Would You Like To Shape History?

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/12/1999

Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24

     One of the most challenging verses in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians was the one that began our lesson today, "Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances." Is maintaining such a grateful attitude always possible? Think of all the moments that frustrate us, that put our lives "on hold," or that force us to take a detour around an outcome we always dreamed of achieving.

     How can we learn to be grateful in all circumstances? Every one of us can recall personal stories that were heart-breaking. We can remember losses of pets, loved ones, places and things that simply cannot be replaced.

     An eye-witness accounting of the damage caused by Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina was recently given to the Tuesday morning Bible study. The water and mud are gone, but every home, many which appear in perfect condition, must be bulldozed. The need for their destruction is the result of their being saturated with water that was laced with high concentrations of infectious bacteria deposited from flooded pig farms.

     Our frequent temptation is to allow our circumstances to determine what we feel and think. In essence, we fall prey to believing that we are like ping-pong balls caught between the paddles of our challenging experiences. Each episode in life where the experience of gratitude appears uncalled for should be a signal that we need to choose again. There is a level of understanding we can reach that will teach us how to do this.

     Paul wrote the words in our lesson this morning. How was he able to brush frustration aside? Listen to the litany of his experiences:

     "Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. In my many travels I have been in danger from floods and from robbers, in danger in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and dangers from false friends. There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing. And not to mention other things, every day I am under the pressure of my concern for all the churches." (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)

     Within such dangerous circumstances, how could Paul choose gratitude as his primary response? How did Paul become a master of his life? Perhaps when we examine another Biblical account, we will understand.

     Consider the experience of Mary. A divine presence said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God. God will make him a king whose kingdom will never end."

     If you were Mary, think of how incredibly buoyant you would become through every experience that followed. What could possibly bother you? Would being pregnant out of wedlock worry you? Would a donkey ride to Bethlehem near your due date bother you? How about having to deliver your baby in a barnyard? What major fear could possibly come onto the landscape of your life and terrorize you once you knew you had been marked by God as THE person whose son was going to change history?

     The confidence-builder within Mary and Paul was knowing that they were called upon to play a role in changing history. Most of us do not consider this possibility. We can easily neglect the implications of what God created us to be.

     Why are we here this morning? Why is St. Matthew's so important to our lives? We could get along just fine without being here. Many people do. What would it take to lift our understanding to the point where we could ask, "Am I truly capable of changing history?"

     Some weeks ago, Lois and I were invited to dinner in one of your homes. The temperature outside was so warm that we sat on the back deck talking. Our host said, "Something I have always wanted to experience happened to me last week. I witnessed an automobile accident. The one car was on its side, pinning the driver's head between the car's frame and the road. Passersby had stopped and were getting ready to rock the car with the hope of righting it. The crowd had good intentions but they were not considering what righting that car would do to that woman's body."

     Greg took control of the accident scene and ordered people away from the car. He asked them to get several jacks from their automobiles. Slowly the well-placed jacks raised the car enough to release the woman's head. Being a trained Emergency Medical Technician, Greg Carter did his primary survey and stabilized the woman before the fire department and the ambulance arrived. He literally saved her life. Did Greg change history?

     This past Friday there were a group of us in Fellowship Hall putting gifts into Christmas stockings. Even though it required, a massive well-coordinated effort by Sharon Heidenreich, most of us thought little about changing history as we were working.

     Marion Wise and her group of seamstresses had created hundreds of stockings. Many of you went shopping for the children whose parents are currently being held in our county's detention center. Soon well over three hundred stockings filled with gifts will be distributed to these children. Could such a project alter the course of history?

     Recently, Clare Carhart spoke to me between our worship services. She said, "I can't tell you what the angel bear meant to Maria as she went into surgery last week. Holding on to that bear attracted many members of the medical staff who spoke to her. She held it closely as they wheeled her into the surgical unit. Please thank the Angel Gang for their thoughtfulness. The presence of that bear gave her so much confidence." Did the giving of an angel bear to a little girl impact the formation of the future?

     In each of these instances people of our church family deliberately stepped into circumstances for the specific purpose of making a difference in people's lives. That is precisely the same reason Jesus left his carpenter's shop and went into ministry. When any of us elects to step into a situation or circumstance, what better way to give hands and feet to the person God designed us to be?

     Caring people do not engage in conflict avoidance. Caring people do not stay aloof from the rest of the world. Caring people generally are eager to bring who they are into each circumstance. Are we always joyful? Certainly not! But each of us can be grateful that we were in the right place at the right time to bring light into darkness. This is why we are here.

     When Mary was first confronted with her experience of an angel, Luke wrote, "Mary was deeply troubled by the angel's message." However, once she learned what her role would be, she exclaimed, "I am the Lord's servant! May it happen to me as you have said." Look what happened to the level of her thinking.

     Do we always have to be motivated by an angel or some external experience to be reminded that we are God's servants? Following his resurrection, Jesus once asked a very haunting question. He said, "Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who believe and have not seen." Jesus' statement holds true not only for his resurrection, but also for how we choose to experience our lives. We can easily say, "Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel." We can say that the Apostle Paul was blinded by the light and he heard the voice of Jesus. Again, "Blessed are those who believe and have not seen."

     Caring people are not guided by their circumstances but by what they have the privilege to bring to them. What produces the miracle is when we remain convinced that we were born for such a moment. When we demonstrate that understanding, we can affirm Paul's comment, "Be joyful always; pray at all times; be thankful in all circumstances."

     Who knows but that Maria might grow up to be a wonderful, caring woman who will join one of the helping professions? The memory of receiving that angel bear as a child may long since be forgotten by the time she becomes an adult, but the comfort of having it given to her may have left its mark.

     Who knows that six of the 334 children opening presents from our stocking project will be so inspired that they were remembered by name, that they will take their place among the many saints who periodically walk with us during our journey here? And with Greg giving a woman back her life, who knows all the possibilities that could stem from that?

     We must understand that the spirit of the Apostle Paul was one of joy each time he experienced hardships. He had an excellent reason for feeling so. Anyone can verbalize a strong faith when life is going well. However, when the weight of life's circumstances has us bent over and we are still blooming, such faith attracts people with what inspires. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" will be remembered forever because those words came from someone who had just been nailed to a cross by people who wanted him dead.

     Our tendency is to love with self-interest. Authentic love, the kind that represents the candle we lighted today, has nothing to do with what happens to us. It has to do with who we have become and what it is we give away without any expectations.

     Paul had no idea that his handwritten letter to the Thessalonians would be preserved and used in guiding our thinking today. All he did was write it and then arrange for it to be hand carried to Thessalonica. What happened to Paul's letter during that nearly 2000-year process is beyond comprehension.

     If we think an angel bear or a Christmas Stocking may have little effect on people, think again. Any act of love released into our Creator's universe can dissolve the strongest barriers, tear down the thickest walls, or mellow the most sophisticated arguments that there is no God.

     Every conceivable circumstance is an opportunity for us to make love visible. Paul said, "Be joyful always; be thankful in all circumstances." He would not have written these words if such gratitude were impossible to achieve. He wrote from his own experience. He knew it was possible.

     During Advent, let us resolve to enter life grateful that we have been called upon to change history. We sow our seeds and go on. Remember, without people willing to do so, the truth that enables us to thrive in chaos will lose its visibility. Our future is at stake. Let us all influence it together. Amen.


     This morning, we are particularly inspired by the magnificence of what surrounds us. Physical beauty that bathes our vision with color always stimulates our emotion. Yet when we reach for much more and move beyond poinsettia plants to the One who made them, it is then that we catch a glimpse of your presence.

     During the Advent season so many emotions are brought to the surface of our lives. Sometimes our memories remind us of traditions that took place in the homes of our childhood. Sometimes we are reminded that a loved one is no longer with us. Sometimes we are so distracted by the pain in one of our primary relationships that we cannot see beyond it.

     Help us to remember that there was little joy during that first Christmas. Who would have thought that Jesus would enter the world following a challenging donkey ride by parents who faced an inn that was way over capacity, and spend his first night in a feeding stall. And yet, is there anything that we cannot experience with joy when we realize that You are with us, surrounding us with magnificence and beauty that far surpasses the poinsettias we see today.

     Lift us above the dreams of yesterday and the pains we create at the present. May we learn that in every circumstance, you have given us what is sufficient not only to survive but to thrive. And that with increased trust in your leading, we may find ourselves in a place in time, when like Jesus, we can enhance the course of history itself. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .