"Life's Best Medication"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 15, 2002

Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35


     This past Wednesday was an extremely important day in the life of our nation.  From the very early hours to late into the evening there were national and community observances that represented more than, "Letís now have a moment of silence for all the people who lost their lives a year ago."  Those of us who have sensitivities to what happened on September 11 had our senses bathed with scenes that touched every emotion.   

     Like any wound, the process of healing started the moment the terrorists had completed their assignments. The subsurface tissue of our nation began to regenerate as rescue vehicles carried their precious cargo to the emergency rooms of every hospital for miles.  Cranes, dump trucks, engineers and contractors moved in as the next layer of tissue began to heal.  Communities gathered around those who had lost loved ones, money poured in for support, college education funds were established and support groups everywhere sprang to life.   

     The stories of average people have never been told to the extent that they were last Wednesday. If there was ever any question about the identity of this country, it should not be in doubt any longer. America needed to have a day when our ears and eyes could be washed out by stories illustrating who we are.  We needed to experience all of it because so many of us become saturated by  news events that are more suitable for those who thrive on tabloid sensationalism.  

     Be not mistaken, we have a lot of faults.  No one questions that we make a lot of errors in our judgment.  For one day, however, the people responsible for what we see and hear in our news portrayed the image of America accurately and balanced. 

     This morning I would like to talk about one of the contributing factors that hastened the healing of our country's psyche.  The element that has enhanced the mending of our soul is disguised like the leaven for the loaf. It is an ingredient that would not be recognized by everyone.  As we look at this vital quality that promotes healing, we will see that what has helped America to get back on her feet can also focus our lives on what is vital to our personal mental, physical and spiritual health.  What I am about to describe is life's best medicine for everything that hurts.   

     One day Peter came to Jesus and said, "Master, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him?  Should I do it seven times?"  "No, not seven times," Jesus answered, "but seventy times seven because this is the way it is in the Kingdom of heaven."

     Countless people understand Jesus' teaching as passive, as an attitude that lacks courage.  Forgiveness can easily be interpreted as someone saying, "You have brought tragedy into my life. Yes, I was hurt; in fact, I was devastated. But, I forgive you."  Statements like this appear to communicate that the other person is being relieved of the responsibility for what they have done.  By simply "turning the other cheek," the perpetrators of "anti-life behavior" may possibly go on to replicate their crimes against humanity again and again.

     The truth is that such people will remain unchanged until the day they choose to live differently. Healing never starts with the bee that stings.  When the honey bee leaves part of its anatomy in its perceived enemy, it dies. Nothing will ever change this outcome.  Forgiveness is the best medication for the one who was stung.  This is how our nation is healing.  This is how we heal. 

     When understood, forgiveness causes us to shift our focus from the hurt to getting up, moving on, and coming to the aid of others who were also knocked down. Forgiveness is the way we have been wired by our Creator whether we believe in it or not.   We always find life far more  rewarding when we cooperate with how we were designed.  Any other behavior will have us swimming against the current that flows through us.  

     It is absolutely pointless for any of us to allow someone's callous disregard for human life to bring us to their level of response.  Jesus taught and demonstrated a new understanding while hanging on a cross.  When asked about forgiveness, Jesus said, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven because this is the way it is in the Kingdom of heaven." 

     What we saw last Wednesday was testimony after testimony of how Americans have lifted their focus from revenge to caring for each other. This response was given immediately.  We are the ones who have to heal. The people who continue to make visible their anti-life doctrines will eventually learn that what they sow, they will one day reap.  

     Regardless of what the terrorists believe, no human being can awaken every morning proud of themselves for murdering innocent people.  That is not the way God made us.  Such people may act jubilantly in public as they defiantly wave their weapons, but it is when they are alone that their nightmares will come.  None of us ever escapes who we are.  This is why divine justice is so exact.  When we cannot let go of something, it controls us.  Eventually it will create in us someone we were never designed to be.

     About ten years ago, there were a number of churches in the south that were deliberately destroyed by arsonists. The practice was so wide spread that Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company dropped their coverage of church buildings.  Our church at Capitol Hill was one of them. We had to find a new insurance carrier.

     In the aftermath of the fires, many of the congregations gathered in the ruins of their churches to celebrate that no one had been hurt.  Each vowed that, with God's help, they would build again.  And they did. Nothing would be gained by staring at the ashes and nursing bitterness over who had done this. Holding on to resentment would not reverse what happened.  They immediately mobilized themselves to build again.  This is who we are.  This is how God created us. Healing always begins from the inside and moves outward.

     One of the arsonists was caught by the police.  His story is so typical of what happens when people cannot let go of  hurt. By nurturing his personal resentment, he did something he would never have done the year before.

     The sad saga began immediately following the death of the arsonist's father. The minister who conducted the memorial service preached about Hell and damnation.  His words condemned the deceased man for his decadent life-style and then launched into a message designed "to save" those who still had time "to accept Christ."  Believe it or not, there are a lot of pastors out there who still exploit people during their most vulnerable moments to "win souls" through the use of fear.

     The deceased man's son left that service enraged that the minister had dared to judge the character of his father.  He spent weeks thinking about how he could strike back. He took his cues from the headlines that mentioned churches being burned throughout the South.  Figuring he could get even while shifting blame to other arsonists, he retaliated against that minister with a match.

     He talked openly about his bitterness to friends and expressed joy over the destruction of the church.  It was one of those listeners who provided the police with a suspect who had "probable cause."  A search of his residence led officers to evidence that connected him to the crime. Long before the judge sentenced him, he had been living in a prison of his own design. 

     When Jesus said, "Forgive seventy times seven, because this is the way it is in the Kingdom of heaven," what must such an environment be like?  Jesus was so secure with himself and with his relationship with God that absolutely no one could prevent him from living in heaven while still in his physical form.

     He invited us to follow him. Consider his circumstances and then ask yourself, "Could I follow him?"  One of his chosen followers betrayed him with a kiss. His best friends abandoned him after his arrest.  The disciple upon whom he said he would build his church denied him three times.  There may have been moments when he experienced the absence of God, but his love for those who could not see never wavered.  Jesus could say, "because this is the way it is in the Kingdom of heaven" because he lived there every day.  Can we follow him?

     Dr. Herbert Miller tells of a painful episode with his daughter.  Dr. Miller is a psychiatrist. He faced a challenge when his daughter began dating a person completely alien to her value system.  The young man radiated a toxic, rebellious behavior.  He was developing habits that would lead to ill-health and expensive addictions.  He was rude, had no tolerance for differing opinions and had an explosive temperament toward authority figures.

     Dr. Miller  took a long walk with his daughter and tried to share his insights about her choice of boyfriends.  In spite of his skill in communicating, all she heard was his disapproval. She said,

     Dad, I am 18.  I am no longer your little girl.  I appreciate your concern but I cannot allow you to tell me what I should do with my life. You know better than anyone else that it doesn't work that way.  This is my life and when I want your advice, I will come to you and ask for it. The things you tell your clients -- save it for them.  I don't need it.  From now on, the subject of my relationship with Jimmy is not something that I want to discuss. Have I made myself clear? 

     He said, "Perfectly."  He knew she was right.  He agonized nevertheless. Dr. Miller and his wife had reared her well.  She was confident, self-assertive and she knew how to go after what she wanted.  What she lacked was experience with her heart when it came to men whose fragile, insecure nature made her feel vitally alive and needed.  She was in love with being needed for the first time in her life.

     Dr. Miller wrote, "My abilities were worthless when I tried to use them on someone who was not seeking what I have to offer.  My sense of inadequacy was overwhelming when the person I could not help was my own daughter.  I found myself empathizing with God who knows our every need, but if we do not come seeking, there is little that even the creator of the universe can do but wait.  That is what I did." 

     About six months after their discussion, Jimmy was killed attempting to rob a liquor store. In searching his apartment, the police found drugs and pornography.  Alecia was devastated. So much had focused for her within a very short time.  She ran to her father who had been waiting eagerly with the love he had never stopped giving her.  His arms were wide. All she said was, "Oh Daddy!".  He held her while she cried and cried.  Healing started immediately. 

     Having a forgiving spirit always allows others to be who they are, even when staying there is painful.  Dr. Miller illustrated that. Other people must find their way when they are ready to understand.  We were created in God's image.  When we learn that our form of justice will not work, God waits for us with a better idea.  Dr. Miller wrote that these moments with his daughter caused him to age both physically and spiritually.  When the episode was behind them, he grew younger and wiser. 

                This past week we have seen the best side of America through the experiences of our own people.  What we have seen in them, we also have within ourselves.  We have to remember to use these qualities everyday.  This is who we are.  We only change this identity when we allow others to convince us that we are someone else.

     Remember Jesus said, "No not seven times, but seventy times seven, because this is the way it is in the Kingdom of heaven."  Jesus would not have taught forgiveness if living this way is impossible to achieve.  When we experience forgiveness every moment, we will be taking life's best medicine.  We can expect healing, happiness and health for the rest of our lives.  Who of us would want anything less?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     We thank you, O God, for your mercy and patience.  We cannot live a day without experiencing the limitations of our faith.  We have flashes of thoughtfulness alongside moments of insensitivity.  We become excited over the areas of our growth, while knowing how polarized we can become over the tyranny of little things.  We enjoy celebrating our faith when life blesses us, while masking the moments when we are lonely, frustrated or hurt.  Lead us to understand that we crawl, walk and then run.  Enable us to remain patient with ourselves.  Help us remember that you are not yet finished with us.  It is in our trusting you that hindsight blesses us with understanding.  It is in our forgiving that we are set free.  Thank you, Lord, for blessing us with such abilities.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Loving God, we thank that as we find ourselves reaching toward you, we always find you reaching back to us.  Maybe your presence comes in a particular hymn that we sing, a hymn that brings back memories we had almost forgotten.  Perhaps you come to us in the words of an anthem, a prayer, a sermon, or thoughts that enter our minds from a place we know not. 

     Jesus gave us the imagery of the vine and the branches.  He told us that the branches only remained nourished when they remain connected to the vine.  Even though we may find numerous reasons to go about life without you, we thank you that we are here. 

     Enable us this week, O God, to consider one task that will become our sole responsibility as we go about our living among others.  This week, help us to remove the sting from some judgment we have been carrying.  This week, enable us to surrender into your care some ancient hurt that has been molding and shaping us ever since it happened.  This week, may we instantly forgive those who have not learned how to care, how to communicate well, or how to enjoy anything. This week, may we learn to give greater depth to what it means to be a friend.  And at the end of this week, may we quietly vow to live this way for one more week.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . 

[Prayer]