"Why Contrasts Have Value"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 27, 2008

Psalm 27; I Corinthians 1:10-18

     Those of you who attended the Christmas Eve service may recall that during my meditation, I indicated that God has a problem.  To the average believer, the idea that God might have a problem appears ridiculous.  They would reason that certainly God is capable of performing perfectly anything God wants. Think about this: 
What happens when God communicates to billions of people and each of them has a personal set of filters that helps them interpret what they are experiencing? 

     If God were a successful communicator by controlling how each of us perceives, there would be no suicides, no murders, no robberies, no unkind words spoken, and no retreating from life by entering the world of controlled substances or pornography.  We might conclude that God is either an ineffective communicator or we are individuals who have grown accustomed to receiving guidance from the filters we have in place.  What are these filters and where do they come from?   

     None of us is immune from being imprinted by other people in our environment.  Sometimes during private baptisms, I read a saying that should hang on the wall in every home where there are children.  As I read this to you, I will mix the personal pronouns so that both genders are represented.   

     If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn.  If a child lives with hostility, she learns to fight.  If a child lives with ridicule, she learns to be shy.  If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty.  If a child lives with tolerance, she learns to be patient.  If a child lives with encouragement, he learns to have confidence.  If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate. If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.  If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith. If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.  If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.  Children learn what they live.  Children live what they learn.  Teach them how to extend their loving spirit and they will find love in the world.

     In addition to these filter-building influences there are others that are more cultural.  For example, when people develop values that are part of societies dominated by Buddhist temples, Jewish Synagogues or Islamic Mosques, we may understand why there are so many interesting and differing points of view regarding God.  We also learn why various populations reverence their cultural past, their religious heritage and traditions. 

     All of us have been imprinted by external thought patterns.  We have learned from others how to respond to life's challenges.  For example, if Mom and Dad set no boundaries for us when we were children, we frequently grow up to become adults with very controlling personalities who have grown accustomed to having our will honored in most circumstances.  

     When someone or, worse yet, a group with an even stronger opinion prevails, our response frequently is one we learned when we were children.  We become hurt and unhappy.  We pout.  We leave.  We stop communicating for great lengths of time.  We assume that we are not wanted since everyone has turned against us.  Thoughts like these are ones we create.  Quite often they have no validity in the minds of others whom we assume think this way.   

     We find these adults in industry.  They are in our churches.  We may be married to someone who responds from this frame of reference.  They often feel betrayed when someone offers a different point of view that others prefer.  Such people have not graduated from childhood responses and entered the world of effective communication skills.   

     This morning we are going to examine how the Apostle Paul dealt with communication conflicts very similar to those that we experience.  Word reached Paul that divisions had outcropped in a group of Jesus' followers in Corinth.  There was a clash of cultures and a clash of points of view.  In response to this report Paul wrote, “Let me put it to you this way:  each one of you says something different.  One says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Peter’; and another, ‘I follow Christ.’” 

     There can be little doubt that these conflicts were quite common in such culturally and ethnically diverse groups.  For example, those who claimed Paul as the divine messenger were mainly Gentiles.  Paul's message was one of spiritual freedom.  This teaching effectively put an end to a person having to be obedient to the law.  These believers were using their new Christian experience as an excuse to justify any behavior they wished. 

     The second group claimed Apollos as the divine messenger.  There is a brief character profile of Apollos in the book of Acts (18:24-25).  He was a Jew from Alexandria, a place that was well known for its intellectual diversity.   Alexandria had become a crossroad where many cultures exchanged ideas.  Apollos was articulate and knew the Scriptures well, but he came from a school of thought that historically turned the teachings of Jesus into a philosophy known as Gnosticism.   

     The third group claimed Peter as the divine messenger.  The followers of Peter were Jews who believed that Jesus' followers must remain loyal to all the traditions and rituals that were prescribed by the Laws of Moses.  

     The fourth group claimed Christ as the divine messenger.  We have a number of examples of this group in the 21st century.  They proclaimed that they belonged to Christ, but acted as though Christ belonged to them and only to them.   They were elitists who believed they had an understanding of Jesus that was more pure than what was held by others. 

     We do not have to stretch our imaginations very far to realize that today we still have Christians who fall into similar belief patterns.  The beliefs that people have concerning the life and teachings of Jesus are all over the landscape of Christianity.  This may be one of the reasons why there have been more books written about Jesus than any other person. 

     Paul provided excellent guidance for those experiencing division in their group of disciples.  He said, “Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose.” At first, we cannot imagine a leader going into a divided group and suggesting that everyone get along.  Stating the obvious would be a naïve approach.   Hindsight tells us, however, that Paul was right.  THAT is what we must do because of who we are and because of the message we were asked by Jesus to deliver to the world. 

     Ben Franklin once remarked, “When you assemble a number of people in order to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those people all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their provincial interests and their selfish points of view.”  

     Franklin, however, was a supreme diplomat.  He knew how to cut a pie in such a way that everyone believed they were getting the biggest piece.  Franklin helped his listeners to grasp the significance of how their decisions would impact a future that would extend well beyond their vested personal interests.

     One of the fascinating chapters of St. Matthew's recent history occurred when we decided to borrow nearly three million dollars to build our educational wing a number of years ago.   The architect was hired and we invited four banks to bid on our loan. We found that the bank that had served our needs for years offered us the best interest rate.  

     In addition we decided to build a two-story brick building just off our church's kitchen to be used for storage.  We are probably the only church in the Baltimore-Washington Conference to have such an expensive closet.  There was also a group of women who wanted to convert a cinderblock Sunday school room into a state-of-the-art parlor, replete with cherry hardwood flooring and antiques.     

     Few of the men wanted to push the envelope on deepening our debt so there was little enthusiasm for the parlor.  One of our more articulate women entered my office one day after hearing this news and exclaimed, “Do you mean to tell me that somehow we have the money for a quarter of a million dollars storage building and we can't find $75,000 for a parlor that will serve the needs of our people?”  She was right. This is why contrasting ideas have value.  Her words reminded the committee that what we were building would serve others long after we were gone.  We have the parlor.

     Confucius once told some of his students that he would often sit in meetings where the elders were locked in heated debate over some decision they had to make.  He would sow his plan in such a discrete manner that when his idea was chosen, the elders believed they had arrived at their conclusion by themselves.   

     What was the mysterious quality that Confucius, Jesus, Paul and Ben Franklin used in order for their leadership to prevail?  In our lesson today Paul wrote, “Christ sent me to tell the Good News and to tell it without using the language of human wisdom, in order to make sure that his mission for coming into our world would not be robbed of its power.” (I Corinthians 1:17) 

     One of the values our cultural tradition has instilled in us is that after weighing the value of everyone's wisdom, we cast our vote.  The decision reached becomes the direction we support.   When we do not have contrasting points of view, a group can lose its way.  It can also lose its way when members of the group forget their purpose and their identity.  We are the church, the body of Christ, the group through whom we believe God works.  Paul knew this. 

     None of us has a crystal ball that might help us discern the best path for us to follow. Jesus would have preferred a clear sign from God regarding the decision he had to make while in the garden just prior to his arrest.  He could return to Galilee where he would remain among friends or he could face the powerful Jewish authorities that would translate into a personal disaster for him.  

     Was God silent, as a number of us may believe?   The answer is no.  One of the best ways to illustrate how God communicates through each of our choices is by the following story. 

     Once an old, wise man and a young boy were going on a lengthy journey.  All along the way there were little adventures that enabled the sage to teach his young pupil the skills of spirit.  A day came when the two were confronted with a fork in the road.  The young man asked, "Master, which path should we take?"

     The wise one asked, “What is the purpose of our journey?”  The young man replied, “The journey is our adventure and each experience helps to teach us skills sufficient for the next one.  Which path will give us the best experiences?”   The sage said, “Your choice does not matter.  You can learn about life from either path.” 

     Then the wise one explained how the path to the right would lead to the seashore where there were fishing fleets and markets.  “In each encounter with others,” he said, “you will experience giving and receiving. The power of the universe will be available to you wherever you are.” 

     Then he considered the path leading off to the left.   He told his young student that they would encounter very different people.  “This path,” he said, “will take us to farms that have cattle, sheep and goats.  These people live from what grows on the land as the others live from what they gather from the sea.  Remember, the power of the universe will be available to you as you walk among these people.  What matters is how you share your spirit.” 

     That is what mattered to Paul.  Once again he wrote, “Christ sent me to tell the Good News and to tell it without using the language of human wisdom, in order to make sure that his mission for coming into our world would not be robbed of its power.”

     What matters most is the message we communicate through our spirit.  We do not have to be right in the minds of others.  We do not have to be believed.  We do not have to be supported or even loved. Jesus did not score high marks in any of these categories.     

     The spirit we use to express ourselves in all circumstances is what God uses to communicate.  Jesus did it from a cross.  Because of that, we learned how his love enabled him to overcome the ignorance and darkness of the world.  When we follow him, so will we.


     Loving God, our faith traditions have always guided us to understand that you created us in your image.   We thank you for the privilege it is to participate in your creation.  We are still learning, refining and evolving our skills of spirit.  When our values falter and the light within us is dim, we thank you for helping us realize that we are still students.  Thank you for helping us understand that flaws are what give diamonds their character.  It truly is a miracle that we communicate with each other as well as we do.  If all of us reasoned and experienced our emotions the same way, we would miss the contrasts that refine how we create.  Please never stop reminding us to be gentle with ourselves and with each other.  We want to thrive in our diversity and yet remain unified in how we love.  Amen.


     Loving God, how grateful we are that we can share moments of quiet and peacefulness as we direct our thoughts to you.  You know the thought patterns within us long before we open ourselves to your loving presence.   In spite of your infinite, all knowing nature, it is helpful for us to talk to you from time to time. 

     As the drama of life continues, there is no way of stopping the chain of experiences that come up for us.  Sometimes that means surgery. Sometimes that means watching those we love face challenging experiences while we feel helpless in lessening their load.  Sometimes that means dealing with the routine of our commute to work, our jobs, our marriages and our family experiences.  Sometimes that means being preoccupied by the material world, the price of oil, the gyrations of the stock market, the weird weather patterns, and the military conflicts in many parts of the world. 

     Loving God, if there is one request all of us would make this morning, it would come from our desire that countries lay down their arms and embrace what we all want B to live in peace.  Values clash only when love for one another is absent.  It is amazing that so many of the world's leaders find effective communication a quality that may belong only to those in the future.  Please lead the world's diverse communities beside the still waters so that all our souls might be restored.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .