"That Nagging Sense of Incompleteness"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 2/21/1999
Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
One day a mother took her two children for a walk around Allen Pond. The mother was strolling her 6-month-old daughter. Alongside of her was her three-year-old son. As they approached the activity area, they were greeted by a friend who obviously had not yet seen the new baby.
The woman looked into the stroller and said, "Oh, what a beautiful, sweet little girl." The friend asked the mother all the traditional questions of how much the baby weighed, was her husband there during delivery, and did it all go well? It was obvious that during this exchange, the three-year-old boy had become invisible. The two women were so engrossed in conversation that they were unaware he had feelings of being excluded. To get attention, he began to throw pebbles at the geese, causing his mother to stop her conversation in order to correct him.
Such innocent conversations between women with children occur all the time. What should concern us has nothing to do with how the women were conducting themselves. What should concern us is what we do to ourselves as children and much later as adults. The same mechanism plays regardless of our age. When we experience intentional exclusion, at that moment we forget everything else. We forget that we are cared for and loved. We forget that we have everything we need. The intensity of the moment causes us to forget all the awards hanging on our wall, all the trophies on our shelves, and all the wonderful, fulfilling relationships we have ever had. In the moment of our response, it is as if exclusion is all we know.
The problem is that such experiences do not end with childhood. We are reared in a society that places value on and rewards certain abilities, certain looks, certain academic achievements, and certain skills. Rather than being taught to love what we have, we have the tendency to see the grass as being greener on the other side of the fence.
For example, when curves begin to show only on some of the girls and when only some of the boys are able to sink 18-foot jump shots on the basketball court, the comparisons continue. The envy starts. Instead of enjoying what we have and who we are, we begin to think "I wish I had their ability. I wish I looked as good as she."
Some young people fear that they will never get on the stage because as yet, they do not have what others in their group seem to value. It is sad when we allow ourselves to be defined by our fears of incompleteness. We have a certain fondness for elevating the opinions and abilities of other people above our own. Why do we do this? Our eyes only see outward. We are not taught how to look inward, nor are we taught how to love, cultivate and express what we find there.
In our Genesis story God said to Adam, "You may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is evil. You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day." Adam and Eve had everything. But, their feeling of being excluded from something fanned the flames of their desire to have that fruit as well.
The story goes on, "Now the snake was the most cunning animal that the Lord God had made." The snake approached the woman and told her a different truth. Eve said to the snake, "God told us not to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden or even touch it; if we do, we will die."
The snake refuted what God had said, "That is not true; you will not die. God said that because God knows that when you eat it, you will be like God and know what is good and what is evil." Well, that temptation was more than they could stand. They wanted to be like God. They ate the fruit and discovered that the snake was correct. Not only did they not die, but to their thinking, they could now discern the differences between what is good and what is evil.
If God knew that Adam would not die, why did God tell him that he would? It is here that the writer of Genesis again shows his genius. The writer knew that God and the snake were both correct. Not only did the writer know about human behavior but he also knew that death has many forms.
How many people, for example, do we know who have buried their once enthusiastic spirits under layers of resentment, frustration and distraction because they believe they know the truth about some experience they believe damaged them? How many people spend their life-energies aspiring for financial security only to discover that enough is never enough? How many people die of boredom because they never learned how to break free of the comfortable, secure web of drudgery and routine they have spun for themselves? God was correct. When we forget our completeness, we die searching for something that was never really there. How can an orange be any more of an orange than it is? We should ask a similar question about ourselves.
We also discover that the snake was right. The snake understood that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of that particular tree, they would lose their self-awareness as they learned to value comparisons. Their lives would be governed by perception rather than by the knowledge of who they are. The snake knew that they would desire wealth honestly believing that it had value. The snake knew that they would judge each other as worthy or unworthy, lost or saved, thus blinding themselves to the magnificent creatures God created all of us to be.
What message was the Genesis story-teller trying to leave with us? Was the writer's message one that described the destruction of our relationship with God before it even got started? Or, was there more to his message? Think about it. God made the tree of knowledge. God made the snake. God allowed us to experience knowing. God gave us all the variables to do exactly what we did. For what purpose did God create such a possibility?
Beings who have the knowledge of good and evil can create whatever they desire. In fact, we create every day and may not be aware of it. For example, if we live as if we are damaged goods, than damaged goods is what we will be. If we are worried about not earning enough money, about our health, or about our children, then being a worrier is what we become. God does none of these things.
Think about the possibilities if we deliberately choose to create in the opposite manner. After all, how hard is it to be kind? How challenging is it to be honest? What kind of struggles do we have to endure before we smile? What kind of an up-hill climb is necessary to be accommodating to irritable people who are obviously having a terrible day? What kind of soul-searching do we have to experience for us to be generous? What kind of nail-biting episodes do we have to experience before we become authentic every day?
The truth is, in most instances, we can radiate such qualities without any struggle at all. All it takes is a desire to do so. We are not shaped by our circumstances. We create exactly who we want to be in all of them. God's creative process does not work any other way in spite of our beliefs to the contrary. God would never have made life difficult for us. Love would not do that. For thousands of years, it is we who have done that to ourselves through how we have chosen to create.
Think about this: What would happen to you if every day you thanked God for who we are. Suppose you decided that you would never again compare yourself to someone else? For snowflakes such comparisons would be useless and could serve no purpose. Every one of them is different. Incidentally, so are we.
Suppose you decided to celebrate life with a grateful spirit instead of one that worries? Suppose you decided to enjoy what you have instead of wishing that you had the gifts of someone else? When we learn to love and celebrate who God created us to be, we create opportunities for everyone else.
Let me give you some examples. There are people who are attending our church right now who have told me that the reason they came here is because of the friendly and courteous manner in which they were treated on the phone by one of the members of our staff. Without realizing it, a pleasant spirit opened the door to St. Matthew's for a number of newcomers to Bowie.
People who attend St. Matthew's have indicated how much they like our church because everyone is encouraged to think for themselves. We have learned to love each other and how to enjoy our differences. Not all church families can do that and still remain faithful to their more narrowly defined doctrines.
There are people who own small businesses in our community. They have people flocking to their shops because of the way customers are treated. The greatest advertisement in the world for any business is word-of-mouth by happy customers. Following Christ has little to do with going to church. It has everything to do with following him in whatever context we find ourselves.
Once upon a time Adam and Eve had everything. Jesus came here to teach us that so do we. When you are tempted by some nagging sense of incompleteness, teach yourself how to think again. Jesus came here to mend that fence. Jesus taught us that we can create. He sent us forth to create disciples and to create environments where people can feel included, accepted and loved. Why not decide to bring to every moment the highest and best creation of yourself that you can?
John Wesley once stated this same thought in a most unique way. He said, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." With that as your resolve, you will be amazed at all that God will do.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, loving God, for reminding us that you know each of our thoughts. Thank you for creating us so that our experiences have the ability to sharpen our skills for living. When we are tempted to desire what is not ours, we are being reminded of our lack of gratitude for what we have. When we are tempted to deceive others, we are being reminded of the insecurities we have about ourselves. When we are tempted to withhold our love, we are being reminded that what we are withholding is not love. When we cannot forgive, we are being reminded that our responses have consequences which will poison our world. Thank you for all the temptations that challenge our sense of completeness. Only when we know that we are your beloved sons and daughters will we succeed in making you visible through our lives. Amen.