"When Commitment Is Greater Than Truth"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 30, 2001
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31
It is this kind of single-focused commitment that allowed hijackers to kill innocent people, while at the same time honestly believing that they were pleasing God with what they did. We cannot imagine how any sane person could make such a connection. And yet many of us have little trouble justifying almost anything we want to do once we have become convinced that it really matters.
Jesus was prepared to die because of the values to which he was committed. Traditions of the early Church indicate that ten of the original disciples died martyrs' deaths. Peter even requested to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his master. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death because of what he preached.
We have no problem understanding people who are willing to die while remaining faithful to their beliefs. What troubles us is when a person's commitment includes killing as many innocent people as possible. This kind of martyrdom stands in direct opposition to the teaching of every major religion on the earth.
In America, most of us have learned how to serve one another. Each day we go to work; this is what we do. We have learned that we may not like what someone is saying, but we will defend their right to say it. We have learned how to live in a diverse culture where people express themselves by body-piercing, coloring their hair pink, or engaging in profanity and tasteless sexual innuendo during prime-time television. Today Americans are constantly having to grow in our skills of living with others whose values are different from our own.
What I would like us to consider this morning is what can happen to any of us when our commitment causes us to become blind to the truth Jesus entered our world to give us. It happens more often than we realize. My intent is not to dredge up all the issues surrounding September 11. What we witnessed that day was the result of the way extremists think.
Today we are going to look at some examples of how this same kind of thinking can infiltrate our lives and affect everything from our families to our communities of faith. Again, this cancer wears many masks and disguises, but it has the same root. Because of it, we can slowly close down our spirits, placing our ability to love in prison.
Some years ago I was approached by very worried parents who needed to talk about their daughter. The story they told me was not that uncommon. Their teenage daughter's heart had been totally captivated by a young man who was four years older than she. Their 16-year-old was obsessed by thoughts of her boyfriend.
The parents painted for me a vivid, verbal portrait of their daughter's friend. Once this young man was invited to accompany the family to a shopping mall. He showed up wearing no shirt. He wore a large chain around his belt that was attached to his empty wallet. He had dropped out of high school. He found it unnecessary to show up every day to his various jobs. As a result he kept losing them. The description of his personal tastes, habits and dress code appeared endless.
In contrast, their daughter was extremely popular. She had developed work and study habits that served her well. She maintained high grades and her academic performance was excellent. Like many teenagers, she cared about how she looked. However when this young man entered her life, all this changed. The values she once held no longer commanded her loyalty. Through her newly-discovered "free spirit," she lost her appreciation for boundaries.
Her parents were overwhelmed with how powerless they were. Their daughter had become so committed to her boyfriend and his lifestyle that she could no longer hear the concerns of others. She could not see how her decisions were changing everything that communicated who she was.
What happens to us when our commitment to something far exceeds the very ingredients that can enhance the quality of our future? What happens to us when our creativity suddenly plateaus? What happens to us when our energy becomes so focused on something that we are prepared to dismantle key aspects of our identity in order to gratify some unmet need?
The fact that this happens to people is as old as the Scriptures themselves. Jesus provided us with a marvelous example of how this process works. We can become so locked into our mind-set that nothing can reach us. We can only see what we want to see, while the opinions and needs of others do not matter. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to defend the direction our thoughts are leading us? It happens.
Jesus told his listeners what happened to a rich man who totally ignored the needs of a poor, unhealthy man named Lazarus. While both men were alive, Lazarus was brought by friends to the rich man's home every day hoping to receive anything that might fall from his table. There is no evidence in this story that the rich man even knew of Lazarus' existence. His ability to care for anyone else had been put in prison.
Both men died and transitioned into the out-of-the-body consciousness where life continues. The rich man saw Lazarus with Abraham while he was in hell. He called out to Abraham for help. Abraham reminded the rich man how he had enjoyed enormous abundance during his lifetime, while Lazarus had nothing. Now their roles were reversed.
The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. Abraham reminded him that his brothers had adequate exposure to the truth since they still had Moses and the prophets. The man responded that the written truth was not enough.
He told Abraham that if someone would rise from the dead and tell them what awaits them if they do not change their ways, surely they would repent. Abraham told him that if his brothers would not listen to Moses and the prophets, they would not be convinced if someone were to come back from the grave. Sometimes we, too, can develop this same quality of tunnel vision.
Did I succeed with that teenage girl? No, I failed. Even though we had a close relationship, my words could not penetrate a mind that was already committed to her truth. Nothing else mattered but the rewards that came from her boyfriend's attention. She walked away from her friends, her youth group, her church, and eventually her family. She graduated from high school only because of some very kind and understanding teachers.
A great gulf had been fixed between her and the life she once knew. Only she possessed the keys that would permit her escape from a prison she had built one decision at a time. Apparently, she eventually found that key. I have learned since coming to St. Matthew's that she has come full circle, but it was not without a long and difficult struggle. The young man whom she allowed to exert so much control over her, died from an overdose of heroin. At the time, however, her commitment to him kept her ability to love in prison.
It should come as no surprise that many of these same close-minded attitudes can also be found in the Christian Church. Some Christians have become so convinced that the rest of us are wrong that they find it impossible to coexist with anyone other than those who think as they do. They can only tolerate those who believe differently. The commitment to their ideology isolates them from the truth Jesus came to give away.
When a group of people become so convinced that their way is THE WAY, their mission becomes the conversion of the world to their way of thinking. For them there can be no listening, no communicating, and no appreciation of diversity. There is no room for embracing the Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, or even United Methodists. It took a Damascus Road experience for Saul of Tarsus to realize that he had become a terrorist who honestly believed he had been fighting to defend the will of God.
When we Christians do not all interpret the Scriptures the same way, when new translations of the Bible alter the words found in the King James Version, and when some of us authentically embrace people regardless of their lifestyles, their spiritual skill levels, or their dress codes, we can find ourselves being labeled and judged by those who have misplaced what it means to love their neighbor.
Like my failure with the teenager who was once in my youth group, penetrating a closed mind is a challenge. This is why Jesus was ineffective in communicating to the mind of Judas Iscariot. This is why the Taliban can be so defiant toward world opinion. This is why all extremists are extremists. There is no room for any valid point of view other than their own.
Fear has an insidious way of surfacing in very innocent ways, infiltrating our belief systems and influencing the way we conduct our lives. Fear is so powerful that it can twist the minds of once faithful people by convincing them that killing others along with themselves is the highest calling anyone can have. Just think of the distance a person's mind must travel to arrive at such a conclusion. Yet their behavior is grounded in a thought pattern that is opposed to what every major religion teaches. The sacred texts of each religion contain some variation of these words: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, your family, and your loved ones."
What is the lesson here? Have the events of September 11 helped us remember that our lives can change suddenly and dramatically? Do we trust God with our lives every day, and do we radiate such confidence to everyone around us? Do we sense our mission to be the leaven for the loaf in a world that was designed by God to be a kinder and gentler place?
Every day we should expect to be confronted with issues that tempt us to imagine that our faith is shallow, that our fears are getting the best of us, and that when life becomes challenging, God has abandoned us. The greatest response to such feelings and thoughts is to recognize that they come from the voice of fear that is claiming to speak with authority.
We need to stand up and radiate everything with which God has equipped us at birth. The more we radiate such qualities, the stronger we become. When who we are communicates acceptance, healing and wholeness, we will be doing the best we can with what God gave us. We will be living the Sermon on the Mount. The rest of creation belongs to God and how God shapes the future through our faithfulness.
Susan Eicher gave a quote to her dad. Bill gave it to me. It says, "Relax, God is in charge." Such truth will never poison our thinking. This understanding will liberate our spirits so that our light will remain visible even in the midst of darkness. This is who we are. This is who we have been called to be. When we remain clear on who Jesus asked us to be, we will never be in danger of becoming like the rich man to whom Lazarus had become invisible. When our love remains visible, God's will is done.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for allowing us to play a role that helps shape the lives of others. As a community of faith, we never know whom we touch with our smiles, our extended hands, and our words of encouragement. We know the Holy Spirit heals in ways we could never understand. Thank you for equipping us with the capacity to sense the emptiness in another's spirit. Thank you for inspiring us with a desire to fill empty cups, to nurture newcomers, and to extend ourselves through friendship. May the energy created by our community of faith inspire others to say "yes" to your calling to "Come, and follow me." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you God for the island of security and peace that St. Matthew's has become for us. We know that such qualities can only be found within ourselves, but it is comforting when we realize that we have a place where we can remain who we are and find acceptance.
We have found that no matter what confronts us in life, all of us are interested in becoming stronger in our life skills, more peaceful in our spirits, and far less distracted by issues over which we have no control. What is so healing here at St. Matthew's is the way we can display our vulnerability and yet find others ready and willing to offer their friendship. We can announce our need for prayers and have the assurance that they will be offered.
As we continue to move beyond the events of September 11, we empathize with so many people in our country who have been displaced by a tear in the fabric that represents our togetherness. Businesses have closed. People have lost their source of income. And many such people feel alone because they do not command the visibility of the larger industries, and their concerns remain unrecognized. Lord, we have such a need for our return to the familiar routines we once thought were boring. We thank you that we have each other as well as the knowledge that you have always been with us in every way for every generation that has ever lived. With grateful hearts we pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .