"When Our Excuses Are Good"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 27, 2004

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Luke 9:51-62

     If there is one skill that most of us have learned to use with surgical precision, it is the art of making excuses.  We are good at this skill because we have spent years practicing how to perform.  This process began very early in our childhood.  

     When teachers broke up squabbles on the playground, for example, they heard the all too familiar whiney voice saying, “He started it.  Would you please tell Billy to stop pulling my hair?”  A wise teacher would say, “That’s just Billy’s way of telling you how much he likes you.” They would both look at each other and say, “oooooh!” and then run off. With any luck the behavior would fade.  However, the skill of excuse making -- “He started it.” -- would remain and become stronger through many more years of continued practice. 

     One of the numerous shortcomings of developing this skill is that a number of people can postpone almost indefinitely their need to assume responsibility for who they are becoming.  For example, one of the most frequently asked questions among young people entering adolescence and beyond is, “Who am I?” They may not know if they spend most of their life reacting to a host of people and circumstances.  Their true potential will only emerge when they stop this practice and begin being proactive by allowing their own fruit to show.

     Here are some of the identity snatchers that we hear from time to time, “I had terrible parents; my home life was an absolute nightmare.  The preacher in my childhood was rigid, dictatorial and made me deathly afraid of God.  I was raped as a schoolgirl. I got involved with the wrong crowd.  I need my hour for lunch and I’m taking all my sick days too.  I deserve them.” 

     These are all good excuses, and, because we have developed them through such strong acts of will, changing them becomes increasingly difficult. Such memories and our reactions to them often become the basis of our identity. Let us now begin considering a way we can change this process.  

     Our Gospel lesson has a great illustration that appears to paint Jesus as a person who lacks sensitivity toward a couple of individuals.  There were a number of people who accepted Jesus’ invitation to become a disciple, but one of them wanted first to bury his father.  Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”  Another person said, “I will follow you but first let me say good-bye to my family.”  Jesus said, “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.”            

     Where was Jesus coming from with these less then stellar responses?  Actually he had not singled out these individuals as though they had committed some terrible crime.  Their reasons for not following Jesus were good ones.  His comment about allowing the dead to bury their own dead was absurd and the listener understood that.  Jesus’ criticism was of their excuse making, a practice that is as old as humanity.  Displaying the skill of making excuses reveals a habit that will increase in strength the more we use it. 

     The key to understanding this passage comes from Jesus’ insight that we cannot begin a new adventure in our spiritual growth by looking back to the ways we had previously chosen to order our lives.           

     For example, we can develop incredibly beautiful reasons why we cannot forgive someone, particularly after a very messy divorce.  We have flawless logic why we spend our money the way we do.  We know precisely why we refuse to outgrow our stubborn attitudes.   We have good reasons why we cannot let go of a circumstance that deeply offended us years ago.  We feel entitled to remain frustrated and angry with the people, events and family relationships that refuse to conform to our expectations. 

     To our way of thinking each excuse we make is a good one.  We have painstakingly created them through many years of practice and reinforcement.  Jesus was communicating to his potential disciples, “You cannot look back if you are trying to move forward. You cannot embark on a growth pattern for your life while dragging along your old baggage.” 

     Many of us are completely unaware of how difficult the process is of unwinding the excuse making mechanism that we have built.  The responses we have spent years developing are so much a part of our personality and spirit that it can be frightening to learn that many of them have not been serving us well.   They have not been enhancing our spirit at all because we have allowed the externals in the world to mold us rather than the other way around.  We are not called to conform to the standards of the world but to be an agent of change.  Who would Jesus have become had he knelt at the altar of the world’s molding processes?   

     Caroline Myss once told a story in a lecture that described a young man who had learned the importance of not looking back. He had been bullied in school, lived in poverty and had parents who drank excessively.  Sometimes they became abusive. As a teenager, he decided that his world would only improve when he changed how he looked at it.     

     As an adult, he left for work one day and the next thing he remembered was awakening in a hospital bed.  He noticed that his one leg had been amputated.  His first response was, “Well now, will you look at that?  I’m certainly going to be doing things differently from now on.  I’m going to have to learn how to walk again.”  He had the skill to accept what he had to face immediately and began preparing himself to make the adjustment.  Not many of us can do this.   

     Later he was informed that a drunk had neglected to notice that the traffic light had turned red.  He ran through the intersection at a high rate of speed and impacted the driver’s side of the young man’s car.  It took several hours for rescue workers to cut him out of his vehicle. 

     A friend visited him shortly after a second surgical procedure and asked, “Why aren’t you angry and bitter about what this good-for-nothing drunk did to you?”  He said, “Oh I could be bitter, I suppose, but feeling that way will not bring my leg back or speed my recovery time.  I have to deal with what I have to do and not with what someone else did.”  

     Life will constantly surprise us with many hills and valleys that are totally unexpected.  Will we be prepared to deal with the requirements established by the new challenges, or will we choose to rely on the old scripts of blaming others that we memorized in our childhood days?  Remember – Jesus was warning us not to look back. 

     There was a technician who worked for American Tower, one of the companies that construct the tall structures where microwave and cellular communications equipment is attached.  He was notorious, to a fault, for his positive attitude about everything.  Nothing ever caused his bright outlook on life to falter.   

       One day Michael lost his footing and fell 60 feet.  A friend inquired about what he experienced during this unexpected turn of events.  He wondered if this episode had curbed his friend’s unbridled enthusiasm for life.  Michael said, 

The first thing I thought about immediately after the fall was the well being of my soon to be born daughter.  The second thing was that I had a choice.  I could live or I could die.  I chose life.  The paramedics were great.  They kept telling me that I would be fine.  But when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, it gave me pause.  In their eyes I read, “He’s a dead man.”  I knew I needed to take action.  A big burly nurse was shouting questions at me.  She asked, “Are you allergic to anything?”  I said. “Yes, I am!”  The medical team stopped preparations immediately until I provided further information.  I took a deep breath and said, “I am allergic to gravity.”  Everyone laughed.  Then I said, “Listen you guys, I am choosing to live, so operate on me as though I am going to fully recover.”  

     After 18 hours of surgery he pulled through and today he is as cheerful as he was during any previous time in his life.   Again, not many of us can do this. 

     Did these two individuals employ some form of magic that the rest of us do not have?  Were they hardwired at birth with a flexible, resiliency that a number of us missed receiving?   Not at all!  They merely taught themselves that life moves forward as their skills for coping became more evolved and useful.  We can only accomplish this with constant practice when we become committed to moving well beyond the responses we learned as children. 

     Jesus insinuated that the responses from the two people he had invited to become disciples rendered them useless if their goal was to live in the Kingdom of God.  We cannot develop a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of life by using excuses to explain why we are maintaining our current behavior patterns.    

     Yesterday’s life-enhancing lesson plans were actually asking us to develop skills not excuses.  However, we were not acquainted enough with the process of how to enter into a more harmonious relationship with God.  Instead of trusting the process, we chose to defend our responses with excuses.  We did not know that the circumstances confronting us were coming to us by design.

     Unexpected challenges come at us so that we might learn to change the way we perceive. Instead of creating excuses, a more healing alternative is to produce fruit like kindness, patience, forgiveness, authenticity, enthusiasm and the like. Nothing else in life will produce such fruit except circumstances that have the potential to evoke our litany of blaming others and excuse making.  By choosing thoughts that serve us, we can join the ranks of the two very uncommon men whose stories we just reviewed. 

    The Apostle Paul in his well-known love chapter summed up the message of Jesus in our lesson, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became an adult, I put my childish ways behind me.”  (I Corinthians 13:17) Jesus was saying that it is impossible to find the Kingdom life, where only love is radiated from us, by looking in the rear view mirror.  A question for us this morning is this -- Where are we looking? 


    Eternal God, during the hush of our moments with you, we bring our very personal thoughts and desires.  Many times we allow small things to disrupt our peace.  We become hurt when others seem unable to sense our needs.  There are times when we need to feel appreciated and such validation does not come.  Teach us, O God, how to rise above such thoughts.  Guide us to remember that personal reward is not why we are followers of Jesus Christ.  Inspire us, we pray, to mirror to others what we want them to mirror to the world.  May we remain committed and faithful to our discipleship of the Master, who showed us the way, the truth and the way life can be lived.  Amen.


    Thank you, God, for sending us new horizons toward which to walk, new problems to solve and those curious fragile moments that challenge us to find the tools to live creatively. Thank you for the times when the symbols of security dissolve around us; and once again, our thoughts must find peace in the unfolding unexpected.

    Why is it, O God, that we so quickly respond with frustration when others adversely affect our desires and hopes?  Why is it that we find detours so unattractive?  Why is it that we conclude that some experiences are a waste of our time?  What is it, O God, that makes us feel as though we need to be in a place other than where we are?

    As we reflect on our lives thus far, who could have known ahead of time that we would be where we are?  It has been interesting for us to realize that each unplanned piece has fit so neatly into all the others.  As we anticipate our future, may our faith help us realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to reflect your will to an audience of onlookers whose names we may never know.  Bless this day and all who share in it with us.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . .