"O Say, Can You See?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/4/1999

Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19

     Our short Gospel lesson this morning captures the essence of what could have easily come from today's newspaper. Jesus asked the question, "Now, to what can I compare the people of this day?" Jesus discussed how no one can make someone else happy. In fact, he went on to describe how people have no idea what they want or what form it should have when it arrives. We will look at his illustration of this a bit later.

     As we have discussed before, what creates our confusion and personal struggles has not changed throughout history. This morning, on the eve of our country's birthday, we are going to examine the nature of internal conflict we all experience. This happens to us when our desire to live as peaceful men and women is confronted by something we fear will disturb or take away that peace.

     For example, most of us have had some experience being in a community meeting where people were debating, arguing and screaming at each other over how to accomplish something most people want. Such meetings are amazing. For me, it has always been interesting to watch people in such a debate. People become so authentic and so vulnerable. Anger puts everyone on an even playing field.

     When we strongly express our hostile feelings, we are often reduced to our most common denominator. All educational levels are set aside. All personal achievements vaporize. All masks of sophistication or of being in control of ourselves are voluntarily removed. Everyone rolls up their sleeves to do battle and the issue can be something like where to place the proposed community swimming pool.

     In such a meeting one of the community's hired experts will say something like this, "Section B-16 is the perfect parcel of land for our project." Almost immediately a person will raise his hand to be recognized. He will say, "I live in that section and I don't want the traffic, noise and congestion that will be generated. People will be shooting basketball and playing shuffle board until 10:00 at night. Teenagers will be running their cars. If you feel so strongly about this, Harold, why don't we build this thing in your backyard! After a month of it, I'll bet you'll sing a different tune, particularly when the property values in your neighborhood begin to go South!"

     It was this sort of debate that took place just prior to people signing the Declaration of Independence, 223 years ago today. We saw highlights of this kind of interaction in both the House and Senate during the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. Of course, the Senate held its "measured debate" behind closed doors so that the spinmeisters could emerge from their sessions to place their honest and spirited deliberations into their proper context.

     In almost every angry debate, the issue is the same. We want to achieve the same goal, but we want that goal to be in a form that does not compromise something else that we want equally as much.

     When the debate raged over whether or not to sever ties with England, there were men who had contracts with the British shipping and manufacturing industries. Some of the signers of the Declaration stood to lose a great deal financially. Translated into a form we have active in our lives, their struggle was akin to today's legislators who are caught between the lucrative lobby of the National Rifle Association and the public's cry for more decisive gun legislation.

     In our lesson today, Jesus faced people who had no common understanding about what they wanted. He asked, "Now to what can I compare the people of this day?" His answer was interesting. He said, "When John the Baptist came, he fasted and drank no wine. Everyone said that he had a demon in him. When the Son of Man came, he ate and drank and everyone said, 'Look at this man! He is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts.'" When everyone has a favorite form that something must have, there can never be agreement. Again, does anyone have vision? Can anyone see?

     Jesus chose not to address their confusion. Instead, he told his listeners what was going to happen regardless of how they acted. Our lesson ends with these words, "God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results." In other words, regardless of what people think or how they choose to respond, God's will is proceeding anyway.

     If we participate in the program that was designed by God, our lives will produce spiritual fruit. When we tie our happiness to the form something must have, we will surrender qualities of the spirit. Always the choice is ours. We can be a participant in God's will or remain a person who is always reacting to experiences that we sift through the filters of our self-interest. This is the source of every struggle whether in marriage or in business management.

     Again, do we see correctly enough to know what we are advertising with our presence? Are we a judge and jury that fusses about every little ripple that appears on the surface of our pond, or are we more like a gigantic sponge that has learned how to absorb everything and anything without letting it disturb our peace? Think of the number of messes God can clean up when our lives are more like a sponge.

     Jesus once said, "For those who have, more will be given. For those who have little and do not use it, even that will be taken away." This statement is not cruel; it is the truth. This is how God's will works. Those who participate in it experience the results. When we insist on the form something must take, we have just given it power to determine the quality of our spirit.

     Today we celebrate Independence Day because the signers of the Declaration set self-interest aside. They faced conflict and chose to put America's freedom above all other things. Americans stood together in their choice of freedom over tyranny. Today, let us hope that we remain as clear on what we want for our lives as the signers did. Amen.


     Eternal God, how grateful we are to be among those whose task it is to carry the torch of freedom for the world. May we never forget that we influence each other through the spirit by which we live. We thank you, O God, that America has become known as the melting pot of all races, religions and cultures. Through our struggles together, we pray that we will not lose sight of our opportunity to show the world how diversity enriches all of us. Through our struggles together, may we remember Jesus' words, "I have come among you as one who serves." As new horizons continue to stimulate the pace by which we live, help us to remember to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Help us to remember that freedom offers us the opportunity to live peacefully. Enable us to guard that right for as long as we live. Amen.


     We thank you, God, for placing within us the desire to want freedom. We want choices. It has been our nature to want alternatives. While we could not choose the color of our skin, our gender, and our placement on the earth, we marvel at all the choices that we do have.

     Today we celebrate not only our understanding of freedom but also our experience of it. Even though some of us do not know how to use our freedom wisely, it is nevertheless there when we develop the courage to accept more responsibility for the destiny and quality of our lives.

     Today we are also grateful for those who have dedicated their lives to preserving freedom. We are grateful for the rules that are designed to give freedom form, direction and purpose. We thank you that even amid our diversity we still have many commonly shared values. And when we use what we have been given to provide a service for others, we share an abundance that would not have happened without all of us working together.

     We also thank you for the freedom each of us has to define and redefine ourselves everyday. In spite of our circumstances, we can be kind. We can choose not to hurt others. We can choose to be generous and forgiving in our spirits. We can become the presence that stills troubled lives simply by our showing up. As we ask for mercy from you, so may we offer such mercy to everyone whether they request it or not. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught his disciples to say when we pray . . .