"Why Character Is Never Free"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – February 20, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 119:33-40; Matthew 5:38-48




          Once again I welcome the largest Cub Scout Pack in Bermuda along with a number of your parents and leaders.  I am glad that we could renew this 50 year tradition.  I want you boys to know that it is our honor and privilege for this congregation to be your sponsor.    Welcome!


This morning I want to talk directly to you, Cub Scouts, about the value of having strong character qualities as part of your lives.   My own Scout Master many years ago taught us that character is one of the most challenging qualities to develop and is one of the easiest components of your personality and spirit to lose. 


I guess the same thing could be said about the church – a house of prayer and worship -- that was completely destroyed by fire last week in the United States.   It took a long time to build that church and it took only one small flame to burn the building to the ground.  Even the large stone walls and bell tower that remained standing after the fire -- they, too, were condemned by the authorities.  They had to be torn down. 


This same process is in place for the growth or destruction of our character.  Remember, you are not in charge of your reputation because your reputation will always be determined by what other people think of you.  You are only in charge of developing your character.  


I am going to tell you some things this morning that may not make any sense to you, but I want you to listen anyway!   No one can install the qualities of character inside of you.  It cannot be done. 


For example, no one can make you want to be honest.  No one can make you want to be truthful in what you say.  No one can prevent you from hurting others by spreading unkind stories about them.  No one can make you develop a hunger and thirst for good study habits in school.  No one can force you to respect your parents and teachers even though there will be times when you feel they are making your life absolutely miserable by setting boundaries of what you can and cannot do.


Oh, they will tell you what to do, but following through on their guidance is a choice only you can make.  They can discipline you for your failure to be obedient, but you will remain totally alone in the task of building the quality of your life.   


You will grow tired of hearing your parents say, “When you are older, you will better appreciate what we are making you do right now,” or worse yet, “I am punishing you because I love you,” or even worse than that, “This is hurting me more than it is hurting you.”  I heard all of those from my parents throughout my childhood and into my teen years.


If no one can instill these qualities, how do we develop character?  This task is not easy. In fact, it is hard to do.  This is why I titled my message, “Why Character Is Never Easy.”  If having character is something everyone admires, why are such prized values so hard to acquire?  


As you boys have already learned, you cannot always have what you want.  You cannot always do what you feel like doing.  These restrictions may make you very unhappy.  The earliest response that people learn is anger.  Anger is a natural response.  In fact, at times it is a very useful and beneficial response.  But most of the time it is not.  We need to train ourselves to develop a variety of different responses.


Once I visited a family where the wife had just had a baby.  The infant remained asleep in a carrier that was sitting on the floor.  Upstairs, however, was another child who was 18 months old and she was screaming violently.  The parents just kept talking to me as though nothing was happening.  The child persisted with such screams and gasping sobs that her mother finally mentioned the drama taking place up stairs.


She said, “Dick, obviously we hear our daughter’s pleading for us to get her.  We know she is fed, dry and safe.  Her problem is that she wants to be with us when this is her bedtime. We are training her early to realize that we are not giving into everything she wants to do.”  After she expended a lot of energy, we were greeted with silence.


What happens is that many of us never outgrow this response when we are prevented from having something we want.  “But Mom, I have waited all week to watch this program.”  Mom says, “I’m sorry, dear, you haven’t finished your homework.  Until that’s done there will be no television.”   We boys pout and say things like, “It’s not fair. My sister gets everything she wants.”  We use every verbal tool we know to manipulate our parents. 


Think of all the other responses we could make.  We could say, “Mom, you are right.  I could have completed my homework as soon as I came home from school.”  We could say, “Thanks, Dad, for reminding me of my responsibilities.  It was my choice to set my homework aside when I came home.”  But, we often choose to be irritable.  


If anger is our most frequently used response when we are denied getting what we want, that is like having a hammer as our only tool.   We will greet every perceived conflict as a nail.   


In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is teaching his listeners how to develop character.  His words must have sounded crazy to people.  They probably never heard such nonsense because his audience had been taught a very different set of values. 


For example, Jesus said, “You have been taught to get even when you are treated unfairly, but stop doing that.  Instead, treat everyone the way you want to be treated.”  He also said, “You have been taught to love your friends and hate your enemies, but I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who make life miserable.” 


In other words, Jesus was teaching people to do just the opposite of not only what they had been taught but also opposite of what they really felt like doing.  Why did Jesus teach like this?  The answer is that Jesus knew we would never develop character if the qualities and values we want to hold on to are never tested or challenged by other people and circumstances that conflict with our values.   


The week after Christmas some years ago, I had to return several gifts that I had purchased for my wife.  When I entered the women’s section of the department store, I was greeted with total chaos – a group of unhappy women were scolding the cashier.  I heard one woman yell out, “Are you calling me a liar?”  The cashier politely responded, “No, I am only putting you in possession of the truth. We do not sell that product-line in this store.”  Another woman demanded to see the manager.  Obviously, the message of Christmas was completely missed by these ladies.    


When the drama ended, I approached the cashier and said, “I have been watching you deal with these rude women.  You treated each of them with great restraint and courtesy.”  I told her that whatever she had I wanted to bottle it and give it to everyone in my church.  She laughed.


What this woman taught me in ten minutes changed my life.  She said, “I had a teacher that taught me to bow in gratitude to everyone who could make me angry.  When I meet an individual that upsets me, that person is putting me in touch with an area inside of me that still needs work.  My teacher went on to say, ‘Turn every hostile person and every threatening circumstance into your own personal trainer for developing the values you want in life.’


That cashier told me that it took her five years of daily practice to master the skill.  She said, “I have not been angry at anyone for over 25 years.  In fact, I look for people who think they are capable of ruining my day.”  I said, “Why would you do that?”  Her response was classic -- “Because I enjoy every opportunity I get to practice my patience.  I really enjoy allowing other people to be who they are while I demonstrate skills of spirit they may not have.”  This is what Jesus did throughout his ministry.  He often preached by example. 


When we personalize what other people do and say, we allow their opinions and attitudes to take up residence in our minds.   This can take the form of hurt feelings.  This gives form to feelings of failure when we cannot perform with the same skill as someone else.   This gives form to a sense of worthlessness when others make fun of us.  These thoughts can stay with us for years.  By energizing them, such thoughts can mold how we think about ourselves.


When I was your age, during one of my physical education classes at school, two of the more physically developed boys were chosen to be captains by our teacher.  The two rotated in selecting guys to play on their team for basketball practice.   I was the last guy to be chosen.  When I was selected, the other captain said, “Wait a minute.  Stetler will give you an extra man.”  My captain said, “Are you kidding? Having Stetler will not give us any advantage.”  All the guys laughed.  I was devastated.  It took me a long time to move beyond the laughter and my hurt feelings.  In those days I was still learning how to deal with rejection.    


Character is not free.  It comes with a price.  If you Scouts practice turning every person and every threatening circumstance into your personal trainer, you will develop into a remarkable person.  No one else can do this for you.  It takes practice even when you don’t feel like it. 


          Sometimes you will feel like a coward.  Sometimes you will feel that if you don’t stand up for your rights no one else will.   Life is often filled with circumstances that are outside of our ability to control. The only thing we can control consistently is how we choose to respond.  Character is like any other skill we develop.  It takes practice.


Many years ago, two other buddies and I decided to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in early February.  At that time, 88 people had died on that mountain.  The temperatures during that time of year could be 60 below zero and I am not exaggerating.  The wind can be so fierce that you could lean into it at a sharp angle and spin. 


We hired a guide who was a skilled mountaineer and ice climber.  We had all the necessary equipment from the ice ax to the clamp-on spikes that are strapped to our rigid-soled boots.  Before we started our climb for our week’s stay on the mountain, we practiced what to do if we should fall, i.e., spin around, face the snow pack, slam our ax into it and stop our descent.  


When we reached a level where we could see for miles around, our guide, pushed the three of us off a cliff.  The three of us were stunned.  Within seconds we were airborne.  It happened so quickly.  We eventually landed on the icy slope and slammed our axes into it stopping our slide.  We climbed up to where he was, completely exhausted, and do you know what?  He did it again.  When the three of us climbed to his level once more he said, “There is never any warning when you fall.  Your life may depend on how quickly you can respond with your skills.”         


This is exactly what Jesus was teaching.  We can have all the values in the world about how to deal with unexpected conflicts, but the only way to master those values is to practice every day what you are learning as a Scout.  (I want the Scouts to stand up and listen to your own words as you recite the Scout’s Promise.)


I, Dick Stetler, promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people and to obey the law of the pack.  And that law is . . .  “A Cub Scout follows Akela.  The Cub Scout helps the pack go.  The pack helps the Cub Scout grow.  The Cub Scout gives goodwill. 


Who is Akela?  Akela is the verbal symbol of wisdom, authority and leadership.  It can be anyone.  For most of my life that leader has been Jesus.  Even by following him, character is never free!   But let me tell you something -- it is worth the price each of us has to pay to achieve it!   Go out there and become everything God has designed you to be!