"What Fruit Are We Growing?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 10, 2007
Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24
Earlier in that same letter, Paul revealed the results of his faith prior to his life changing experience while on the road to Damascus. He wrote, You have been told how I used to live when I was devoted to the Jewish religion, how I persecuted without mercy the followers of Jesus and did my best to destroy them and that for which they stood. I was ahead of most other Jews in the practice of our faith and was much more devoted to the traditions of our ancestors.@ (Galatians 1:13-14)
Paul, who was then Saul of Tarsus, was convinced that he had the truth but his understanding bore the fruit of arrogance, hostility and witch-hunts. His faith orientation motivated him to arrest, persecute and destroy those who were not like him, a familiar theme we know all too well for Islamic extremists. What do our beliefs inspire in us?
When I was a teenager, frequently our youth group went into the District to attend meetings of the Christian Youth Crusade. I was in junior high at the time and completely unprepared for the intense emotional appeals concerning personal salvation that were made by this group's leadership. There were testimonies from other teenagers of how Christ had changed their lives. I had no problem with listening to them. Then the hard sell began.
The CYC's leaders spoke a great deal about the work of the Devil and how Hell awaits for those unwilling to welcome Christ into their lives. These experiences with the CYC evoked the most intense feelings of fear that I ever encountered as a young man. Their words were so unnerving that I decided I would no longer attend the youth fellowship as long as our group continued to travel to the Christian Youth Crusade.
Yet, I was confused. Was I running away from God? Or, was I reacting to the persuasive techniques of people who wanted to save my soul by any means possible, including evoking fear of eternal damnation if I did not submit to receiving God's love according to the verbal formulas they had determined? This was not the only occasion I experienced confusion.
Several times members of our church went to hear the evangelist Billy Graham at the old Griffith Stadium. He delivered excellent messages. Yet, I can remember his altar calls to this day. Don't harden your hearts, he would say, there may not be a next time for you. God wants you to say Ayes to Jesus Christ tonight.'
Dr. Graham's pleas were accompanied with the massive Crusade choir singing, Just As I Am. Again the altar call produced confusion. I had always honored the teachings of Jesus as being the highest benchmarks of behavior we can experience. Was God calling me or was I being coerced into proclaiming a verbal formula that was foreign to me? I have never been attracted to fear-based thinking.
The spirit coming from this style of Christian witness was dark, unattractive and repelling. For me, Christianity was never about saving my soul but about healing the world by teaching others why it is absolutely essential that we learn to love each other. The stress from these leaders on personal salvation was akin to suggesting that people needed a security blanket that would insure their entrance in Heaven. Jesus did not invite his disciples to save themselves, but to be a light in darkness. For me, the evangelical message stressed self-interest rather than marching into hell for a heavenly cause.
During Paul's earlier years, he firmly believed with all his heart, mind, soul and strength that living in harmony with God meant being obedient to the Law. Paul reasoned that since God had handed down the Law through Moses, it must be obeyed. Equally, he must have felt that he was in harmony with God's will because he was stamping out heresy that needed to be destroyed aggressively, lest others become vulnerable and be persuaded that truth could be found elsewhere.
At least a half dozen times during my ministry I have encountered a number of very devout Christians who informed me that I was going to Hell because of what I was teaching and preaching. The more I listened to them, the more I realized that their words were betraying them.
What they were saying had nothing to do with God's love. Their words had nothing to do with me. Their words had everything to do with how they perceived me because of what was within them. Their beliefs and convictions were making it impossible for them to build community with anyone who did not share their understanding. How isolating their witness was! Who would find such a message attractive and compelling? In my experience, such a message has driven countless thinking people from the church.
In many respects they were like the Apostle Paul prior to his conversion. These Christians had become so convinced that their system of beliefs was correct that now they could presume to know the mind of God with respect to others whose beliefs were different from theirs. When we sincerely trust God for the outcome of all things, we no longer have to judge others who are not like us.
One of the reasons Jesus attracted all kinds of people was because he loved them. Listen to these words from Mark's Gospel, A large number of tax collectors and other outcasts was following Jesus, and many of them joined him and his disciples for a meal. The Pharisees asked his disciples, Why does your Master eat with such people? (Mark 2:15-16) Again, Jesus loved them and accepted them where they were in life.
The most wonderful people in our lives are those who love us in spite of our flaws, in spite of our rough edges. If we fail to meet their expectations, they do not waver in their friendship. If we engage in behavior that could disappoint them, their friendship remains unblemished. With this said about those who will not let us go, God is not a fair-weather Creator who loves us only when we are good, wholesome and spiritually energized.
Some people will tell us that this kind of friendship is giving others the flexibility to engage in all sorts of behavior that compromises what Jesus taught. Of course it does. What we may forget is that this kind of love is what flows from God. If God were in the habit of fixing people, all of us would have learned by now how to love our neighbors. It is clear that not all of us have evolved to the place where we can do that. God's love surrounds us nevertheless.
God allows us to be what we are, where we are. God has also designed a safety net in creation. Consequences have the ability to offer us alternative course corrections when we wish to change our minds. God's love for us is eternal.
Regardless of what we have been taught, God offers unlimited forgiveness. The responsibility for our spiritual evolution is ours alone; it is not God's. Nothing else will work but God's plan for us. God knows this. God's plan for us is that we become like Jesus, not in our self-righteousness and pride, but in the clarity of love that we direct toward others. Our eternal destiny could never be determined by just one sequence of years in these physical forms. God's plan is much larger than our minds can conceive.
Prior to his change of mind, Paul's salvation was found in his obedience to the Law. Jesus had discovered that people could obey the Laws flawlessly and meticulously while still remaining condescending and self-righteous toward others. Conforming to legal formulas did not work.
Salvation for a number of today's Christians is found in their faithfulness in conforming to correct beliefs. Jesus did not teach this. Such a belief can inspire spiritual arrogance every bit as misguided as that of the Pharisees. He wanted the behavior and attitudes of his followers to reflect the spirit by which he lived.
What kind of fruit are we growing? What do other people perceive from us? What do our thoughts, attitudes and desires communicate? Even though our lives are absolutely transparent before God, life remains abundant when we become inspired by love rather than from our fear of failing to please God. Our desire to please others can easily grow from a motivation that is different from love.
Friday evening I officiated at a wedding that took place in an incredibly beautiful setting along the Chesapeake Bay. The marriage was remarkable in many respects. The bride's family is Christian and they had migrated here from Kenya. The groom's family is Muslim and they had migrated to America from Nigeria. Think of all the implications symbolized by that union.
The two met in a library and developed a love that became so powerful that it allowed them to transcend countless potential barriers. Because of love's attractiveness, two families, two religions and two African nations came together on Friday night. This is the wave of the future in spite of the sectarian beliefs that people maintain in their minds and hearts that divide us. God calls us to be into community. When we find ourselves experiencing this reality, clearly our fruits are on display for the world to see.
One of the gifts in life is that we can examine ourselves every day, each week. We slip, we stumble and we sometimes choose unwisely. Sometimes our passions for the way things ought to be are so intense and we behave in a manner that may challenge those who do not know us well. Think of the opportunity we have when we recognize that we are the ones who have put a cover over our light.
Many of us have used the example of Jesus' anger in the Temple to justify our own. He entered the Temple and turned over the tables of those who were exchanging foreign currency for the coinage required for Temple transactions. He was so furious at how criminal these transactions were that he kicked over the stools of those selling pigeons.
After this, Jesus withdrew to Bethany. I suspect he was very sad. He was not happy with himself. Regardless of how correct his understanding was, Jesus had used violence to correct a wrong. He might have been asking himself, Is this the way I want my disciples to act when their world is not the way they want it?
What Jesus had disrupted momentarily on the Temple grounds had been practiced there for over 70 years, an activity that was sanctioned and controlled by the Temple's hierarchy. Those Jesus had driven away from the Temple grounds were back the next day and the practice continued long after Jesus' death. What is interesting is that there is no further record of Jesus engaging in physical violence when he discovered that others lacked his understanding.
Failure can be viewed as an opportunity to try again, but this time, by choosing to allow our fruits of spirit to become visible. Then, our lives will reflect to others what it is like to live in the Kingdom Jesus brought. We need to ask ourselves, What do others see when they observe us day after day?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful and generous God, we thank you for teaching us the value of being corrected. We enter our world undisciplined yet filled with curiosity. We pattern ourselves from what others teach us. We experience consequences. We thank you for the guidance that defines our character and helps us become more like you. Teach us, O God, the wisdom of first knowing you before we begin to paint outside the lines. Grant us the patience to master the little tasks that come to us, so that we can bring skill and not over-reaction when larger challenges confront us. May we be aware everyday that our words, attitudes and deeds create an accurate portrait of what we believe. Help us to remember that our primary task as disciples is to bring your presence into all circumstances. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for these moments when we can set aside our cares, draw together in worship and collectively remember that everything in our lives is unfolding as it is to strengthen our faith, increase our growth and enhance the skills of spirit with which you equipped us.
Help us to remain reflective during our faith journeys. What seeds have we sown? How much time have we spent nurturing and teaching children about you? What friendships have we maintained when others felt that they were too old, too poor, too unaccomplished, too uneducated, too much of a nobody for anyone else to care about them? How much time did we spend, O God, being the angels you created us to be. Lead us away from dwelling on our physical forms so that we may focus on giving away the gifts that are essential.
Thank you for the opportunities you have given us to be healers, to dissolve the potential hurts we received from others on the sands of our forgiveness and to help others find their misplaced remembrance that you created them whole from their first breath of life. Teach us to give away the only treasure we keep our love of others. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .