"Some Things Cannot Be Silenced"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 2/13/2000
II Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45
During my days as the Minister of Youth and Young Adults in Cheverly, I would gather the teenagers in our recreation room of the church every Sunday evening and conduct the program-part of the meetings. We discussed everything from anger, communication, sexual behavior, and the powers of intuition, to issues like death, the purpose of life, and the Being we call God. Every week, we discussed an area of thought that captured and challenged their imagination. Many of them learned how to communicate very thoughtfully about such topics.
One weekend in late June, we hired a company to take the kids rock climbing and repelling. We spent several nights in the Shenandoah National Park at a place called Big Devil Stairs. It was there that many of the teenagers learned to grow up overnight. They learned that it is easy to say and understand, "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me." It was quite another thing to be placed in circumstances where they had to decide to trust that understanding with their lives.
We had 14-year-old girls backing off and repelling down one-hundred-foot cliffs. Even though they were entirely safe, some of them cried and hyperventilate, they screamed and begged not to go. I had one girl say, "I hate you, Dick Stetler!" I told her that her attitude about me had nothing to do with what she had to face. Others would say, "Okay! Okay! Wait a minute. Okay. I'm ready. No, wait a minute! Okay. " Eventually every one of them went over the edge of that cliff.
The discussion around the campfire that first night was packed with energy. Many of them had thought they would never see their parents again. This was not like sitting through a scary movie or reading a Stephen King novel. They were participants in events that forced them to take risks with their faith. They had to trust the rope. They had to trust their lives to those who were holding the guide lines safeguarding their descent.
The point of this exercise was that in life we have to be participants. In life we will experience the bitter and the sweet, whether we like it or not. It is easy to discuss our faith. We enjoy listening to the thoughtful opinions of others. Yet, what happens to us when we are confronted with something that shatters our security—something that forces us to be in places we would never choose to go? What happens then?
The kids discovered that their opinions, their thoughts, their feelings were all secondary to what they were facing. They had to go over the cliff again and again until they had mastered the art of repelling. It was an insane thing to do with teenagers, but after that weekend, most of them had looked their deepest fear in the face and conquered it. The kids could not stop talking about their experiences for months.
The way we gain confidence is to be pushed into areas of life where we have few skills. What happens with repeated practice is that we learn that we can master nearly anything. Being angry about something will not make it go away. And sometimes being forced to go over the edge of a cliff is what we have to do. Why is being forced so essential? Because life never asks permission or gives us warning when our best friend dies, or our parents divorce, or our favorite college does not accept us, or our boyfriend finds someone else, or our job is taken away from us, or our lives are impacted by a stroke. By going over every cliff again and again, we learn the skills that are necessary for life.
Last week I was visiting with a nurse at her work site. Many of her patients are participants in a medical study. One of the requirements of the study was that her patients had to write down everything that they ate and drank over a course of several weeks. Then she drew their blood and sent it to a laboratory for evaluation. Then every other month her patients had an ultrasound on their carotid arteries.
Once patients saw for themselves the evidence of what their freewheeling eating habits were doing to their blood, internal organs, and the lining of their arteries, lifestyle changes took place immediately. She showed me the "before" and "after" clinical charts of patient after patient.
People instantly walked away from smoking, their use of alcohol, foods that were laced with sugar and fats, and their sedentary lifestyle. When people discovered how quickly they could reverse the decay of their bodies with proper nutrition and exercise, they took charge of habits that had slowly developed over many years. Laziness and procrastination vanished. In fact, the nurse told me that her own life had changed from seeing what her patients were accomplishing.
There is nothing so compelling as when we discover something that works. Our Gospel lesson today illustrates this power. A man with leprosy begged Jesus to heal him. In order for this man to have made such a request, he had to know what Jesus could do. Like the kids in the youth group, or the patients in the medical study, initially he had only thoughts. Maybe he had heard Jesus preach. Perhaps he had seen Jesus heal others. Something motivated him to take charge and make the request. He said, "If you want to, you can make me clean."
What makes this particular episode during Jesus' ministry so interesting is that the healed man deliberately disobeyed what Jesus asked him to do. The lesson says, "Jesus spoke sternly to him, 'Listen, do not tell anyone about this!'" The man could not help himself; he told everyone what Jesus had done. He had leprosy one minute and the next moment he did not. He was on fire with the evidence of his experience. He could not keep this event quiet no matter who was asking him to do so.
Listen to what happened next. Our lesson says, "The man spread his experience so widely that Jesus could no longer go into a town." People would have mobbed him. Instead, our lesson says that Jesus stayed outside the village in lonely places. People found him anyway and brought to him their sick.
There are some things that cannot be silenced. We easily go on the mission of spreading the word when something works in our lives. What develops this passion is when we move beyond the secondhand knowledge of our faith to firsthand experience. Something that has worked for us or that has taught us a new skill, we enthusiastically pass on to others. We cannot remain silent.
This year the Boy Scouts of America are celebrating their 90th birthday. Being Scout Sunday, we have a number of them here this morning. The movement of Scouting began when a retired Lieutenant-General in the British Army took 20 boys on a camping trip to Brownsea Island. There, Sir Robert Baden-Powell set out to instruct the boys in skills that no one had been teaching them in the British school system. Later he distilled key elements from his military training and put them into a handbook which he published a year later.
Now, think of this. In less than a century, Scouting has influenced the lives of more than one hundred million young people. How has that happened? That which works, we pass on to others with enthusiasm and passion. What builds character and gives us life-skills, we cannot keep to ourselves.
Have you ever noticed that a number of the most successful companies in America spend very little money on advertising? Do you know how they get away with that? All their marketing is done by word-of-mouth from people who experience the superiority of their products. When something works for people, they cannot keep silent about it. This is how the life and teachings of Jesus have spread.
One of last years new member classes was discussing the marketing of St. Matthew's. Someone asked, "Why doesn't St. Matthew's do more advertising like others churches in Bowie?" Another person in the class answered, "We do. The best advertisement for St. Matthew's is a packed parking lot every Sunday morning from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. In fact, every time I drive by the church, morning, noon, or night, there are cars all over the place. That communicates!"
There is not a lot of difference, however, between our congregation and the kids in my youth group, or between us and the people in the medical study. What really makes the difference in our lives is not the faith we confess, not the inspiration we give to each other, and not the Scripture we know. We can passively experience such things in our minds. They are just thoughts. As pleasant or unpleasant as they may be, they are just thoughts.
What fills us with a greater resolve to rise and face life's challenges is when we approach every cliff in our lives and know that, with more practice, what we have will work. Our skills will not continue their development unless we are pushed beyond our known limits, or we have an experience that heals us. Then we celebrate! Then we cannot stop talking about it. This is why the healed man had to disobey Jesus' request. Good news cannot be kept quiet. We have to share it.
The other day I traveled to Southern Maryland Hospital Center to visit John Harrison, a man I have known for several years. We worked together about every two months during his preparation to enter the ministry. Ten days ago, I received word from John that he was in the final stages of liver cancer. I could not believe it. In October, he appeared to be in the peak of health when he left my office. Life does not ask permission or give us a warning about such things.
What was interesting about this visit was that we both knew that he was getting ready to back off a cliff, where he would have to trust the rope of his faith. He was entering a phase of life that every one of us will one day experience. We can talk all we want to about heaven, about the love of God, or discuss the thought that none of us ever dies. Such conversations are easy to have when we are in the security of our various study groups.
This time, however, our conversation tracked a bit differently. We both realized he was preparing to repel down a cliff from which he would never return in his current form. I asked him, "What does it feel like to put everything that you understand on the line, to bet your life on what you think you know?" He said, "I am so glad that I know how to handle this." With a weak smile he continued, "All will go well. I have no fear." Sometime this past Wednesday, John left his body. What John knew served him at the end of his physical life. One day it will be our turn.
Every week, we are faced with issues that irritate us, that upset us, or that attempt to define us. Every week, we are faced with opinions of other people that may challenge our sense of confidence. All such moments can help us learn skills that no other school has taught us. This was the mission of Jesus. When we learn the skills he came to teach us, we will stand with Jesus proclaiming that what works cannot be silenced.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
What a difference a day makes when our spirits are open to inspiration. We thank you, God, that you are present in each of our experiences. Often we judge the quality of life's many dramas by what is pleasant and what is not, by what is right and what is not, and by what heals and what does not. Yet we have learned that the unpleasant moments provide us with opportunities. Engaging in behavior that is lacking in good judgment often gives us insights into truth. Thinking thoughts that cannot heal often leads us to discover those that will. This morning we seek to refine our ability to interpret life's journey. We seek greater trust that you are leading us to find that pearl of great price. Teach us not to fear our uncertain future. Inspire confidence that day by day we are learning how to reflect to others the loving spirit Jesus pointed to with his life. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
In the quiet of these moments, O God, we allow ourselves to depart from our unresolved conflicts, the dramas within our relationships, the routines of our jobs, and the uncertainty that is part of each week. We have discovered that during worship, we can shift the ways we think. We have learned that when we practice the skills associated with forgiveness and kindness, we grow in spirit. When we understand that anger is merely the response from an undeveloped skill-level, how quickly we grow in the wisdom Jesus taught his followers.
Then as we leave our worship experience, we realize that we take very little with us if we cannot give hands and feet to patience, if we cannot authentically care for those who exhibit few life-skills, and if we easily allow others to hurt us with their opinions. Give us vision, O God, to see others as students who are at different levels in their education. Open our minds to understand that our destiny has more to do with healing our world than with finding the perfect job, the right partner, or financial security. May we see ourselves more as sowers of seed, rather than as gathers.
Help us, O God, with the tensions that exist within us. We live in the world where "an eye for an eye" is the rule. We also live in a world where love and peace offer us more than our understanding of justice. Continue to lead us to those still waters that nourish the deep roots of our spirit so that where we are, you may be abundantly visible also. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .