"The Peace Of A Healed Spirit"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/15/1999
Matthew 15, 21-28, Genesis 45:1-15
At last Joseph could no longer remain in control of his emotions. He had pretended in front of his brothers long enough. He dismissed his servants, then burst into tears, voicing loud sobs that were heard by the Egyptians. Joseph's brothers had to be both confused and terrified by such an awkward outburst.
Joseph said three words that must have sent shock waves through his brothers. He said in Hebrew, "I am Joseph." Imagine yourself standing there and hearing those words. Imagine carrying some horrible secret deed for 25 years and suddenly having it surface in this fashion.
Joseph quickly added, "Do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me to the traders who carried me into Egypt. It was really God who sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way and to make sure that you and your descendants survive. So, it was not really you who sent me, but God."
This morning we are going to examine the result of adopting for ourselves Joseph's understanding of how life works. Joseph could say these words to his brothers because he had developed a way of thinking that was unique. In fact, Joseph did not have to forgive them because he had not been offended by what they did. Joseph understood that everything that happened to him had a purpose. All he wanted to be was God's representative in all his experiences.
Think about this: How would we have responded differently to events in our past had we possessed this understanding? There would have been no "Who's right and Who's wrong." There would have been no demand for justice. There would have been no holding onto long term resentments. There would have been no emotional spiraling because we did not succeed at something. There would have been no disappointment because others did not respond in a way that we wanted. Think of what we would have been spared had we each possessed this pearl of great price.
We might believe that Joseph was engaging in denial, wishful thinking, or passivity. Was he? How is a diamond made in nature? A piece of carbon is put under intense pressure and heat for thousands of years in order to produce the crystal. Wood is made smooth by the grinding of sandpaper. A magnificent marble angel is fashioned by the hammer and chisel of the master craftsman. Are we any different?
As we have heard before, no experience has value until we give it one. Joseph looked at all of his experiences as helping the angel to become liberated from the piece of marble that held it prisoner. Why give meaning to an experience before we see the opportunity we are being given to make love visible? Even being emotionally slammed into a brick wall can sometimes provide us with a better idea.
For example, one day a very humble couple went to see the President of Harvard University. The President's secretary took one look at their threadbare clothing while noting that they had no appointment. She said, "The President will be busy all day." They said, "Oh, we are in no hurry. We will wait." They sat in the outer office for most of the morning. It became very clear that they were not going to leave, so she advised the President that it might be best for everyone if he took a few minutes to see them.
As the President ushered them into his office, he once again repeated to them how busy he was. The couple proceeded to tell him that their son had attended Harvard for one year and loved his experience. They explained how he had been accidentally killed during the summer months. The woman said, "My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him somewhere on the campus." The President was not touched by the story; he was shocked by her request.
The President responded, "We have had a lot of people who have attended Harvard. Many of them have died, and it would be quite impossible to erect monuments to all of them. The place would look like a grave yard." She quickly responded, "Oh, we don't want to erect a statue; we thought we would like to give a building to Harvard."
He looked at her gingham dress and the homespun suit of her husband and exclaimed, "A building? Do you know how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars invested in the physical plant here at Harvard." For a moment the lady was silent. The President was pleased that he could bring some reality to their thinking.
The woman turned to her husband and said quietly, "Is that all it costs to start a university? Why don't we start our own?" With that information, Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford left the President's office thanking him for his information and time. They went home to Palo Alto, California, and built Stanford University in memory of their son.
The couple had not experienced rejection by the President of Harvard. They could have, but they were sincerely looking for a place to donate millions of dollars and they got their answer. There was no hostility, no resentment about how they were treated. In fact, they were most appreciative for the way he had directed their thinking. Without his knowing it, he had inspired them to do more than donate a building; he had unwittingly inspired them to build an entire university. What we receive from our experience comes from our interpretation of it. When we know God is in charge, how can hostility or disappointment ever come? At most, all we need to do is adjust and move forward.
The shift in our thinking needs to come at the point where we no longer take every unwanted experience so personally. Since God is in charge of everything, we can be guided by rejection as effectively as we can by affirmation. Who could ever be hurt by a rejection to a job application if the person receiving it genuinely believed that he or she was being guided to some other place?
We should not complain about any vehicle that gets us to where we need to be. Such change agents come in many forms, i.e., marriages that dissolve, jobs that do not work, and every unanticipated event that changes the direction of our lives. For example, when a spouse dies, we may feel as if it is the end of the world, but such a change might also signal that the most important part of our lives still lies ahead. No one can accurately criticize the methods of a script writer until the end of the play.
If anyone thinks that Joseph was naive, can any of us think of a better way to understand life? Think about it. Would it have been better had Joseph clamored for justice? Would it have been better for him to pray to God for deliverance? Deliverance from what, his own attitudes and thoughts about what was happening? Would he have lived a better life had he smoldered all those years waiting for the right opportunity to strike back at his brothers?
If we have ever wondered why the lives of so many people do not work, the Joseph story holds the answer. Every day the newspapers are filled with stories about people responding with anger to almost anything that upsets them. Why are so many people ignorant about how diamonds are made? Everyone wants to be unique, a one-of-a-kind diamond, but few people are enthusiastic about experiencing personally what is required to make one. Joseph knew how to move through every event of life peacefully and confidently. Living what he knew was his gift to the world.
No other kind of spirit would have motivated Joseph to say, "You can live in the region of Goshen, where you can be near me. If you live in Goshen, I can take care of you. There will be five more years of famine, and I do not want you, your families, and your livestock to starve." Such words would never have come from a spirit that was still at war with the past, or angry at what God had allowed to happen. All Joseph ever wanted to do was represent God. Perhaps it was Joseph who would encourage and inspire a young carpenter in Nazareth many years later.
When we live with the peace of a healed spirit, it cannot help but influence others. However, if we are touchy, if we are easily upset, if we cannot let go of the careless, unguarded words others have spoken to us, we stand on the stage of life announcing to God and the universe exactly who we are. We all know the impact on others when we give mixed signals.
Billy Graham once told a story about himself. Very early in his career he arrived in a city to do a series of sermons in one of the local churches. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the location was of the nearest post office. The young man gave Billy careful directions. Not wishing to miss an opportunity to witness to the boy Billy said, "If you will come to the Baptist church this evening, you will hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven." The boy thought for a minute and said, "Thank you, but I don't think I'll be there. You don't even know your way to the post office."
I suspect the same could be said about many of us. If we are not totally convinced in the trustworthiness of God's process for growth, who else will we convince? The reason Joseph was so successful even as a prisoner was that in spite of what was happening, he never abandoned his desire to represent God. This one idea can take the sting out of any potentially disappointing circumstance. Joseph lived his life totally convinced that everything had purpose and would cause him to develop the necessary skills to fulfill some future need for who he would become.
It takes faith to walk confidently into the future when you are diagnosed with childhood diabetes, or you receive a failure notice in math, or you feel awkward with your friends when you tell them you are not interested in smoking or drinking. The walk of faith always begins early in life. Joseph was seventeen when his drama started to unfold. Remember, we become upset by our interpretation of an experience, not the event itself.
What would our life experience be like if we assumed that everything that happened was sent to us directly by God as transportation to the place where our kind is most needed? Think of the failures that could open doors we never knew were there. Think of the broken relationships that might lead us to discover someone who knows something about love. Think of how a young boy sold into slavery could eventually grow up to command all of Egypt. Who would have thought it?
God's ways do appear mysterious to us. What is it that God is doing with your life right now? And if you follow peacefully and confidently, where might such an understanding toward life take you? Whose life might you influence? The adventure is exciting when we stop seeing every inconvenience, every major change, and every shut door as our enemy. They are not! There is much we can become when we remain convinced that God is our partner, teacher and friend.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments together. Thank you for creating our minds so that they can stretch with new insights. Thank you for giving us spirits that can grow in depth and power. In your wisdom, you gave us the ability to heal. By asking for more trust, you challenge us to lay our frustrations and discouragements at your feet. You have equipped us to develop a faith that inspires good health and enables us to interpret life more wholesomely. You have made us aware that with you there is nothing that we cannot accomplish together. Help us, O God, to give away to others all that we seek from you. In so doing, may our spirits become more generous and eager to reflect your nature in every circumstance. We pray these thoughts through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for the fragile moments of life that teach us that we do not have all the answers. Thank you for the challenges that make us stretch beyond our known capabilities. Thank you for the times when all our symbols of security dissolve around us and once again, our thoughts must find peace in the unfolding of the unexpected.
Why is it, O God, that we so quickly respond with frustration when our desires and hopes are being sculptured by other hands? Why is it that we find detours so unattractive? Why is it that so often we conclude that something is a waste of our time? Where are we going? And what is it that is more important than reflecting you in everything we do, in all the places we visit, and in the midst of all the experiences that we have?
As we reflect on our lives thus far, who could have known ahead of time the jobs we have, the partner with whom we enjoy a relationship, the children born to us whose personalities were completely unknown? What an adventure life has been! We confess it has been an adventure because of hindsight, because of looking back and seeing how each piece interestingly fits into all others. As we anticipate our future, help each of us to stand forth with faith, knowing that all of our tomorrows will have pieces that fit neatly together equally as well. May we radiate such confidence by accepting every moment as our opportunity to mirror your nature to an audience of onlookers we may never know. Jesus taught us that as well as how to pray when we say . . .