"Why Being Loved Is Not Enough"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/27/1998
Psalm 91:1-6,14-16; Luke 16:19-31
Our tradition has told us that we make such decisions because we are predisposed to sin. Such a belief always has its problems because of the spin it puts on God's creative abilities. It suggests that God created us as fatally flawed beings. But it also supplies us with the easiest of excuses when our decisions do not reflect our highest and best thinking.
Many of us remember the character that Flip Wilson played years ago. Geraldine always said, "The Devil made me do it." Some people escape taking personal responsibility by making such a claim. Yet a much better reason for making our poor choices is that we have not matured sufficiently in our spiritual development to make better ones.
We know how athletes can become stronger by working out with weights. Singers can become more skilled when they take voice lessons. Trial lawyers can increase their skill at their craft the more they practice in front of a jury. Yet when it comes to further developing and refining of our spiritual nature, our thinking has lead us to discussions about how we are saved. We discuss whether we are saved by God's love or by our spiritual growth. The truth in Scripture supports both ways.
Blaming poor behavior on our sinfulness is such an easy and convenient method for not assuming responsibility for our choices. There are clearly other causes that motivate us. One such cause is curiosity. For example, what goes through our minds when we read a sign that says "Wet Paint". Some us want to know if the hand-railing is still wet. Even though our eyes see the big bold letters warning us, some of us want to know if the sign is still correct.
In addition to curiosity, there is also the stimulation of doing something spontaneous without thinking of the damage we might do. Over a year ago the church had some of our curbing removed in front of the building to give people in wheelchairs greater accessibility to our Fellowship Hall. Someone noticed that the church had freshly poured concrete. They could not resist the urge to carve their initials in the lower left-hand corner of the new ramp. I happened to notice their etchings before the concrete dried and removed them.
Was someone actually engaging in a willful act of vandalism by defacing church property? Of course not. The person who did that undoubtedly had the same spirit as some of us when we carved our initials in the big Weeping Willow tree that hung over our favorite trout stream.
But there are times when our behavior becomes more self-serving, daring and risk-taking. When our decisions cause heart-rending consequences to ourselves and others, that is when we begin to describe our behavior as sinful. The reason we do is that our deed has missed the mark. Our decision has not extended our God-given creativity. In spite of the warnings from time-tested sources, we still remain curious. Like children, we want to test the truth for ourselves.
During the last seven months, Americans have experienced what no caring person could possibly ignore. Everyone of us holds attitudes and thoughts about our current national preoccupation, but in spite of how gut-wrenching this episode in our history has been, will it prevent others from putting their family, loved ones and friends through the same thing? Will our seeing the bold words "W E T P A I N T" or "D O NOT ENTER" prevent us from testing the signs' reliability?
What is fascinating about our curiosity is that the identical drive is also necessary for us to become a full participant in God's plan for salvation. For example, we can listen to testimonies from people who tithe their gross income. We can hear how their generosity helped them discover what it means to have faith. We can repeatedly hear stories how people defeated an "inner enemy" when they learned how to surrender to God their losses, hurts and grudges.
Will we automatically make similar decisions based on the testimonies of someone else? For some of us, hearing their words and seeing signs that speak of God's love are not enough. We have to develop the curiosity to experience this truth for ourselves.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus gave us a beautiful verbal portrait to examine. Jesus told the story of a wealthy man who had been completely free from physical wants and desires. He had everything the world had to offer.
Jesus contrasted the wealthy man with Lazarus who had no material wealth during his life. Even though Lazarus came everyday to eat the food that was tossed into the dumpster, the rich man was never motivated to do anything more to help his neighbor. In time the rich man went to Hell while Lazarus went to Heaven.
The picture Jesus gave us detailed the discussion of the rich man with Abraham. The heart of Jesus' message was that you can lead horses to water but you cannot make them drink. God has placed many sign posts in our path but God allows us to determine whether or not we see them and follow them.
The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his father's house to warn his five brothers. Abraham said, "Your brothers have Moses and the prophets. Your brothers should listen to what they say." The rich man countered, "That is not enough! But if someone were to rise from death and tell them, then they would turn from their sins." Abraham said to the rich man, "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from death."
What does it take to convince us of truth's validity? God loves us so much that God sent us a road map, a blueprint for how we could live creatively. God sent us the plumb-line that the prophet Amos described. God gave us the truth. Yet because of peoples' predisposition toward protecting their own understanding of truth, they killed the source of God's truth.
While people were still focused on the crucified Jesus, God gave humanity yet another gift of truth. God offered proof that life is eternal. But has that truth mattered to people? Search your own hearts. Has such truth always convinced us to take the high road in our decisions? Of course not. This was Jesus' point.
God can literally surround us with love, with reassurance, and with sign posts, but we still have to touch the paint in order to experience for ourselves the accuracy of such things. We have the truth that we do not die. Instead of living like we are eternal beings we want to speculate about the resurrection experiences. Some of us want to know if all of them really happened or were some of them added by writers who were trying to protect the faithful from heresies that were outcropping in the various faith communities. People love to debate the accuracy of Scripture but no one ever wins such a debate. Scripture's accuracy proves nothing to us. If it did, we would all live lives where mistakes were impossible.
Alongside people who debate Scripture, there are also those in our churches who have nothing but a secondhand faith. This means that they have been extremely obedient with what others and the Scriptures have told them. They are the ones who say, "The Bible said it. I believe it." While this sounds good, is this the kind of thinking we want in life and in our relationships?
How would you like to be loved by someone because the Scriptures told them to do so? How would you feel if your husband or wife remained faithful to you only because such a quality was reverenced in the Scriptures? We want someone to love us and remain faithful to us because they want to, because their heart, mind and spirit will not allow them to do anything else. Believing this means they have experienced what it means to be loving and they have chosen to live that way over all other responses.
As we have mentioned before, being a follower of Jesus Christ is like a contact sport. We cannot just think about it, we have to live it. Experiencing discipleship has nothing to do with debating the finer points of Scripture, e.g., "Did Jesus mean this or did he really mean something else?"
In our lesson, Abraham's point is that having Moses, the prophets, and even someone who would appear after they have died, would not be enough to convince the rich man's five brothers. The rich man begged Abraham, "Send Lazarus to tell my five brothers." The truth is, God has already done that. God had surrounded them and us with everything needed to know the truth. It is clearly not enough!
What we need to do is experience what it is like to live it. Just as our curiosity can lead us into sinful behavior, behavior that causes us to miss the mark, so it can also lead us to experience God's salvation.
For example, we need to live knowing that we are infinite beings who will never taste death no matter what others have taught us. We need to live with total trust in God knowing that there is nothing we ever need to fear. We need to live knowing that generosity pours forth from spirits who have outgrown their need to gather treasures here on earth. The only way to know our identity is to experience for ourselves the truth of what Jesus taught. We need to try it.
There is a wonderful old story about an eaglet that became separated from its parents. It was reared along with a brood of chickens. The eagle matured in an environment where it learned that its legs were the only source of transportation. One day older eagles found it and said, "What are you doing living with these chickens?" Even though the more experienced eagles spoke of the power of flight and all that their journeys had allowed them to behold, it was not until the young eaglet soared into the heavens that it understood the truth of their words.
Once we experience the fruits of what Jesus taught, we will outgrow our desire to settle for anything less. Jesus was telling us that only when we live in the Kingdom of God will we understand our true identity. We need to understand that Jesus would have never taught about the existence of such a reality for us if such a quality of life were impossible to achieve.
Jesus' invitation to us means, "Go ahead and touch the paint. Experience what I have taught you for yourselves." Once we have learned how God "wired us" to have power over life's many choices, we will be like that eaglet who understood the truth others were telling her by soaring to the heights herself.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for placing us in a world surrounded by many signposts of your presence. Yet as with all things that are visible, each of us must be informed before we understand what we experience. We thank you that your world is much larger than the one we see with our eyes. We stand in wonder at the source of joy and happiness. We cannot see the origins of laughter and of the innocence of children. The connection between you and us when we pray is unobservable. We cannot understand what creates energy within us when we experience being loved. Equally we cannot grasp why we feel confident when we have learned to trust you with the purposeful evolution of our lives. We thank you for creating us so that we can remain healthy and spiritually alive each time we nourish our understanding with what we cannot see. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Ever faithful God, we enter this place of worship eager to find the peace which will still our spirits. The highways of our minds so often seem clogged with traffic that keeps us from knowing peace. There are times when we must face the unpleasant and we feel so ill-equipped by our faith. There are moments when the list of our necessary chores appears as a mountain that we are too tired to climb.
And yet, O God, how often we find ourselves resourced by your felt presence. How often during a moment of doubt, we have heard you whisper within us, "Trust me, we can do this together." How many times have we been down on ourselves when you have sent us someone, or you have given us an insight, or some level of strength that has helped us rise to the occasion.
When we open ourselves and are able to sense your guidance in our daily experiences, we are often overwhelmed by your love. Sometimes, O God, during moments of our greatest vulnerability, it is then that we understand that you have never left our side.
We pray that today you will bring us to a new awareness of your love and your guidance. Teach us that all we have to do is ask and miracles will surround us. And as you guide us to do that, also teach us that your truth for us is often in a place beyond our immediate awareness. Teach us the meaning of faith. Teach us how to remain patient and confident, knowing your will is unfolding in our lives. We pray these things through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .