"Were We Born To Struggle?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/27/2000
I King 8:22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20
As we were growing up, we learned immediately that Jesus was allowed to die a slow and painful death. His death was initiated by powerful people. Those who loved Jesus were forced to stand by helplessly. Further, we learned that Christians were fed to the lions in Rome, and for following centuries other people were killed for espousing many of the values we hold today.
We were taught to forgive. We were taught to be kind to those who betrayed our trust and friendship. If we are honest, many of us have a difficult time getting beyond such a passive life-style. Suppose we decide that we cannot be everything Jesus was? Suppose we decide that in order to protect our own self-respect, we do not intend to allow the "crazies" of this world to continue making our lives miserable? If we make such a decision, the struggle over values will continue.
Tomorrow many children will be going back to school. Because the advertising industry has targeted young people, many parents will have to spend an average of five to six hundred dollars just for basic clothing and supplies. On one hand we have our values and on the other hand, we are faced with a reality of how kids "need to look" in order to feel comfortable and find acceptance from their peers.
How far will parents get today with the argument, "Look do you want to be a leader or a follower? Why do you care so much about how you look? You are not your clothes! Don't you realize that "your look" is being driven by the garment industry's marketing people? You remind me of a bunch of lemmings who are running for the cliff!" Again, we struggle when our values collide with the values of those who attempt to mold our society's images of success.
We struggle not just with issues of acceptance and approval, but also with the basic values of right and wrong. The only part of Survivor that Lois and I watched was the last 20 minutes of the final episode. We turned to that channel by accident just as the female truck driver was venting her sour grapes to the runner-up of the contest.
The "Op-Ed" writers have had a field day with the outcome. Even those of us who did not watch a single episode now know that the million dollar prize went to someone who demonstrated values that were everything but those of another Mother Teresa.
One of the reasons people gave for faithfully watching the program was that it reflected how people express themselves at the office. Many of those who watched the show claimed that their world is filled with gossip, backstabbing, and meaningless alliances.
It is easy for us to believe that the life to which Jesus called us is an incredible challenge -- a life that is going to be an uphill climb everyday. How easy it is for us to cling to the values that have governed the lives of people for thousands of years; a world where clearly the powerful always win.
Jesus redefined our concept of power. Jesus convinced many of us that peacefulness is far superior to constantly defeating one another. He taught us that freedom is a mental state that the world cannot provide in spite of all the prizes it offers. Yet many of us have to confess that we are not there in our thinking. We appear to struggle with our values.
Years ago the movie, Witness, featured the actor Harrison Ford playing the role of an FBI agent who was assigned to protect an Amish boy who had witnessed a murder. Ford's character was placed in an Amish family. While being with them, he was exposed to the passive values of the Amish as they live in a world that often places them alongside violent and aggressive people.
During one of the scenes in the movie, several of the Amish boys came to town in their buckboard and they were met by a group of bullies. The arrogant bullies knew the rules by which the Amish lived and they took advantage of them. They knocked off their hats, verbally assaulted them, and smeared their ice cream cones on their clothing. The Amish did not respond to the abuse.
Their harassment reached a breaking point for Harrison Ford's character, and he stepped out of the buckboard and knocked their verbal spokesman to the ground. The young bullies and the Amish boys were equally surprised by his response. Ford's character told them that they had better learn some manners and show respect for other people's values. The Amish boys proudly announced, "He is our cousin from Kansas. His beliefs are different from ours." The audience in the theater erupted with enthusiastic laughter and applause.
We love justice. We love it when the bad guys get their "just" rewards. We love it when Zorro appears and overthrows the rich and the powerful. We love it when Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor. We love it when Batman helps the police capture the criminals who are reigning terror on Gotham City. Most of us grew up with such images in our mythology.
What is interesting is that the Apostle Paul seems to support this philosophy. In our lesson today he says, "So put on God's armor now! Then when the evil day comes, you will be able to resist the enemy's attacks; and after fighting to the end, you will still hold your ground." Again, were we born to struggle? Is our purpose to be at odds with the values of this world?
Before we develop any conclusions, let us review Paul's weapons. He wrote, "Stand ready with truth, with righteousness, with the Good News of peace, with faith, with salvation, and with words the Spirit will give us." What is interesting about this list is that not a single piece of "God's armor" has to do with the power structures of this world.
Paul is suggesting that we arm ourselves with attitudes, perspectives, and an orientation that reflects the Kingdom of God. Our question is this: Do we want to display such values? We can answer that question by asking another question. How else will the world's people learn better values if there is no one willing to break the cycle of human responses that have dominated our cultures for thousands of years?
Fortunately, few of us find ourselves needing to "invent the wheel" as Jesus did. He had to preach that integrity and character were more important than the Law. He had to preach that a spirit radiating authenticity was far superior to one that communicated a superior image. He had to preach that spiritual tools helped people gain far more control over their lives than they would experience by using the tools this world offers.
Notice what happened historically. For several years Jesus sang a solo. He was killed because powerful people did not like the words of his song. Next his twelve disciples began to sing. Most of them died a martyr's death because again the powerful did not like the words they sang. Next came their followers who sang the same song. As time passed, more and more people began to understand the meaning of Jesus' teaching, "Be the leaven for the loaf." While it has taken thousands of years, the torch of spiritual freedom has now been handed to us.
We have discovered that we cannot change the world. We cannot change even one person's life. We can, however, help others learn how to grow. We can challenge the current results of their lives by saying, "Is this what you really want? Is this who you really want to be?" Jesus sang a solo. Today, we have a mighty chorus of people who authentically care about what happens to people of all cultures. Because of our numbers, we are slowly making a difference in our world.
In an excerpt from McHenry's Quips, Quotes and Other Notes, the author provided an interesting illustration of a common word that is being used today to describe what frequently happens to people when corporate cultures merge. That word is Synergy.
He described what took place during a county fair that he visited. The townspeople held a horse-pulling contest much like the more familiar tracter pulls. The first-place horse pulled a sled weighing 4,500 lbs. The runner-up horse pulled one weighing 4,000 lbs.
The owners of the two horses decided to see how much the two horses could pull if they were hitched together. The result was 12,000 lbs. Separately the horses could only manage a total of 8,500 lbs. McHenry said, "When coupled together, their synergism produced an added 3,500 lbs of pulling power. He concluded his article with this insight, "Teamwork divides the effort and multiplies the effect."
Paul was writing nearly 2000 years ago when there was no synergy, there was no New Testament, and there was no Church. There were not enough believers to divide the effort and multiply the effect. Today there is. We are the people who must enhance the effort that Jesus and his pioneer followers began 2,000 years ago.
Today we can come together and collectively pay for the addition of three floors of educational classrooms at St. Matthew's. Today we can send out teams of workers to Mexico and Kentucky. Today our United Methodist denomination can and has funded the construction of Africa University in Zimbabwe.
We want everyone in the world to understand that there is a plan unfolding in our midst that we will not experience if we choose to cling to the still popular form of justice that has dominated civilization for thousands of years, "An eye for an eye."
Recently there was a powerful illustration that demonstrated how a shift in thinking is beginning to take form in our new world culture. We have never had an opportunity to come to the aid of a former enemy as we have during the recent tragedy surrounding the Russian submarine, Kursk.
There was still reluctance on the part of the Russians to ask for help. Old responses die slowly. Even though that submarine was a state-of-the-art war machine, the world reached out to help its crew. Requests to help flooded the Kremlin from many nations including our own. Who would have thought that such a day would come.
The world waited anxiously, praying and hoping that some of the crew would still be alive. When we learned that the crew was lost, the world mourned for the Russian families whose men were on board. There was no applause coming from anywhere in the world. This was a tragedy that touched many of us.
If we truly believe that the world's people are not changing how they deal with each other, we need to think again. Cultures are blending as in no other time in history. Information flows across borders as if those borders do not exist. Slowly the world is joining hands and the solo Jesus sang of serving one another is slowly bringing the universe of humanity together. The translation of uni-verse is "One Song."
Jesus said, "I have come among you as one who serves." It is ironic that a piece of computer hardware that makes such a transfer of information possible is called, "the server." Hate and bigotry are not gone. We still have to struggle with those who do not understand that we are brothers and sisters. But we do not have to struggle as did Jesus, or Paul and the members of the early Church. They were the pioneers. We have inherited what they struggled to make visible.
We cannot wait, however, for a more enlightened future to dawn. Paul said that we must stay ready with truth, with right living, with the Good News of peace, with faith, with salvation, and with the words the Spirit gives us to say. In short, we need to sing our song in such a way that everyone understands the lyrics of love and the tune of serving one another in peace.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, we thank you for your constant presence in our lives. You inspire hope when life appears to be at its worst. You enable us to discover opportunities when our desired destination is diverted by detours. You allow us to experience restlessness until we remember how your presence produces peace. You allow us to experience change so we will learn what is timeless. You have allowed our world to be filled with challenges so we can learn the skills of spirit. You have given us each other so that we might practice what we have learned. Guide us, O God, to understand that our purpose is not one of struggle but of growth. Help us learn that as we refine who we are, Your Kingdom will become visible on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
This morning we thank you, God, for all the wonderful opportunities that surround us. We confess that we are not ready or prepared to see them all. How easy it is to feel sorry for ourselves when we lack the courage to face change. How easy it is to envy those who seem to drip with success while we delay the joy of being the one-of-a-kind person that we are. How easy it is to feel hurt when our trust has been betrayed, instead of seizing the moment to increase the depth of our patience. How easy it is to enjoy a service at St. Matthew's while remaining too absorbed with other things to be of service.
There are so many people around us, O God, who live lives of quiet desperation. We can hear it in their words and see it in the expressions on their faces. They easily assume that their experience of themselves is who they are, and that their experience of the world is how it is. Gracious and loving God, if we can be a comforting presence, an accepting friend, a kind listener; if we can be trusting enough to realize that we have been led to such a moment, inspire us to express our faith.
How often we make excuses and withhold our witness. How often we claim to love others while seldom inviting anyone to church. Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Lead us everyday to allow others to feel safe when they are with us. Help us be loving and gentle guides as your Holy Spirit is to us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .