"A Very Clear Choice"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 6/28/1998
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25
When he wrote to the people of Galacia, Paul told them "Let the Spirit direct your lives and you will not satisfy the desires of the human nature." Paul next described the tension that all people experience. He wrote, "For what our human nature wants is opposed to what the Spirit wants, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to what our human nature wants." Next Paul described the war, "These two are enemies and this means that you cannot do what you want to do." Are there two people at war inside of us or are we experiencing a process inviting us to learn how to grow up?
Friday morning at 8:00 a.m., in order to beat the heat and the crowds I went shopping at Safeway. Lois had given me a rather thorough list of what we needed for the weekend. Immediately my mind began trying to remember where various products were in that store because we often shop at Magruder's or the Giant where product placement is configured differently.
I suddenly experienced a moment of distraction when I turned to go down aisle three. There was a woman in an incredibly short skirt reaching for something on the top shelf with both hands. I quickly discovered that there are things other than coffee that can wake you up. Several aisles later, I saw those little pints of Ben and Jerry's ice cream staring at me from behind the glass in the freezer section with those "buy me" eyes.
We have all been there and for some of us it may appear as if we are fighting a never ending war. We become frustrated with ourselves when we allow someone's sharp tongue to anger us. We struggle with feelings of envy when we watch a very self-assured 12-year old do things with a computer when we have not yet mastered the on and off switch . We struggle with "the customer is always right" philosophy when someone enters our place of business with a condescending attitude and makes a request that is completely beyond reason. Are we at war? Are there really two of us inside of our bodies or is our experience an invitation to something grand and incredibly fulfilling?
Paul was teaching that when the Spirit controls life, an entire new set of responses to our experiences will be at our disposal. He wrote, "But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control." These are not new laws that need to be obeyed. These are not attitudes and responses that come because we have learned some inner discipline. These responses come naturally and simply the moment we decide that this is who I want to be and this is how we would rather live.
Some months ago there was a program on television that captured my interest. It featured the Broadway play Annie. The program was devoted to how the selection process for the lead role unfolded behind the scenes. It was fascinating. Many of the young actresses were excellent, but the director was looking for someone who captured Annie's spirit and soul, something not even he could quantify. He wanted a girl who could connect and communicate to audiences with the precise spirit that he wanted. He would not be satisfied until he found her.
While the cameras rolled, the producers, screen writers and director evaluated each of the candidates who had survived the last cut. This group had to decide a winner and they did not mince their words. Their frankness was very judgmental. The director was after a quality of spirit that could not be faked by the learned skills of acting. Finally, he settled on one of the candidates. When the viewing audience watched her in action, it was clear why she stood head and shoulders above the rest. Her spirit gave her stage presence a magnificence none of the actresses possessed.
This young actress was authentic, self-assured. She was one of a kind. Her voice was yet another means of projecting that spirit. She had become Annie the way the director had envisioned her. And Boardway audiences have agreed. The point of the story is that all the girls trying out for Annie had a goal in mind. They had made a decision and were acting on it. And so can we -- discipleship! The rewards are even better for us than they were for the actress who won the honor of playing Annie. Who among us would not give almost anything to be able to rise above the whirlwind responses that have so many people stressed out, angry, distracted and unhappy? The good news is that we can have this quality of life.
The issue today is the same as it was during the days when Paul wrote his letter. It is not that there are two competing forces inside of us, the problem is that too many of us have not yet decided who we want to be. We act as if God put everything inside of a tulip bulb, everything inside of a tomato seed, and everything inside of a robin's egg for those life forms to grow effortlessly into what they were destined to be; yet when it came to the creation of humanity, God only gave us bodies. How uninformed this conclusion is!
The truth is that God created us to be loving persons. That is who we are. Where else do we think all these wonderful qualities come from that Paul described in his letter? We already have them. We have all of them. Yet many of us have not yet learned why it is in our own best interest to use and develop them. We believe there is another way to live. There is not!
What many of us do not understand is that what Jesus brought to us has more to do with growing up than it has to do with faith. Babies don't learn to walk because they have faith that they can. They walk because others teach them how it is done. This is why Jesus came. Who would want to lay around on the floor and crawl everywhere when it is possible to walk, to run, to drive a car or to get into an aircraft and fly? It is the same thing with the development of our spirit. The spirit is capable of governing everything about us while it gives us freedom.
What kind of choice was Paul asking the Galatians to make? What were they being asked to sacrifice, leave behind or give up? You be the judge. Listen again to Paul's description of people who have not yet learned how to pay attention, "People become enemies and they fight, they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups (and I might add denominations). They are envious, get drunk and have orgies."
We can point our fingers at such people and label them as "sinners" or people who have lost their way in life. But suppose they are nothing more than people who have not learned that each of us has a choice in how our life unfolds? There may be a lot of us in that category. And the reason we find it so challenging to change our life patterns is because no one has taught us that there were other possibilities. Perhaps no one took the time years ago to show us another way to respond when life becomes crazy. Many people feel so alone when life gets like that. No one understands, so perhaps they bring a gun to school to help ease their pain.
The other night Lois brought home an interesting experience that she had at the school where she teaches. A potential new student was brought to her class by his parents. The other students were all busy putting the finishing touches on a very intricate creation they had constructed out of blocks. When the boy saw what they had made, he immediately went over and kicked it down. The children were confused by his behavior and looked to Lois for some explanation. The only thing she could do at the moment was tell them it could be rebuilt and that he was only a visitor.
No sooner had she spoken those words when the boy went to another area of the room and upset all the furniture in the various rooms of the children's doll house. His parents saw this happening and did nothing to intervene. What was more interesting is that the parents showed no understanding that their beautiful tulip was being allowed to grow up believing that he is only a weed. They did nothing to point their son in the direction of his potential. Do we blame the parents? We frequently do but suppose they honestly did not know how or what to teach? If parents skills are limited to reward and punishment, that is not teaching! That is merely conditioning. Why do we think Jesus called his disciples and wanted them to go into the world to pass on what they had learned?
When we settle for the unproductive behavior patterns that Paul described, what are we actually doing to ourselves? This past week one of the women in the church gave me a quote that is very direct and insightful with what it says. It could be applied to many areas of our life. Here is what that quote said, "Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent free in your head." Who would not like to rid themselves of all self-generated thoughts that age us, that blight our spirits, that produce illness, that prevent our smiling and laughing, and that create our endless supply of days of unhappiness? Again the good news is that we can do this.
Jesus taught us how to break all such thought patterns by simply trusting God to take care of all the details that we cannot manage and to allow God to remain in charge of the areas of life that we do not understand. People say, "That's impossible. It would be like giving up all responsibility and trusting fate." Not at all!
Look at who we have become by trusting ourselves for the outcome of everything. Sometimes we are a mess. We get stressed out, our words are hostile, and we worry. Then we claim, "This is who I am." Paul was teaching us that God created someone far more perfect than the person we thus far have decided to be.
Paul was telling the Galatians that they need to choose the high road with every decision and with every response, not just occasionally. We cannot get into physical shape by exercising and watching our food intake only some of the time. Listen how Paul described this process in verse 25. "The Spirit has given us life; the Spirit must also control our lives." And why not? This is who we are. Yet we must remain open. God often comes at us a in form we least expect.
I have told many of you this story before, but it fits here. This is the story of a very wealthy woman who left the church but chose to remain on the rolls in order to receive the newsletter. She had a falling out with the minister some years before and vowed never to return to church.
She became hospitalized and the minister became informed of this by another member of the congregation. Knowing that this woman would not be overjoyed to see him, the minister chose to send the newly hired seminary student. He told the seminarian none of the history.
The young man went. He entered her very dark, private room and as he approached the bed, he accidentally dislodged the side railing and it slammed down. As he was explaining who he was, he attempted to raise the side railing to its proper position. In so doing he knocked over her water pitcher and water spilled over the top of the stand and onto the floor. Totally humiliated he decided to say a prayer and leave. As he prayed, his anxiety level allowed none of his words to come out correctly. He was emotionally hemorrhaging as he said, "Amen." He left the room believing he was not destined to become a minister.
When he got back to the church, a phone call came for him. It was the patient he had just visited. She said, "Young man, you must come back. I apologize for not speaking. I was trying so hard not to burst out laughing at what you were trying to do with such sincerity that I was too embarrassed to speak. I have not laughed for years. You gave me a precious gift. You helped me realize that for the last several years I have been in a prison of my own creation."
This very message is what Paul was communicating to the Galatians. Why choose to live the way people have lived for centuries now that Christ has taught us and inspired us how to live with power and grace? When we do, we become transformed and we know the meaning of, "For to such belongs the Kingdom of God."
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever present God, thank you for giving us decision-making abilities. We recognize the challenges we face in separating what enhances living and what does not. Too often we rely on feelings rather than on thoughtfulness as we attempt to resolve issues in our relationships. Sometimes we react with too little information, and our responses to painful experiences are uninformed. Enable us, O God, to define ourselves with kindness, forgiveness, and peacefulness rather than by a need to be right. May we teach patience by communicating it in every circumstance we face. Help us to feel we are a sent people, so that all of life becomes a mission field and each moment becomes our opportunity to display the quality of our discipleship. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of love Jesus taught us to choose. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for creating us with spirits that are capable of awakening to the incredible potential you have placed inside each of us.
It is so freeing to know that we can walk away from mean-spiritedness and communicate a graciousness that heals wounds and radiates acceptance. We become peaceful when we understand that we do not need to be right, we do not need to get our way, and we do not need to have our thoughts understood in order for us to love.
Why is it, O God, that we spend so much time building the very personality traits that prevent love from showing? Why is it that we brood, lament, and resent, choosing to spend so much time dwelling on all that has offended us when we are surrounded by an untold number of blessings?
Help us move to a peaceful place where we can enjoy those blessings by developing the humility to approach each day with a spirit of gratitude.
Inspire us to show more compassion, to allow forgiveness to be immediate, to move quickly to make others feel accepted by our friendship. Help us remain committed to allowing our discipleship to remain our chosen way of life. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .