"Being At Peace With Differences"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 14, 2008
Psalm 82; Romans 14:1-12
The best part of their
show is when they receive calls from the radio audience. Each time I
listen to people share their various points of view, I am astounded by
the miracle taking place that we Americans get along as well as we do.
Their opinions are all over the landscape of our society’s world view.
Many of them articulate their positions with such passion that there is
little room for discussion with an equally valid point of view that is
This morning we are going to be talking about who we want to be in the midst of swirling opinions that can polarize the thought patterns of people, organizations, institutions, church families and virtually every setting in which we find ourselves. How are we to use the information we understand so that we do not undermine or alienate the lives of people who have the potential to follow what Jesus was teaching?
Having been bombarded for close to 18 months with political issues between Republicans, Democrats and the Independents, most of us were close to complete saturation about 17 months ago.
Entire groups of people are dedicated to digging into archived information to pull out positions, quotes and life-issues that were faced in the past by the various candidates. The gathered information is then spun in such a way that may sway the minds of potential voters.
None of us are strangers to this strategy. Every time we hear the accusations, the blaming and the pointing of fingers, we know that candidates are trying to get elected by whittling down the credibility and accountability of their opponents. Fortunately, we also realize that this is a political game played at election time and we understand that thinking people do not fall prey to how candidates package their version of accurate information.
When it comes to what we think personally, we have just enough information to get ourselves into trouble when we begin disclosing our attitudes and thoughts about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, Social Security, health care, the health of our financial institutions, global warming, immigration, stem cell research, or any of the other hot button topics that are being discussed in every quarter of our country.
It is interesting that our lesson begins this morning with words that were as informative 2,000 years ago as they are today. Paul wrote, “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who do not see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something with which you disagree – even when it appears that they are strong on their opinions but weak in their faith.” (Ro. 14:1 Peterson)
After this opening, Paul launched into specific issues that had the little community of Christians divided into warring camps. The community was dealing with struggles between vegetarians and those who eat meat. They were polarized over some people honoring one day that should be reserved for God and others who felt that God needs to be honored every day.
Have we ever asked ourselves why there has never been a time in recorded history when we have had a shortage of issues that evoked differences between people? Our species has always bred those who struggle for dominance and power. We see it everywhere and Paul was referencing how such struggles had outcropped in one of the small groups of Jesus’ followers living in Rome.
The answer becomes very clear when we think about it. Everyday we face what is coming up for us armed only with our personal history, a history that absolutely no one else has. Our inner-filters that we have created over years of development and reinforcement do not allow us to see or hear the same thing. We have all evolved in different directions and possess different skills of perception.
For example, during a convention of high school teachers one of the presenters projected onto a large screen a rectangular box featuring 10 small windows close to the top and two wheels at the bottom. She said, “This is a school bus. How many of you can tell which direction the bus is traveling?” The question produced considerable laughter from the teachers. She asked for a show of hands. Predictably, no one put up their hand.
The speaker next told the audience that the same slide was shown to elementary school children and nearly all of them immediately put their hands in the air. They knew the bus was traveling to the left because they boarded one everyday. They knew that the door was on the other side of the bus. Some of the teachers had their Ph.D.s but were many years removed from having intimate knowledge of riding a school bus. We do not process information the same way.
Another example took place in a classroom where a fourth grader’s perception changed the chemistry of how a teacher and her department supervisor were evaluating the hidden message being communicated by his classmate’s art work.
Emily would stand in front of the easel and every stroke she made on the newsprint was dark and filled with despair. She was a girl that had a wonderful disposition and attitude, but the teacher and the supervisor knew that she was communicating some form of denial, covering up something sinister that must have been happening at home. Day after day they monitored her art work. She was invited to tell stories about her drawings, but she revealed none of the themes typically associated with domestic abuse. Clearly this was a situation requiring deeper probing by one of the school district’s child psychologist.
Fortunately, Emily’s easel was to the left of another student’s desk. He had noticed the concern and asked his teacher if she would like to see Emily create with brighter colors. The teacher was embarrassed that another student had observed her concern. She drew on her skills and said, “Why that would be a nice variation” and dropped the issue.
When Emily was doing something else, Jimmy reversed the order of the paints on the easel, moving the darker colors to the right and the brighter colors to the left. Suddenly all of Emily’s paintings were bright. The teacher was fascinated. “Jimmy,” she asked, “how did you get Emily to brighten up her paintings?” Jimmy said, “She is left handed and was only using the first two paint wells. I just switched the colors around.”
Sometimes the expertise we bring to a problem is so filled with learned ideas and responses that we become blind to a reality that may be obvious to someone else. Benjamin Franklin once commented, “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views.”
The Apostle Paul wanted the members of the fellowship to learn that no one asked them to be judge and jury of the orthodoxy or faithfulness of another person’s orientation toward God or their lives. Further, Paul went on to provide an insight that is timeless. He wrote,
We are only answerable to God – all the way from life to death and everything in between – not to each other. That is why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you are condescending in your attitude toward a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly – or worse. Eventually, we are all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways are not going to improve your position there one bit. So stop being critical of each other. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your life before God. (Ro. 14:8-12 – Peterson)
There are two individuals that have modeled this behavior in our time. One of them is an informed spokesperson for the Republican Party and the other was one of the trusted advisors of President Clinton and is a highly respected spokesperson for the Democrats. What is unique about them is that Mary Matlin and James Carvel are married to each other. They have two daughters, one of whom Lois taught when we lived on Capitol Hill. This would be like a marriage between Rush Limbaugh and Hillary Clinton!
Some of you may recall when James and Mary performed in a Tums commercial some years ago. At the end of this little drama Mary said, “People constantly ask us how our marriage survives. I always answer – It’s the Tums.” We have to believe that James and Mary have a broad range of interests that have nothing to do with their political orientation.
We have to live in community if we are going to survive as a species. This means that we must learn very quickly how to be at peace while living with others whose differences are remarkably distant from our own.
This past week we observed the deaths of 2,948 people who perished during the terrorist attacks seven years ago on September 11th. Hating those that engaged in these attacks only puts a blight on who we are becoming. When we remember that no one in this life ever gets away with anything and that each of us is accountable only to God -- that frees us from being the judge, jury and executioner.
When we think about the near 3,000 people who died and the fears that swept over them just prior to their transitioning from the earth, we have a choice to make. We can carry bitterness for the rest of our lives and thus add another statistic to the number of the dead, or we can let go of what we cannot change and be at peace that God’s plan is unfolding as intended.
One of the things we cannot escape in this world or the next is who we are. Perhaps our society has evolved because of our religious heritage. When we experience innocent suffering at the hands of others, rather than seeking revenge, we Americans build monuments to their memory. How we responded when attacked sent a message to other nations who were waiting to see what we would do.
The world is God’s beautiful creation, but just as hurricane Ike has shown us, our planet is not always a safe or hospitable environment. Tornadoes can come like a thief in the night and steal all our possessions. Droughts can last for years as they did during the days of Joseph and his father, Jacob.
People are also God’s beautiful creations. We are not flawed as some religionist have suggested. It would be more accurate to suggest that a majority of the human race is still in elementary school emotionally and spiritually. We have a long way to go as we stretch toward the benchmarks Jesus taught and demonstrated.
All of us respond to our life-experiences by making visible our inner world that drives us. Perhaps this is God’s form of justice. When we remain angry and unforgiving, our inner world causes us to become exactly like the people we despise.
We need to remember the timeless wisdom of Paul’s words, “Stop being critical of others. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your life before God.” When we no longer allow others to control us with their behavior and attitudes, we will have learned how to live in peace with the differences we find in others. Mastering this understanding is what enables us to love those closest to us as well as those we consider our enemies.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for your mercy and patience. As we come together, having lived through another week, we recognize our limitations of faith. We had flashes of thoughtfulness alongside moments of insensitivity. We have experienced areas of growth alongside moments where we were vulnerable to the tyranny of little things. We have used our sense of humor and smiles alongside moments when we engaged in fault-finding and blame. Lead us to the awareness that our faith journey is a process of learning. We are students who find ourselves in the midst of change. Heal us from holding onto the illusion that we are incomplete. As we look around in nature, we can easily see that all life forms are complete and filled with potential. Thank you for loving us just as we are. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, help us choose everyday to live together peacefully in this world you fashioned for us. We are thankful that you created us with the ability to have visions, to use our intuition to dream and to have the courage to make visible those ideas and beliefs that fuel our hope.
There are so many opportunities that invite us to work together in community. In the wake of hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike, the theme of people helping people will purge our minds of the sting from the unthinkable atrocities we remembered this past week when nearly 3,000 people died seven years ago because that was the will of those we have labeled as terrorists.
Help each of us to model what it means to invest our energy in what produces peace, kindness and compassion. May what we become inspire others to move toward a day when swords will be molded into plows, and where resources used to manufacture weapons of war may be converted into what will produce a world where people will no longer wonder where their next meal will come from or worry about the purity of their drinking water. May the world’s people learn that we are one and only by serving one another on a global scale will we truly be free from the fears that inspire passionate hatred toward neighbors they never took the time to meet and understand. Help us to remember that the problems found in the external world will only be remedied when we learn to make visible the three words of Jesus’ gospel – “Love one another.” We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .