"Allowing What God Gave Us To Show"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 1/31/1999
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
Before we consider what Jesus had to say about happiness, we first need to remember what we have been doing to ourselves for years. Many people living on today's world stage have elevated happiness to become their primary goal of living. Our drive for this magical state-of-mind actually pushes it further away from us while motivating us to seek it in places it cannot be found.
Many of us have seen the various commercials on television advertising the free book, Power For Living. The commercials show people seemingly trapped in various phases of their lives staring into space as if life has completely lost meaning for them. One episode shows a woman talking with a friend in a restaurant. She says, "Did I tell you that Jack got his promotion? Yes, I already said that. The kids are all doing well." Then after a long pause she says, "I'm just not happy."
Somehow we have learned to have a low tolerance for such moments in life. We have all had them. We have all been there. There is not a person in our church today who has not felt the sting of disappointment, frustration, hurt and delay. Having those experiences does not necessarily mean we have lost our way or our faith. They are part of life. But they do have a message for us.
Our social climate has trained us to rid ourselves of such feelings without understanding where they came from or what they mean. Suppose we began to look at such moments as episodes that are triggering a pre-installed software device within us. In other words, moments of unhappiness are part of our design.
They tell us that we need to change direction, we must choose differently, we must stop navigating in the shallows, we must take some risks and move outside of our comfort zones. Happiness is the natural result when all systems are changing and growing. When our systems are not doing that our emotions will start talking to us. We need to listen.
This week I received a call from a man who saw St. Matthew's featured on the front page of the Bowie Blade. He was congratulating us on our International Sunday. I told him that we had people in the church who never heard music played on steel drums. I told him about our overflow crowd at the International pot luck and how much food we had. I told him of the pouring rain storms and how we still had over 400 people attend the services. We laughed.
As we continued to talk, however, there was a longing in his voice. He described the church where he attends. He told me how there was no energy in his church. He mentioned how people seem to be going through the motions of church-related activities almost out of habit. He said, "Dick, it's depressing. We have nothing going on in our church outside of my Sunday school class."
A church family is just like an individual. When times become challenging, and those times will come, that is not the time to be afraid. That is not a time to blame the pastor of the church or the spouse in a marriage, or the manager at your job. Frustrations come as a warning that it is time to change directions. It is time to get up and walk. It is time to do something for someone else. I do not care if it is St. Matthew's or any other church, we are not here to entertain or serve ourselves. We exist to extend love's energy so we can embrace as many people as we can. When our lives feel as though they are being lived in the same holding pattern, we are the ones who are permitting that to happen. We are not listening to ourselves.
Jesus was not teaching us another set of rules that we must obey so that we can live in peaceful harmony with God. Jesus was describing one fundamental attitude, a desire that rises above all others to extend our love. That one desire is the parent of all the Beatitudes.
This one desire helps you survive when your boyfriend does not call as he has promised. It helps you to remain peaceful when the person in front of you in line at the bank just initiated one of the most complicated series of transactions you have ever seen. It helps you when there are only three checkers on duty at Magruder's when an overwhelming number of people are waiting to get out of there with their groceries. We may not be able to choose happiness during such circumstances, but we can choose to extend love's energy, the one quality that reveals what God gave us.
We can say, "These are all little frustrations that everyone experiences." Of course they are. But think of the mistakes we make when we deliberately choose to hide what God gave us. We argue with ourselves. We try to convince ourselves that we cannot extend loving energy every moment of our lives. "No one is perfect," we say. Obviously had Jesus felt that way, his teachings would have been different. They were not.
Three teenagers would be alive today in Calvert County had that young driver been thinking about and caring about the other people in his car. He made a mistake. Sometimes our mistakes have tragic consequences. Misunderstandings in our families and in our places of work would occur far less if people were mindful of their spirit before they opened their mouths. Words can hurt people who are not prepared to hear them.
What we are talking about here is not learning how to be good in the eyes of God. What we are talking about is how to become more effective human beings by using and showing other people what God gave us. Two things are certain in our daily experiences, we will either master life or it will master us. Jesus was teaching us how to master life by doing one thing -- extending the love God placed within us.
By examining a few of the Beatitudes, we will see that happiness is a result, not a goal. For example, Jesus taught that happiness comes to those who know that they are spiritually poor. In other words, happiness comes to people who have no pretense about themselves, no self-righteousness, and no attitude that suggests, "I am saved and you are lost." Such people know that they miss the mark every day. But they also know that their eternal destiny is never in doubt. Their happiness comes from a confidence that they could never be where God is not.
Consider another Beatitude. Jesus taught that happiness will be the result when we are merciful to other people. By living compassionately toward others, how could happiness not be ours? Think about it. In a very real sense, being merciful prevents us from destroying ourselves with negative emotions. Sometimes we live as if holding resentment and choosing not to forgive helps us get even with someone. It does not. The light God gave us will not shine while displaying such an attitude. Having mercy, however, turns up the wick in our lamp.
Such attitudes of being do not come because we want them. We already have all of them. What separates people is our skill level at reflecting to others what God gave us. Think of the price we pay each time we have a need to be right, or a need to set the record straight, or a need to prove that our way is the better way. What value is any choice if during that decision-making process we become ugly, angry and hide the very spirit that attracts others to God? Every person in the world needs to experience just the opposite. Today we see enough ugliness and anger. We need to find more images that give us hope.
For example, a number of years ago I asked a couple why they had decided to tithe their income to the church. They gave an interesting answer. They said, "We love the church, but more than that we decided to do this for ourselves. For years we had been listening to a voice that was telling us that we were not going to have enough money at retirement. But that voice was fear. We made a decision to tithe. Ever since that moment our abundance has increased and so has our happiness." Generous people are attractive because they are allowing what God gave them to show.
Recently, Lois and I were in Borders bookstore. I picked up a book from the sale bin and read an account from an adolescent psychologist who was writing about teenage sexuality. The author was making a case for abstaining from sexual intimacy until people are mature enough to handle the emotional consequences.
The author described an experience of a 17-year-old boy. His story was very revealing on a number of levels. This handsome young man said that having sex was the easiest thing in the world to do. He said, "I have found myself having sex with girls about whom I knew nothing. It was easier than trying to get to know them." The author went on to describe in the young man's own words what resulted from a decision he made. The young man said,
"An odd thing always happened the day after we had sex. Our relationship was strained and awkward for both of us. We both tried to pretend that nothing had changed, but with each girl, the relationship was never the same."
"Today at 23, I have chosen to work on me and my communication skills, rather than settling for the easiest thing in the world to do, have sex. I have learned that many relationships become trapped there and die a premature death. As a result of my decision, I have learned to value women in a way I never could before. During the process of my learning a wonderful thing happened, I discovered how to love.
All of us make mistakes while on the quest for understanding ourselves and our God who created the possibilities for all that we experience. Another of the differences among people, however, is that some of us make the same mistake over and over again, producing the same result. Others of us decide to conduct ourselves differently. We learned to listen to our emotions during our unhappy times and make different decisions. Almost immediately new attitudes of being begin to show.
Some of us may feel uncomfortable being around people who have had their lives turned upside down by Jesus Christ. We have listened to people describing with enormous enthusiasm, "Before I met the Lord, my life was completely out of control. Today, I stand before you as a born-again Christian." If we really listen to what "born-again" people are saying, their words are describing the same life changing experiences as the couple who discovered joy through their tithing, or the young man who discovered how to value relationships that grow in substance and depth.
We all make mistakes. The Good News is that making them is part of the process by which we grow. Is there anyone in here who has not stumbled? Is there anyone in here who did not stumble last week? Making mistakes will not produce happiness. But, we can always choose again. One of our sins is that we dwell on feelings of guilt. We use those feelings to define ourselves, a being that God is still in the process of fashioning. Who does not mess up? Messing up is one of the paths that leads to the discovery of and the use of qualities that we did not know we possessed.
Again, these qualities are useful not because they make us more loveable and acceptable in God's sight; they are useful because they help us to become more loving and peaceful men and women. Only by demonstrating what is reflected in The Beatitudes -- humility, mercy, peace and a pure heart -- will we allow what God gave us to show. When we can do that, life is worth celebrating. When we can do that we know that we have something we can give away. As long as we hold on to that vision, St. Matthew's will be attracting people for years and years. Why? Because what God gave us shows.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever patient God, so often we believe that we must forsake the ways of this world in order to experience a wholeness of spirit. Help us to understand that you did not ask us to do that. Instead, you gave us an invitation to bring the fruits of the spirit into every setting in which we live. Rather than asking us to sacrifice, your Son taught us to rise above pettiness and to bring the spirit of reconciliation to those caught in the passion of conflict. We thank you for giving us the power to bring comfort, acceptance and kindness into our relationships. May each new day begin with our renewed commitment to make choices that place the Kingdom of God in front of everyone we encounter. Lead us to understand that teaching by example is a sermon most people can understand. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever present God, what a joy it is to have so many aspects of life point the way for us so that life remains the adventure it was designed to be. You have placed us in a created order that teaches us and guides our growth. When we protest and give labels to people and events, we reveal the level of our own spiritual depth. When relationships challenge us and give us pain, we are being taught how to love in the midst of differences. And when we learn that the world will not conform to our wishes, we learn that Jesus found himself facing the same issue and triumphed anyway.
We thank you for Jesus and his ministry. He taught us the meaning of having the pearl of great price. He taught us what it felt like to own the treasure that was buried in the field. When we learn to stop wanting and begin giving, our entire world changes. Suddenly, O God, our purpose for living becomes more sharply focused. Our life takes on new meaning. And we learn how to use our spirit to make you visible through the many gifts you provided us.
Lord, we would ask that you continue to keep each of us sensitive to the mountains we have yet to climb, to the wounds we must allow to heal, to the opportunities that stand in our midst, and to the calling we have received to reflect your presence in all that we do. We pray these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .