"The Joy Of Having Self Control"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 16, 2007

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

     Our Gospel lesson this morning is very interesting because we learn that the ministries of Jesus and John ran parallel with each other.   Many of us were taught that John knew Jesus' identity when he baptized him in the Jordan.  Our lesson today suggests otherwise.  

     John learned from his prison cell that a number of miraculous events were occurring during Jesus' ministry.  He sent some of his own disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?"  Jesus did not answer their question directly.  He told them, “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing.”

     This morning, we will be discussing the Joy that comes to us when our lives become inner directed, i.e., we remain in control of what motivates us in spite of how bleak our surrounding circumstances appear.

     Perhaps it was difficult for John's disciples to see what was happening during Jesus' ministry because they were looking for a Messiah as their traditions had defined him.  In the same way, we may miss what God is doing because we are looking for something in which to place our hope instead of bringing the sense of hope to our experiences.

     A number of weeks ago Pete Saderholm and I were at Sager Brown, several hours west of New Orleans.  Sager Brown is the headquarters of the United Methodist Committee On Relief -- UMCOR.  We were experiencing saturation training for our roles in Disaster Response.  We listened to a number of fascinating stories that never made their way into the mainstream news coverage. 

     What appeared far more newsworthy was how angry people had become at the Federal Government's lack of expediency in bringing help when hurricane Katrina and Rita stormed ashore with their devastating rains and winds.  There were reports of how unhappy people were with FEMA's lack of responsiveness to the thousands of people who lost everything.  There were articles that described how disgusted people were with the state governments that did not have a disaster plan that worked. 

     In one situation, for example, hundreds of school buses that could have been used to evacuate people sat unused until floodwaters made them useless.  When people are looking for an external savior to make everything right again in a timely manner, they feel helpless and vulnerable.   However, what happens when we stop looking and begin to bring our faith to our experience?

     We United Methodists lost 77 churches that will never open their doors again.  The buildings that were left standing will have to be torn down and rebuilt.  That is enough to discourage countless believers whose identities were rooted more in bricks and mortar than in mission.  In the midst of the media's concentration on the numerous perceived failures of our traditional saviors, other stories were emerging.

     The Federal Government received 66 million dollars from other countries.  Among those countries was a nation we have helped repeatedly in our lifetime B Bangladesh.  That poor country gave the United States one million dollars.  No one on the Federal level knew how to manage the money so they asked UMCOR to be the administrator.  Over a hundred million dollars was channeled through our United Methodist agency. 

     We learned another story that is worth retelling.  There were forty-two 18-wheelers that were loaded with supplies and the state police and the National Guard of Mississippi would not allow them to enter the state.  Communications were so disrupted that no one knew where to send them.  They could not send trucks without a plan for unloading them and dispersing the supplies in an organized manner to the places that needed them.

     One of the men attending our classes at Sager Brown told me a story that he characterized as a God thing.  Word spread to one of our churches near the state border that Heritage United Methodist in the southern part of the state had 18 acres of cleared real estate.  That congregation had organized people, their pick-up trucks and vans.  They were waiting to unload any trucks that might come.  A person with an UMCOR badge told the National Guard to send the trucks to Heritage.  Armed with maps, the trucks were sent.  Church and community people unloaded the cargo and the goods were dispersed in one of the smoothest relief operations. 

     Jesus said, “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing.”  What Jesus brought and taught was that each one of us has the power to live inner-directed lives.  As long as people were looking to the Federal Government to be their savior they could easily miss the opportunity to prepare themselves for a God thing.   Isaiah wrote, “Tell everyone who is discouraged, to be strong and unafraid!  God is coming to your rescue.” (Isaiah 35:4) 

     When we hear those words when faced with a mountain to climb, what are we looking for?  In what form will the help we seek come?  Displaying our trust and faith is challenged every moment of our lives when the external world is telling us that we are powerless to make a difference.   Does St. Matthew's have a story to tell?  Yes, we do!

     Dee Dee Sisson had a type of leukemia where only a small percentage of people survive.  Today she is in remission.  Bob Fuller had stage four cancer.  Today he is in remission.   John Jennings, who had a solo part in our anthem this morning, had brain surgery a number of weeks ago. Each year the Finance Committee pauses at how much we have to raise our budget so St. Matthew's can pay its bills.  We have always entered each New Year with a surplus because of your generosity.  “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing.”

     Being inner-directed means that we are in control of our attitudes, our confidence in God and our trust that we have what we need to succeed at our tasks. What invites fear into our lives is our feeling of being abandoned by God, of being emotionally drained by disappointing news and of becoming upset when our tasks appear impossible to accomplish. 

     If my notes are correct, Trinity United Methodist Church in Biloxi, Mississippi could no longer hold worship services because of flood damage to their building, but its congregation organized those who had stayed behind in their community to disseminate the cargo from one thousand 18-wheelers. 

     What remained the miracle in the midst of chaos is that we were not the only group engaged in the same relief efforts.   The Southern Baptist men were there serving meals.  The Presbyterians were there.  The Mennonites were there.  In fact, on our return flight, Pete and I encountered 40 highly energized members of the United Church of Christ who were returning from a week of long-term recovery efforts.  

     Today, it would be politically incorrect for someone to tell the media, “Go back and tell your readers what you are seeing and hearing.  The Spirit of God is everywhere in the areas ravaged by Katrina and Rita.”   After all, those who cannot interpret the unfolding of events in this fashion might be offended.   It will not be the first time or the last time that those who do not get it, really don't get it.

     We can only serve one another and love one another when we are being inner-directed and in control of expressing our faith and trust instead of looking for it elsewhere.   Our joy is not the kind that we experience when our friends surprise us with a birthday party, or when we receive an engagement ring from the love of our life, or when we are excited about the cruise that will take us to an exotic vacation spot.  Clearly these moments in life are joyful too.

     The joy I am discussing today comes to us as a spiritual by-product because we found ourselves helping others who could not possibly help themselves.   When we are not in control of our inner world, we tend to define our experiences by what is happening around us.  That is not the place Jesus taught his listeners to look.

     Years ago when we had large youth groups at our church in Cheverly, every fall we divided ourselves into several teams.  We fanned out in our community and took care of many of our older church members by raking their leaves to the curb for pick-up by the town's leaf collection crews.  One weekend, we completed 18 yards.  The kids became even more energized as the day wore on.  They worked until dark and then returned to the church for all the pizza they could eat. Every teen was levitating with joy as they consumed the pizza like human vacuum cleaners.

     On the Wednesday following our leaf raking, one of our chronically despondent teens came by my office to say good-bye.  She had attempted to take her life several times and had made up her mind to exit our world.  I said, “Mimi, I can't stop you and you know that.  No one can guard you every moment of your life.  I care about you.  There are many abilities and skills inside of you that right now you cannot see.”  She said, “I know you love me, Dick, and that's why I stopped by to say, Good-bye. I figured that I owed you that much.” 

     Then one of those God things happened.  We had one dear soul whose yard we could not rake because of darkness.  I said, “Mimi, do me a favor.  Before you leave the earth, would you take care of this lady's yard for me.”  She was crazed at the idea.  “By myself?”  I said, “Sure, you won't be raking leaves anymore if you follow through on leaving.  Please do this yard.”  She agreed.  I gave her one of our better rakes that still had all its teeth and told her not to lose it.  When she left, I prayed for her.

     I never heard from her for about a month.  One day she stopped by the office and flopped in a chair.  She said, “There was an old lady living by herself in that house.  When I finished, she came out with a napkin of cookies and a glass of milk for me.  She asked if I were an angel.  I told her "no," and that I was far from it.  The lady told me that she prayed that morning for God to send an angel to take her leaves to the curb.  Soon after her prayer, I came and started raking.  For her, I represented a miracle.  I figured that if she thought I was an angel, there might be something more for me to do.”

     That experience was years ago.  When I first came to St. Matthew's, I received a call from Mimi Cree.  She said, “Do you know what I am doing right now?”  I had no idea.  She said, “I have my feet up on my desk as I talk to you.  I am the Administrator of Pension and Health benefits for all you pastors of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.”  Since then she has moved on to other things, but clearly Mimi had found the joy she had been missing by making visible the angel inside of her instead of looking for one to save her.  “Go back and tell John the things you are hearing and seeing.” 

     When we become inner directed, we move forward knowing that God who will take care of the details or fill in any blanks we may have missed.  Often we become so afraid of the mountain that stands before us that we never take the first step to climb it. 

     Think of the early scribes who preserved the Scriptures on scrolls.  They could have said, “What's the use?  How will the people in the world ever hear or read what we are transcribing?”  Another God thing happened.  Those scribes could not have anticipated Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press. “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing.” 

     Who would have known that a baby, born in an obscure part of the world, would grow up to influence the world's people in just three years of talking to people face to face.  In those days there were no e-mails, no cell phones, no text messaging -- just face-to-face contact.  It was another God thing

     When we stand guardian and remain in control of our inner world, God's presence will unfold around us.  Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within us.  He came into our world for the purpose of teaching us the Good News about this Kingdom.  (Luke 4:43)  When facing life's countless challenges, let us give thanks for the joy that comes from knowing that we can live in that Kingdom right now by being in control of how we express our faith.


     Loving God, thank you for giving us gifts even when we fail to recognize them.   We can sense the patience of Mary and Joseph during their sojourn in Bethlehem, while we neglect our own when life is difficult.  We can sense their acceptance of having to deliver their baby in a stable, while we remember our poverty in doing the same when life presents us with the unexpected.  We can sense their trusting you for their destiny, while we recall moments when we engaged in faultfinding and blame.  How easy it is, O God, to see the love in others while we often neglect giving it away ourselves.  Teach us how to bring joy to those who have become defeated by the tyranny of little things.  Amen.


     Our days have passed so quickly, O God, and we find ourselves in our place of worship as we continue our Advent journey.  We count every moment of these days as a blessing if our walk has helped us think more creatively, if our walk has helped our lives to reflect with greater clarity the love we have for others, and if our walk has helped us recognize all the angels in the flesh who are helping our world to become a brighter and more peaceful place for men and women to live. 

     "Our days have passed so quickly, O God, and we find ourselves in our place of worship as we continue our Advent journey.  We count every moment of these days as a blessing if our walk has helped us think more creatively, if our walk has helped our lives to reflect with greater clarity the love we have for others, and if our walk has helped us recognize all the angels in the flesh who are helping our world to become a brighter and more peaceful place for men and women to live. 

     We have learned that just as a candle can illuminate a large room, so one life ignited a burning desire in millions of people over thousands of years to make his message visible all over the world.  Thank you for your presence in us.  May we learn that in every circumstance we have within us what is sufficient not only to survive but also to thrive.  As we increase our trust in your leading, help us to understand that we are in a unique place to become a tool of your will as life unfolds around us.  Help us focus our consciousness on this one reality of Emmanuel B You are with us.

     Loving God, please inspire our world's leaders to look forward to a day when war will be an ancient symbol of humankind's immaturity.   Help us to find community where peace and mutual support become our highest priority.  Truly then, your Kingdom will be near.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .