"How Responsive Is Our Faith?”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – August 7, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 105:16-22; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28


    The question asked by the title of my message today is almost impossible for us to answer accurately.  All of us could provide some answer.  What we do not know is how responsive our faith is until life presents us with a roller-coaster ride that is well beyond anything we have yet experienced. 

    We can read the story of Job as many times as we want to and still not know how committed we would remain to God’s faithfulness if we walked in his shoes. Would we eventually reach a breaking point or would we remain resilient enough to keep adjusting how we think and feel each time one of these series of events occurs?

    Experiences do not need to be catastrophic for us to abandon the values we claim our faith has given us.  For example, as you listen to the following page of a woman’s life, use your imagination to describe your reaction if this experience happened to you. This story describes a series of inconveniences.  Still, could such a series of reversals be interpreted as God pulling out our dip-stick to check the level of the motor oil governing the smooth operation of our faith? 

    While driving to work one morning, a woman’s car engine threw a rod and stalled.  Her local mechanic indicated that the car was too costly to repair because of its age and high mileage. Since she needed immediate transportation and had decided on the make and model of the particular car she wanted, she took a vacation day and went shopping.   

    She drove into a dealership and was greeted by a salesman.  Once she found that the model and the color that she wanted was in stock, she immediately wanted to take the car on the road for a test drive.  It was then that the reversals began to happen. 

    The sales representative had given the keys to the car to a mechanic to get the car ready for the woman. That mechanic was no where to be found.  Fifteen minutes later, the mechanic appeared with a coffee in hand.  He had been on break.  Next, the salesman had to look through the owner’s manual in order to disengage the car’s alarm system.  Another forty minutes had passed and she began to wonder about the competence of the salesman and how the dealership was organized. Clearly her patience was being tested while she waited for this transaction to come together.

    Finally, she and the salesman drove through the parking lot and ventured onto the highway.  Just as she was thinking how pleased she was with her choice, the car began to sputter and hesitate.  Finally, the engine stalled several miles from the dealership right in the middle of a busy intersection.  This was not a hybrid car so she realized there was a problem.  Drivers behind her began to blow their horns.  The light changed several times allowing very few cars to get through the resulting gridlock.    

    Her eyes happened to glance down at the gas gauge and the needle was way below the E signaling that the car had run out of gasoline.  She was totally frustrated.  The salesman turned on the car’s flashing lights as he called on his cell phone for the dealership to send a tow truck.  He apologized that the mechanic had not put gasoline in the car which is why he had the key.

    No explanations or excuses mattered to the woman; she had become extremely frustrated and thought to herself, “What seasoned salesman leaves the parking lot in a car with an empty tank?”  As I mentioned, this episode was not the end of the world, but it is one that evoked a response that is quite typical from people that have lost control over their time and schedule.

    After he assumed full responsibility for what had happened, he commented, “Just before you arrived at the show room, I received a call from the hospital.  My mother had come out of exploratory surgery and was in the recovery room.  Her surgeon told me that she has cancer that has metastasized to all her major organs.  He sewed her up and said that there is nothing more they can do but to make her comfortable.  After work, I have to tell her.”

    Knowing that she was dealing very poorly with her inconvenienced schedule, she realized very quickly that she had judged this man very harshly, never giving any thought to the possibility that something was wrong in his life.  Within seconds her self-induced stressed was replaced with compassion and empathy.  

    Think of all the torment she could have spared herself by greeting this salesman with compassion and empathy as soon as these reversals began to happen.  We are all hard-wired to become frustrated, anxious and stressed.  We are also hard-wired to become a peaceful spectator even when the person we are dealing with is having one of those days he or she would like to live over again.   

    Believe it or not, a similar circumstance happened to Joseph in our lesson today.   His day started off like any other morning.  He was not prepared, however, for how his day ended.  No one can ever prepare himself for what happened.  His world, as he knew it, came to an abrupt end.  Yet, the responsiveness of Joseph’s faith helped him to maintain his character and integrity through every twist and turn his life would take.

    His brothers smoldered with seething anger that Joseph had become their father’s favorite son.  Their response took the form of selling their teenage half-brother to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites that was headed for Egypt.  From this sale, Joseph’s brothers received eight ounces of silver.  

    The men returned to their father with the story that Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal and they had his blood-stained coat of many colors to prove it.  The blood, however, belonged to a goat.  The last thing Joseph remembered by the day’s end was seeing Canaan become smaller and smaller until the only land he knew melted into a horizon that he would never see again.   

    The difference between the woman who was buying the new car and Joseph is that Joseph had developed an orientation to life that helped him to become immune to interpreting his experience in any way other than “Life always has something to teach me.”

    As we review Joseph’s life after he was sold into slavery, several things become apparent. He knew he was in uncharted territory.  He also discovered that life reveals its storyline one day at a time.  Joseph’s attitudes and thought patterns were completely controlled by his unshakable faith that his life had some purpose that would some day provide meaning to the sudden shift in his life’s fortunes.  (Genesis 45:5)  

    The Joseph story makes us wonder how peaceful our lives would become if we lived without making judgments of each unforeseen change or inconvenience.  There is a quote on the back of the bulletin that says, “Never judge the quality of any circumstance until you discover where it leads you.”  In other words, delay judgment and become the observer.  In this way, we would avoid the wasted energy of creating strange interpretations for what may be happening to us. 

    Several weeks ago a man wrote a letter to the editor in one of our local newspapers describing an incident that occurred while driving his motor scooter.  A young man drove up beside him on his scooter and began scolding him for cutting him off.  Then, this young accuser caused the man to have an accident on his bike, one that slammed him to the pavement causing extensive injuries and badly damaging his scooter.

    The wounded driver said, “I had no idea that I cut off anyone and would have apologized if I had.  He could have killed me!  I have three children at home and I just brought my wife and our newborn baby home from the hospital yesterday.  This young man drove off leaving my rescue to other people who made arrangements for an ambulance.”  This entire drama happened because of a judgment that the young man responded to, a judgment that could have robbed a family of six of its husband and father.

    After his arrival in Egypt, Joseph made no judgment about anything.  He was sold to Potiphar who was the captain of the guard in Pharaoh’s court.  Joseph bloomed where he was planted and became a model servant.   He was industrious, bright and highly energized for every task Potiphar gave him.  Eventually, Potiphar turned the management of his entire household over to Joseph.

    One day, Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him and he refused her advances.  She may not have been used to being rejected by men so she got even.  She told her husband, “This Hebrew slave that you brought into our home came into my bedroom and tried to rape me.  I screamed and he ran leaving his robe beside me.”  After hearing his wife’s false testimony, Potiphar had Joseph put in prison.

    There was no justice.  Again, Joseph made no judgment about this event. He decided to remain an observer to another sudden change to his life.  He became such a model prisoner that the jailer placed him in charge over the entire facility.  While there Joseph interpreted the dreams for two of the prisoners, a baker and a wine steward that were both officials in Pharaoh’s court. The dreams came true just as Joseph had predicted. 

    When the wine steward’s dream came true, Joseph asked if he would seek Pharaoh’s approval to pardon him.  The wine steward promised to do so, but once his freedom was secured, he quickly forgot Joseph’s request.   Joseph’s time in prison was extended with no end in sight.

    A time came when Pharaoh began having dreams.  All of the wise men and magicians in Egypt could not interpret the visions that Pharaoh was having. It was then that the very repentant wine steward remembered Joseph’s ability and told Pharaoh.  Immediately Joseph was brought before Pharaoh and he interpreted the dreams as a warning that foretold that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of severe famine in the entire region.

    The rest of the story is well known to us.  Pharaoh said, “I will put you in charge of my country and all my people will obey your orders.  I now appoint you governor over all Egypt.” (Genesis 41:40f)  Pharaoh gave Joseph the ring he was wearing that was engraved with the royal seal.  That ring gave the wearer ultimate authority in Egypt.

    The powerful lesson of the Joseph story is one that we can use everyday. Our own judgments are what turn every major change, every inconvenience and every perceived barrier to our dreams and goals into ones that can either victimize us or create stepping stones for crossing a river of life experiences that we could never have imagined or planned.

    How many times have people cut their life-adventure short because they felt victimized by some experience?  Joseph had every right to feel this way, but he had a responsive faith that allowed him to bloom in a household, a prison and finally Pharaoh’s court. 

    When life creates frustrations within us, perhaps we would be well served by asking ourselves:  What lessons are we to learn as we experience this trial?   For that matter, how do we learn patience, forgiveness, compassion and empathy until we find ourselves in circumstances where these responses are among countless others that are far less loving? 

    Asking ourselves these questions enables us to develop, grow and stretch an increased responsiveness to our faith.   Try it.  Look at it as if you were going to the gym for a strenuous and sometimes exhaustive work out.   If we want to become angels in the flesh, we have to reveal angelic qualities every time, every day.