"Is Equality A Myth?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/11/1999
Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
The conversation on equality has been an open-ended one throughout history, but our Declaration of Independence made a decision about it. Listen again to the second paragraph of that document, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal, that they were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Is this truth self-evident in our minds?
Throughout our lives, have we not been taught just the opposite? Not only were we taught that people are not equal, but we were also taught that if we settled for mere equality, we would be choosing to become like everyone else. Is equality a condition that cannot prove itself in human experience?
For example, we are not equal in our body types. We are not equal in our intellectual capacity. We are not equal in our artistic abilities. We are not equal in our motivational levels. We are not equal in our perceptions. We are not equal in our sense of organization. The list could go on and on. Where does equality among human beings enter our experience?
One of the ice-breakers I frequently use with people is to ask them questions. I ask, "How did you decide to become a nurse, a police officer, an architect, a truck driver, a CPA or a physician? As a child, what were the early signs that propelled you in that direction?" Almost always people tell me the most interesting stories about themselves. Those stories often provide the substance that I can use to keep the conversation going.
Some years ago I picked the brains of a brick mason. He was rebuilding a fireplace that was made improperly by the builder of one of our parsonages. He said that since his childhood, he was playing with blocks and building things. As he grew older he decided that he would lay brick. He loved it so much that laying brick became more than a vocation; it became a way of life.
He studied it. He learned from the master bricklayers. He watched how they mixed their mortar and which consistencies were the best for the various projects. He paid attention to every detail of his craft. Then he said, "I wanted to learn how to lay brick faster and better than anyone else in my trade." His story was a fascinating mix of his skill and the spirit behind that skill's application.
In one sense Butch was equal to everyone else. In another sense, his spirit motivated him to know that there were no limits to what he could do. According to Butch, he greeted each new challenge with an eagerness to learn new designs desired by customers and to do things with brick that other masons had not taken the time to learn.
When we look at equality this way, Jesus' teachings become more clear. The parable of the sower could be applied to every vocation. When Jesus interpreted the meaning of the parable, was he describing the inequality of people? Yes, he was, but he went further. He was teaching that we manage our spiritual growth in much the same manner that we manage the rest of life, i.e., we focus on what interests us. He said it this way, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Jesus' parable placed people into four categories: (1) Those who hear the message and do not understand it. (2) Those who hear the message gladly, but as soon as life becomes challenging they abandon it. (3) Those who hear the message, but their fears about life and their need to surround themselves with symbols of security prevent them from bearing fruit. (4) Those who hear and understand the message will bear fruit. Notice that even in his fourth category, Jesus discriminates further. "Some people," he said, "will produce one hundred fold, others sixty and others thirty."
Is equality a myth? In all four of Jesus' categories each begins with the phrase, "Those who hear the message. . ." What causes us to divide ourselves is what we do with the message we have heard. There is equality up to the point where each of us must assume responsibility for making that message visible in our lives. Those who can do that will bear fruit. We first have to have something before we can give it away.
Those of us who work with computers know how frustrating it is when ours goes on the blink. One day a company's computer shut down leaving the dependent employees stranded. No one could locate the trouble. They brought in a computer specialist. When she arrived and noticed the brand of the computer, she opened her briefcase, took out a small mallet and tapped the side of the unit. In no time, their business was back in operation.
At the end of the week, the invoice arrived in the amount of $500. The office manager was outraged and called to complain. The technician promised to modify the bill and would stop by their shop later in the afternoon. When she came, the office manager complained again. "All you did," he said, "was tap the computer with your mallet. It must have taken you all of two minutes." The technician took the bill and revised it in the following manner: "Tapping computer $1.00. Knowing where to tap: $499."
The same is true in our living patterns. Transcending the agitations and frustrations of life is all in the knowing how to do it. It does not matter how brilliant you are, how wealthy you are, how much power you have, or even how much Scripture you can quote, if you do not have the ability to show compassion toward your enemies, your neighbors and your colleagues -- Jesus' message has escaped you.
The same is true throughout our experience. If you are one of those who becomes angry in a moment's notice and have not learned how to control yourself -- the message has escaped you. If you are one of those who is stubborn and you have to be right all the time -- the message has escaped you. If you are one of those who is always looking for flaws and weaknesses in others, you will find exactly what you are looking for. How can anyone's seed bear the fruit of loving attitudes when it has been so programmed to communicate differently?
Furthermore, the world and the universe does not care what we do with Jesus' message. The consequences will speak for themselves. When our faith motivates us to do what he taught, we will bear the fruit. Thus, there will always be inequality among people as long as we have a choice in the matter.
Jesus came among us not to be worshiped as some people enjoy doing; he came here to teach us how to become more loving and happy men and women. If people have another method for achieving that, God is very patient and will gladly say, "Try your way and see if it brings you the peace, joy and the fulfillment that you desire. See if your way lifts your spirits when your circumstances become frustrating. Remember, apart from me, you will imagine yourself as a branch that has become detached from the tree."
Our world trains us to be in a tug-of-war for most of our lives. It teaches about success and defines it as winning, accumulating, and acquiring. It teaches us about achievement and defines that as having more than someone else. It teaches us about performance which is frequently defined as competition as we work ourselves up some corporate ladder.
All these qualities are part of our culture's educational heritage and there is nothing wrong with them. We owe much of our country's vitality and economic prosperity to people who strive in such a fashion. But when such things become the principal motivators of life, they will keep us operating at a much lower level.
Let me illustrate this with something that recently struck at the heart of one of St. Matthew's mission projects. Many of you were here on the Sunday when I mentioned how Toyota Credit came on to our church grounds under the cover of darkness and impounded the car of the client we house in the church's shelter. Our client had missed three payments when she was not working.
Immediately we got on the telephone with Toyota Credit and they were not sympathetic to what we were trying to do. They wanted her car and they got it. These employees were only doing their jobs. They deal with irresponsible people everyday, so we do appreciate their side of it.
Toyota sent the car to the auction. The company intended to get whatever money they could for the car, leaving our client to pay the balance of what was still owed. Had that occurred, it would have forced her to declare bankruptcy. And without transportation, she undoubtedly would have lost her job.
To make a long story short, we got that car back and she is driving it today. What is interesting is the number of people whose lives have been touched by our efforts. One of them is our client who cannot believe the lengths to which our people went to get back her car.
The second person was a member of our congregation who was here when I mentioned about the car being repossessed. He thought about her situation and realized how hopeless people can become when circumstances bury them and they cannot get up without support from other people. This Monday, I opened a letter where among other things he discussed his blessings. He enclosed a check for $2,000 to help her.
The third was a group of people. Some of them are the employees of Toyota Credit who got the message that we cared about this woman. There was the young fellow at the auction who helped us, even when initially no paper work had arrived from Toyota that released the car. And there were the people inside of Darcar's Toyota who were all cheering when our mission was accomplished. They were the ones who quite literally helped us do the impossible.
When people become committed to compassionate living, they become changed people. There are no charts that can accurately measure this living pattern. Jesus left no checklist behind that had anything to do with corner offices, salary levels, Ph.Ds., expensive homes, benefit packages, stock options or maintaining our physical attractiveness. All such tangibles become meaningless in time, even though some of us may die still clinging to them as if they had value.
A simple carpenter left us with a message that a child could understand. He said, "I have come among you as one who serves." This should help us ask ourselves some very straight forward questions, "Do I have the inner resources to take the high road when I feel betrayed, disappointed, and undervalued? Can I focus my love in the direction of those who may not have learned how to return it? Can I continue being creative even while living among those who cannot perceive, appreciate or understand it?
To each of those questions God can answer, "Yes" even though God experiences such things from us every day. What God knows is that each of us are made from the same spiritual essence as God. We were created in God's image. And God inspired Jesus to teach us how we can say "Yes" to those same questions. When we make Jesus' message visible, we cannot help but bear fruit.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
O God, whose nature it is to open doors to our understanding, may our church family continue to remain the garden that allows who we are to spring forth. May there be sufficient challenges here to make us think. May there remain opportunities for us to be of service. May our acceptance of each other blur the lines between those of us who know you and those who are learning to know you. Enable all of us to lead each other by example. Encourage us to become blind to those qualities that appear to make us different. Motivate us to stretch in our awareness so that our community of faith remains faithful to its calling. When we stumble and fears influence our judgments, surround us with gentle spirits whose presence inspire us to get up again. With confidence, we come to you with these desires, knowing that your spirit can make them happen in our midst. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever-faithful God, we thank you for these moments together. When we are attentive in worship, how often we have been made aware of the distance we have come in our faith journey. There was a day when we crawled as caterpillars, never realizing that the day would come when we could fly. There was a day when we pouted and became skilled at holding onto resentments, never believing that a day would come when we could carry ourselves with the patience of Job. There was a day when fear was around the edges of every experience, and we could not imagine a day when we would stand in total confidence that we can face everything without being afraid.
We thank you that you sent Jesus into our midst to teach us that all such things are possible because that is how you made us. We thank you that when your spirit awakens within us, we can find freedom from our cocoons, we can have patience, we can transcend all our fears and still have plenty of energy left to encourage others who have not yet discovered the truth in his message.
As we enjoy our experiences here in this world, lead us to continue teaching others by example. Lead us to encourage others with our words and support. May we make visible in our own lives the words Jesus used to describe himself, "I have come among you as one who serves."
May no day ever pass when we have not paused long enough to help someone on their way with our smile, with a generous and gracious spirit, and with a word that lets them know how special they are. There is so much, O God, that keeps us separated from each other. Help us not to miss a single moment to display what you designed all of us to be. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .