"When There Is No Accountability"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 2/20/2000
Isaiah 43:18-25; Mark 2:1-12
During that moment you were being given the opportunity to review your life on earth. In an instant, your life was being played back for you so that you could experience once again every loving and every fear-based thought or deed that had been a part of you. When that process ended you experienced God's thoughts entering your spirit, "Well done my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over so few things, I will give you control over many more things. Enter into the joy of my Kingdom."
After your relief that you had made it to the presence of the Creator, what would you think of God at that moment? What would you think of God, particularly after you have just reviewed all the moments in your life when you were rude, when you lied, when you did not use good judgment, and when you used a few facts to form terrible, erroneous conclusions about the character of other people?
In addition to reviewing all your talents, abilities, and wonderful accomplishments, God had also provided you with the means to remember the times when you allowed anger to hold you hostage, when you were unforgiving, and when you stole someone else's idea and passed it off as your own. Yet in spite of such failures God said, "Enter into the joy of my Kingdom."
What would you think once you realized that God was not going to hold you accountable for anything you had done on earth? Think about your feelings. What conclusions would you draw about God's love? If you have any conflict with what forgiveness looks like, you may come to the same conclusion as did the Teachers of the Law in today's Gospel lesson. They had a problem with Jesus forgiving sins. Most of us have a problem with forgiveness.
Let us review the circumstances in our lesson once again. Jesus was teaching in a place where there was standing room only. Several people brought a paralyzed man into this gathering. Seeing the crowded conditions, the men used their ingenuity, removed the roofing material above Jesus, and then lowered their friend in front of him. Jesus said to the man, "My son, your sins are forgiven."
Keep in mind, this paralyzed man had not asked for anything. This man may have been a total stranger to Jesus. Jesus may not have known anything about the man's life. What we do know is that Jesus said, "My son, your sins are forgiven." What we also know is that the Teachers of the Law had problems with Jesus forgiving sins.
What are we to think about forgiveness when absolutely nothing is taken into account? With forgiveness there appears to be no wrongs that need to be righted. There is no penance people have to perform to erase their past mistakes. There is no penalty or punishment necessary before we are pardoned. The worthiness of a person's spirit is not part of the equation. In forgiveness we are not on trial.
Is it true that God has no need for us to live a certain way? Is it true that God's love is cheap? The answer to both questions is "Yes." God's love is exceedingly cheap. In fact, God's love is beyond being cheap; it is free. We cannot earn it. We cannot live "correctly" in order to gain more of it. There is no question that this is a difficult teaching to understand.
God's love surrounds us whether we want it or not, whether we understand it or not, and whether we believe in it or not. It just is. And God's love is the same for all of us. There is no system of accountability necessary before God will love us. And that is well-illustrated by what Jesus did in our lesson today. Perhaps the Teachers of the Law had a point. With forgiveness, where is the judgment? Where is the justice? We need justice, do we not? Or, is justice built into God's plan?
In Southern California, Saint Ignatius High School probably has the largest football team in the United States. During some seasons there have been over one hundred boys on the team. To critics of the program, having that number of boys on the team is unmanageable. The fact was the coach never cut anyone from the squad.
A number of years ago this practice was called into question by the governing body of the school. They embraced the coach's enthusiasm for character development among the players, but frankly the school's budget could no longer afford the expenses associated with outfitting that many boys and transporting them to away games. A decision had to be made.
In defense of his methods, the coach responded to the governing body with these words: "In the beginning of every season, I tell all of the boys that the sky is the limit. If they really work on their game, some of them might become good enough to be offered scholarships to universities. Some of them might become all-Americans. Some of them might excel to the point that one day they will be chosen to play football professionally. I look all of them in the eye and tell them, 'It is up to you. As your coach, I am giving all of you the chance to do the best you can.'"
In spite of the coach's idealism, the school's Board decided to cut the athletic budget anyway. They found the coach's strategy admirable, but there were other fiduciary responsibilities that had to be considered.
The story made the San Diego newspapers, and it became a topic of public debate in the Op/Ed sections. Finally, a number of business people, who admired the spirit of the coach, joined monetary forces to underwrite the deficit. To this day, St. Ignatius probably has the largest football program in the country, all because the coach never turned anyone away who wanted to play football.
Could this be God's plan for us as well? In our lesson Jesus did not demand an accounting of the paralyzed man's life before he forgave him. In fact, Jesus' act of kindness cost him nothing. He merely extended his healing presence and the man got up and hurried away. Our lesson ends with these words, "They were all completely amazed and praised God saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!'"
Indeed, we have not. We are unaccustomed to understanding the implications of forgiveness. We do not have to be accountable to be accepted by the One who gave us life. There would be no freedom if God demanded accountability. Love would not be love if it insisted on anything. Do we honestly believe that? If we do, can we practice it?
We do not enter God's Kingdom by anything we do or do not do. We enter God's Kingdom just as we come, because that is how God set it up. We may think, "This is not correct information. This is not what I have been taught!" Yet stop and think. The earth is also God's Kingdom. Isn't it interesting that the sheep and the goats, or whatever metaphors we want to use, we are all here in the Kingdom?
God has given us the opportunity to live any way we wish. However, like belonging to that large football team, some of us will excel. Some of us will dwell on our fears and failures. Some of us will do only what is safe, modeling our lives after someone else whom we believe "made it in life." If the sky is the limit, God lets us decide what that limit is. God created us to stretch, to reach and to grow, even to claw our way to a higher awareness. There needs to be no judgment from God. We do a tremendous job on ourselves all by ourselves.
There is a new book by Warren and Mary Ebinger that is featured in the most recent issue of our Conference newspaper. The book's title fits into our theme of accountability. Their book is called, Do It Yourself Marriage Enrichment. Listen to the subtitle: "A Workshop on Your Own Time, on Your Own Terms, and on Your Own Turf." Jesus could have written a book called How to Live Your Life with the same subtitles. Our life is up to us.
Accountability is not something we must engage in to please God; it is something we engage in as we change and grow. Our growth happens when we are kind because we cannot help it, when we are generous because it comes from us naturally, and when we are forgiving because that is who we are. A time comes when we no longer need to think about it. It is the same with the nature of God.
When we are touched by the Master, he says to us, "Your sins are forgiven. Get up, pick up your mat and be on your way. You are more than your mistakes and failures. I have erased all of them. Now it is up to you not to remain paralyzed by them any longer." And all the gathered people praised God saying, "We have never seen anything like this." Of course they hadn't. Their minds were on their understanding of justice, not forgiveness.
Even though God loves us without insisting on anything, there are consequences that come from everything we do and think. Like the coach said, "Some of you may become all-Americans. Some of you might excel to the point where one day you will be chosen to play football professionally." The coach said those things knowing that there would be some players who would coast, drift, and sit down every chance they got. We call this one of the mysteries of life.
Les Brown discussed consequences when he wrote something called, The Tragedy. In this piece, he captures the essence of what happens when, in our freedom, we never learn the rules of how to be accountable to ourselves. Jesus said, "Love your neighbor AS you love yourself." God gave us freedom. In that freedom, we can excel or do as little as possible to get by. When there is no accountability, we have to create it. Here is what Les Brown wrote: "An elderly man, in the final days of his life, is lying in bed alone. He awakens to see a large group of people clustered around his bed. Their faces are loving, but sad. Confused, the old man smiles weakly and whispers, 'You must be my childhood friends, come to say good-bye. I am so grateful.'" Moving closer, the tallest figure gently grasps the old man's hand and replies, "Yes, we are your best and oldest friends, but long ago you abandoned us. For we are the unfulfilled promises of your youth. We are the unrealized hopes, dreams, and plans that you once felt deeply in your heart but never pursued. We are the unique talents that you never refined; we are the special gifts you never discovered. Old friend, we have not come to comfort you, but to die with you."
All of us know the kind of athlete Michael Jordan became after he was cut from his high school basketball team because he was not good enough. We think of Rosa Parks who did something about our country's need to separate people by their skin color. Think of it. One person started a social revolution sending ripples out that have not stopped to this day. We think of Bill Gates or Sam Walton; both had dreams of what was possible and they developed them.
All these people discovered that accountability started when they looked inside and found God saying, "It is my nature to forgive you long before you stumble, long before you fail at skills you have not yet developed, and long before you learn of me. The sky is the limit. See what you can do with what I have given you." Have we gotten that message and are we doing something with it? Is fear of failure gone from our lives? I hope it is. God made us and God does not fail.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always present God, how many times have we sidestepped the teachings of Jesus and found the way difficult? How many times have our hurts caused us to use poor judgment in our responses? How many times have our attitudes built walls while our thoughts gave birth to new fears? What a relief it is, O God, to know that you created us to grow, and that the dead-end we see in our road is only a bend. Teach us how to move beyond our pettiness. Help us to own our hurts and frustrations so that they can become points of departure toward healing. Spare us from defining ourselves by our present circumstances. Encourage us to remember that like a sprouting seed, we have a pattern to our growth that was created by you. Lead us to trust that process while we look to the presence of your spirit to guide us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How often, O God, have we longed to understand life as you do. We look at our standard of living and realize that we Americans are only one-sixth of the world's population. Sometimes we wish that all people of the world could be like us, until we realize that our bounty and our wealth have not given us peace of mind and unbounded happiness that we thought they would.
Instead we have become consumers of three-quarters of everything the world produces. What even surprises us is our craving for more. We find ourselves in a race to who knows where, to win prizes we hope will convince us that we have won something of value. We seek for love in places where it is not. We are held hostage by our appetites. And when we indulge them we call it, "just taking care of myself." We swallow medications as if they hold the key to stability and health.
Yet here we are once again in our church family. Here we are reminded once again who we are and how much you love us in spite of all we miss while pursuing other things. We hear again your call to us. We hear again your pledge to stay with us regardless of our struggles, our failures, and moments of frustration. We hear again about the spirit of living Jesus said was possible. We hear again your willingness to work through us to move mountains, to heal others, and to be your presence in a world that secretly cries for lasting peace.
Today, unstop our ears. Open our minds to all the possibilities you gave us at birth. Move us to use what we find so that we can continue to celebrate our lives with joy. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .