"Growing Beyond Your Self"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 29, 2004

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Luke 14:1, 7-14

     A long time ago I wrote a letter to woman who had been a former member of our youth fellowship during our days in Cheverly.  She had become an advertising executive in New York City.  She did a very interesting thing.  When she answered my letter, she enclosed the one I had sent to her.  On it, she circled all the times I had used the word “I.”  There were small circles all over my letter.            

     Her doing that was like holding a mirror in front of me.  It changed the number of times the “I” word appeared in all future correspondence not only to her but also to others.  Then the thought occurred to me, “Was my response a defensive posture because I did not want to appear self-absorbed?”  Of course it was.           

     The role that Self plays in our lives is beyond our ability to imagine or comprehend.  How could we ever measure such a thing?  Most of our behavior and attitudes appear quite natural to us, but do they appear that way to other people?   Do others process life in the same way that we do?  Obviously the answer is no.  It may be accurate to say that we really never know anyone until we are with him or her long enough for their Self to display itself.             

     For example, while discussing personal finances with a couple who is planning to be married, I will frequently stumble upon an area that will make them both laugh self-consciously.  When a couple chooses to marry, they bring into the relationship two distinct family cultures which each tends to downplay for the sake of their romantic involvement. Both bring their own set of communication skills, responses and spending habits that each has developed over a long period of time.              

     If the husband-to-be collects antique cars, purchases Weatherbee hunting rifles, requires season tickets to the Redskins, appears to need every tool that Sears carries, or who has a massive collection of CDs, such things could represent a considerable cash drain for the couple if such spending habits go unchecked.  

     If the bride-to-be has 45 pairs of shoes, matching earrings, several walk in closets full of clothes with matching purses, 30 bottles of assorted beauty products setting all around the bathroom sink and another collection of tubes, bottles and powders setting on the top of her dresser, the couple is looking at another financial outlay that may need to be modified.             

     Sometimes one of the more difficult tasks facing newlyweds is learning how to set the needs of Self aside for the sake of “us.”  The problem is that each wants to maintain control of his or her learned habits and desires resulting in the statistic that only 8% of Americans are financially independent by the time they reach the age of 65.  Living one day at a time is fine, but experiencing each day with Self in control may be more like an exercise in gratifying perceived needs than in long-term financial planning.             

     Self can also assume control over our attitudes.  In some cases, Self is in such control that it does not dawn on some people to change their responses for the sake of those who must be around them. For instance, they cannot let go of past hurts.  They despise anyone telling them what to do.  They cannot deal with people whose values are different from theirs.  The words, “I apologize” are not part of their vocabulary.  Maintaining their schedule is the only one that matters. Again, Self may play a more substantial role than we wish to acknowledge.   Self can very effectively block our spirits from ever showing themselves.     

     In our lesson today, Jesus was instructing his listeners on a topic in which most of them probably felt very comfortable.  Jesus had been invited to the home of a Pharisee where it was customary for the host to extend an open invitation to anyone in the immediate community.  A rabbi coming to someone’s home was a major social event.            

     Jesus had already arrived and he noticed how people were choosing the best seats for themselves.  Today most of us would not find anything amiss with such behavior.  We do it all the time.   In fact, many of us intentionally choose to arrive early at a social function so we can find the most opportune place to sit.  

     Those of us who do this are motivated for a number of reasons.  We may be thinking of an exit strategy where we could slip away quietly and unnoticed. We may want to avoid sitting near the D.J.’s gigantic speakers that produce what often overrides our table conversation.  We may desire easy access to the bathrooms. 

     Jesus used his observation to talk about thoughtfulness and humility, trying to teach his listeners how to set Self aside so that their spirits might show.  He used a wedding reception as the setting to illustrate his point.  He was warning them not to take the prime seats, but to choose a place that was away from the center of activity.   In this way, he said, the host may invite them to a more prominent place.            

     Jesus taught this same lesson in many different forms.  The issue of resisting the impulses of Self was extremely important to Jesus.  This time his teaching came with these words, “For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great.”  In the Beatitudes, Jesus taught, “Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised.”  We also remember Jesus’ teaching, “The first will be last and the last will be first.”  Each teaching was reminding his listeners to consider the position of “Self” in their daily activities so that it would not prevent the energy of their spirits from showing.  

     No matter what lessons Jesus was teaching his audiences he was always asking them to consider the direction in which their energy flowed. Self tends to hover around everything that we do. Self-interest drives us, it focuses our attention on certain goals, it motivates us, it fashions our attitudes, it causes us to polish certain responses and it determines why certain activities appear more attractive to us than others.  

If most of us are honest about how Jesus’ words impact us, i.e., the idea of loving others, serving one another, forgiving others or engaging in an activity that would require some sacrifice on our part, we may find that following his teachings often depends on certain conditions. 

     For example, we may first consider who is asking us to get involved.  We tend to think about our hectic schedules.  We may wonder about whom else might be better qualified for this role. We may stall in making a decision because we want more information.  In other words, we are very good at making excuses for being hesitant in loving, serving, forgiving and in sacrificing.  Self can be lurking even around the edges of how we practice our discipleship. 

     Jesus’ teaching took people into a completely different universe.  He was asking them to examine what motivates them while telling them to grow beyond the perceived needs of Self.  He was inviting them to share in his Kingdom life, a choice where spirit is given the power to override the desires of Self.  Self and spirit are strange bed partners.   

     Even though both reside within us they often display different values.  Self is into power, popularity, notoriety, wants, needs and gratification.  Spirit is into a far less glamorous part of life, that of making visible our invisible qualities such as being a careful listener, caring and accepting others just as they are.  Listening to our own inner dialogue will reveal this when we ask ourselves, “Should I assert myself during this challenging moment or be the servant?”   

    Jesus came into the world to shatter or disrupt our routines, our habits, our conditioned responses and our well-rehearsed living patterns.  Now and then we need someone to get into our hearts and minds in order to tell us that we can do better or that life is far more than that for which we have settled.  Jesus’ messages to his listeners came from a spirit that deeply loved them.  He knew their potential when they did not. 

     What Self despises the most is experiencing vulnerability, uncertainty, a lack of control and the inability to assert its highly skilled arsenal of defenses. When we invest enormous amounts of energy in Self, it will grow to a size that tries to dominate spirit like Goliath over David.  We can dismantle the Self in two ways, one decision at a time or to repent, i.e., to have a complete change of mind.  

     We have the potential to release all our fears and unpleasant attitudes.  When we let go, often we will become vulnerable and uncertain.  We often lose our identity for a while because Self was that highly polished vehicle through which we communicated. We may lose control for a while, but we discover humility.  We may also become someone who understands that God is working through us in ways we do not understand. 

     One of my colleagues had a church in Annapolis while I was at Capitol Hill.   We were discussing issues about lay leadership in our churches.  He was interested in how I managed, particularly during a period when a portion of the church’s membership would change following a national election. 

     His church had a unique set of issues as well because his church was located near the Naval Academy. He told me about the struggles faced by two of his leaders.  One was a retired Admiral.  The second was a retired Federal employee who left his last position as a GS-18.             

     Both of them had years of experience commanding the respect of others.  They were accustomed to giving orders. They were decision makers. They could either terminate people or send them on some detail that took them out of their networks.   They brought this conditioned mindset into the church and people responded to these two men as though they belonged in another universe.  

     He told me that the two had few skills for working in an all-volunteer organization.  The church people did not care what they did for a living before retirement.  These two experts found themselves on a level playing field with some people who had not graduated from high school.  

     Without the authority of their former positions behind them, each discovered that respect was not a given. It had to be earned which was a very humbling experience for them both.  One older lady said to the Admiral “Sir, if I were you, I’d save my breath to cool my tea.”  No one had ever spoken to him like that.  My colleague said that it was difficult for the two men to climb down from their perches and become partners in a faith community. 

     This teaching of Jesus was not simply about selecting the cheap seats at a wedding feast.  What Jesus was addressing goes to the heart of where many of us live.   It is Self that becomes offended by others.  It is Self that becomes uncooperative and chooses to remain aloof.  It is Self that resists the flow of others in the work environment.  It is Self that develops reasons for not serving others in a spirit of kindness.  It is Self that resents engaging in activities that require something from us, particularly if it was an assignment that was not of our choosing. 

    Jesus once taught, “Unless you become like a child, you will not enter the Kingdom of God.”  This one lesson sums up Jesus’ message with a very clear image.  When we live in simple trust that God’s will is being done through us, we will constantly be surprised by the number of opportunities to do so.  Such moments encourage us to grow beyond Self so that our spirits will reveal themselves with increased authenticity.  We are no longer afraid to take risks.  May each of us focus our lives on that trusting innocence that communicates, “Not my will but thine be done.”


    We thank you, God, for creating us with the capacity to experience life with courage.  It is not easy to live the values Jesus taught, until we understand that they make you visible.  It is not easy to view our experiences as stepping-stones toward greater faithfulness to you, until we remember that we were called to be a light in darkness.  It is not easy to rise above the pain when others hurt us, until we learn that they inspire us to practice the skills of forgiveness, kindness, and mercy.  May we learn that with you, we can create a world where peace and harmony have no boundaries.  Even though hostilities may rage around us, may our spirits remain islands of peace.  Amen


    We thank you, O God, for these moments when nothing is expected of us.  As we sit here in our pews, enable us to lay aside those things that have preoccupied our minds this week.  Enable us to picture you using a large wet sponge to erase the blackboard that contains all our distractions, our worries, and our frustrations.  We let them go so that we can spend these moments of prayer with you in total communion. 

    Why is it, Lord, that we prevent small hurts from healing?  The more we think about them, the larger and more controlling they become.  Why is it that we allow the words and attitudes of others to handicap our spirits?  Are we that fragile that we so easily discard our peace and our enthusiasm, by the tyranny of little things that can daily cross the stage of our experiences?  Enable us to accept what we cannot change with gracious spirits that know that such things provide us with endless opportunities to practice patience, kindness, forgiveness and peace.  Without the storms, O God, we develop few skills.  

    As we face the challenges of the coming week, may we choose to show up enthusiastically for every moment. Spare us from looking to others for help when someone’s need stands before us.  Spare us from selecting comfortable choices that require little from us.  Spare us from refusing to grow because of our need to be in control.  May we live, O God, so that our discipleship shows.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .