"Trust During Those In-between Times"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 8, 2009

Genesis 17:1-7; Mark 8:31-37

    Soon after school let out for the summer, a young man named Jeff and his family left for vacation to Ocean City joining his uncle’s family in a jointly rented beach house.  Jeff was a junior in high school and was a very good looking, popular halfback for his school’s varsity football team.   Jeff was having problems, however, communicating effectively with his parents, something that was obvious to everyone who was near the family.  Jeff’s spirit was aloof and distant. He would fulfill his obligations during the vacation but he never did anything beyond what was required as he had in the past.           

     One morning, Jeff’s uncle invited him to go for an early morning walk along the edge of the surf before the sun worshippers came with their blankets, lounge chairs and beach umbrellas.  The uncle said, “What’s up with you and your folks, Jeff?  This year you are carrying an edge.  What’s that about?”           

     Jeff confided how controlling his parents were.  They set curfews, established inflexible boundaries and insist on meeting every girl that he dated.  While he earned his own money with a part-time job, his parents made him save a little over half of it.  He wanted to buy a good-used car and they said, “No.”  He told his uncle that he was counting the days until he could be on his own and out from under the hovering presence of his parents.           

     Jeff was in one of those in-between times.  He thought he knew what he wanted in life and yet he was being restrained from expressing it.  Jeff made an insightful point when he said to his uncle, “The future belongs to me, not my folks.  They have already gone through their days of youthful indiscretions.  I want to get started even if that means making a few mistakes along the way.  I want to assume responsibility for my own life.”           

     The uncle said, “What are you going to do, Jeff, when supervisors in some future job begin to tell you what they expect from you when you want something else?  What are you going to do when your wife wants you home with her and the kids when your friends are inviting you to join softball and volleyball leagues?  Will you have the skills to accept what life brings you or will you become angry every time you greet some barrier to the freedom you prefer?  Jeff didn’t know.             

     Then his uncle said, “Grab a handful of as much sand as you think you can hold.”  Jeff complied.  His uncle said, “That is a lot of sand.  Now I want you to simulate anger and with all your might make your hand into a fist as tight as you can.”  As Jeff did so, his uncle asked, “What is happening to everything you were holding?”  Jeff said, “I have lost most of it.”  

     Jeff was bright enough to get the point.  Just to be sure his uncle said, “You have the rest of your life to be on your own.  You won’t always have your parents.   Why not use them as teachers and develop the values that will serve you for the rest of your life by loving them even when that appears to be the least thing you want to do?”  That walk changed Jeff’s life.  His uncle provided Jeff with a course correction.           

     In our Gospel lesson today, Peter found himself in one of those in-between times.  Upon hearing what Jesus said, Peter recognized all the good that Jesus had done during their last three years.  He understood that Jesus had a brilliant career ahead of him.  He wondered what would cause Jesus to say that soon he would be killed by the elders, the chief priests and the expert lawyers who had a near flawless understanding of the laws of Moses.  Peter publicly challenged Jesus’ words while Jesus was teaching his disciples and a crowd of listeners.           

     In essence, Jesus said to Peter, “You cannot stop me from living among all the possibilities that are already in motion.  I will not abandon my need to live fully in each moment.  Peter, you have no idea how God works.”            

     After this public exchange Jesus gathered his listeners around him and said,

Do not try to escape injustice, suffering and being inconvenienced.  Such times are presenting you with moments when you can allow your true self to become visible.  What good is done when you struggle with all your passions to fix the world according to the way you want it.  Your struggles and manipulative skills will prevent you from enjoying who you are. When you persist, you will lose your identity as a spirit being while holding tightly on remaining like everyone else who wants to tidy up a world that is constantly changing. 

    These in-between times are always present within us.  We have to decide what spirit do we want to radiate?  Too often we want to radiate the one that knows how to get things done, that solves problems, that removes ineffective people from positions of authority and that brings a strong moral authority back into our society as its foundation. 

     The problem is that the world has never been in short supply of such people.  Lots of leaders believe they know what has to be done in order for all of us to be better off than we are today.  If I am not mistaken, that is the goal of the Taliban who wants to purify the world’s people to conform to their understanding of God’s will. 

     Few people want to allow their true selves to show because already their lives have already been compromised by the seductive forces of our world.  We forget the words of Jesus to Peter, “You have no idea how God works.”  The front of our bulletin this morning depicts a graphic of what Jesus was inviting his listeners to do.  “Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me.” 

     The metaphor of a cross has no meaning for us in terms of what Jesus was teaching.  The cross is and will always remain one of the symbols of our faith.  What Jesus was teaching, however, was to bloom and not spend time correcting and fixing anything.  It appears that we are never satisfied to bloom, to create or display our talents when there is no audience.

     Not long ago a movie was made about Robert Kearns.  He patented intermittent windshield wipers in 1967.  He tried unsuccessfully to interest automakers in his device but no company expressed interest.  Eleven years later, the Ford Motor Company produced cars with their version of the concept and most car manufacturers followed. 

     Kearns felt betrayed by companies who could afford high priced attorneys that repeatedly engaged in legal delay tactics, but he persisted.  He wanted justice.  He spent the rest of his life in litigation against Ford and Chrysler.  He eventually won a multi-million dollar judgment against the automakers.  Kearns died on February 26, 2005.  His legacy was not the invention from which all of us have benefited; what he left behind was large and still unpaid legal bills.   He owed far more than his award. 

     One can hardly imagine the waste of his life because he exhausted himself attempting to right a perceived injustice.  All people could see was an angry man who wanted his day in court.  Think of his creative mind that went to sleep by demanding recognition and compensation for his patent.  In one respect he has to be laughing now at what has happened to Detroit’s big three automakers. His cross was negotiating the injustice of a corporate giant that had appropriated what was his. 

     A friend of mine from my days in Cheverly was Tom Curley.  He worked for the Navy as a civilian.  He had been awarded 18 patents, but he could not become wealthy and famous from any of them.  They had become property of the Navy.  I asked how Tom felt about that.  His answer was classic.  He said, “That is the way it is among military contractors.  I do live with the satisfaction that all my inventions have made life easier for a lot of people.” 

     This response by Tom is what Jesus had in mind.  When we carry our crosses with no regrets they really cease to be burdens.  Nothing becomes a burden or a sacrifice until we make the judgment that fuels our aggressive attitudes about it.  In spite of how justified we may feel about our responses, remember Jesus’ words to his listeners, “What good is done when you struggle with all your passions to fix the world according to the way you want it.  Your struggles and manipulative skills will prevent you from enjoying who you are.  You do not know how God works.” 

     There is nothing worse than the self-infliction of being caught in one of those in-between times when we cannot change what is happening in our world and we choose to smolder with seething anger for the rest of our lives.  Truly that becomes our prison.  When we spend our lives wishing and wanting for life to be different from what it is, we are no longer grateful for what we have.  This is where Peter found himself. 

     Jesus taught that when we choose to remain trapped, there is nothing we can do to regain our radiance, our passion, our zeal, our enthusiasm, our smiles and our joy.   We are not without hope, however.  We always have the choice of letting go of what emotionally and spiritual keeps us bound.  We can trust that by doing so we have become an asset in God’s created order. None of us is immune to being held captive by the potential crosses we encounter. 

     For years my grandfather, Roy Stetler, was the publisher of the Evangelical Press in Harrisburg, Pa.  He was a very bright businessman, an excellent publisher and a model Christian.  He published five books and wrote a weekly column for the Patriot News – the Washington Post for the Harrisburg area. 

     These were the days when my family belonged to the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  As a number of you will recall, we EUBs merged with the Methodist Church in 1968 to create the United Methodist Church.  Today my grandfather’s position would be equivalent to the Chief Operating Officer of Cokesbury. 

     When the merger was consummated in Dallas, Texas, immediately the duplication in services by Cokesbury and the Evangelical Press ended.  United Methodist bishops decided to sell the building at Third and Riley Streets in Harrisburg so that the denomination could consolidate their resources in Cokesbury.  The building was considered a White Elephant. 

     The sale infuriated my grandfather.  He found himself in one of those in-between times.  He went off the edge emotionally in a way I had never seen.   He wrote bitter letters to all the bishops responsible for the sale.  Repeatedly he said, “Bishops are seldom good businessmen.”  

     The new denomination sold the building to new owners who rented out the space to other businesses.  Here was the rub -- in receiving the first month’s rent, the new owners were able to recoup what they had paid the United Methodist Church for the building.  The new denomination had given away a hen that would have laid golden eggs for decades.           

     I remember my Dad saying to his father, “Dad, you cannot allow the poor judgment of bishops to cause you to turn your back on the new structure of the church.  Your displeasure will not undo what has been done.  Let it go!”   I am not sure my grandfather found such a response an easy thing to do.  I remember him saying, “Well, I am washing my hands of the whole thing.”  I was very tempted as a young and very inexperienced pastor to remind him, “That’s what Pontius Pilate said and did when dealing with the fate of Jesus.”   For once, I held my tongue.           

     As we continue our walk through Lent, consider what holds our minds in suspension?  What has us preoccupied?  What themes bring distraction to nearly every waking moment?   Jesus said, “If you are going to follow me, you have to turn your baggage into blessings so that, as strange as it sounds, God can heal those around you.”  That is what happened when Jesus took his own advice and loved his enemies until he drew his last breath.  Are we able to do the same?


     We thank you, merciful God, for entering our minds and hearts when we consciously open our lives to the movement of your spirit.  Yet we recognize that you are more willing to provide guidance than we are to seek it.  You are more willing for us to change than we are to let go of attitudes that cause us to perceive without love.  As we enter these days of Lenten reflection, we want to replace our rigidity with flexibility.  We want to replace our judgmental responses to others with living more compassionately.  We want to be free from thought and emotional patterns that have kept our spirits captive for years.  Heal our spirits.   Help us to remember that a healthy sense of humor and our patient responses to life-reversals are remarkable ways of carrying our crosses.  Amen.


     There many times, O God, when our lives are touched deeply by the events of our world.  This week particularly, we have experienced one of those in-between times when the snows have come at one end of our week and 70 degrees at the other.  We do sense the renewal of life as nature emerges from its dormancy.  We have recognized that the cold winds and the frosty mornings are slowly surrendering to the changing of the seasons.  Help us to remember that all our perceived woes, even our country’s financial concerns are also part of those in-between times.

     Our lives are forever changing.  How many times have our Good Fridays given birth to Easter mornings? How grateful we are for hindsight which reinforces a wonderful perspective, one that gives us confidence for holding on when the storms raged around us, one that strengthens us for maintaining trust in you, and one that teaches us the great truth that all things, both supportive and challenging, will one day pass from us.

     We pray this morning that our lives will be touched in a healing way because we have come together to celebrate our faith.  As we evaluate the quality of our lives and sense the distance we have yet to grow, teach us to be gentle with ourselves.  Teach us that those who search must be patient as well as open.  Teach us that harmony with you can be achieved when we learn the uselessness of struggle and the beauty of peace and stillness.  Direct us during our walk through Lent to make your love visible to everyone who has the eyes to see and the will to personalize the path Jesus taught as we willingly carry our crosses and follow him.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus as we now listen to the singing of his beautiful prayer . .