"Why Not Play God?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 13, 2006

Psalm 131; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

     No doubt some of you may have chaffed just a bit if you noticed my sermon title this morning.  You may have thought to yourself, “What on earth is Stetler thinking?”  That is a question Lois has been asking herself throughout our 40 years of married life.

     What is interesting about such a theme is how God is characterized when we have labeled others as “playing God.”  We have heard or said, “As soon as he was appointed as our director, he has managed our division like God!”  Or, “She thinks that she is God’s gift to men.”  Commentators said that Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq like God.”  Of course, none of these references to God are flattering.  Such human identity markers that associate people with God have nothing to do with the qualities of our Creator.  This morning I want to change our thinking about playing the role of God.

     If you listened closely to Paul’s words to the Ephesians this morning, they sounded like an evangelical preacher who is trying to win souls for Christ.  His words thundered against behaviors and attitudes that clearly demonstrated that some of his readers perceived without love.  He told them to stop lying, to let go of their anger, to stop being thieves and to cease using words that were unkind.  In fact, he wrote very pointedly, “Get rid of all bitterness, passion and disgust.  No more shouting insults or displays of hateful feelings.”  His readers must have been quite a crowd! 

     However, in the first verse of chapter five we find these words, “Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like God.  Your life must be controlled by love.”  This verse is what gave rise to my sermon title – “you must try to be like God.”

     Since it would be quite a stretch for us to behave accurately in this fashion, we have to play the role from the guidance we receive from our imaginations and Jesus’ teachings.  There are numerous references where the Apostle Paul hints at this role-playing when he wrote, “Be imitators of me.”  He was saying, “Pay attention to my behavior and attitudes.  They will guide you in your pursuit of discipleship.”

     Even Jesus suggested such a concept when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”  This Gospel passage could also be translated, “I have taught you the true way that leads to life; no one can come to the father without living it.”   

     The early translators of the Scriptures were more interested in people worshipping Jesus as their Lord and Savior than they were stressing the process Jesus described that would make their discipleship visible, e.g., love your neighbor, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you or radiate God’s likeness in darkness.

     One afternoon a woman stood in front of a United Airlines ticket agent sobbing and hyperventilating. She was experiencing a complete emotional melt down. With her fragmented sentences she was telling the young man that she had waited at the carousel in the baggage area and her luggage never arrived.  When she spoke to the United Airlines employees, they told her that her belongings had not been on her flight. 

     He listen very patiently as she told him all the things she had purchased for her grandchildren.   He took the woman into an office to prevent any further embarrassment to her or the airline.  As she continued with her story, he responded with words that were reassuring and comforting. He asked if she still had her baggage claim numbers.  She did and he entered them into the computer terminal.   Then he invited her to follow him to the baggage claim area.  He opened a door to a storage room and there they were.  Her luggage had been put on an earlier flight.  

     She was an infrequent flier and did not know that such a practice can happen.  She not only hugged him but she wrote the President of United Airlines to tell him about one of his exemplary employees and how he had helped her deal with a major crisis.  That ticket agent was Tom Ziesemer, the man who married my sister, Jane.

     What I am describing is not about being good.  It is about being compassionate and understanding.  It is about bringing empathy to someone’s life issue and confidently pointing them in a direction that may be helpful.  Radiating such a spirit is our attempt to do as Paul wrote, “You must try to be like God.”

     Some of you may remember the story of the airline pilot who during that fateful day on September 11 several years ago had to land his aircraft when all air traffic was grounded. His plane sat out on the tarmac for hours.  No one was allowed to get on or off the airline.  That pilot called a local pizza parlor and had 25 large pizzas and drinks delivered to his airplane, a gift to the passengers that he paid for personally.  His gesture of kindness lifted the spirits of his captive audience making a difficult situation tolerable.

     Playing God under such circumstances translates into greeting each challenge to our sensitivities with our version of what we imagine God might do. If we revisit Paul’s litany of his “Thou Shalt Nots” we will notice that he also supplied the more mature responses that will occur when a life is motivated by love.  This will happen each time we remember that we have the power to represent God during any moment.             

     Actually go there.  Use your imagination and try it!  Our defensive, angry responses appear to be automatic when we have been personally offended, and have forgotten how to play BIG.  If we imagined that we have the power that created the universe within us, there would be no need to be offended by someone’s smallness, immaturity or childishness.  As Paul wrote in his love chapter, “When I became an adult, I put away my childish behavior.”  What does “being an adult” mean?  He was communicating what it looks like to be mature in spirit. (I Corinth. 13:11-13)           

     A social director works on a ship that is owned and operated by the Carnival Cruise Line.  She encountered a woman whose husband of 28 years had lost his battle with cancer.  Her friends encouraged the newly widowed woman to take a cruise to clear her mind of the pressurized circumstances of recent months.  She thought their suggestion was an excellent idea.  Her plan, however, was to jump into the ocean after midnight while the ship was far out to sea in order to join her husband in death.

     The two women had become engaged in conversation because the astute director had noticed that this woman was not only traveling alone, but intensely alone.  Susie Clements had become a natural at reading people at a distance.  She notices when passengers stare off into space, pick at their food and do not attend any of the special events on the ship.   

     When the ship pulls into various ports she observes the passengers who do not disembark.  She claims that such people are easy to spot even on a ship filled with thousands of passengers.  “There are always some,” she wrote, “who are preoccupied; highly distracted by something.   Those are the ones I single out to meet.”

     It wasn’t long before the widow’s story surfaced.  She even revealed her plan to leave the ship while they were en route to a distant port.  Susie sat with her for hours one afternoon while most of the passengers had gone ashore.  They bonded, particularly when Susie revealed that her husband had died in a car accident only four years before.  

     Her husband had worked 18 hours and was on his way home.   They were to leave the next morning on their vacation.  With all his work caught up, they were going to relax on a cruise without a care in the world.  En route, he fell asleep at the wheel two miles from their home.  He had gotten so close, but in a split second their dream ended.   

     Susie had turned her loss into a remarkably perceptive gift that enabled her to find people who looked “lost” “blank” and exuding an aching, seemingly endless need that may never heal.  Susie plays God by showing up as one who gives to passengers her gifts of listening and compassion.  When strangers have no one, she becomes someone. This is what it looks like to play God.

     Some unanticipated changes occur within us when we intentionally decide to be more than just who we think we are.  When we stop and direct our energies without judgment on the circumstances surrounding us, and when the only question we ask ourselves is,  “What can I do in this situation to become part of a solution?” sometimes wonderful and unexpected results occur.    

     Sometimes showing up may mean doing nothing.  Just being there is sometimes enough.  In some cases such a response is often what we find coming from God.  God knows how we are wired. God knows what we can do once we overcome our fears, doubts and reticence.   Sometimes just our presence is enough to give our friends the courage to do what they are capable of doing by themselves.  

     C. Raymond Beran once wrote a piece that describes what it means to another person when we show up radiating only our friendship.  We might imagine Jesus being this kind of person to Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus.  Bethany had become a place where Jesus could lay his head.  This is what Beran wrote:

A friend is a person with whom you dare to be yourself.  Your spirit can be naked with your friend.  A friend asks nothing of you save only that you be yourself.  With your friend you do not have to be better or worse.  In fact, you feel like a prisoner feels who has just been declared innocent.  You never have to be on your guard.  You can say whatever you think as long as your words reflect authentically who you are.  Your friend knows how to understand the contradictions in your nature that have led others to misjudge you.  With your friend you can breathe freely.  You can still display your little vanities and envies, your dislikes and vicious sparks.  You can still display your occasional meanness and absurdities.  In opening them all up to your friend, they become lost, dissolved on the white sands of your friend’s understanding.  You can weep, laugh and pray with your friend.  Your friend knows all about you and still goes on loving you just as you are.  Again, a friend is a person with whom you dare to be yourself. 

     We can read this statement and say, “I don’t like it.  There is nothing required from the other person.  Such an ungrateful, unchanged person could easily emotionally drain their friends.”  Keep in mind that being a friend at this level of commitment has nothing to do with the one receiving.  Being such a friend has to do with the person we have chosen to be.  Again, this is what it looks like to play God.             

     If we look at Paul’s words again we may sense why he wrote them.  “Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like God.”  We are children and the longer we live the more we see the truth of Paul’s concept.  We see it during road rage.  We see it when someone sets his girlfriend on fire.  We see it when gangs believe that to get the attention of their peers, they must kill members of a rival gang.  There is the arsonist who enjoys getting attention by torching cars in a neighborhood not far from here.  All behavior is symbolic of our level of spiritual maturity in spite of how violent the acts appear to be.    

     For example, anyone who straps explosives to himself with the sole purpose of hurting and destroying the lives of other people is a spiritual infant who is communicating, “If I can’t have it my way then no one else can play either.”  As Jesus once said, “They know not what they do.”  Even while dying, Jesus was still teaching.   

     Who other people are is always up to them.  Who we are is our choice and our choice alone.  If we are to display our discerned qualities of God, we will have to do so independently of the responses made by those who receive.  We extend our love to others because we want to give away our gifts, not because we want to fix people or to impress them or to gain points with God toward our personal salvation.  We express ourselves in this fashion because we want to represent God in that moment. 

             I challenge all of you to try it this week and continue practicing this use of your spirit on into the future.  Even though such a thought or concept may appear to be sacrilegious; I assure you God won’t mind.  When a light shines in darkness, it is the darkness that disappears.  Such a radiant spirit is who we have been called to be. 


     We are grateful, O God, that you sent Jesus to become our most profound point of reference for determining your will.  As we seek the riches found in the teachings of Jesus, we often unwittingly become the saboteurs of our lives.  We often interpret a closed door as a sign of defeat.  We can greet hurts as rejection.  We may receive a disappointing life reversal in a spirit of self-pity.  We often look at rapid change as the source of our anxiety and stress.  Help us to remember the path of Joseph from a slave to royalty, or Moses from a killer to a liberator.  As we continue to experience the truth of your faithfulness, help us to hold onto your presence with certainty as the destiny of our lives unfold.  Amen.


     Loving God, we thank you for sensing our desires long before we express them.  We thank you that you have filled our lives with unspeakable treasures that enable us to experience peace, hope, patience and joy.  When we discover such a treasure trove, turning the other cheek is no longer a chore, remaining flexible in challenging circumstances is not difficult and being creative in our thinking appears to come naturally.  All this happens when our minds, hearts and spirits are not cluttered or burdened by issues we cannot solve or by conflicts and behavior patterns that are beyond our ability to avoid.      

     Our days are no longer routine.  We no longer have the luxury of claiming that our lives are boring, complacent and lacking in stimulation.   There are so many areas of life that constantly stir in our fears.  Uncertainty appears to be a more dominant feature in our lives than at any other time.  And yet, you have created us to be resilient even in total chaos.  When we are confronted with rubble, we build again.  When loved ones are swept from our lives, we rise from our sorrows and adjust.  When unexpected change enters our personal drama, we find the courage to persevere.      

     O God, in all that we do, may our lives make your presence visible.  Even when we may not be aware of being anything unique, help others to understand what divinely empowered living looks like when they see it displayed.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .