"Freedom's Search For Identity"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 27, 2001

Psalm 97; John 17:20-26

     For many Americans Memorial Day means a long weekend. Many in our congregation are on the road. Some have traveled to Ocean City where the heavy rains may keep them indoors. Some people have put out their flags and invite friends or family to gather for hamburgers on the grill. And there are still others for whom Memorial Day is far less festive. These are people who will venture to Arlington Cemetery or visit the wall at the Viet Nam Memorial to braille the name of a loved one, pondering the significance of their losses.

     Memorial Day serves as one of our many signposts, inviting us to remember the quirks in our make-up as human beings. We are aggressive. We can become hostile when we do not get our way. We are easily offended. It was into such a world that Jesus came to teach another way. Jesus Christ wanted us to live so that future wars would be impossible to wage. And yet 2,000 years later, we still act toward each other as though we do not have a greater truth.

     Who among us has not been confused by war? The scenario seems ridiculous. We go to war, kill "the enemy," bandage our wounded, and bury our dead. As we move into the future, we discover that the people there cannot understand the thinking behind why the war was fought. Later generations believe that such conflicts have nothing to do with them. They think to themselves, "Wars are all part of history. They certainly don't belong in our day. People must have taken leave of their senses to believe that the Germans, Japanese, and Italians were our enemies!"

     Today Americans are free to roam the streets of East and West Germany. If we walk the streets of Tokyo today, the signs of American companies are everywhere. And when we walk the streets here, our former enemies have major corporate office building in just about every major city. Even in Viet Nam there are large billboards featuring Pepsi Cola and McDonald's Restaurants.

     Who were the people who conceived and fought these wars? Are any of them linked to who we are? This week the new movie about Pearl Harbor was released. We have learned to romanticize war while remembering its ugliness. Perhaps this is our way of detaching from it, of viewing it from a distance. I doubt we will ever see a movie that features what Americans did to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We cannot view the nuclear destruction of those cities and feel anything less than horror and disbelief. What will be the ultimate remedy to war?

     Our Gospel lesson this morning begins very abruptly and is not given any context. Chapter 17 of John features the longest prayer attributed to Jesus. During his prayer, Jesus revealed his greatest hope for humanity. His grandest desire was that we would some day recognize the truth about ourselves -- that we are one.

     Jesus prayed, "I pray that they may all be one. May they be in us just as you are in me and I am in them." Further, during Jesus' ministry he taught us that there is only one way to life. We have always considered that we have multiple choices, but on this one, humanity does not have that luxury. There is only one way to continue living. We will either destroy each other with our sophisticated weapons of mass destruction, or we will learn to get along as brothers and sisters.

     When we celebrate International Sunday at St. Matthew's, it is a beautiful occasion. We have such a rich ethnically-diverse population that our unity is truly worth celebrating. Where do we suppose this evil comes from that causes people to fight? How does this inability to trust each other get such a foothold in our minds so that Memorial Days are necessary? Evil's development is not as easy to trace as we may believe.

     One Saturday morning I was reading The Washington Post as cartoons came on the television. I did not pay much attention until I heard this very sinister voice. I glanced up and looked at this very unattractive being who was speaking. Instantly any viewer could see this character was evil. I am sure thousands of children across the land were having reinforced what evil looks like. His words were filled with treachery and deceit as he was preparing some weapon to destroy the world.

     With most movies it does not take long for us to determine who the hero is and who the villains are. Many of us remember Darth Vader in the movie Star Wars. Equally, we can remember Luke Skywalker. We had no trouble telling the difference between which character belonged to "The Force" and which one belonged to the "Dark Side."

     Go back in your childhood and remember all the images that taught us about good and evil as they were found in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella. I would venture to say that there has never been a child who was confused about which characters portrayed good and evil in those stories. Evil is instantly recognized, and it always has nothing to do with who we have become. If this is true where do wars start? And by whom?

     If you have ever visited the Holocaust Museum, you cannot walk through those exhibits and come away with the thought that Adolph Hitler accomplished all of those depicted atrocities by himself. When we look closely at the pictures we see the guards, the individuals who were experts in the medical field, hundreds of people who belonged to the SS, the Gestapo, or Hitler's youth.

     The looming, haunting question everyone has as they leave that museum is this, "How could a nation of extremely intelligent and very loveable people ever be led down a path that was so evil and not recognize what was happening?" How could people in the medical field who were once committed to saving lives suddenly become murderous savages who appeared to have no conscience?

     Martin Niemoller who was a pastor in the German Confession Church probably articulated that reason better than anyone else. He said,

First, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then, they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

     Martin spent seven years in a concentration camp.

     The political changes taking place in Germany did not wear the Darth Vader mask of evil. What was being spoken sounded so legitimate and respectable. The reasoning initially made sense. Many lost freedoms came so slowly that no one noticed. And the people in power, who might have made a difference, had been quietly removed and silenced.

     The Apostle Paul once wrote, "Even Satan can disguise himself to look like an angel of light!" (II Corinthians 11:14) What Paul was saying is that the things that can destroy us seldom wear the masks of evil. We were so educated in our childhood as to what evil looks like that in our adult years we cannot recognize the identity of something that is leading us astray. We are detached from evil in our minds yet it has the ability to enter quite easily.

     For example, when emotionally-shattering circumstances strike us, they are always very personal. Our hurt begins to consume us with a need for our form of justice. We say to ourselves, "I am doing this because I am not getting the love that I need. I am doing this because the IRS is taking too much money from my paycheck. I am doing this because if I do not look after myself, no one else will."

     The collection of little compromises we make on a daily basis is what makes a Holocaust or a war possible. A host of smoldering, "get-even" thoughts is what created a Timothy McVeigh. More than likely Timothy developed an attitude where he viewed himself as David and the Federal Government as Goliath. Growing "get even" attitudes made possible what happened at Columbine High School.

     We began life as innocent children. According to Genesis what God created was labeled as "very good." We do not awaken each morning and declare how much we hate our neighbor. What we do is ignore them. We do not hate people in our offices; we merely decide not to associate with them. And we play along with the game when others gossip about them. Everyone appears respectable and very discerning during such verbal attacks because they are reflecting many of our own thoughts and feelings.

     When we grow complacent and no longer guard the quality of our thoughts and words, that is when we begin our movement away from everything Christ taught. War camps form inside of us. We begin to see ourselves as different, distinctive, and better than others. As Christians we can even engage in "spiritual materialism" where we flaunt our superiority because "we're saved" or we're part of the "in-crowd" at church. This is when we begin to perceive others without love. Once we go there, we lose our identity as disciples. Jesus prayed, "I pray that they all may be one."

Science magazine carried an article that was discussing the implications of the Human Genome that has recently been decoded. How interesting that genetically we may all have descended from the same small group of ancestors who lived about 270,000 years ago. In fact, the article went on to suggest that we may all have the same paternal father. Isn't that something? Jesus prayed that we might all recognize that we are one. Perhaps we are brothers and sisters biologically who will fight as enemies in one generation, only to embrace one another as business partners in the next.

     Every mini-war has a point of origin. As we have already mentioned, the spark ignites when someone hurts us. Healthy people do not become depressed or angry without a cause. Our problem is that we have not matured enough spiritually to escape being offended. The instant we are hurt is very often when freedom loses its identity. And until we once again listen to Jesus Christ, take his hand and allow him to lead us above our hurts, we will never be in a position to prevent wars.

     Our freedom can be maintained by being guardians of our thoughts. Every morning we must ask ourselves what we are rehearsing within our minds. Are we allowing little fears to take up residence within us? It takes just a spark to get the fire burning.

     It happens when we complain about the price of gasoline, when nearly half the people in the world have never been in a car. We complain that we cannot pray in public schools, when there are millions of people who have never heard of God. We are outraged when a few teachers have sexual encounters with their students, while neglecting to remember the tens of thousands of teachers who have given their best to educate our nation's students.

    Fear draws us to the parade of flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings. When we begin to draw our conclusions about life from that parade, we will cease to see all else. Freedom's identity is found inside ourselves where God put it. Jesus came to remind us how that freedom can be expressed. We are one. We are far from perfect, but we are brothers and sisters who need to care for each other.

     We have freedom when we arrive at the point where absolutely no one is capable of raining on our parade. We have been called to reflect the light in all circumstances. Where there is light, there can be no darkness. As Jesus demonstrated with his life, this is the kind of freedom that is worth dying for; and that is what he did. 


     Few of us know, O God, what it is like to dwell in a land where freedom is denied. You established the possibility for us to create and we have. You have placed in our midst your son, Jesus Christ, so we would have a blueprint for living creatively. We are surrounded by consequences when we choose to imprison ourselves with attitudes born of fear. We thank you for giving us countless opportunities to change our minds, to extend ourselves, and to sow seeds of fairness, justice, and peace. Liberate us from dwelling on the pain caused by a few, so that we might celebrate your handiwork being expressed through the many. Teach us, O God, so that we learn to nurture, develop, and give expression to the spirit you have placed within us. Amen.


     Gracious and loving God, once a year we pause as a nation to remember those who have had their lives taken from them while fighting to preserve the freedom we enjoy. Many of them were put in harms way because that is the environment wars create. O God, help us to see more clearly what to do. When ideas are so violently opposed to each other, sometimes the skills of diplomacy are not strong enough to prevent conflict. And so humanity continues its struggle where death and destruction are the result.

     All of us long for the day when the world community will share natural resources and crops instead of gun fire. We long for the day when "love thy neighbor" will be more than just words or a goal that humanity hopes to reach in the future. It was into such a world that Jesus came to bring light and life. He invited us to give form to his one sermon so that others might understand what it means to be loved. Help us to express verbally and visually his message and not the logic we often use to justify what we do.

     As we remember our deceased loved ones this weekend and the families who have been touched with their loss, may we recommit ourselves to living the values our freedom has given us and thus make visible your nature in all the ways we can. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .