"Defeat Your Worst Enemy"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 13, 2009

Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 8:27-38

     Last Thursday while I was preparing for the day, I was listening to WMAL. The question of the morning was this:  “Are Americans more divided today than we have been in the past?”  Since the format of the program is a comment line, listeners were calling to share their opinions.  The question is an interesting one and worthy of discussion.  Most of us would enjoy any give and take on this topic.  We all have our points of view.  Is there an answer that is consistently true not only during our present time but for all history?  We see bits and pieces of that answer every day.            

     John and Mary Ann Clinton used to be members of St. Matthew’s prior to their moving to Severna Park.  The other evening John and I had a Maryland Bible Society meeting and we always travel together.  As I was driving to their home, I encountered what I always do – traffic patterns featuring some drivers pretending they are participating in a video game.  

     The goal of these drivers appears to be to pass one more car any way they can.  To accomplish this they will deliberately go into a lane that is ending in a quarter mile or they may drive on the shoulder.  I am constantly amazed at their creativity and skill.  What I am challenged by is why some drivers feel compelled to do this?           

     When I arrived at the Clintons, the television was broadcasting the news concerning Joe Wilson’s interruption of the President while he was delivering his address on health care reform.  Mary Ann said, “One of the qualities in American life that is slowly leaving us is civility.”  I believe that she recognized a fact that is true for a growing number of people.  The respect and common courtesies that we used to give to each other are fading from our experience.     

     We can become increasingly cynical by what we experience, but we have to guard against becoming emotionally controlled by .5 percent of the people whose deeds are almost celebrated by the media that appears hungry to feed viewers and listeners what is sensational.            

     The population of our country is 305,200,000.   How many Bernie Madoffs have there been?  There are approximately 800,000 police officers in the United States.  How many arresting officers have brutalized people as they are taking them into custody?   There are 6.2 million teachers in the United States.  How many of them have acted inappropriately toward their students?   In the history of aviation, how many safe flights have there been before nineteen men, armed only with box cutters and knives, used four aircraft as guided missiles? 

     The temptation is to generalize about our society because of the abuses of a relative few whose deeds are paraded in front of us every day.  Has anything dramatically changed in human nature since creation?  The answer is, no.  Here is the reason why:  We still have the potential to engage in remarkable accomplishments or in deeds of savagery.

     Last Tuesday our 9:45 a.m. Bible study began examining the Book of Proverbs from which today’s lesson comes.  Even brief glances at the countless lessons that are found among the Proverbs will tell the story that very little has changed with how people respond.  In every generation there are people who understand how to order their lives creatively and others who appear to have no understanding that they are only delaying their evolution by the decisions they make.  

In our lesson from Proverbs, the author has Wisdom speaking to people:  

You have never wanted my advice or paid any attention when I corrected you.  So then, you will get what you deserve, and your own actions will make you sick.  Inexperienced people die because they have learned to reject wisdom.  Uninformed people are destroyed by their own lack of concern.  But whoever listens to me will have security.  The one who pays attention to me will be safe and have no reason ever to be afraid. 

     In the second lesson that was read for us today Jesus said, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?  What could you ever trade to get back what you have lost through your hunger for gratification from all the external aspects of life that can never give it?”  (Mark 8:36f)           

     All of us know who our worst enemy is!  It is not some invisible demonic being that is stalking us.  All we have to do is look in the mirror to see the authentic culprit. 

     The other day I went on a web search for a particular quote.  I failed to locate it.  What I did discover were several wonderful quotes from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Confucius, Lao-Tsu and Jesus that contained the same admonition -- “For people to conquer themselves is the first and noblest of all victories.” That particular quote came from Plato.  In our lesson Jesus says it differently, “If you seek personal salvation you will not find it.  If you forget yourself and lose your life in the teachings that I have taught you, you will save it.”  (Mark 8:34f)  Where do we start in dealing with this enemy to our spiritual evolution?           

     Before his death, Charles Schultz had a marvelous way of weaving life’s wisdom into the fabric of his Peanuts comic strip.  Charlie Brown is at bat and there was a called third strike.  Dejected by yet another failure, Charlie slumps down on the players’ bench.  He says, "Rats!  I'll never be a big-league player.  I just don't have it!  All my life I've dreamed of playing in the big leagues, but I know I'll never make it."   

     Lucy says, "Charlie Brown, you're thinking too far ahead.  What you need to do is set for yourself more immediate goals."  Charlie Brown asks, "Immediate goals?"  Lucy says, "Yes!  Start with this next inning when you go out to pitch.  See if you can walk to the mound without falling down."  Charles Shultz had such an ability to hold a mirror in front of us. 

     We need to remember that we can never skip the basics on our way to the big leagues of living. We may fall down repeatedly but eventually we will see results.  We crawled as babies before we learned to run in the marathons.  It is the same with incorporating spiritual wisdom into our lives.  Being wise takes time, patience and a desire to become a more refined version of ourselves than we were the day before.  Among the greater gifts God has given to humanity is our ability to change.  Discovering wisdom that is different from what currently is governing our choices will assist us just as our lesson today teaches. 

     Back in the 18th century, there was a little man who stood no taller than 5 feet 3 inches tall.  He weighed 128 pounds.  He was not particularly attractive. During his early adult life he engaged in all kinds of behavior that predictably produced problems.  Most of his continued stumbling on the way to the mound was of his own creation.  During these days, he could not escape the thought that his life was worth nothing and thus far had accomplished even less. 

     On the fateful day of May 24, he turned to a Scripture and read the following words, 

God’s divine power has given us everything we need to live a spiritual life through our knowledge of the one who called us to share in his ministry.  For this very reason do your best to add goodness to your faith; to your goodness add knowledge; to your knowledge add self-control; to your self-control add endurance; to your endurance add godliness; to your godliness add affection and to your affection add compassion.  These are the qualities you need, and if you have them in abundance, they will make you active and effective in your knowledge of what Jesus came to give us.  (2nd Peter 1:3f)

     Suddenly, his self-absorption vanished and his real life began.  He traveled over 250,000 miles on horseback, averaging 18 miles a day for 40 years.  He preached 40,000 sermons.  Many days he preached three times and he did this for 40 years.  He wrote 400 books.  He was fluent in ten languages.  He discovered many cures for diseases and wrote a book on medicine.  He started many clinics for the poor.  When he was 83, he became annoyed that he could not write more than 15 hours a day without hurting his eyes.  At 86, he complained that his preaching had to be reduced in frequency to only twice a day.  He also wrote in his diary of his frustration that the tendency was increasing to sleep-in until 5:30 a.m.           

     When he had spare time, he and his brother wrote thousands of hymns for the church.  When he died in 1791, he had over 120,000 followers.  Today his movement has 35 million participants all over the world.  By now most of you have realized that this little man was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. 

     Lucy said, “See if you can walk to the mound without falling down.”  John Wesley walked to that mound and soon graduated to the big leagues.  He understood the words of 2nd Peter.  All of us can take that walk when we recognize that we are the ones who are sabotaging our lives.           

     One day song writer John Power and the journalist Sydney Harris were going to a meeting together in the building where John worked.  They stopped by a newspaper stand to pick up an early edition.  Powell greeted the vendor very courteously, but to the surprise of Harris, the man behind the counter grunted in a grouchy manner, shoved the paper toward him and with an attitude slapped his change down on the counter.  Powell responded politely and wished for the man to have a good day.           

     As the two continued to walk, Sydney asked John, “What’s the matter with that guy?  Does he always respond to you that way?   Powell answered, “Always.”   And Harris said, “And you are always polite and friendly to him?”  Powell said, “I try to be.”  Harris asked, “Why?”  Powell’s response indicated that he had been listening to Wisdom calling to him to pay attention to her for most of his life.  John Powell said, “I don’t want that man to decide what kind of a day I am going to have or what kind of response I want to give to people who are like him.”           

     This past week I had the opportunity with other colleagues to speak to the student body of the Queen Anne School, a lovely campus that is at the very end of Church Road.  A student asked, “How do you get to the point in your life where you can treat everyone with respect and dignity even when they are callous, rude and mean-spirited?”   Her question really haunts the mind of all of us from time to time.  How do we perform as well as John Powell when every morning he encountered the same rude newspaper vendor? 

     The answer is to practice everyday to be the person we eventually want to grow up to be.  This is not an easy task.  We want the world to make life easy for us to communicate our joy, happiness and love, but Jesus called us to help mold the world by our presence in it.  After all, that is why he came.  

     We need to take the advice of Lucy to Charlie Brown when she said, “Charlie Brown, you're thinking too far ahead.  What you need to do is set for yourself more immediate goals.  See if you can walk to the mound without falling down.”  We need to remember to do this.           

     We grow one day at a time by using rude people to practice our kindness, by using uncertain situations to practice our confidence and by using awkward moments to polish our social skills.   

     When we practice wisdom, our lives become the kind of lamp that can be put on a tall stand so that everyone can see.  Practicing wisdom has nothing to do with our salvation, a process that belongs only to God.  Living this way is not earning points to please God with good works; rather it is a way of reflecting to the world God’s presence within us.


     During these reflective moments, O God, we sometimes sense your call to trust you during difficult episodes in our lives.  Yet we feel the tug to hold on to what appears safe and secure.  We know that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  Yet our senses feed us a diet of what has form and substance.  How compelling the world’s answers appear.  Our identities are often rooted in our relationships, our jobs, our responsibilities and the amounts of our financial means.  How easy it is to forget our true worth.  Compassion, hope, enthusiasm and joy are created from a place that will always remain invisible.  Inspire us, O God, to remember that the more we use such qualities, the more wisdom we will develop for living day to day.   Help us to remain strong in our conviction that people need to experience from us what Jesus came here to give.   Amen.


     Loving and ever present God, in the quiet and hush of these moments, we ask that you still our spirits with feelings of reverence and peace.  How grateful we are that regardless of whom we have become, or what rules we have broken, or what unloving thoughts we have held, you accept us just as we are.  You know that we are in the process of growing and maturing in spirit.  You know how often we tend to judge ourselves harshly by where we see ourselves at the moment.

     Guide and teach us, O God, to understand each other with the same spirit that you understand us.  Make known to our minds the implications of the words we say each time we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have broken their trust with us, who have done hurtful deeds, or who have displayed values that always appear to clash with our own.” 

     Cause our minds to remember that you considered us worthy enough to send Jesus to be our guide and friend.  Help us to remember our discipleship when a moment of anger wants to rob us of our capacity for patience, for understanding and for stillness.  Help us to remember our commitment to be a follower of Jesus’ teachings when circumstances push us to compromise our values, or to choose expedience or to walk away from issues that take courage and faith to confront.

     Thank you for your wise guidance, support and confidence.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .