"How Our Neediness Shapes What We See"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 23, 2006
Psalm 88:1-6, 13-18; Mark 6:30-32, 53-56
This past week not only did I have the opportunity to move it, but I went through it, a task that generated 17 bags of material for recycling day. Among the collection of old magazines was a 1990 Newsweek that asked on the front cover, “Who Is Jesus?”
My hunch is that people have asked that question throughout the ages, including Jesus himself. Once he inquired of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” If we passed the microphone around this morning, no doubt we would hear dozens of answers, many of them completely different. Some answers might rival current Christian thinking while others would parrot an understanding handed down to most of us from people in our past.
Last week when we were reviewing the story of Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist, our lesson provided the king’s thinking on the matter. After listening to many comments from the public that Jesus was the recycled spirit of Elijah or one of the prophets, Herod said, “He is John the Baptist! I had his head cut off, but he has come back to life.” (Mark 6:16).
Even for casual readers of the New Testament we find countless definitions provided by the people who were alive at the time. Jesus was the source of worry for his mother and siblings. He was an intimate friend to Mary, Martha and Lazarus who lived in Bethany. He was the son of a carpenter living in a town filled with people who paid little attention to Jesus’ message.
Later in his ministry, Jesus was thought to be a criminal by those who felt threatened by him. Many years after his death, when writers began to interpret what others before them had experienced, Jesus became the Word of God made flesh. He was the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of everyone. In other words, Jesus represented many different things to different people depending on their frame of reference.
In our lesson today, we find the same defining thought patterns coming from people who had specific needs. Our lesson says, “There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his disciples did not even have time to eat.” (Mark 6:31)
It is interesting that people were “coming and going.” A number of people do that today. When we need a magic wand, we come to Jesus. When we need a friend who will remain with us during a crisis, we walk with Jesus. If we fear that our past sinfulness might lead to our eternal extinction, we need Jesus to be our savior. When we are caught in an ethical crisis, we often wonder, “What would Jesus do?” All of us are familiar with such themes. What happens to us when our immediate need is met? We very well may come and go, as did many of Jesus’ listeners.
What need drove the people in our lesson to come and go? Their need is very clear in the Scripture. Listen how motivated Jesus’ audiences were: “People ran throughout the entire region. Wherever they heard he was, they brought their sick lying on their mats. Everywhere Jesus went, to villages, towns, or farms, people would take their sick to the marketplaces and beg him to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well.” (Mark 6:56) Instant healing is what made them come and go.
Our need for God to perform highly specific tasks has been a theme in every generation. We see images of God emerging, for example, when the Jews needed to be set free from their Egyptian taskmasters. God became the enforcer as each of ten plagues brought intense suffering to the Egyptian people. To break the stubbornness of Pharaoh, the angel of death killed all the children in the land whose only crime was that they happened to be born first.
When the Jews found themselves caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army bearing down on them with slaughter on its mind, they needed God to protect them and destroy the Egyptian charioteers. God became a powerful war machine.
While traveling in the wilderness after their escape from Pharaoh’s wrath, the Israelites said to Moses, “Has God brought us into the desert to die? We had life much better in Egypt. At least there we have enough to eat and drink. Here we are starving and dying of thirst.” God became a meal ticket.
Had God actually become what these images suggest or were these identities given to God by storytellers and writers who were viewing their history as one that was filled with divine intervention? This is one of those questions each of us must answer for ourselves.
This morning, however, I would like us to consider what our relationship with God or Jesus would look like if our trust in both of them became so strong, so confident and so trusting that they became our teachers and co-creators rather than life rafts during some flood or personal crisis.
Suppose, for example, that we became so mature in our faith that we no longer expected God to intervene in overcoming obstacles for us, to heal our sick, to bring peace into our lives, to keep us safe when we travel or to make our world a more wholesome place for men and women to live. After all, how do we know that such episodes in life are not our assignments to negotiate or our lessons to learn? They may be life patterns designed to make us fly instead of crawl.
How we choose to perceive will govern the quality of what we experience. Most of us have listened to friends who were upset because their primary physician missed diagnosing their physical problem. Perhaps we have heard people talking about a pastor who failed to meet a family’s need during some dire crisis. Maybe we heard people express in very harsh language their resentment toward an attorney who, during their divorce proceedings, allowed the other attorney to win for the former spouse half the pension, half of the investments, the Ocean City condo and the mint condition VW Bug, particularly when it was the fault of the former spouse that the couple was divorcing.
Such hostile definitions never form when the diagnosis from the doctor is accurate and our condition goes away, or the pastor sits with the family 24-7 for weeks, or the attorney is so good that the ex-spouse receives very little compensation at the settlement table. All three of these professionals suddenly become saviors in people’s minds. The point is that for all the talk of having God in our lives, quite often we are driven more by our needs than by our trust.
Again, what would happen to our relationship with God if we first dwelt with our neediness? When people were coming and going, they missed hearing the message. They missed discovering the bigger picture. They missed learning that there is more to life than having their perceived needs met. They missed the growth potential that being in a relationship with God would provide.
Remember the time that ten lepers were healed and only one returned with gratitude. That one followed Jesus and learned that life is much bigger than a fleeting healing. We all know that every healing is a temporary condition. Eventually some illness will cause us to transition from our bodies. As long as we focus on God or Jesus with our material well being in mind, those expectations frame the window through which we view them.
When God becomes an ATM, a life preserver, a magic pill, the judge, jury and executioner of our enemies and the giver of everything for which we asked in Jesus’ name, we might miss every gift or skill that struggling with many of life’s issues could have given us. As long as we are expecting God to do our work for us, or remain the wind beneath our wings, we will be as dependent on God as Jesus’ own disciples were on him. The disciples did not develop their own authority until Jesus was no longer their daily command and control center.
We like to quote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Suppose God gave us everything we need at birth and we still remain needy because, in our insecurity, we are looking to God for even more. Just because our inner resources are not always accessed, does not mean they are not in us waiting to be developed and used.
We never read where Paul was crying out in desperation for God to save him from anything. Listen to these words,
Five times the Jews gave me the thirty-nine lashes; three times the Romans whipped me, and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent 24-hours in the water. In my travels I have been in danger from floods and from robbers, in danger from my own people and from Gentiles, there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas and dangers from false friends. There were times when I was hungry and thirsty. I have been without food, shelter and clothing. (II Corinth. 11:24-29)
Paul had replaced his expectations of God with assumptions. He assumed he had been given everything he needed to get the job done. Because his faith and trust in God were what centered him, he threw caution to the wind and grabbed onto life with both hands. This is what it means to make living by faith visible.
Paul did not debate what was God’s will and what was not. There is no written evidence that such waffling ever took place in his mind. He showed up in every situation and did what needed to be done. When Paul’s audiences were not receptive, he went elsewhere. The world is a big place. Wherever we find ourselves, there will always be plenty to do.
When we read about Paul’s experiences, we sense no hesitancy or reticence, no sore knees from constantly begging God for help and no pondering or fretting about his eternal destiny. After all, this chief among sinners had run the good race and had fought the good fight. So can we.
Some of us become so upset when life gets crazy. We can cry, rant and rave, pace back and forth, go into extended periods of depression and mourning, lie on the couch of a counselor, but nothing will change how we perceive what is happening until we make that decision.
Several months ago a 15-year-old driver smashed into Lois’ car, a car that had been meticulously maintained. Fortunately no one was hurt. The underage driver had borrowed his mother’s car without her knowledge. The insurance company deemed our car a total loss.
A month ago, I took my car to Stuart Dowden at the Whitehall Shell station and when I went to pick it up, the mechanics came out from their bays and said, “Dick, we have no plans to fix your car. What you have are new Michelin tires mounted on a casket. You have 218,000 miles on this rust bucket. In another 5,000 miles, the carcass of what is left will settle down on the axles. Get rid of it! We don’t want to see it in here again and we do not want to see you hurt because you refuse to listen to us.” Stuart was in my youth fellowship when he was a teenager.
Buying two cars in four months is not what I had in mind. What would I have possibly gained by railing at God over the injustice of it all? We can multiply such experiences across every level of life, every drama that takes place in our families or every crazy episode at work. What we find is that the same objective event is still staring us in the face unchanged whether we choose to become a basket case, or accept it for what it is, knowing that we were totally equipped since birth with everything we need to find creative solutions. We become victims only when that is our choice.
We are the ones who interpret what we experience. When we overcome our need for a particular outcome, we also give up our fears, our expectations, our doubts and our thoughts of being abandoned by God. When we need God to do something special for us during some moment of uncertainty, chances are very good our insecurity and fears are making the request, not our confidence and trust. When we outgrow our neediness, an entire world of being a partner or co-creator with God will open to us. God’s presence was and is everywhere. Only those who open their eyes to the bigger picture will discern that presence.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Gracious and ever-faithful God, we thank you for the surprises that life’s uncertainties often bring to us. Yet, how often it is we who block our own understanding. We are the ones who dwell on the confusing elements of life. We are the ones who approach life with caution and skepticism. Teach us to move beyond our need for saviors each time life brings us the unexpected. Encourage us to follow the one that we have. Enable us to become blind to what our fears convince us to see. Inspire us to reflect hope to others who have not learned the power that dwells within them. Allow us to remember that life is filled with cross-currents. Teach us that as our trust in your presence increases so will the quality of our lives. Amen.