"Do We Need A Leader?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/16/1999
Psalm 68:1-10; Acts 1:6-14
This same question dominated life among the disciples following Jesus' death. It was not just fear that swept over them. They were thinking, "Jesus was the one who told us what to do. Our lives found meaning because of his preaching, teaching and healing. Who are we without him?" No longer were the disciples in competition among themselves over who was the greatest; they were forced to think about who they would be without their leader.
Perhaps the crowning moment of uncertainty was captured by Luke, the author of the Book of Acts. This recorded moment would represent the last time the disciples would see Jesus in his physical form. Our passage reads, "After saying this, Jesus was taken up to heaven as they watched him and a cloud hid him from their sight."
Imagine the lumps in their throats. Imagine how they felt when the centerpiece of their lives was now leaving them alone. What they experienced was not abandonment, it was aloneness. This was a defining moment for the disciples. Could they rise to the occasion? Could they perform as well in the absence of Jesus' physical presence?
When we consider our lives, each of us has had similar moments. For example, to this day I can remember the moment my father let go of the back of my bicycle and I road my bike out of the driveway into our side street without his assistance. I remember the first time I drove the family car at the age of 16 without anyone to say, "You are traveling too fast on that turn. Don't drift through stop signs." The days of having a teacher were over.
How many of us recall our high school graduation? There were the family gatherings, the parties, and the emotions of realizing, "I am never going to be with all my friends ever again." The greatest impact of receiving that diploma, however, was not experienced until two and a half months later. We either entered the job market or left home for more education.
I recall hugging my parents and watching their car until it was out of sight. They had just delivered me to Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where I would spend the next four years of my life. It was then that I realized that life would never be the same again. I found myself in a world of strangers with no leader to consult, no day-to-day person to provide for me.
When Lois and I stood at the altar in Cheverly United Methodist Church that was a time of uncertainty. Marriage would not be like moving in with my brother and sisters. The leadership from our parents in its familiar form was gone. What had been done for us was now in our hands. Without all of these periods of uncertainty people would never become launched into the greatest adventure of all -- life.
As we return to the disciples, try to imagine them standing there filled with identity issues as they bid farewell to the one who had made sense of their last three years. Our lesson records what happened. "They still had their eyes fixed on the sky as he went away, when two beings radiating light suddenly stood beside them and said, "Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?"
How easy it is to do all the correct things when someone wiser is guiding us. We seem hungry and thirsty for physical guides, for material markers, for rules and laws. But whether we like it or not God's plan carries us onto life's stage even though we are convinced that we do not know our lines nor can we imagine initially what the drama is designed to do. In our ignorance, we frequently make mistakes. Our judgment is maturing as we grow.
How many marriages, for example, are entered into with the belief that our wholeness, economic security and personal growth rests on the mate? In truth, we will never achieve wholeness when we believe such qualities must come from an external source. There is a tendency to become resentful, dissatisfied, or aloof when our partner cannot live up to all that we want them to be. When we want our spouse to be our provider, we become like a sponge that wants only to absorb from the other. Marriage was never intended by God to be our crutch.
The same is true in our profession. Many people have expectations of their work environment. They want the people there to give them power, and to provide opportunities for their upward mobility. When their expectations are not met and their world will not conform to their wishes, they have a choice to make. Again, in both of these areas of life, we can hear the words spoken to the disciples, "Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?"
Jesus knew that he could not always be with them. He knew that he was sending them into a world where values would clash and where the priorities of people would be based on the prizes of the external world. Without a leader, upon whom would the disciples rely to guide them? Who would inspire and lead them when they would remain surrounded by all the alluring symbols of the external world?
In our lesson today Jesus said this, "When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jesus told them that they should not expect a leader in a physical form to guide them. What will guide them will be internal. What will guide them will be something they cannot see or know with their senses.
Next week is Pentecost, a dramatic time of discovery when the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit in their consciousness. Was the Spirit something never before experienced by anyone? The Pentecost experience could be interpreted in this manner, but clearly the Holy Spirit has been active throughout Biblical history.
One of the reasons the coming of the Spirit was so dramatic was that the disciples had to make the transition from following the external figure of Jesus to following an internal Spirit that they had never been trained to experience. There had been no need. As long as Jesus was with them, there had not been the occasion for an unseen Spirit to guide them. The same transition is necessary for many of us who remain convinced that we need our external props.
Everyday we need to be reminded of the need for this transition. How many times when we feel lost, have we looked to the external world for our salvation? Some of us want to be rescued. We want the right relationship. We want the craziness in our world to end. We want the right medication to stabilize our emotions, help us lose weight, or improve the quality of our mind.
It seems easier to take Ginkgo Biloba to improve our minds than to turn off the television or computer and read a substantive book. We begin our litany by thinking, "If only I had a different supervisor, a more adventurous spouse, or a larger amount in my bank account." We need someone to say, "Why are you standing there looking at such things? They cannot save you!" The transfer of power from the external to the internal is not easy. Yet how curious that we experience the internal, invisible Spirit all the time without giving it much thought.
For example, how many of us have ever seen happiness? Has anyone been able to observe forgiveness? How many of us have caught a glimpse of peace? Does anyone know what generosity looks like? Have we observed caring, support, hope, or perseverance? The reason that we fail to see such things is that they do not exist in the external world. Such qualities belong only to the realm of Spirit. What we believe we see, are the results that come from people whose lives are guided by Spirit. All of life appears designed to teach us this lesson.
A number of years ago, Lois and I took a group of senior high students into the Shenandoah Valley. It was a backpacking expedition which included rock climbing and repelling. We had hired a company which furnished skilled mountaineers to guide us through certain phases of this adventure. The only young people in our group with any outdoor skills were the nine Scouts who were part of our group.
Some of the kids became unnerved when they reached the point of actually backing off a 150 foot cliff and repelling down the rock face. Their legs became like jelly. Some were crying and hyperventilating. But to their credit, everyone of them insisted on following through and going over the edge. The experience definitely pushed the kids through and beyond their known limits.
Around the campfire that night, the kids talked about the discussion they had with themselves in order to conquer their uncertainty and fear. The words they used to describe what held them together during their experiences had to do with Spirit. They used such words as courage, trust in their equipment, acceptance of whatever might happen to them, and desire to conquer their fears. All these qualities must arise from within where God placed them at our birth. They do not exist in the external world.
As long as we have something external to depend upon, our tendency is to trust it for our well being. When the props are suddenly taken away, that is when all our fears dance in front of us. We need someone to say, "Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?" It was as if these beings of light were saying: "Remember what Jesus said, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will anyone say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There it is!' for I tell you, the kingdom of God is within you.'"
Do we need a leader? Absolutely! However, we need to find it in a much different place than where most of us tend to look. Many people cannot grasp placing their confidence and trust in something they cannot sense. Yet most of us have done that all our lives. Imagine what kind of beings would we be like today had we learned the power of Spirit before anything else captured our imagination.
Whether it was when we learned to ride a bike or drive a car, cope when we were alone for the first time, walk down the aisle with someone we love, or surrender our privileges and identity associated with the work place at our retirement, or survive with confidence when a spouse dies, we have all relied on the Spirit. Nothing external to ourselves can do for us what we must learn to do by navigating with the Spirit. Jesus knew this. Jesus knew the disciples would find the Spirit.
Each of us needs to answer the question -- "Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?" Some time during our lives we need to make the switch from relying on the externals which appear to dominate everything we do, to relying on the Spirit which contains the authentic power for living. The question is, can we let go of our external props and let God guide us? The answer is "yes."
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments when we can allow ourselves to set aside our schedules, obligations, and responsibilities. Thank you for this opportunity to allow our uncertainties, our fearful thinking and our regrets to melt into the sands of your love. Enable us to rise from worship refreshed, enabling us to begin our week knowing that our slate is clean. Heal our painful memories, enable us to see our circumstances as opportunities, and inspire our minds so that we may stand forth as the people you created us to be. Teach us that when kindness is in our hearts and forgiveness is a constant desire in all relationships, our spirits will be filled with peace. Help us remain guardians of our thoughts, so that our minds are filled with what inspires creativity and healing. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How often, O God, gratitude fills us to overflowing when we are surprised by your presence in ways we could not have anticipated. We pride ourselves on the control we have over our lives, yet we cannot manage or determine the beauty of a cardinal, or the magnificence of an azalea, or the gift of friendship that is freely given to us from someone else. We cannot control the ears that listen patiently to our thoughts, or the words of acceptance and assurance that we receive from a love which remains invisible. All we can ever see, O God, are the results when someone cares.
We thank you for the times when we have surrendered our need to control some outcome only to discover that what happened was so much better than what we had planned. We thank you for the times when we have faced our fears and decided to stand forth with trust and faith. How often we forget that faith is a decision we make and not an adjective we use to describe our family of beliefs.
Thank you, God, for leading us closer and closer to relying on our inner world of spirit rather than on the external world where idols are all around us. We sense the tension between all the objects which awaken our desires to possess and the gifts of the spirit which truly bless us. Teach us the true source of all power. Teach us where to look when values clash in our world. Teach us who the student is when anger, resentment and frustration have become the frame into which we have placed people and events. Teach us how to surrender such responses so that we might experience peace. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .