"Power For Those In-Between Times"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 8, 2001
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40
In light of all this celebration, what prompted most of these high-spirited people to become blind to the power and presence of God as the week progressed? What characteristic do we human beings possess that gives us instant amnesia the moment life takes a challenging turn? And finally, what was it that Jesus had that kept him incredibly focused so that when the quality of his life began to change, he could continue to radiate what everyone had been shouting about?
In one week, Jesus went through what frequently takes most of us an entire lifetime to experience. One Sunday was filled with palm waving and celebration, and seven days later, his disciples witnessed a truth humanity has longed to know -- the discovery that life does not end.
During the in-between days of that incredible week was sandwiched countless life-shattering experiences. Jesus did not flinch. If we are not grounded in a place that inspires unshakable confidence in God's presence, when the unthinkable happens, we can develop blindness and amnesia almost immediately.
Life is packed with joy-filled events. We celebrate when a baby is born. We celebrate when we graduate from high school, officer candidate school, or college. We celebrate when we settle into a permanent relationship. We celebrate nearly everything. It does not take much for us to have a party. We do this all the time. Basically, life is fun and filled with enjoyable moments. It is wonderful when people wave "palms" at us and tell us that we are the greatest at what we do.
But think of all the uninvited and unanticipated experiences that have happened between those celebrations. Every experience that stretches our comfort zones to the breaking point will attempt to reach out its tentacles and try to define us. It is not the celebrations of life that try us. What tries us are the experiences that we fear might tear us apart emotionally and spiritually. When they occur and we are not grounded, we cease to see all else.
Maybe some of us want to test this idea. Go back in time to some challenging moment in our past. What happened to us when our marriage ended, or when our spouse died? What were our feelings when we discovered we could not have children, or when our older sons and daughters took a position that going to church was no longer among their priorities?
What were our thoughts when we were overpowered by the legal system? Suppose someone committed a crime against you but because they had better representation in the court of law, you lost the case. Then suppose that after the trial they walked by you and in an arrogant voice reminded you what can happen when one has enough money to hire the best.
How quickly we become disillusioned by such episodes! We do not define ourselves by our celebrations. Our joy is a natural outcome from events that communicate "life is good." What can easily cancel our light and joy is when we feel abandoned and isolated. Our energy begins to fade by hurt when we feel betrayed, lied to, or violated. We can become bitter when there is no justice.
If we put these responses on a community level, we see the same thing. Bowie currently has approximately 50,000 residents. Six years ago we had very few places to eat. Today, we have more than enough. We have an incredibly equipped senior center, major shopping centers, and services that are the envy of almost any community in the country. Set anything out by the curb and our city's collectors will carry it away. Our community is doing just fine.
Then on February 8, Jonathan Kaufman wrote a very uncomplimentary article about Bowie that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, some young people sprayed KKK on a building, and the Black Panthers came to town. Many people developed amnesia and felt the need to defend Bowie. People wanted to remind everyone that the Bowie area is a wonderful place to live. Why is it that fewer than a handful of people can cause some of the members of our community to forget who we are? Amnesia is contagious.
If we are not well-grounded, even the deeds of one person can make a community feel insecure. It took Timothy McVeigh and his bomb to send chills into every major government installation, including our White House. Spending all the money in the world will not make our fear go away and our world a safe place. Elements in our society that can evoke fear are with us constantly.
A thousand compliments can be forgotten because of one preposterous comment about our hair, our weight, how old we look, how terrible we are doing at our job, or how wrong we are. We can become immobilized for weeks by someone's verbal "cheap shot." Such amnesia blinds us to all goodness, to all the reasons for celebrating God's presence, and to all the symbols that tell us that "life is good." If we are not aware of what is happening, the tyranny of the few will take up residence in our minds and hearts.
If anyone can do that to us, we ought to be grateful to them. They have just taught us that if they can do that to us, others can. They have just taught us that we are not standing on a rock, nor are we are grounded in what inspires confidence. When we succeed in standing where Jesus stood to view his "in-between times," all the cast of characters in the peanut gallery lose their power over us.
If we can remember moments when we lost our confidence, we will be approaching what Jesus had dangled in front of him during his final week on earth. Yet for him, there was no amnesia. He did not put his life on "hold," nor did he allow the attitudes and activities of others to define him. As a matter of fact, he did just the opposite. He defined each moment by who he was. Every slap in the face, every lash from the whip, and every injustice was an opportunity to show his enemies who he was.
Jesus did not surrender to the experiences that fell in-between all of his celebrations. Jesus did not allow himself to be defined when his disciples abandoned him, or when one of his handpicked followers betrayed him, or when he was convicted on false charges, or when powerful people peddled their influence during his sentencing.
Do we see the pattern here? We should find it most compelling that Jesus was grounded elsewhere. Where was that? Life will always appear to be both bitter and sweet. Is there a place to stand where we can experience both sides of life without wavering in our understanding of God's constant presence? Absolutely!
When President Abraham Lincoln learned that a woman had faced the death of five sons during the War Between the States, he was moved to the point of tears. He felt that no one should have had to pay that price. He picked up a pen and he wrote her. How could any words possibly comfort a grieving woman who had such tragedy visited upon her family, a tragedy over which she had no control?
The woman responded with words Lincoln could not have anticipated. She told the President that she regretted that she only had five sons that she could give to the cause of these "United States." A much greater tragedy would have occurred, she wrote, had no one made any attempt to preserve the union. Clearly she was standing in a different place to view her losses.
There is a place to stand that allows our life to communicate that we live above all the Palm Sunday parades and the crosses that sometimes visit us with great frequency. Finding the place begins by knowing that God loves us by name more than creation itself. And it ends when we learn how to stand forth in all circumstances to make that fact of creation visible.
We cannot do that if we care more about what people think about us than who it is we have been called to be. Jesus did not have his identity connected to what people thought of him. People's attitudes and thoughts change easily. Loyalty is a fleeting thing, as his closest friends demonstrated. He did not come here to please anyone. He came here to make God's spirit visible. AND, he invited us to follow him and do the same.
This is the next step in our spiritual evolution as human beings. When Jesus mounted that colt, he did so knowing that his one purpose, his one mission was to radiate God's love, compassion, and a non-judgmental spirit. These are the qualities of those who live with his Kingdom's consciousness. For Jesus to have been anything less would have reflected to people the responses they already knew.
We have to remember our mission, "Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." Our role could not be any clearer. God is not going to make that happen for us, any more than parents can give their child a loving spirit. We each evolve at our own pace. Jesus simply said, "Follow me" knowing that the journey would equip us with everything we could possibly want and need to make Heaven visible. BUT, we have to give ourselves to that mission. He is our King, but his kingdom is not of this world. We have to remember that. During his darkest days, Jesus made the quality of life in Heaven visible to our world. The visibility of that Kingdom is what made people shout.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Ever faithful God, we thank you for symbols that remind us what faith is. We trust you when life is filled with joy. It is easy to wave palms to celebrate the coming of the King. How wonderful joy is when all is well. We need to trust you when our security is shattered and our closest friends abandon us. We thank you that Jesus did not waver in his trust of you when his world collapsed. We need to trust you when there is no justice in what is happening to us. Such a moment is when our relationship with you can shine the brightest. And we need to trust you when we face the final moments of this life. Help us see clearly, O God, that faith is a level of trust that is not dependent on our circumstances. As we follow Jesus, may we discover and use the trust he demonstrated. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How wonderful it is, O God, that we have a Shepherd who is also our King. Just as he rode into Jerusalem thousands of years ago as a servant of the people, so he rides into human lives today. He comes sometimes in the heritage of a family's faith, sometimes when people feel helplessly lost and are reaching out, and sometimes because people have decided that they are tired of dealing with the surface issues of life and want more. And he comes bringing a power that is seldom recognized by anyone preoccupied by the limiting elements of our physical world.
We are grateful, O God, that he is a King who rules by inviting his subjects to become more than they ever thought possible. We thank you for his timeless lessons and for his invitation to make visible the values that will grow in power the more we use them.
Help us lift our eyes beyond the illusions of this world. May we not miss understanding your will because we want something in our society fixed, or because we want others to make us feel more fulfilled with life. Lead us to drink from that well that shall cause us to never thirst again. Lead us to understand with complete trust that our only mission here is to make you visible in all circumstances, just as Jesus did during his final week on earth. May we hear his words and with confidence live them. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .