"Faithfulness Requires A Willingness"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 26, 2003

Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20


     This morning I want to talk about one of the strongest "demons" that we human beings have to face.   Every day it has the ability to override the truth that we know, the values that we hold and the faith that we espouse.  It has the power to justify behavior we would never dream of doing until we were presented with something it interpreted as "an opportunity."  This demon is our own will.  It also helps us deny that we have wandered from the path that honors God.

     Years ago a number of us can remember the comedian Flip Wilson.  Geraldine was one of his characters, a character who always protected her innocence by saying, "The Devil made me do it."  In the soon to be seen St. Matthew's production of Oklahoma, we will hear a song that features the words, "I'm just a girl who can't say, 'no', I'm in a terrible fix." 

     We are experts at developing perfectly logical excuses -- "good reasons" --  for how we respond to life issues when it is our will that is actually in charge.  It reveals exactly who we are.  Even though our words and beliefs may be framed around our interpretation of Scripture, our wills often reveal "a stranger" who appears to be living in our bodies with us. 

     This is not to say that our wills are inherently "evil.  They are not. They are the way they are because they have received years of training according to the gospel of "self interest."  When a higher calling beckons us, it becomes quite challenging to retrain a will that we have educated for years.  We seldom talk about our wills.  It is painful to be honest with ourselves.

     Have you noticed that almost any time we turn on our television sets there are several infomercials featuring some piece of exercise equipment.  The well oiled, highly defined bodies of models show off  what they claim is possible for us within a very short period of time. 

     Viewers are treated to very touching testimonies from people who claim how their lives have been dramatically transformed.  Spouses become convincingly emotional with their sincerity as they describe their fears: "Had this product not come into our lives when it did, a fatal heart attack was eminent.  Now my husband will be here for our grandchildren." 

     When experts are asked to evaluate which high-end products are the best for the average person to use safely, do you know what they say?  They tell us that all of them will work. The one ingredient that is never discussed in any infomercial is a spiritual element -- the will to use such equipment faithfully, the will to monitor carefully what we eat, and the will to retrain "this will" that has brought 65 percent of Americans to our current crisis in health.

     The problem facing us today is not a scarcity of truth, but the will to follow through with what we know. This same well-trained will lives just under the surface of people in their congregational life as church leaders race to package the Good News in countless new and attractive forms.   

     You may have seen the article in the Washington Post some weeks ago that discussed the theatrical aspects of worship services that are taking place in many of the growing and dynamic congregations in the Metropolitan area.

     Churches have invested in sound systems that are similar to those in movie theaters.  The lighting can be altered to affect the mood of people. One article admitted that worship is becoming "a form of entertainment" that attracts people who want what stimulates and excites their emotions while lifting their spirits with the "sounds of Jesus."  It works!

     Members of St. Matthew's who have visited such churches while on a road trip to visit grandchildren, confide that such services are extremely impressive.  The sanctuaries are filled with people and the money flows into the church coffers in very generous amounts. Such formulas for attracting large numbers of people have church officials delighted.

     Yet in spite of our style of worship, eventually a time comes when each of us is away from the lighting, the massive well-funded music programs and the highly polished sermons, and we have to choose to live differently because we are followers of Jesus Christ.  Are we committed enough to rise above the habits, beliefs and response mechanisms that have been molding and shaping our lives for decades?  No one can answer that question for any of us.  It is ours and ours alone to answer.

     Naturally, Jesus never had such technology at his disposal.  He wanted to change people's lives-not give them marvelous experiences. There is a vast difference between spirit filled gatherings and having the ability to express faithfulness. The one enables our hearts to sing during particular moments. The other teaches us how to express timeless values when no one is looking. 

     As we turn to our lesson today, we are going to see how challenging life was for the disciples even though they were hand picked by Jesus to be his disciples. Jesus approached Simon, Andrew, James and John.  All he said was, "Come with me and I will teach you how to change the lives of people."  All four of the men left their fishing nets and followed him.  Jesus became their coach, their mentor and teacher on a daily basis for the next three years. 

     In a world where people were living as they had for centuries, Jesus sowed the seeds of a new thought. His message was the beginning of the inward journey that we know so well today.  His revolutionary thought began with an idea and 12 men.  He became their personal trainer.  Did these conditions cause their individual wills to change?  Absolutely not!

     Even during the immediate months following their calling, their individual, value-centered wills asserted themselves constantly.  Once when Samaritan villagers did not welcome Jesus and his followers, it was James and John who asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?"  (Luke 9:54)  This was their hurt feelings talking and their coach said, "No, we are not going to do that today."

     Even those who loved Jesus occasionally became upset with his behavior.  Both Mary and Martha said, "If you had been here, our brother would not have died!" (John 11:20)  This was their self-interest talking.  They had hoped "to use" Jesus in a way that would have prevented Lazarus from dying.

     There was even an occasion where Jesus displayed his miraculous abilities, but nothing happened among those watching and listening. When our wills have been made inflexible with self-taught values and beliefs, our spirits often become blind. The Gospel of John records, "Even though Jesus had performed many miracles in their presence, they did not believe." (John 12:37)

     Jesus taught his students the path to spiritual freedom, but we have to want that freedom so badly that we are willing to put it above everything else that our wills tell us is crucial for our personal development and happiness.  Jesus taught, "If you obey my teachings, you are my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."  (John 8:32)

     Results must be experienced in our inner world-not in the world our eyes see so clearly.  Spiritual power does not come from what we experience, but from the person we have become.  There can be no substitute for our having to wrestle with our wills. Spiritual skills necessary to live in the Kingdom take the kind of practice necessary for Olympians to win the gold medal. 

     Success takes a willingness to honor God with our words and behavior even when our strong wills instruct us to do otherwise.  Jesus taught that there will be many counterfeits that knock on our doors.  He said, "The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!'; because the Kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21)

     Being a disciple appears easy -- all we have to do is make a decision for Jesus Christ -- but it is not.  Jesus warned his listeners, "The gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it." (Matthew 7:14)   Jesus knew that the many loves we find in our world call to us very seductively.  We mean well, but we stumble blindly and constantly. 

     Before we become intolerant with ourselves we need to remember that the disciples walked with Jesus every day.  They watched him love everyone from tax collectors to prostitutes-people their society despised.  They listened to his words. Yet their ability to live the Good News often escaped them. Are we any different?

     Faithfulness in our discipleship requires certain attitudes that will serve us as they did for a number of the original disciples.  (1)  We must learn to live patiently with failure.  This does not mean we are flawed; it means we are learning.  We are learning that our wills do not always lead us wisely.  If they did, there would have been no need for Jesus to teach us a better way.

     Norman Adams was partially paralyzed from a cerebral hemorrhage.  He was sent to rehabilitation.  His will came up against the very tough will of  his physical therapist.  He did not want to learn to walk again. He had given up. He was old and resigned to his fate that suggested that death was the only attractive alternative. She said, "Mr. Adams, how you are choosing to think makes no difference here.   A fact that you might as well get used to is that you will walk again.  Get over it Mr. Adams.  I am not a baby sitter!" 

     With that kind of "in your face" response, he told her that he hated her.  He wanted to see her supervisor.  She said, "Your feelings, Mr. Adams, have no power here. Stop whining! You can hate me all you want but on my watch you will learn to walk !"  He failed repeatedly, but in time his gross failures grew less frequent and today he walks because he had an excellent personal trainer.

     Learn to live patiently with failure.  Keep at it day after day. We should not be too proud to ask for help from our personal trainer.  Jesus was constantly training his disciples how to change the lives of others by changing their own. As we have already noted, they did not learn that skill immediately.

     (2)  We cannot fix or change anyone.  All we can do is radiate our love for them, and if the will of other people is to mellow, that is their call to make, not ours.  We may lose some people. The will of Judas was apparently fixed, absolutely frozen on what he wanted.  In spite of all his power, Jesus simply said, "What you must do, do quickly."   

     (3)  We must implicitly trust God with the future. This is exactly what Jesus did.  Remember, by all human standards for success, Jesus failed miserably. He used the symbols of the bread and the cup in the hope that someone might remember him.  His disciples abandoned him following his arrest in the garden.  He died between two thieves. He had written nothing.  Who would remember anything after a few generations?  Is it not fascinating that people did?   For 2,000 years people have remembered.   Only God could create such a possibility.       

     There is no question that faithfulness in our discipleship requires acts from wills that have been retrained.  We have to be willing to walk away from a lot of activities and attitudes that do not reflect God's presence in us.  We have to be willing to allow other people to grow at their own pace not ours.  We have to be willing to embrace someone whose face is displaying 15 years of poor choices.  We have to be willing to live values that are timeless, values that anyone in any culture will readily understand.  This is what Jesus did and he bid us to follow.  This is our call to discipleship.  Are we up for it, or does our will have another idea?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Loving God, we know that the story of faith was never about secure and stationary people.  Joseph was sold into slavery.  Moses was set adrift in a river.  Jesus wrestled with his identity in a wilderness.  Saul was blinded by a light that changed his thinking.  Luther could no longer tolerate what the Church had become.  Teresa left teaching to become a savior to the starving.  King had a dream that one day all people would be one.  Help us to see ourselves, O God, as standing in the same swift currents as those who have gone before us.  May we welcome the voice of change.  Help us to remain people of faith and not the fearful followers of permanence and stability.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    Loving God, how grateful we are that we can share moments of quiet and peacefulness as we direct our thoughts to you.  You know what is within us long before we open ourselves to your loving presence, yet how helpful it is for us to share with you.

    These are very fragile times, O God, for so many people.  During these recent weeks, we have watched as countless families have been disrupted, because men and women have been called by our armed services for deployment.  In some cases, both mothers and fathers have had to trust others to raise their children during their absence.  What confusion and torn loyalties have developed as a result.  Today, we lift up everyone traveling through such an emotional gauntlet.

    Lord, we ask you to help world leaders find a way to resolve the fears so many of us face.  The history of our life form has been so blood stained, as if we can never break the cycle of killing that always appears so necessary in order for peace to reign.  This makes no sense to those of us who value life.  Values clash only when love is absent.  We feel so powerless at times as we watch governments unable to communicate with each other.  Please lead the world community beside the still waters so that our souls might be restored.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .