"If It's Going To Be, It's Up To Me!"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/28/1997
Isaiah 49:1-6; Colossians 3:12-17
As we recall the story in Matthew, Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph. Not wanting to disgrace Mary publicly, Joseph made plans privately to break his engagement to her. As the story unfolds, however, we learn that Joseph was given insight into the role he had been invited to play and both of them left for Bethlehem with a faith that was unshakable.
To feel their challenge, let us put ourselves in their place. Making the long journey near her due date, finding the inn too crowded to accommodate them, and having to give birth in a stable would probably give most us considerable pause. Our natural response might be, "Why is God doing this? The timing is wrong. Mary's pregnancy has multiplied our personal needs tenfold. And why would God allow such a special child to be born in a stable? This doesn't make any sense!"
What made Mary and Joseph's response to these events different from ours is that once the role they were to play became clear, their natural fears and the uncertainty of life's events went away. What should make this response so interesting to us is that we find this same ability in other people whose faith has made an impression on humanity.
For example, look at the character of Joseph as he appears in Genesis. Joseph was sold into slavery by his half-brothers and as he saw everything familiar to him fading from his view, his faith remained unshaken. He believed that God had a role for him to play in Egypt. He did not judge what his brothers had done. Rather he confidently assumed that his life was tracking exactly as it should.
This understanding later became the rock upon which Jesus stood during his ministry. We discover that once the disciples understood their role, they too ventured forth with total confidence. In fact, many people who have influenced the flow of human spirit have had this understanding as the cornerstone of their faith. They do not judge what is happening. Once people become convinced of the role they are to play, the quality of their circumstances has never mattered.
Listen again to what Paul wrote in our lesson: "You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own." Such words describe our true identity. We do not have to accept anything, we do not have to learn anything and we do not have to do anything for this to be true. There is no way any of us can earn our worthiness in God's sight. We are exactly as God created us. Our spiritual challenges come, however, when we have trouble accepting this truth.
For example, suppose Joseph would have followed through with his original doubts and said to Mary, "Your story about seeing an angel is nonsense! You have been unfaithful to me and as a result you have become pregnant. I want out of our relationship."
Suppose the Joseph in Genesis would have been so self-absorbed with his pain that he became consumed by bitterness, anger and hatred toward his brothers? Suppose he would have sworn to himself that he would not rest until justice prevailed, a justice he would have defined as vengeance? There are times in life when hostility and anger appear completely justified.
Let us leave the Bethlehem drama for a moment and project ourselves into the future, where we now find Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Suppose Mary would have raised her fist to heaven and shouted, "I thought your angel told me that 'of his kingdom there would be no end!' Has all of Israel waited for the likes of this, a crucifixion of your promised Messiah between two thieves?"
Her anger would have been perfectly justified, if she had based her faith on her interpretation and on her anticipation of how God works. So often we are tempted to judge our circumstances like we might a piece of art long before the artist has completed it. When we think about it, it has been our judgments and our interpretations that have always brought the most pain from our experiences.
Returning to our lesson, Paul gave his readers a timeless insight. It is up to us to give these insights feet and hands. No one else can choose this understanding for us. No one else can make this understanding work for us. He wrote, "You must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. You must be tolerant. You must be forgiving. And you must understand that love binds all things together in perfect unity."
This is where the rub comes. We find it challenging to bring to the table our best qualities when the circumstances appear so unfair and so unjustified. That is the point. Such circumstances are precisely the time when these qualities are needed the most. Who is right and wrong, who wins or loses, or what is fair and what is not, historically have never been the defining elements that determine the responses of God's people. The point has always been the spirit we make visible during all the dramas we encounter.
Why do we fail so often? Why do we remain convinced that our failures are the result of human weakness? Why do we so easily forget the roles we have been asked to play? Is our failure due to our "sinful nature," or is it more our unwillingness to practice our discipleship in every circumstance in which we find ourselves? Think about this!
For example, maybe some of you decided on Friday that you had not spent enough money during the Christmas season. You wanted to take advantage of more sales, return some gifts or attempt to buy Christmas cards or wrapping paper at 50 percent reduction. What an occasion to practice who you want to be.
Your practice time probably started with your seeming inability to find a place to park. Your practice continued as you discovered only extra large and petite sizes on the sales racks. Opportunities for further practice came with the long lines and your perception that there were way too few check-out registers operating. And what were your reactions to the impatient customers who were insisting that a garment was purchased at Hechts in Annapolis even though it bore the label of Kohls in Bowie? The opportunities to practice are everywhere!
When do we learn that we must back away from life's events so that we can see that our experiences are just like a theatrical performance where God has invited us to play one of the lead roles? Further, when is it that we will learn that to maintain our identity and to play the role successfully, we must walk through all of the episodes that appear in our script while never losing our peace?
In fact, Paul said as much in our lesson today, "The peace that Christ gives," he wrote, "is to guide you in the decisions you make..." When we lose our peace, buzzers should sound. We should hear the director yelling, "Cut! Cut!" indicating that we have missed at communicating the desired spirit in some of the critical scenes.
How could we endure being sold into slavery, or last through what Mary and Joseph experienced, or suffer the death of our spouse, or face some critical illness if we had a poor performance rating during the rehearsal with an experience as basic as visiting a shopping mall on the Friday after Christmas? Paul tells us that we must crawl before we stand and walk before we run. This is difficult to do when we do not practice every moment what God created us to be.
We justify our competitive, righteous nature by all kinds of excellent reasons, but the truth is we are unwilling to practice each time an opportunity comes. We so quickly give our peace away when we display our anger to a store manager. We give it away the minute we feel our rights have been violated. We lose it when we threaten an entire medical staff because a mistake had been made during our hospital stay. Then we congratulate ourselves and say, "Someone had to attack or soon we could all be victims of the unscrupulous."
And we would be right. Again, Mary would have been right to have shaken her fist at God. She would have been perfectly justified to stand at the foot of the cross and cry out about how unfair God had been to have played such a cruel hoax on her. She would not have had enough information at the time to have thought otherwise. Yet, she did not bring judgment to the moment. She trusted God that her life and her son's life were somehow unfolding as they should. This is what faith looks like.
Each of life's little dramas really has only two choices. We can either inflict misery on ourselves by attacking something and by withdrawing from everything that does not suit us, or we can rise above it, thus teaching others how to do the same. We must remember that making Paul's insights a meaningful part of our lives will not spare us from any experience others have. God allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.
We will still experience the death of our loved ones, financial losses and the results of choices that lacked sound judgment. The only difference between us and others is that we are working everyday to provide light to a society that appears to thrive on competition, aggression and a host of related responses. Examples of this are everywhere. Be not mistaken, we are always practicing at who we want to be. Yet, whose curriculum are we using, one of our own design or God's?
Last year, Lois and I went to a wedding rehearsal dinner in the Davidsonville area. The upstairs was crowded with people, so we ate our meal in the basement family room. While eating we noticed that some of the children were playing a video game. Two groups of children had control pads. The winners had to kill their opponents. Two blood red lines went across the monitor screen showing the death count achieved by each team. Punctuating the exciting, rhythmic music were cries from the players, "Yes!" "Yes! "I got you!"
Just imagine the quality of conditioning, training, and educating that is going on while children play these games several hours each week. Our Church School teachers instruct children for 45-minutes once a week. In defense of our buying such games, we say, "Oh, please! Come on! These are only video games." Yes they are, but what kind of spirit are they creating within young, inexperienced minds?
All of us become what we practice being every day. Soon our learned patterns become a statement to everyone of who we have become. Paul's words remind us who we are, what our curriculum should be and what our responses to life's circumstances should look like. I believe Paul had it right. What do you think?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
O God, thank you for these recent days that have reminded us of the many qualities of your spirit. Your spirit remains among us offering new choices. Your spirit teaches us how to manifest love in our circumstances. Your spirit offers us forgiveness, cleansing our thoughts and deeds, whether we accept it or not. Your spirit offers us direction for the times when we wander and lose our way. Even when we feel unworthy, as we experience thoughts and deeds that challenge the quality of our character, we always know that in you we find acceptance. Thank you for your grace and love that are always there waiting for us in all of life's moments. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, each of us savors in our own way the afterglow of Christmas. We experienced the rush and haste to get our homes ready. Many of us so exhausted ourselves with last minute details that sometimes we felt we were among the least prepared for the very thing we were celebrating - the arrival of the Prince of Peace.
O God, create in us a new heart, one that sees through our fleeting moments of celebration to the permanence love can communicate. Prepare our personalities to be more affirming instruments through which may come our caring, our attentiveness, and our friendship.
This morning, we have no idea what silent pains and frustrations, what unspoken fears or life- threatening issues face those who are seated next to us. We realize that often our mission field is standing right in front of us, but like for that Inn keeper of old, it is disguised. And we can easily pass by and not notice.
Bring us into the New Year realizing that you have sent us to be the Light in the World, healers whom you have asked to become the mouth, the hands and feet of your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...