"We Grow When Others Grow"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/19/1999
Psalm 105:12-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30
In one of our lessons this morning, Paul was writing to the church at Philippi from a prison cell. During this time Paul may have felt that his active life on earth was over. He was struggling with two thoughts, either to exit this world and be united with Christ, or to stay here in order to make the Kingdom of God more visible and concrete for others. Paul described his mixed feelings this way, "I am pulled in two directions. I want very much to leave this life, but for your sake it is much more important that I remain alive." This morning we are going to consider how Paul's struggle is much like our own.
Most of us face the same tug of war every week. The only difference between our struggle and Paul's is the form such tension takes. Everyone knows that our world hungers for leadership and direction. But it may escape us that each of us must be that leader. It may escape us that each of us must set the example. It is we who must inspire others. Our tendency is to look for leadership and inspiration elsewhere, believing that we need to find it as much as anyone else. This is not how the Kingdom of God works. Jesus did not send us forth to find anything. He sent us forth to be the leaven for the entire loaf. We can do that in any time and at any age.
There is something about being useful that motivates us to get out of bed in the morning. There is something that makes us feel wonderful when we are exhausted by doing something worthwhile. My mother used to call that "a good tired-feeling." A big project has been completed to our complete satisfaction. Someone has expressed their deepest appreciation for something we have done for them. There is nothing more fulfilling than sensing that you have helped the world become a better place. But such thoughts come only after we have done something.
Have you noticed today how retirement from a job can often be just another day in our lives. We define retirement quite differently than we have in the past. Often the very next day, we report to the same company or agency only now as a contractor or a consultant. People are working beyond the age of 65, which today is considered to be the high-end of being middle-aged. We have one man in our church family who has retired three times.
Try to imagine what life would be like if we intentionally removed ourselves from the mainstream of living. Let us say that we try to convince ourselves that we have done our share. We believe it is time for others to replace us. We are tired. We want to putter around the house or sit in front of our television sets and channel surf. In essence, we are selecting to become part of the sidelines. Life for us is no longer a contact sport. We are choosing to abandon what it means to be alive.
What happens to us when such a choice is made? When we stop giving to life, it should come as no surprise that life stops giving to us. When we stop our involvement, our world becomes smaller, our friendships dwindle, and our isolation increases. This happens for young and older people alike. What Paul was struggling with was whether to be with Christ in Heaven or continue striving to make the world a better place. Which is more worthwhile? Paul discovered the answer. He decided to stay and teach.
The Prince George's County Board of Education found itself this Summer needing 700 classroom teachers. The Board had to move swiftly in its recruitment to achieve the quota needed. They pursued a good idea; they recruited teachers from the ranks of those who had most recently retired. The School Board gave them a financial package that included keeping their current pension program intact plus providing them with excellent salaries. Many of them said, "Yes." Was it the money? For some, "Yes." But I have to believe that for many, it was the passion of teaching, of sowing seeds in the lives of young students, and of taking advantage of a great opportunity to continue being useful to others.
I was walking through the narthex one evening during Bible School. One of our retired women was telling a story to her students seated all around her. I paused to listen and watch. It was magical. The entire narthex had been transformed and supercharged with the imagery of her story. No child's eyes wandered even for a moment. As we give, so we receive. Is anyone too old or too inexperienced to tell a story to a child? If you believe you are, think again. Any of you could work in our nursery during church services or work with our youth fellowships, but will you do it?
Once Paul made his decision to stay in this world, he said this, "I will stay with you, in order to add to your progress and joy in the faith." To add to someone's progress and joy -- what higher calling could there be? And we can perform that role in spite of what else we may be doing vocationally to pay for the mortgage.
For example, once there were two cancer specialists discussing why their patients had such differing results. The one said, "Bob, I just don't understand it. We use the same drugs, the same dosage, and the same schedule of treatment. Yet I get a 22 percent recovery rate and you get a 74 percent. How do you explain that?"
The other doctor responded. "We both use Etoposide, Platinol, Oncovin, and Hydrozyurea. You put those letters together and tell your patients that you are giving them EPOH. I put those same letters together and explain that they are receiving HOPE. Further, I emphasize that they have an excellent chance of surviving. One of the differences I see is that I remain their advocate while you only prescribe and monitor their treatment."
It does not matter what we do. All of us can bring a healing spirit into that setting. All of us can be a source of hope for others. All of us have the ability to take risks in order to go places and do things we have never done before. All of us are capable of going way beyond where we are now. Yet many of us will not put one foot in front of the other to accomplish that. Why? Most of us have to confess that we do not know. That mystery is probably behind the saying, "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink."
Jim Rohn once wrote, "Motivation is a mystery. Why does one salesperson see his first prospect at seven in the morning while another salesperson is just getting out of bed at eleven? I don't know. It's part of the mysteries of life."
"Give a lecture to a thousand people. One walks out and says, 'I'm going to change my life.' Another one walks out with a yawn and says, 'I've heard all this before.'Why is that? Why wouldn't both be affected the same way? Another mystery."
"The millionaire says to a thousand people, 'I read this book and it started me on the road to wealth.' Guess how many go out and get the book? Very few. Isn't that incredible? Why wouldn't everyone get the book? A mystery of life."
One of the great mysteries of life is that we have to give to receive, and we have to do something to experience satisfaction. In order for us to grow we have to help others grow. What motivated Paul to go on three major excursions in the Mediterranean world was his passion for wanting everyone to know that the teachings of Jesus Christ work.
Have you ever noticed that many of the people who are despairing in life are those who are waiting to be rescued? They are the ones who buy lottery tickets just hoping beyond hope that their numbers will bring them financial security. They are the ones who write personal want ads hoping beyond hope that the perfect mate will respond. They are the ones who travel to different churches each week hoping to find one that will truly meet their needs.
When people are trying to meet their own needs, they are longing for something to come to them, happen to them, or be there for them. That is not how God's will works. We only grow by enabling others to grow. We only discover meaning and purpose by doing something for someone else. Satisfaction and fulfillment are the results when we leave the sidelines and become involved. Paul chose helping others as opposed to being with Jesus. His choice should encourage us to think about what we are doing.
This week most of us have had plenty of opportunity to extend ourselves. Neighbors with chain saws have been busy cutting up the fallen trees of their neighbors. People have been sharing freezer space with others who have lost their electricity. Entire communities have pulled together to assist one another. It's fun but it also allows us to make love visible on a very practical level.
Yet in spite of all the opportunities to be useful, we will still find people looking out their windows and saying, "When is BGE going to restore our power? I'm sick of this! When is the City of Bowie going to clean up this mess in my front yard? That is their tree, not mine!" J. C. Penney once said, "Give me a stock clerk with a goal, and I will give you a person who will make history. Give me a person without a goal, and I will give you a stock clerk." Paul chose wisely. If opportunity does not knock, then build a door. Do something today to make the world a better place.
The message of Jesus Christ is not just a passport for personal salvation as so many believe. It is an invitation for involvement. It is a message that says that the more people we heal, the more healed we become. It is a message that instructs us to give feet and hands to what we pray for. Try giving away the very things you want the most. And why not? It always comes back a hundred times. If you do not believe that, try tithing your gross earnings for one year and see what happens. We only grow when we help others to grow and that means by giving away what we value.
Remember the dilemma of Paul. Our lesson began with this question, "What is life?" Paul answered his own question, "To me, it is Christ. Death, then, will be more meaningful to me. But if by continuing to live, I can do more worthwhile work, then I am not sure which I should choose. I am pulled in two directions." After struggling with his thoughts, Paul made his decision to stay and remain useful.
It is easy to choose death. Many of us do that everyday with our inactivity. It has been said that what does not grow has no life. Paul resolved his struggle by deciding on life. He said, "I will stay on with you, to add to your progress and joy in the faith."
Are we prepared to stretch beyond our comfort levels? Are we ready to assume the responsibility for being the light Jesus invited us to be? We cannot do that in the privacy of our homes, in our church or in a study group. Those are the places we use to stoke our spiritual furnaces. We can only be a light by being involved with others. Paul discovered that we only grow when others grow. And he passed that legacy on to us. Today and tomorrow look for your opportunity to remain involved. When you do, God will be right there to assist.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for using these moments of worship for helping us to gain insight into our lives. You help us focus on our intentions rather than on our desires. You help us focus on our purpose rather than on specific outcomes. You inspire us to look for solutions rather than our need to be right. You call us to use our inner tools for living rather than aspiring to live up to the expectations of others. You have created us to step out on faith, to take risks, and to be proactive in our caring for others. You encourage us to mirror innocence, character and integrity even though others may question our intentions. You have asked that we not judge others, which is among the most challenging things we have to do. Speak to us this day, that we might lay aside our interpretations of life that cause us to create barriers. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
This week has been another adventure in living, O God, and a wonderful opportunity for us to be appreciative of so much that we take for granted every day. We are grateful that you created us to be social beings and that our society has become wonderfully layered with its networking capabilities. As soon as a super hurricane passed, leaving a lot of damage in its wake, out came neighbors with their chain saws, out came utility workers to restore power, out came police officers to protect life and property. We are amazed at the caring of emergency workers, at the responsiveness of our medical community and at the eye witness accounting by news people -- all that support us in our efforts to become informed in our own responses.
And yet even though thousands and thousands of us will go unnamed in many heroic feats of rescue, still it is a deranged man who gets the newspaper headlines, for taking the lives of seven individuals who had been worshiping inside a church. Help us, O God, to celebrate how wonderful each of us has been created. Lead us to be thankful for the generosity of people, for their trustworthiness, for their willingness to go the extra mile by rescuing someone's pet from a housetop, for fighting a fire way beyond their point of exhaustion, and for helping us find emotional and spiritual stability following the loss of our homes. Help us see these qualities in each other rather than dwelling on the few who can easily make us suspicious, cynical, and afraid.
The world has so many places that need healing. Help all of us individually to demonstrate how freedom and responsibility can be made visible. We recognize that in so many areas of living, truly the spirit of your Kingdom is here. With ever grateful hearts we now pray the prayer Jesus taught us to say . .