"Whose World Might You Change?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/13/1998
Luke 15:1-10; I Timothy 1:12-17
Yet, there is something incredibly inviting and compelling about these events that can easily be overlooked. Right now we have the eyes of the world on us. They are going to watch how we handle this. They are going to observe what we value. Not long ago the global focus was on England, the unrest and turmoil of the royal family and on the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Princess Diana. It seems that each of the world's leading nations has its turn on the world's stage.
With the issues currently swirling around our President, we have a golden opportunity to think about the soul of this country, an issue that goes much deeper than one person's behavior. One of the ways we can understand who we are as Americans is to see and hear all that we are not. Many of us are tremendously grateful for the class-act competition and distraction provided by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa but we must also become united around issues that commonly affect the lives of all Americans.
When our society continues year after year with an attitude of "business as usual," it becomes easy to take our eyes off the values that have provided the cornerstone for our country's wholesome environment. There are many issues that scream at us everyday just like a prophetic voice calling us back to a faithfulness greater than what we now experience.
For example, when we see children going to school armed with weapons, that is a warning to all of us. When we see people shooting at police officers, we collectively understand that something is out of focus. The tyranny of the few is slowly loosening the threads that have traditionally held the fabric of our society together.
We are weary at seeing how our police officers are brutalized by stress because they are carrying out their duties in an increasingly hostile environment. There was a day when people called a police officer "Sir," and his or her visibility created a sense of security. There was a day when our police were shown the greatest respect. Let's take the last example and dissect it more carefully to see if we can find ourselves in this picture. It may be that more of us are slowly joining the few who are making life difficult.
What has happened over time is that more of us have begun to push our freedoms to marginal limits. Some people have equipped their cars with radar detectors. Some people have begun to drift through stop signs. More people have begun to drive their cars through red traffic signals. More people have begun to believe that speed limits were for the uninitiated. And we have collectively rationalized our own behavior by saying, "We have to travel at 75 and 80 to keep pace with everyone around us." All the while our children are watching as everything we do and every attitude we display carefully instructs them on how they should behave. Once we multiply this slow process of relaxing the rules across the major areas of life, we will understand how we have gotten to this day.
The only time an entire society has an opportunity to look at itself is when something gets our national attention. And right now our culture has a lot of key issues worth examining. This is a good time for us to discuss together the themes of trust and betrayal, of truth and deception, of personal values and their consequences, of character as an ingredient for leadership, and of healthy integrated standards of identity for both personal and public life. The Church has not been the only custodian of these themes. Everyone, whether they are churched or unchurched, knows the importance of having these conversations.
Everyone has an opinion and it is good that we share them. We have an opportunity to discuss with our children the fact that frailties are within all of us. And those frailties have no ranking in importance nor can they be obscured from public scrutiny by the power of any office. The scales of justice always hang inside each of us. There are no small lies.
We also have the opportunity to remind ourselves that, when certain life skills are not mastered, the same problems will come up in our lives again and again until we either learn them or during a moment when we least expect it, they can topple us like a house of cards. There are consequences to everything we do.
One of the themes that can easily be overlooked in any drama is how the story line in our headlines applies to us. The story line is as old as history itself. The only difference is that right now someone else's life is under the microscope and we can dissect his character in a public forum. Regardless of the outcome of congressional action, our President may be experiencing the greatest personal break-through he has ever known. We must never forget that every person is always in the process of developing. This is how God's creation works. Consequences have a unique way of teaching us what we may be too blind to learn without them. Take a few moments, back away from the intensity of recent events and reflect on the bigger picture.
In our lesson this morning, Paul says this, "I thank God for considering me worthy and appointing me to serve him, even though in the past I spoke evil of him, persecuted him and insulted him." Paul continues, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and I am the worst of them." Twice in this passage Paul referred to himself as "the worst of sinners."
Yet, how much we love Paul! How much we marvel at his words, his wisdom and his understanding, a body of material that makes up much of the New Testament. His theology literally shaped the thinking of the early church. How easy it is for us to forget that there was a day when he was a murderer named Saul of Tarsus. Remember these words in the Book of Acts: "Saul tried to destroy the church. Going from house to house, Saul dragged out the believers, both men and women and threw them into jail." (Acts 8:3)
One day Saul became physically blind while traveling the road to Damascus. About the same time, Ananias had a vision that he was to heal Saul of his blindness. Ananias challenged his vision from God and said, "Lord, many people have told me about this man and about all the terrible things he has done to your people in Jerusalem. And he has come to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who worship you." (Acts 9:13).
Maybe Saul's earlier life may not be appalling or disgusting enough for us. Perhaps we can find a better example if we examined the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There we find a young man who took his share of the family's inheritance and wasted it on "riotous living." That image can take on almost any dimension of sinfulness that we want to imagine. He, too, had a personal break-through that focused the direction of his life very sharply.
When we consider all the possibilities within any of life's major dramas, who have we been called to be? In spite of all our righteous indignation, who have we been called to be when people blow up our embassies in Africa, bring down passenger airliners with bombs, or rape young girls and molest children? Was it not into such a world that Jesus came voluntarily? Jesus came to bring a new standard for personal accountability that had nothing to do with obedience to any law. He taught that when we love, we are like a light shining in a great darkness.
Not long ago one of the women of the church e-mailed a story to me that I used during the 7:30 a.m. service this summer. It fits here so I'll use it again. The story can be found in the book, Chicken Soup for the Soul.
One day after school a young man happened to be walking close to another boy who accidentally dropped on the sidewalk everything he was carrying. Seeing this, he thoughtfully stopped to help his classmate pick up the articles and then the two walked together. During the walk, they got to know each other and the one said, "Would you like to come to my house and have some ice cream?" The other boy appreciated the invitation so he went.
The years passed and the day arrived when both were graduating from high school. As they were getting ready to close one chapter of their lives and open another, the one boy approached his friend and said, "I need to tell you something that I have been holding inside me for years. Do you remember the time when you stopped to help me pick up all the things I had dropped on the sidewalk? Did you ever wonder why I was carrying so much stuff that afternoon?" The other boy said, "No, I never gave it a thought."
"Well," he said, "I had just broken up with my girlfriend and my world had unraveled. I was clearing out my locker for the last time. I knew where my mother kept a bottle of pills and that afternoon I was on my way home to kill myself. You prevented that. You entered my world at just the right time with your friendship. I would not be here today had you not stopped to help me. I wanted you to know that."
We are called to help people whose lives are not working for them. Ananias did that. He helped Saul to see again. A few days after Saul's healing he preached in the synagogue. Those who heard Saul were amazed and said, "Isn't he the one who was killing people in Jerusalem who worship that man Jesus? And didn't he come here for the very purpose of arresting such people and taking them back to the chief priests?" (Acts 9:21)
If we are blaming, throwing stones, and making judgments, even though such actions may appear to be perfectly justified, is this who we want to be? Saul of Tarsus was such a person and his aggressive responses were part of the reason that he became blind. It took love to make him see again. Today we call Paul an "Apostle" because of what his change of mind, his repentance, later made of him. God inspired a missionary to grow from a personality that used to conspire to murder people.
Nothing in this world and nothing we learn about another person should ever come as a surprise to us. The lost and found chapters in all our lives can happen any time to anyone. When it is our turn and our mistakes cause us to stumble, how wonderful it is when people stop to help us pick up the pieces of our lives.
As we watch and listen to the national debate that is going to dominate our lives for awhile, we need to be asking ourselves everyday, "Who do I want to be in this world? Does my life represent a clear window through which others can see the love of God?" The world is filled with fact finders and fault finders, but it can always use more healers.
When a church is the size of ours, it is most challenging for Patti and me to make our rounds to everyone who is celebrating a personal break-through or walking through some difficult period in their lives. So many of you have told us about the notes that others have taken time to write you, about the phone calls you have received, or about the visits from a particular member of the Angel Gang.
You have told us stories of your standing self-consciously in the narthex after a worship service holding your cup of coffee experiencing those awkward thoughts, "Do I really fit in here?" And then suddenly somebody did something or said something that included you and you realized that you did fit. Without thinking about it, that other person made a positive change in your world.
Whose world might you change? Only God knows. Actually it is not up to us as to whether someone's life changes for the better or not. Even Jesus could not change his world. He could only help some people get started in a more healthful, healing direction and then Jesus allowed God to do the rest. That is what he has called us to do as well.
The crisis in the White House will offer us many moments to talk with each other about what we value and believe. We should use this occasion to affirm once again who we want to be while standing in the midst of life. We have been called to be disciples of Jesus Christ who have been charged with the responsibility of helping other people learn about the love and peace of God.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for your kind and gentle spirit. You know us well and know how easily we can become afraid. We trust that your love surrounds us, but confess to our frustrations when ill health comes. We know that you accept us as we are, yet we find it difficult to escape the pains of our past. We know you have a plan for us, but we willingly acknowledge our vulnerability when our companions leave us at death. We know that you love us, yet we still find it challenging to move beyond the results of life's reversals. Thank you for creating us with hearts that heal, with spirits that are resilient, with faces that can always smile, and with memories that remind us that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. As our love brings healing to others, so may we be blessed and healed ourselves. Place us, O God, where we are most needed in your service. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever faithful God, how grateful we are that in the midst of a very troubled and confused people, you chose to send your son to be born in a tiny obscure part of the world. What a miracle it has been for us to watch how you have influenced our world because of him.
This history unfolded even though Jesus wrote nothing. He taught people who could not read or write. He lived among people who could not grasp abstract thinking. And yet who he was appeared destined to shine brightly across the centuries until our lives were touched by his radiance.
How can we ever doubt your faithfulness, when knowledge of your son's existence should not be ours, yet we clearly have it nevertheless.
Gracious God, we marvel at how you use everything to influence our thinking, our values, our hopes and our dreams. You have used the sinfulness of others to demonstrate the strange power of repentance. You have used images of the Cross, the Holocaust, the explosion of the atomic bomb to point to truth that molds and shapes our world.
Help us to remain clear on what you have asked us to be and to do. Use our lives to communicate your love, so that like your son, we might point to a Kingdom that others will only be able to see with their hearts. Bless us with such visibility that your light is everywhere. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .