"The Joy of Finally Getting It"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 9, 2001
Luke 15:1-10; I Timothy 1:12-17
After repeated failures Ellen said, "You may want to touch your nose with your index finger and slowly back it away. Doing this will help get your eyes out of focus just a bit while you are looking at the picture." I practiced and practiced, still believing that I was being had. Then, when I was not expecting it, the Statue of Liberty appeared. There she stood in a three dimensional form as the green squiggly lines disappeared. I finally got it!
Most of us know the feeling that sweeps over us when we finally master something that we have been working on for a long time. Do you remember when you first sat down to the keyboard of a typewriter? How about when you put on your first pair of skis? Do you remember when you first tried to dock your boat without smashing into the pylons? Once we learn a new skill, we join the ranks of others who seem to perform such tasks with ease.
The same is true with issues of faith. In our lesson today, Paul was describing for his readers how failure was part of his growth process. Understanding an enlightened way to live never comes to us automatically. As long as we are failing at something, we know that we still have a lot to learn. We can always give up and surrender to defeat, or we can continue working until we "get it." All struggles are with ourselves and never with what we believe is challenging us.
Our lesson today is filled with words of celebration. Paul was thanking God for finding him worthy. He wrote about how God had poured out "abundant mercy and grace" on him. Paul was using such descriptive language from the vantage point of having gotten it. He understood the one ingredient that makes life fulfilling and would fuel enthusiasm for each new day. Today we are going to explore this theme.
Before Paul arrived at his new awareness, he missed the mark repeatedly. Paul referred to himself as "the worst of sinners." In fact, throughout his letters, Paul reminded his readers that he considered himself to be the greatest failure who ever lived. Before he got it, his approach to life was angry and defensive. He wrote about his verbal attacks on Jesus. He wrote about how he persecuted and insulted Jesus' followers. Paul explained his behavior this way, ". . . I did not yet have understanding and so I did not know what I was doing."
When we review the Gospels, the writers give us many colorful examples of people who finally got it after a time of struggle. My favorite example of this is found in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. That son finally "got it" after thrashing around in life with self-destructive behavior. He squandered his inheritance, lost his friends, and found himself eating with pigs. The moment he decided to give of himself, life took on new meaning. His desire to become one of his father's hired servants was what brought him home.
There was Zacchaeus, the tax collector. What brought him to Jesus was curiosity. He was so small in stature that he climbed a tree to get a better view of this carpenter who dared to preach love instead of a stricter adherence to the Law. After eating lunch with Jesus, Zacchaeus finally "got it"! He decided to give back to people four times as much as he had taken from them.
There was Nicodemus, a powerful member of the Sanhedrin. He came to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Jesus taught Nicodemus that he had to approach life with a different awareness. Jesus used the metaphor of "rebirth" to help Nicodemus understand how radical his change of thinking had to be. Nicodemus learned that he had to give to life from values of the spirit rather than receive from his reputation of being one of Jerusalem's most respected power-brokers.
This morning we have listened to stories about our mission team's experience in Juarez. Every year those who go to Mexico experience a clash of cultures. We own and operate countless electrical devices within our homes. The Mexicans who live where we work frequently have one wire that operates 40 watt bulbs. We have houses with two, three, or four bathrooms, and their water comes from 55 gallon drums that sit in front of their houses. Our young people have more casual spending money than most Mexican workers earn in a year. For many first-timers, the Juarez experience is a culture shock.
Our teams return from Mexico year after year with a new perspective on life. Why is that? What happens to them? What is the one ingredient in life that ties our mission team's efforts to the experiences of Saul of Tarsus, the Prodigal Son, Zacchaeus, and Nicodemus? The answer lies in an area of life that takes on enormous power when it becomes a way of life. Our team went to Mexico with the expressed purpose of giving. Giving changes the entire dynamic of our spirit. It changes everything about us.
If we look at the Apostle Paul before he had a change of mind, we will find a different man. He was threatened by Jesus' message. He had committed himself to the preservation of his old-time religion because it was good enough for him and for everyone else. Saul translated his beliefs into anger. He hunted the followers of Jesus as though they were criminals.
Documents that were circulating in the early Church suggest that Saul had even committed murder. Such a practice was acceptable to Saul's thinking because the cause was righteous and just. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul wrote that he was "chief among sinners." Before he had a change of mind and heart, he had little to give that could heal the lives of others. He had not understood what makes life bloom.
Many of us make the same common mistake. For example, we believe that we are entitled to respect and when we do not receive it, we feel abused and angry. And it is always with just cause that we take out our sword of "justice" in order to do battle. Jesus said, "Give without counting the cost."
We all believe that we should forgive people until someone offends us, then the business of forgiveness becomes a personal matter. We believe we are entitled to our hurt and pain. We think, "Everyone knows that we are perfectly justified to feel the way we do!" Our need to be affirmed by people frequently blocks our ability to give. Jesus said, "Love those who say all manner of unkind things about you."
When we finally get it, we realize that all our thoughts, efforts, and energy must be headed in only one direction—away from us as we present ourselves to others. Jesus sent us into an imperfect world, filled with imperfect people in order to demonstrate to others what healed lives look like. Our lives have been wired to give. When we expect and need to be treated a certain way, the ice upon which we stand can be broken at any time by anyone.
Any mission effort like our annual trips to Juarez sets up all participants for giving. They are not in the Mexican environment to receive anything. Of course, givers always receive far more by what they do because joy is always the unexpected result. When we learn that every moment of our lives is an opportunity to give, to build, to teach, and to guide others, we will never be without joy.
When giving becomes the cornerstone of what motivates and inspires us, what is there that can ever disappoint us? When we understand this vital principle of life, when we finally get it, there is much to celebrate.
If any of us doubts that we can authentically live this way, look again at the one who hung on the cross. He gave and gave until his battered and beaten physical body could no longer hold his spirit. Jesus believed in us. That is why he said, "Follow me."
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for sharing with us the essence of who you are. You have given us the ability to give without counting the cost; to forgive from a spirit that is not offended, and to point with our living to your loving nature. We welcome the opportunity to live inspired lives, to sow seeds of hope where there is despair, to offer encouragement where there is doubt, and to teach insight where purpose has been lost. Guide us each day to give away the very qualities of life that we most want for ourselves. Lead us to know that you touch others constantly through the spirit by which we live. Words are inadequate, O God, to express our appreciation to you for enabling us to fulfill our purpose in your marvelous world. We find that there is no higher calling than to become what you created us to be. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Ever faithful God, we enter this place of worship eager to find the peace which will still our spirits. The highways of our minds so often seem clogged with traffic patterns of thoughts that keep us off balance. There are times when we must face the unpleasant and we feel ill-equipped. There are moments when the list of duties appears as a mountain we fear we cannot climb.
And yet, O God, how often we find ourselves resourced by your felt presence. How often during a moment of doubt, we have heard you whisper within us, "Trust me, we can do this together." How many times have we been distraught and found that a friend has arrived with just the right words of reassurance?
When we open ourselves to your guidance, we are often overwhelmed by your love. Sometimes, O God, during moments of our greatest vulnerability, it is then that we understand you have never left our side.
We pray today that you will bring us to a new awareness of your love and your guidance. Teach us that all we have to do is ask for more opportunities to give of ourselves and miracles will surround us. And as you guide us in the art of giving, enable us to learn that giving unselfishly is where faith begins. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .