher has not had that thought while grading final examinations? "Where have you students been all semester? Did any of you take notes or open your textbooks?"

     What I am saying here could easily be misunderstood as an attack on our prayer life. That is not my intent. But I will say that we often spend so much time awakening Jesus who is confidently sleeping in the back of the boat that it doesn't occur to us that we have the power to start bailing out the water.

     Some years ago a young priest was sent to a large parish in northern Italy. He was initially frightened by the enormity of his new responsibilities. This particular church at one time had been a cathedral, the headquarters of the bishop.

     The young priest stood up in the pulpit on his first Sunday and preached to 36 people. He couldn't believe it. He prayed, "O God, you did not send me here to preach to 36 people. Lead me to what it is you want me to do." This was not a prayer of, "Please send me more people. Please quiet my anger because this is not what I had in mind. Please fix this situation." None of that.

     It wasn't long before he sat alone in the sanctuary. He was sitting in the front pew looking at the magnificence of the church. There were priceless paintings, a hand carved chancel railing, altar and pulpit all made of the rarest Italian marble, numerous frescos and mosaics. He felt extremely grateful that he was there amid such incredible beauty. Still lost in thought, he decided to go for a walk.

     His walk took him among the teaming masses in the community. There were so many families with young children. He watched a number of seniors playing dominoes. He found artists painting. As he observed them, a thought appeared in his mind, "How much identity do these people have with a 450-year-old sanctuary filled with antiquities?"

     It wasn't long before he was visiting people and listening to their needs and ideas. Soon they were constructing a cinder block building on the spacious grounds near the large church, a place that would be theirs. Block and stone masons joined in and the priest paid their labor costs from the rich coffers of his church. People had ownership in something they had built and within two years, 300 people were in worship, children were being taught, and a medical clinic was established. Just like what needs to happen nearly everywhere today, the church was born again.

     As always the culprit needing to be conquered was fear. "The disciples woke him up and said, 'Teacher, don't you care that we are about to die?'" And he said, "Why are you frightened? Do you still have no faith?" The priest never went there in his thinking. Instead the priest said, "Given these circumstances, what can I do in this setting to make a difference in the lives of the people?"

     Who is it that made us? Who is it that surrounds us with love from the moment we are born? Who is it that goes after the ones of us who stray and become lost? Who is it that knows how to give good things to those who ask? I tell you that God is as close to us as our own shadow. And yet there are times when we live as though we are completely alone, as if no one else cares about us, and as if all we have left are feelings of isolation. We look endlessly for answers and rescuers because we are afraid our boat is going to sink.

     When we are in these moods what we are communicating to God is this: "You haven't given me enough! You won't answer my prayers even when I plead in the name of Jesus! You refuse to care about me because if you did, you would rescue me." Can't we hear Jesus saying, "Why are you so frightened? Do you still have no faith?"

     Let's think about this for a moment. Why do circumstances invite fear into our lives? Why do we suddenly find ourselves dwelling on all the fearful aspects that might occur? Jesus was absolutely correct with his question, "Do you still have no faith?" In other words, "Do we still lack confidence that God is providing us with the richest opportunity we could possibly have?" We scream out in frustration at such a question, "What opportunity?! Can't you see how much pain I am in? Can't you see how frustrated and confused I am?"

     Is it not we who have put such a spin on our experience? Remember circumstances are neutral. They just happen. They have not sought us out personally just to make our life miserable. Misery will come, however, the moment we decide that our circumstances were sent to hurt us. Did the priest think that way or did he choose instead to reach within himself for the tools God had already given to him? He was well aware that God was as close as his shadow.

     When we are aware that God is that close, it should dawn on us that God did not will for us to be born just so we would live an average of 72.5 years in uncertainty and then die. But, many people do just that. They live tired, desperate lives frustrated that others in the world are not treating them well, and they question why others are beating a path to their door offering them the successes about which they have dreamed. Somehow many of us get the idea that when our world does not conform to our wishes, it is providing us a legitimate reason to ventilate our anger. Fine! But, who is suffering? It certainly isn't the world.

     Lisa was a 17-year-old. Her favorite words were these, "No one understand me." She was very attractive physically, yet after one date most boys would not call her again. A youth advisor who was interested in helping Lisa inquired about her among some of the boys in her social group. The boys rolled their eyes and made comments like, "There is nothing right about Lisa. I take girls out to have a good time and not to listen all night about how miserable their lives are." "Lisa has an ax to grind," said another. "I don't know what it is. She is angry about everyone and everything. Who needs it?"

     Looking at ourselves may be the last thing we do when life becomes challenging and difficult. It is very inviting to believe that we want and need someone to rescue us? In truth, however, such a Divine plan does not exist. Why would God allow us to be here if God had to rescue us from everything that looks challenging? What would be the purpose?

     But, if challenging circumstances come into our lives because we need to develop patience, if difficult personalities enter our stage with us because we need to develop more loving people-skills, and if we have a difficult time being understood because we need to develop better ways of sharing who we are, then everything we experience makes sense. We are being given the opportunity to see precisely where we need to do more homework within ourselves.

     The challenging circumstances that are currently confronting us are not designed to sink our boats, they are there to encourage us to start bailing, to turn the boat into the wind, or to organize the others on board into a more effective team. Challenging circumstances occur in our lives to give us the very direction we need to go in order to grow. When we perceive without love, we have missed the mark. Each time we become upset, it should tell us more about ourselves than about what appears to be confronting us.

     When we are aware of our shadow, God becomes our cheerleader supporting us in every discovery we make. This is faith! This is knowing that God is there and that life is unfolding exactly as it should.

     Each time we turn to God to still the wind and waves, expect to hear very familiar words, "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith? Do you really think I have abandoned you? Do you think I have lost your file? I have given you many qualities. As soon as you change your mind about the spirit of your circumstances, your circumstances will become stepping stones for the healing of your perceptions. Instead of weeping in fear that your boat may sink, begin thinking about the tools I have given you."

     When we look at every moment that challenges us as our moment of truth, we will have discovered that God is as close to us as our shadow. What more confidence building information do we need? It was the possession of such confidence that allowed Jesus to face the cross without complaint, a visual portrait of the words, "Perfect love casts out fear."