"Stretching Is The Challenge"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - February 9, 2003

Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39


     Our Gospel lesson today discusses a disguised temptation that comes to many of us periodically throughout our lives.  This particular crisis of spirit occurred very early in Jesus' ministry.  He had just invited a number of his acquaintances to join him in the unique challenge of helping people to make creative changes in their attitudes and life patterns. Think about it.  Who would accept such a calling, particularly in a world where people's thinking seldom changed?

     What made this invitation so appealing and intriguing to accept was that Jesus had the power to heal people.  No one before had seen a person with this ability.  This spectacle attracted the curious from far and wide, catapulting Jesus into being quite an attraction. Of course, those who followed him would share in his instant popularity.  Word of what was taking place spread so dramatically that there was quite a gathering outside the home where he was staying.  Jesus faced a moment of decision regarding his gift.

     There is nothing more seductive than our desire to develop qualities that cause other people to notice us.  We like to turn heads. The multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry is counting on it. Everyone from hair stylists to plastic surgeons is banking on people coming to them to improve their appearance.  People attend Toastmasters' meetings so they can improve their public speaking ability. A good number of us enjoy improving our marketability.  For Jesus, this instant notoriety was causing him grief.

     Try to imagine what would happen if a physician today had the ability to heal everyone who came to her practice.  The best kind of publicity is word-of-mouth. Terminal patients would be carried by friends to the doctor's private residence.  There would be no respect for the physician's personal life.  Even her closest friends would prevail upon her generosity of spirit to heal one of their acquaintances or family members.

     Anyone who has developed a unique attractiveness comes to realize that it is a two-edged sword.  For example, it is wonderful to be a box office smash as an aspiring actor, but such people never have the freedom of movement that most of us take for granted.  Outside our social circles no one knows us.  Whether or not we admit this to ourselves, we cherish our anonymity and privacy.

     We can eat in any restaurant without having someone wanting us to sign their menu or to have their picture taken with us or to give us their impression of our last movie.  We do not have to wear disguises when we go into the pubic domain.  We want to attract but we also want to remain in control of when and where that happens.  Jesus immediately recognized that he had a problem. 

     Our lesson implies that Jesus was clearly in trouble.  He arose early in the morning before daybreak, left the house and escaped to a lonely place where he could be alone and pray. We can only imagine the kind of soul searching that took place during those moments.  If we could have been there and somehow gained access to his mind, no doubt he would have been thinking thoughts like these:

Father, who am I supposed to be and what am I supposed to do with this gift of healing?  I could spend my entire life doing nothing but healing others!  Yet healing may send many of them back to the kind of life they were living.  I want to teach them how to live creatively.  I want to tell them about your Kingdom.  And yet if I do not include healing with the message I give them, I will be withholding my love for them. Father, help me learn what it is you want me to do.

     When we learn how to interpret emotional and spiritual pain, it helps us to recognize that something is not working for us.  People can be bored with their marriages.  People can feel frustrated with the routine and rituals that dominate their work environment.  Teenagers can feel depressed and irritable for reasons they cannot articulate.  A person who does not understand the significance of their pain may consider suicide as an option. 

     In our society we have so many unproductive possibilities available to us.  People can take the edge off their pain through the consumption of alcohol.  Some people escape into recreational drugs. Children quickly become masters of increasingly violent video games. People can hibernate in front of their television sets armed with an extensive menu of available movies.  They can find a partner with whom to have "a fling."  Others head into prescription mood elevators in order to boost their serotonin levels. Did we hear prayer mentioned in this litany of options? 

     Jesus had enough spiritual insight to recognize what he must do.  He prayed knowing that he had to change something about his life.  Our lesson goes on to say that Simon and others began to search for him.  When they found him, they said, "Ah, here you are.  Come on back to the house.  Everyone has been looking for you."  

     Of course, they were.  They wanted another day of healing and no doubt the crowd had grown to twice the size of the day before.  Jesus said to them, "Iím not going back there.  We must go on to other villages.  I have to deliver God's message to others because it is for this purpose that I have come."  Notice how tightly focused his life's purpose suddenly became.

     As is well documented in the Gospels, Jesus' power to heal was a burden that would chip away at his identity during most of his ministry.  Often he would heal people and then give them strict instructions not to tell anyone. (Mark 1:44-45; 7:36) No one listened to that. They had something to celebrate, and they did.  There were times when he wondered if the people came to hear his message or to see him perform miracles. (Matthew 16:1-4)  He wanted people to change their thinking and attitudes, not come to "Oooh" and "Ahhhh" over "a show."

     Most of us have moments when life presents us with a choice to stretch to a new level of understanding.  Exit surveys from graduating college seniors, for example, tell a story of students who have stretched.  Eighty-five percent of them are employed outside the field for which they have studied.  Was the cost of their college education money lost?  Not at all.  Sometimes we need to go in a particular direction until we learn where it is we would rather be.  In so many areas of life, pain can be a friend that points us toward a more wholesome goal.

     While a couple is dating, if one of them reveals a personality that is too demanding, controlling, or emotionally unpredictable, the other might say, "Right now I need a lot of space."   Meanwhile, they search elsewhere for someone who has developed a more kind, considerate and less needy disposition. When the chemistry between two people is not working, pain is a warning that can be received as a very welcomed guide.

     One of the most interesting phenomenon in recent years is the number of people attending a theological seminary who have left excellent, interesting, lucrative vocations to become ministers. In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, for example, we have medical doctors, attorneys, electrical engineers, computer specialists, pilots, to name a few, who have chosen the ministry as a second-career.  What they had been doing was no longer fulfilling, and they were mature enough to stretch.

     In fact, we have a member of St. Matthew's who was once the Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland.  She has just applied to Wesley Theological Seminary and Duke University School of Divinity.  She is excited to get started with the next chapter of her adventurous life. 

     In addition to dating and vocational changes, pain often guides us when we retire.  We rear our families, get what is left in our retirement accounts in order and retire. Suddenly we find ourselves in a world of uncertainty very similar to when we began the process of making our life-charting decisions many years ago. The question comes:  "What should I do with the rest of my life?"  Retirement can be among the most exciting years.  In retirement we are presented with an entirely different set of "rules."

     For example, Galileo was still publishing his writings at the age of 74.  Michelangelo was 71 when he was appointed as the Supervising architect of St. Peter's church in Rome.  Grandma Moses did not start painting until she was 76.  Twenty-five percent of her 1,500 paintings were created after she was 100.  Susan B. Anthony was head of the Suffragettes at the age of 80.  The German poet, Goethe, wrote Faust when he was 80.  Duke Ellington was passed over by the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Committee at the age of 66.  When he heard what they had done, he said, "God does not want me to become too famous too early."

     All during our lives, opportunities come inviting us to change, to grow, to stretch, to do things we never thought possible.  Jesus went to a place where he could be alone.  With an open, sincere spirit, he placed before God what he perceived to be the source of his pain.   Then he waited and listened.

     God's word came to him, "Keep moving from village to village.  In time the crowds will not follow.  You may not have any place to lay your head but people will always provide for you.  You will have to trust me." How do we know this was God's answer?  The last verse in our lesson says,  "So he traveled all over Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and driving out demons." 

     The mantra we are hearing right now from NASA, following the destruction of the orbiter Columbia, is this: "We are going to find the problem, fix it and move forward."  This statement drives right to the heart of our lesson today.  First there was the pain, then Jesus laid his problem before God, worked on the problem in order to fix it, and finally, he moved forward to fulfill his destiny. 

     We must attempt to understand the meaning of pain when it is experienced.  When we interpret it creatively, pain becomes our guide and friend.  It is a warning that something troubling is happening within us, not in the world and not in those around us. The citizens of our world will always be whomever they choose to be. We have been called upon to be a light to that world.  That is all.  We are not here to be its judge, jury and executioner.  People need leadership, not punishment.

     As was mentioned in last week's message, there will never be a shortage of life issues that we can debate with passion.  In most cases, someone must be right and some else must be wrong. What debate can do to some people of faith is destroy their credibility. For all the "right reasons," a number of Jesus' followers can display hate on their faces and in their words. They can withdraw from those with whom they differ.  Is this who we have been called to be?

     Jesus did not go there when it came to the issues that disturbed his people.  He traveled, preached love and healed with his touch. That is a language that a growing number of people understands. Just as Jesus received clarity for his identity, so can we. This is who we are.  It is our kind that is needed in a world that is so on edge right now.  The dust will settle in our world only when individuals are settled.  Take your pain to God and leave it there.  Wait with a quiet, expectant spirit and listen. 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Merciful God, we thank you for giving us life.  We thank you for the challenges, which enable us to discover and refine our abilities.  Yet how many times have we prayed for you to give us skills we believe we do not have?  We want patience without the discomfort of our having to be patient.  We want to forgive without letting go of our need for apologies and justice.  We want success without the pain of detours, missteps and failures.  We want character while finding compromise easy to justify.  Inspire us, O God, to remember that the values of discipleship are not automatic.  Help us learn that they come by making the same choices again and again until our commitment becomes crystal clear.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    Loving God, as we sit in our sanctuary this morning, it remains a challenge for us to keep our minds focused on why we are here. With the current state of our nation's economy, the terrorist alerts, families being separated because of military obligations and all the issues surrounding our personal lives, remind us again that life is more than these.   

    There are so many crisis points over which we have no control. Gently remind us that there are still places where we can have an enormous impact.  Perhaps there is a friend who is facing further medical treatments where a call or a card would be like a ray of sunshine.  Perhaps we could take a friend to lunch as a healthy break from our routines.  Give us moments, of God, where we can gain perspective about the community where we live, the people with whom we work and the spirit we display while there. Sometimes something we may consider insignificant -- a smile, a compliment, a nod of appreciation -- is all that is necessary to bring a touch of healing to someone whose needs are hidden. 

    Comfort those who are on the mend from recent surgeries, from the loss of loved ones and from reversals at work.  Bring peace to those who are facing the uncertainty of a medical procedure.  Give us enough freedom from the noise that tries to awaken our fears so that we may remain sensitive to the needs of others who live beside us.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .