"How Much Challenge Can You Stand?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 28, 2001
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:16-30
There are people who make it their personal challenge to do battle with Bowie's well-fed squirrels. Frequently, some of us spend hours buying or building birdhouses that are impenetrable. With the right technology, we believe we can create a habitat that is suitable only for the beautiful songbirds we want to attract. Once we erect one of these high-tech fortresses, we perch ourselves at the window and watch for the counter measures that will come from squirrels who have been watching us the entire time.
The competition begins. Squirrels have been known to hurl themselves from tree branches hoping to land on top of one of our bird houses. Occasionally a birdhouse will fall to the ground. As the furry creature is savoring its conquest, it appears to be saying, "Come on human, you have to do better than that if you are going to foil the likes of me!"
A similar struggle occurs between people who enjoy the convenience of putting their trash at the curb in plastic bags. Their struggle is with Bowie's gigantic crows, who walk around our bags with the confidence of someone preparing to carve the turkey on Thanksgiving Day. These birds are not afraid of anything. And they frequently spread our trash all over the neighborhood.
Rather than buying a good trash can with a lid, people use 4-mil bags or they spray what they put by the curb with ammonia. They do not want the hassle of putting trash cans back inside when they get home from work. In defending their decision, they will say, "You have no idea what I go through. The trash collectors put the can in front of my driveway so I can't get in. When I used to use cans, the winds often carried them into the street. This is my fourth lid."
Enough of this. You get the point. There are far more severe challenges in life that stand in front of us. We can almost hear them saying, "I will bet you that you cannot cope with me. I enjoy making you fail. Each time I win, I prove something to you. You are not as far along in your discipleship as you think." There is nothing better than an awkward slip of the tongue or sensing the distraction our hateful thoughts create to help us hear such words with great clarity.
If we could only understand what such confrontations mean, our growth along the spiritual path would be incredibly rewarding. Each challenging experience is another call for us to grow. When we do not grasp this, we create major battle fields, leaving us stressed, with restless nights when we cannot sleep, and with distracted minds that want justice at all costs.
Recently a woman who wanted justice for the death of her son, shot the young man she believed was responsible. How ironic that she was one of the organizers of the Million Mom March. Her need for justice put an innocent person in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The bullet from her gun lodged in his spine. Yes, she is sorry, but sometimes being sorry is not enough to undo the damage we cause with many of our responses.
Anytime we struggle with anything, we are sending a message to our bodies, minds and spirits to be on red-alert status. This is fine as long as we know what we are doing to ourselves. Some causes are extremely important to us, while others are not worth the energy we give them. The question is not about the nobility of our causes, but rather what the cost is to ourselves, our friends, our marriages, and our work habits when we are at war with something.
Let me give you an example that illustrates the cost of struggle. There was once a lovely congregation that was not only very loyal to its church but also to its teachings and long-standing traditions. One day a young man was invited to read the day's lesson.
The young man read beautifully. In fact, various members of the congregation commented on how well he did, and appeared proud that he was one of their own. However, the young man did not let well enough alone; he decided to comment on the text. His words represented a challenge they could not accept or tolerate. They emotionally erupted.
The congregation was so angered by his presentation that they quickly moved from comments of endearment to thoughts of wanting to injure this young man. They dragged him out of the church and were going to throw him over a cliff. Somehow he managed to escape.
Think about this. This congregation was peaceful, loving, and supportive one minute, but in the next, this same group of people revealed what lay just beneath their proclaimed faith. When a challenge came that they could not stand, they were prepared to throw the preacher off a cliff. It is for this reason that I have always wanted a door in the wall behind me! Tom Starnes, a former minister here, once told me that the brick wall surrounding the pulpit area had a strategic purpose.
Quite obviously this story was our Scripture lesson this morning. Jesus was that preacher. What did he say that evoked such a "killer instinct" in his hometown congregation? Actually what he said does not really matter. The aspect of our lesson that screams at us is the reaction of people who considered themselves well-adjusted, normal, God-loving people. We should find it quite revealing that all it took was a few words to turn a supportive church family into a lynch mob.
These people had no experience dealing with someone who dared to challenge their love affair with God. That is what Jesus had done. In essence Jesus' message went right to the core of what they held sacred. They considered themselves "God's chosen people." Jesus told them that their understanding of God's love was too small.
He illustrated this by telling them that during a terrible drought and famine, a time when many widows in Israel suffered, God sent Elijah to a gentile widow in Sidon. And during a horrible epidemic of leprosy in Israel, God sent Elisha to heal another gentile, Naaman, the Syrian military leader. Jesus had pulled the carpet out from underneath their sense of spiritual superiority and they could not deal with it. Anyone whose faith makes them feel superior to others will have the same struggle when their beliefs are challenged. Moreover, our faith should help us radiate our loving, accommodating nature, not some pius posture that communicates how superior our belief system is. Why would anyone want to become part of St. Matthew's if what we believed did not appear to be working in our lives?
How much challenge can we stand? This is an interesting question and it goes well beyond our dealing with squirrels and crows. Most of us have different tolerances for different challenges. This is why we experience our faith in community. Each of us can frequently offer more creative attitudes and healing thoughts than someone who is emotionally too close to what has hurt them.
We have to be big enough to listen to the points of view of others. We have to be big enough to let others love us. We have to be big enough to understand that there has to be more self-preserving responses than the ones our pain is causing us to use. When we are not big enough, it will show just as it did in the congregation where Jesus preached.
So many of us continue living distracted lives by harboring hostile thoughts. We do this in the name of justice each time our world is not the way we want it to be. We can demand, "I don't care what anyone else thinks. What that person did was wrong and I want an apology!"
In other circumstances, we get up and walk out. We protest. We write letters and say words we can never retract. We act as if our hostility and unhappiness matters to people. In the grand scope of creation, it does not.
The next time you are unhappy about something, take a poll and see how many people appear interested. More than likely they will tell you, "Look, get over it! Everyone has a gripe about something. The world isn't perfect." We should ask ourselves: "Do we want to engage in rigidity or accommodation? Do we want to show others how intolerant we are or how caring? It is our call.
Last week during our International Sunday, our speaker was talking about his spiritual journey. He had an interesting story to tell. He grew from loving motorcycles, girls and alcohol to becoming a missionary who has successfully merged his engineering inventiveness with satellite technology. Because of his creativity, missionaries everywhere can communicate to the outside world by using his wireless system.
He had nothing but praise to God for how far he has come. He surrendered his life to Christ and was baptized by the Holy Spirit. He was compelled by his experience to share his journey with others. Yet several times he said, "I hope my words do not offend anyone." With such visible results in his life, who could have been offended by what he said? Even had he preached from a radically different point of view, would we have been offended?
Who we are should be important to us because others have to live with us. Few people have the tolerance to remain with those who complain constantly, who brood over the smallest failings, and who spew forth negativity as soon as they awaken in the morning. Yet toxic people are everywhere. We have to become the alkaline that helps neutralize their acidity. They do not need more enemies. Their attitudes are actually a call for love.
The truth is, the world will go on whether we are happy or unhappy, creative or a suffering victim, delighted with challenges or disgusted with everything that does not match our version of how the world "ought to be." One of God's richest blessings to humanity is that the world is big enough to accommodate all of us.
Most of our problems can be solved. Most experiences we label as horrible can become a ladder that enables us to climb. Every toxic person can teach us patience, forgiveness, and deliverance. We cannot change our world until we are changed. Jesus taught that. He went to the cross believing that. He rose from the dead believing that. He asked us to follow him believing that enough people would accept his invitation.
The greatest tool for living the adventure of life is the ability to let go of the things that hurt us and allow God to lead the way. There are some of us who claim that we cannot do that. And that is fine. Letting go of painful experiences is not easy for some of us. Yet there will always be consequences to us when we choose to carrying such burdens. Others will see the pain in our eyes, in our faces, and in the way we carry ourselves.
However, for those who allow God to manage the details, there will be fewer and fewer days when we live distracted lives. We can all learn that what we cannot stand in life are only opportunities beckoning us to grow. When the world is filled with people radiating such understanding, the Kingdom of God will not be that far away.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, we find ourselves living in a world of contrasts. We experience the joy of victory and the sorrow of defeat. We learn from both the rewards of friendship and the hurt of betrayal. Through all of life's experiences, you have called us to remember the Christ. He taught us how to reflect you through the spirit by which we live. Guide us, O God, to enable your spirit to remain visible even during moments when life tests us. Remind us of the properties of light and what its radiance does to darkness. May we choose every day to reflect such light. In so doing, may we find peace and true fellowship with you. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, quiet our spirits during these moments. Help us to set aside distractions that attempt to take up residence in our minds. Our preoccupations are like demons that desire to bring hurricane winds to the stillness of our ponds. Each of us want these moments of communion with you to be unguarded, quiet and peaceful.
We readily confess how quickly tiny incidents in our lives distress us. We allow the careless words of others to hurt us. We allow the insensitivities of others to impact our peacefulness. We become frustrated with others who do not acknowledge our kindnesses with expressions of appreciation. Lead us, O God, away from such expectations. Help us to practice everyday who we want to be rather than looking for ways that we can feel validated. Help us understand that when we suffer we do so in a land of plenty. When we sense the permanent losses in El Salvador and in India where the land moved and entire families were buried under collapsing buildings, our reversals in life appear so small. Lead us to dispense compassion, understanding, and accommodation in all that we do. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .