"Watch How God Defines Us"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 2/8/1998
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
Secondly, listen to how Paul saw himself. In this context he was describing why he should be considered as an apostle among the rest. He wrote, "Last of all, Jesus appeared to me -- even though I am like someone whose spiritual birth was abnormal. For I am the least of all the apostles -- I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because in my past I persecuted the church."
In our Gospel lesson, we find our third response coming just after Peter and his partners caught so many fish that their catch almost sank their boats. Listen to how Peter felt when he perceived the power of Jesus, "When Simon Peter saw what had happened, he fell on his knees before Jesus and said, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!"
We can remember episodes in our lives that echo this identical theme. As with every growth or learning process, we often begin with a preoccupation with ourselves. Perhaps we remember such feeling when we brought our first child home from the hospital, or when we first sat down in front of a typewriter in Typing 101 and we saw that the keyboard was not even alphabetized, or we bought our first computer. We frequently have self doubts.
I remember when I was a Cub Scout, there were a number of times when our Cub pack would go on outings with the Boy Scout troop in our church. During one of those outings, I became paired with an Eagle Scout whose assignment was to teach me the art of tying knots. He had already mastered how to tie every kind of knot imaginable. He said to me, "It is not how many knots you learn to tie that is important. All you get for that is a merit badge. What is important to learn is what you want a knot to do for you." What a concept to a young impressionable mind!
This Scout was a miracle worker with rope. He sat with me and started manipulating a piece of rope while he was instructing me. Then he held on to one end of the rope and threw the rest of it over a cliff. As the rope straightened there appeared evenly spaced knots every two feet. He said, "And when you want to climb a rope, this kind of knot will help you do it."
To this day I can remember his wisdom and his skill. While he was only four years older than I was, I can remember thinking, "I will never be able to learn how to do that. I will never be good enough." Notice how both of those last sentences began with the words, "I will never. . . ." Isn't this how many of us feel just prior to learning a new task that appears bigger than we are?
As we return to the Scriptures once again, we will see this same theme. Remember Isaiah's words, ". . .no hope for me. I am doomed." Once again, consider the words of Paul, "I am the least. . . I do not deserve. . ." And then there are Peter's words, "Go away from me. I am a sinful man." For some reason as we take those first steps of any journey of learning we believe that we are small and unworthy. We have this wonderful way of making ourselves feel incapable before we leave the starting gate.
There was a time during my college years when one of my classmates wanted me to take a walk with her. We walked down to the football stadium and sat in the bleachers. I was really unprepared and inexperienced with what she was about to ask me. She was seeking advice about her boyfriend. She said, "Last weekend, Art told me that he loved me." Then after a considerable pause she continued, "I have never had anyone tell me that before. Dick, what do you think that means?" I had no idea what to say other than the obvious, so I asked, "Tell me what it means to you?" She said, "Art is such a wonderful guy. I don't know what he sees in me."
How very similar to what Isaiah, Paul and Peter felt when called to be in ministry. If God defines us as being one-of-a-kind works of art, who are we to suggest otherwise? Remember what Paul wrote, "If God is for us, who can be against us? Who will accuse God's chosen people? God himself declares them not guilty!" (Romans 8:31f) God must know something about us that we do not! We are the ones who frequently judge ourselves unfavorably because we are so well acquainted with all the mistakes we make.
We are the ones who lower the value on a piece of art because it is flawed. God doesn't. In fact, flaws are what make diamonds sparkle. We can buy an entire set of flawed Lenox china for a substantial savings at the outlet store. Don't we understand that if we were not priceless in the mind of God, Jesus would never have come here? God did not create the world to be an outlet store that carries "seconds" in its inventory. But, we have trained ourselves to believe that this is what we are.
It is as misguided to judge ourselves unworthy by our weaknesses as it is to judge our worthiness by our successes. We make mistakes in judgment. We can make a lot of them. We do not see as God sees. Do we really think that God does not know this about us? God wants to teach us what we do not yet know. God is like that Boy Scout who wanted to teach me the art of tying knots.
How could God possibly hold us accountable to a standard we do not yet know or even recognize half the time? For centuries the Church has taught, "Jesus Christ is that standard and now humanity does know. No more can we appeal to God's mercy out of ignorance. We no longer have any excuses." Oh Really?! Is this how God's love really displays itself?
How many of us can remember the time when Jesus was not permitted to enter a particular village? James and John were so angry about this that they came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54). And what do we think Jesus' response was to such a request? He corrected them and they went on their way.
To have judged them as having a sick, warped sense of values by their mistake, Jesus could have brought their worthiness as disciples into question. He did not. Jesus knew who they were just as he knows who we are. They were capable of making mistakes, yet he loved them anyway.
Clearly, God is more kind and loving than many people want God to be. God wants to teach us, not punish us. And if some of us do not choose to learn, does that mean that we are capable of frustrating the infinite patience of God? Well, apparently so, because that is what so many teachers are preaching today as the Millennium approaches.
How we love to cluster ourselves around thought systems that are built on and instill fear. And to think that Jesus came here to teach us and show us the meaning of love. Jesus once taught that, "God so loved the world . . ." Those who feel compelled to preach fear must believe that Jesus was either wrong or that God has had a change of mind. Either way, that message is skating on thin ice.
What infinitely loving, all-wise purpose would be served by bringing the drama of the humanity to a close? If anything, we are providing God with nonstop entertainment. Our best writers could not create such a continuous sitcom. Because of this, is God going to draw the conclusion that all of creation has become a dismal failure? Is God going to say, "Let me erase the slate and pretend that this creation of mine never happened?"
If this is not the case, how then does God define us? Judging by everything God has done in human history, we know that God loves us. We also know that since God continues to send teachers among us that we are capable of learning more enlightened ways to live. We also have discovered that the more we live the lessons Jesus taught, the more the quality of our lives is dramatically enhanced.
When I was a teenager, from time to time our youth group visited other churches. Some churches devoted a time in their services when people could give public testimonies about their faith. In fact, in the early Methodist movement, John Wesley used to require it of all the people. On a monthly basis each person had to tell the others how their lives had been changed by, and what they were doing for, Jesus Christ.
As our youth group listened, the stories were basically the same. People would always begin by telling listeners what their lives had been like prior to meeting Jesus Christ. They were seldom timid about describing their mistakes sometimes, in very intimate details. Yet, nothing anyone said was extraordinary because every sin mentioned had been committed countless times by others before them. What was extraordinary were their claims of what happened to them once they brought Jesus into the center of their lives!
Some characterized their experience as the sun coming up. Some said that they began to see clearly for the first time in their lives. Others declared that they had found real joy for the first time. For me, no one ever explained what it meant to "meet Jesus Christ for the first time." I was raised in a Christian home and knew Jesus since infancy. As a teenager, I wondered where these people had been. And yet, it felt as if everyone in those church services knew exactly what that the various speakers were talking about.
I felt awkward, uncomfortable and out of place. These were not my kind of people. I kept looking at my watch, hoping these testimonies would soon be over. I used to think that these people were the biggest bunch of hypocrites and phonies that I had ever seen. I thought, "How can these people take on such pious and self righteous attitudes?"
It was about that time that I saw someone wearing a large button displaying individual letters. The letters were P B P W M G I N F W M Y. Seeing something like that captured my attention. I said, "What is your button trying to say?" "It's a short version of something much longer," she said. "The letters stand for: 'Please Be Patient With Me, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet."
From such a place of humility, she gave me an insight. It became increasingly clear to me what these people of faith had been proclaiming. As an immature person, I had been turned off by their words. However, I learned through the years that when our lives are put back in order by practicing what Jesus taught, we have a message to tell. A day finally arrives when we learn that what Jesus taught actually works. When we forgive and let go of resentments, for example, it is we who become healed. Everything he taught works for us!
As broken as we often believe ourselves to be, God still defines us as being worthy enough and capable enough to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to give without counting the cost, and to become walking advertisements of how God defines us. The glorious truth is that we are not left here on earth to remain slaves to our own vices.
Even though we pursue them as if they can, our vices will never deliver what we really want. What Jesus taught does deliver the goods every moment of every day! And during the process of living his program, we become new creatures. This is what those testimonies I heard in my youth were celebrating. Once we remove the barriers we have built, joy, peace and happiness return to our lives. It happens as soon as we start paying attention.
The new creatures we become, interestingly enough, give visibility to the definition God has had of us since our birth. God does love the world because God knows who we really are. The good news is that God still calls us to follow.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
In each of our lives, O God, there are many memories, the remembrance of which causes us pain. We have spoken words in anger, have held onto hurt feelings, and have chosen to remain detached and aloof from those we love. We have done things the knowledge of which would disappoint people who believe we have been trusting a higher standard. We thank you that we can lay such memories on the sands of your love, and watch as the waves of your forgiveness erase them. We marvel at the grace that you model for us. We are encouraged by the way you turn the other cheek and travel the extra mile. We are thankful that your ways of being were shown to us in Jesus Christ, ways that were accompanied with his invitation to follow. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever faithful God, what a joy it is to have so many teachers in our midst. You have created an order that has given everything the ability to teach and guide our growth. When we protest and give labels to people and events, we are learning to define what is healthy and what is not. Even in relationships that challenge us and cause us pain, we are provided an opportunity to acquire the ability to understand differences. And we learn that the world of others will not conform to our wishes in spite of how strongly we believe it must.
We thank you for Jesus Christ, who taught us about the pearl of great price, who taught us how it feels to own the treasure that was buried in the field. When we learn to stop wanting and begin giving, all our attitudes change. Suddenly, O God, our purpose for living becomes more focused. Our life takes on meaning. And we learn how to use our spirit to make visible the many gifts you have given to us.
Lord, we would ask that you continue to keep each of us sensitive to the mountains we have left to climb, to the wounds we must allow to heal, to the opportunities that stand in our midst, and to the calling we have heard to reflect your presence in all that we do. We pray these things through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .