"When The Spirit Is Free"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/22/1998
II Corinthians 5:16-21; Psalm 32:1-8
The writer discovered that freedom comes when we know our sins are forgiven. Freedom comes when we no longer have to live deceitfully. In fact, the writer tells how painful his own life was before he learned this. He wrote, "When I did not confess my sins, I was worn out from crying all day long. Day and night you punished me, Lord; my strength was completely drained, as moisture is dried up by the summer heat."
At first glance, confessing our sins does not appear to have anything to do with what holds our spirit captive. Yet, listen again, "Day and night you punished me, Lord." Each time we sin, we get punished. We should never doubt this for a single minute. Yet, is it God who is doing the punishing? Or, do we experience punishment because of the way God created us? If we were created to love and we do not, the results create pain. Let me give you an example.
Today's new cars can easily serve us for 180,000 miles or more if they are properly maintained. If, however, we drive them in a manner for which they were not designed or, if because of the cost, we put off replacing the tires, the brake shoes, changing the oil, or having it tuned, we will get punished. The car will fail us. But it is not the manufacturer of the car that punishes us. The punishment comes because of what we did.
The key to understanding how this works is in the verse that I just read for you. "When I did not confess my sins, I was worn out from crying all day long." Confession is one of those concepts we were taught as a child. Most of us learned that confession is telling God, or someone else, all the things we have done when we responded to our circumstances without love. Confession must be understood more clearly than this.
Confession is the act of being honest with ourselves when we finally admit that our response is what caused our circumstances to be unsettling. Confession means that we have finally taken responsibility for the interpretation of what is happening to us. This is far easier said than done. Before the Psalmist had learned how to do this, he admitted to being "worn out from crying."
If each of us could make a confession to God right now, what pain or what loveless responses could we claim responsibility for creating? Remember, we sin each time we reach for something or want something beyond ourselves that we believe will complete us. This is a loveless response because we are seeking something to add to ourselves. We are not radiating anything. As long as we feel that we are lacking something, we will always be searching from a spirit of neediness.
Most of us have these thoughts from time to time. Some of us literally ache for our picture to be different. When we do, we'll miss the mark. The Greek word for "sin" literally means "to miss the mark." Let me illustrate this with a chapter from my own family's life. This episode will point to how easily we imprison ourselves.
In 1980, when we learned that we would be moving from Cheverly, I was told by my new District Superintendent that the Bishop could not move me to a position of comparable salary. Having been an Associate Minister since my ordination, the Cabinet's belief was that I had not displayed competency in all areas of ministry because I had not had my own church. When we relocated to Martinsburg, West Virginia, Lois had to leave her position as a county school teacher. My new salary was exactly half of what I had been earning at Cheverly.
The Psalmist said, "When I did not confess my sins, I was worn out from crying all day long." I experienced this pain because I had not yet learned how to accept full responsibility for everything I was feeling. I remember thinking, "We have two children! Didn't they understand that I am not a newcomer to my profession? Didn't they realize that to move us here Lois would have to give up her job?"
There was also my ego involvement where I began thinking about my economic worth. I thought, "What other person with a Master's Degree is earning $10,500 after having worked in their field for 12 years." We felt even more sorry for ourselves because whenever, we phoned anyone we knew, it was a long distance call. Who was doing the punishing here when absolutely nothing conformed to what I wanted in my picture? There are many historical examples of such responses..
Do you remember the time when the Israelites confronted Moses. They had been liberated from Egypt only a short time when their picture of freedom became clouded. They said, "Have you brought us out into the wilderness to die? Even with all the burdens Pharaoh placed on us, we had food to eat. Our lives were better in Egypt."
Even Jesus had his moments. Do you remember the time when Jesus had just come from the incredible experience on the Mt. of Transfiguration? Jesus was on edge emotionally. He had just made the decision to go to Jerusalem where he would confront the Jewish authorities with his message.
Shortly after his descent from the mountain, Jesus was approached by a man who said, "Sir, have mercy on my son! He is an epileptic and has such terrible attacks that he often falls in the fire or into water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him." Jesus grew angry and exclaimed, "How unbelieving and wrong you people are! How long must I stay with you? How long do I have to put up with you?" (Matt. 17:15-17)
We are so tempted to put a spin on his response so as to preserve our image of his "perfection." Yet, Jesus clearly missed the mark with this response. These people were innocent and they were only coming to him in the belief that he could make a difference in the boy's life. He was angry with them because they had not conformed to the picture Jesus had of them.
Spiritual freedom comes when we so trust our walk with God that we surrender our ego- investment in determining the outcome of our play. This is how growth comes. I recall walking in the cemetery at Arden and looking out over North Mountain and the beautiful orchards. I remember praying and letting go of the thoughts that had been making me miserable. No university or seminary could have taught me how to do that. Yet thousands of years ago, the Psalmist knew how this works.
We did not know any of the people in Arden, but in time we would and did. And soon that church became affectionately labeled by my colleagues as "The Garden of Arden." That is what it eventually became for us. But in the beginning, I could only throw darts because I had initially convinced myself that my family had been betrayed by those we had trusted. Again, who had been doing the punishing? We need to understand that when we give up our version of the picture, a much greater one can be created.
The Psalm ends with these words, "The Lord says, 'I will teach you the way you should go; I will instruct you and advise you'." How does this process work? How does God do this? It happens when we open ourselves to the possibility that God is offering us the greatest opportunity to have everything we want right where we are. Yet, as long as we have a different idea of what our picture should look like, our experience of freedom will be postponed.
Sometimes we act as if God does not know how to do this. We act as if God is withholding this incredible insight from us until we ask for it or until we make it happen. Could this understanding ever be true? We forget that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. There is nothing in all creation that can stop anything that God wills. In our pain we often say, "Well then, why isn't it happening?" God responds, "It is happening. You are only delaying the results because you are too busy requesting that I put more useless junk into your picture."
Remember what sin is. It is our reaching for all the things that we believe we need to make us whole. This understanding comes from a sense that God created us incomplete. Would such a thing be possible for God? We must believe that such a thing is possible because we pray for God to send us "the right person" to love, the right job where we can experience fulfillment, or the right amount of money that will help us live without fear.
What we fail to realize is that we have willfully chosen to place our sense of wholeness into the hands of material things that cannot produce it. This seems to be the hardest lesson for us to learn. We feel punished by life. And much worse, we often believe that God does not listen to our prayers. God knows the truth about relationships, jobs and money. We suffer only because we don't. If such things ever become a vehicle for our experience of wholeness, it is because of what we bring to them. It does not happen the other way around. Our understanding that God made us whole has to be there first. How we have understood this is on display every day.
Once there was a man who owned a pick-up truck. I remember him lamenting one day, "I wish I had never bought the thing. Every time I turn around, someone wants to borrow it, someone wants me to haul something for them, or someone wants me to help them move. People hound you to death!" Some of us may feel that way.
But, I also knew a man who used his truck as a tool for getting involved with people. When we are walking, people coming toward us often show no recognition that we are there. Yet, if we are strolling our baby or we are walking one of these $800 dogs, even people we have never met often stop and visit awhile. In fact, this is one of the ways I remember people meeting each other on Capitol Hill. Their dogs or their babies provided the vehicle where personalities could be exchanged.
The truck provided this second man with opportunities to be of service. The truck was the vehicle that allowed him to gain entrance into other people's lives. Interestingly enough, he was also a retired air-conditioning and heating specialist who never took a penny from anyone for his labor when folks asked for help. This was his way of still using his talents and gifts.
Everyone of us uses everything we are and have to make visible our love or our fears and this includes relationships, jobs, and even pick-up trucks. God can use everything to lead us, to extend us, and to help us become a witness for what love looks like right where we are. During our Lenten walk, we need to visit this understanding again and again. God wills that we discover our wholeness every moment we live. When we have learned this, we will automatically understand how to interpret our circumstances. This is what the Psalmist had learned. He was so fulfilled with his discovery that he wrote about it in a Psalm.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for reaching out to all of us. We came searching for inspiration to be more than we know ourselves to be. Some of us do not know your Word as we could. Some of us have not learned how to share a tithe of our money for the work of our church. Some of us know forgiveness only as an action we "should" do. Some of us do not know what worry communicates about the quality of our faith. Oh God, during these Lenten days inspire us to examine ourselves more thoroughly. Help each of us to understand that to grow from where we are, we must risk our identity in order to change and stretch. Heal us of our unspoken desire to remain as we are. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments together. How often we wish we could recognize your presence throughout our lives as we have the opportunity to do right now. Somehow we often fall into a routine where we associate you with hymns, prayers, anthems and sermons. Yet, we well understand that the moment we leave the church, what we experienced here quickly fades from memory. We begin our week, often neglecting how to recognize your presence.
Many of us do not begin our day with a focus on you and as a result, we can easily take personally every event that rubs us the wrong way. We become stressed and upset. We forget who we are and that such moments are perfect opportunities for us to display what you have called us to be.
As we continue our walk during Lent, may your spirit inspire us to take better care of ourselves. Lift our eyes above the surface irritants, inspire our responses to come from love rather than fear, and help us to radiate the spirit that will enable others to feel safe. May we live our discipleship so that we understand that we are the church, forever eliminating our temptation to think of "we" and "they" when it comes to serving in the spirit of Christ who taught us to say when we pray. . .