"What Joining Christ Means"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 21, 2004
Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21
Many years ago, I placed Paul's thoughts before my junior high youth group. I divided the group into six smaller think tanks. Their assignment was to look at Paul's words, ask questions about them, tell me what they mean and then consider what it would look like to put the words into practice.
Some of the young people
were new to the Scriptures so it was interesting to watch the
unfolding of this process. They wanted to know if "Christ" was
Jesus' last name. They wanted to know about the nature of the "old
stuff" that had gone away and what the "new stuff" was that was to
replace it. They were not sure of the meaning of the word
"reconciled." No one in the six groups knew or had the confidence
to voice what their behavior would look like if they followed
through and made Paul's words visible.
Their problem was about the same that many adults face. We have to learn two things: We first have to understand what is being asked of us and secondly, we have to find the motivation to perform. In the young teen world of chewing gum, very short attention spans and showing off for each other, this exercise appeared beyond them. It appeared to be too abstract. I hastily moved to Plan B.
We made a list of all the things they believed were wrong with them from their perspective. That list was fairly extensive as I recall. We made a second list of all the things concerning them about which their parents constantly complained. Most of the items on this list were similar for all the kids. Then I handed out their work assignment for the week.
Their goal was to confuse and confound their parents while appearing absolutely neutral with their facial expressions and body language. For one week, they were to reorder their lives completely. I appealed to the actress and the actor in each of them. The group made a commitment to follow through on their assignment for one week and report back the following Sunday.
They were directed to ask their parents for more chores to do around the house. They had to write notes to each of them expressing gratitude for how fortunate they were to have them as parents. They were to get their homework assignments completed early. They had to spend some time talking one on one with each parent. They were never to ask about television. They had to limit their time on the telephone to 10-minutes.
That next Sunday night's meeting the youth were packed with energy as they listened to each other's stories. Some of the kids reported that their parents had become anxious, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Their folks had no idea what evoked this change in attitude. Parents were clearly unnerved. I had two mothers inquire about what the kids were covering in our UMYF meetings.
At first the kids experienced no
connection whatsoever between their experience and the words that Paul
wrote. Once it was pointed out to them, they had no problem connecting
the dots. They understood what was "old" and what was "new." The
meaning of "reconciled" was encountered in their experience with a
clarity greater than a verbal definition could have communicated.
They could not believe how the chemistry in the family had changed when
they did. What was so interesting was that they wanted to continue
doing this same activity for another week. The motivation, of course,
was more to freak out their parents than to experience and express new
There is nothing particularly mysterious about this process of joining with Christ. Last week we discussed how our unhappiness is a remarkable warning device, a tool for determining that something about us needs to change. We become like a ship that runs onto a sand bar when we mistakenly believe that something in our world needs to change before our sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment returns.
A ship runs aground on a sand bar
because it got off course. The sand bar is not the enemy. It is
absolutely neutral. When we burn our hands, we do not blame the stove.
When we back our car into a telephone pole we did not see, we do not
blame the "stupid pole" for being there. Such experiences offer
guidance on how to be more careful, sensitive and informed about our
surroundings. Unhappiness gives us insight into the old that
needs to be discarded and the new that needs to come, if more
wholesome results are to be experienced.
According to Paul, there is an added bonus when we make such a change. He wrote, "We have been inspired to speak on behalf of Jesus, allowing God to make God's Will known through us." There can be no greater confidence-builder than to understand that God actually does this.
Being joined with Christ means
that we have cleared our respective pipelines so that God's loving
energy can flow through it. We need to think about this metaphor. When
we are unhappy, feeling confused and lost, something has clogged our
The kids in the youth group saw
how harmonious their homes were when they wholeheartedly participated
without all the power struggles, directives and advice having to fall on
their ears from on high. The kids first had to reorder their lives for
one week to make this experience possible. The change in their homes
was instantaneous! Love, in whatever form it takes, gushes through our
pipelines when they are clear of debris. Love is another way of
describing the creative energy of God.
Last Tuesday our Bible Study class had a 2-year old girl attend whose name is Amanda Williams. She was awaiting the arrival of her baby sitter, Gary Morehead. During our discussion, Amanda walked over to one of our newest male students in the class. Gale was a complete stranger to her. She spontaneously reached out and hugged him while burying her face in his side. She did this three times to everyone's amazement. Amanda's innocence and her desire to love him were so clear. Her pipeline was obviously not clogged. Many of us have the ability to see this same quality in each other.
As we age, we are the ones who learn how to clog our pipeline. We clog it with our expectations, ambitions, fears, disappointments, frustrations, defensiveness, resentments and stubbornness. When God's loving energy tries to pass through all those filters and barriers that we created inside our pipeline, what radiates from us is our neediness, hurt and pain.
As we approach Holy Week, look
again at Jesus as he made his way to the cross. Try to imagine his
mental, emotional and spiritual state of mind. If there is anyone who
had the potential to have a clogged pipeline, it was Jesus. He
experienced the abandonment by his closest friends. He realized that
the intent of his message represented a threat to the religious
authorities. He knew that he was innocent of all charges while facing
injustice of outrageous proportions. During the darkest moments of his
life, his light was so bright that it cast its brilliance across the
centuries to billions of people.
We have to remember that while
Jesus was experiencing these moments, he was not thinking about shining
his light anywhere. He was right where most of us are when we feel
betrayed, forsaken, undervalued and abandoned. We should not try to
dilute or re-label what he experienced during Holy Week with our notions
of what we think he was doing for us.
People living in the midst of excruciating pain do not take the time to imagine that they might be remembered in a particular way by people living thousands of years in the future. We have no power to determine how other people will choose to perceive us, let alone have the audacity to believe that anyone will even remember our name ten centuries from now. What made the spirit of Jesus so visible was identical to what the Bible study class saw in Amanda -- his pipeline was clear of debris. When that happens, God can use what we do to shape human destiny. When we are joined to Christ, our pipeline is clear and God's loving energy will be free to sow destiny-shaping seeds.
Recently I read a quote that is familiar to many of us. It said, "Character is something we express when no one is looking." This is the guiding principle behind being joined to Christ. In spite of what is happening to us, we should never lose hope of what God has the potential to communicate through us. This activity of God's spirit is what preserved the Scriptures and inspired the original twelve people who believe in the formation of St. Matthew's Methodist Church forty years ago. When we have joined with Christ, miracles will happen. Any sweeping changes to history, however, will occur long after we are gone.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, from
the beginning of time, you have called each of us to live in harmony
with you. Upon entering your beautiful world, we recognize our
differences. Your will is for us to reflect your nature; our will is to
change others so they will reflect ours. Your will is to give us
freedom; our will is to help others to conform. Your love needs nothing
from us; our love has requirements, needs and limits. Your spirit
reaches out to serve everyone with beauty and opportunity; our spirits
reach for what serves us -- security, comfort and salvation. Teach us
to turn away from looking at the shadows. Help us stand in the sunlight
so that we reveal your likeness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
There are many times, O God,
when our lives are touched deeply by what happens to us. May we
also discover that we can equally find purpose and meaning as we touch
the lives of others with the person we have become.
We have recognized that the cold winds and
the frosty mornings are slowly surrendering to the changing of the
seasons. All around us, life is renewing itself as many of nature's
life forms emerge from their dormancy. Likewise we are reminded how our
lives are changing. So many times our Good Fridays also give birth to
Easter mornings as we grow beyond our pain, as we cease personalizing
the thoughts of others and as we produce the diamond because we have
experienced the heat and pressures of life.
How grateful we are today that new personalities desire to become a part of our church family. May we realize that as our congregation grows, so do we. Each of us has gifts to share. Your son shared with us his life, so may we learn to share ours as well. Just as the daffodils and tulips of Spring bathe our eyes with beauty, may we also learn to bloom where we are. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .