"Hurt Feelings Are Teachable Moments"

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – February 23, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

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


    This morning we are going to consider moments when others injure us emotionally with their words or activities.  None of us escapes being hurt by other people.  Experiencing hurt feelings is a right of passage into our adult years.  When we are young and vulnerable, our self-esteem can be deflated by words that impact us to the point where we wilt. Sometimes such moments in our past become one of those snap shot memories that somehow never got deleted from our internal data base.

    I can recall very vividly the day when our Physical Education Teacher tossed a basketball to one of the physically mature boys.  He asked him and another boy to choose sides and play half court basketball.  We had games going at both ends of the gym.

    Once the teams had been chosen, I was the last boy standing on the sideline.  One of the captains said, “Come on Stetler, you can be on my team.”  The other captain said, “That will give you an extra man.”  My captain said, “Are you kidding me? Stetler will not represent any threat to your team.”  The rest of the boys laughed.   They knew I could not dribble very well. I was going through that awkward stage when male voices begin to deepen.  My team members saw to it that I never got the ball.

    Many of us have similar memories from our childhood.  At that time one of the few lessons we were taught was, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you.” The problem is that names do hurt us.  Sometimes our peers turn their backs on us and literally de-friend us.  The pain of isolation and rejection can be overwhelming.  What we needed during that period of our lives was a life-coach that would have taught us what such moments symbolize.

    We needed some skilled person to teach us that what just happened was a wonderful teachable moment.  For whatever reason, such a person was frequently absent.   We needed someone to put us back up on the horse once we were thrown.  We want our personalities to become like Teflon that protects our inner world. Those that master this skill when they are young are strengthened beyond measure for what the world will bring up for them in their futures. 

    A life-coach would have asked us why we personalized what other people said.  Why did we fail to recognize that what others say was only a reflection of their inner world, a world that had nothing to do with us?  Why was it that we elevated someone else’s opinion of us above our own?    When we respond to someone’s unkind remark, we only succeed in energizing it, thus keeping it alive.

    We do not need to look very far to see children still playing these games in our society.  The perplexing and frustrating aspect of what we witness is that many of these children are now living in adult bodies.  Democratic societies are filled with witnesses to the lies and mud-slinging that surface during national elections or when elected officials are debating the pros and cons of a piece of key legislation.

    What emotionally seasoned individuals have to realize is that the world is always going to be exactly what it is.  The world will not change because we had our feelings hurt or because we became upset by what our government is doing.  This week it was ironic to see the Olympics and the riots in the Ukraine happening less than 700 miles from each other.

    Jesus taught something that is largely ignored by countless people.  He said, “Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.”  (Matthew 5:39)  Likewise he taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who say all manner of unkind things against you.” (Matthew 5:44) 

    Jesus knew where each of our spirits came from and he understood that we can stretch to unimaginable levels in our skill development.  Jesus knew that each of us has the ability to develop the same attitudes as those of God and he said so.  Jesus said, “You must be perfect just as God in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  Jesus would not have said this if it were impossible to achieve.

    When our lives are built on this rock of self-confidence, the winds and rains of the world can pound against us and we will not wilt or crumble.  This is a very different approach to life from the attitude that thirsts and hungers for justice in a world that will never give it.  The world is just fine the way it is.  We are the ones that are being given the opportunity to grow by changing our attitude toward what we are experiencing.

    Elizabeth Barrett was a young girl that could not contain her desire to capture her experiences with words. Her mother was very controlling because she had a plan for Elizabeth’s life.  Elizabeth, poetry is nonsense!” her mother would exclaim.  “You are destined for far better things.” Soon she hoped she would break her daughter’s insistence of interpreting the world through her romanticized notions.  However, she only succeeded in teaching her daughter to compose her verses in secret. 

    Matters became more complicated when Elizabeth, the oldest of twelve children, met Robert Browning.  The two fell madly in love.  Her mother forbade Elizabeth to see Robert, but there was no stopping love when the two became smitten with each other.  They were married after a remarkably romantic courtship.  The unthinkable happened.   Elizabeth’s mother was so enraged that she disowned her daughter and refused to have anything to do with her for the rest of her life. 

    Elizabeth wrote her mother faithfully for years sharing all the joys she was experiencing in her marriage to Robert.  When their son Robert was born, the words just poured forth from Elizabeth’s pen.  No response ever came from her mother.  One day a box arrived at the Browning’s home and Elizabeth’s heart quickened when she saw that it had come from her mother.   She tore off the paper and opened the box.  There were all her letters.  Each of the envelopes remained unopened.   

    We can only imagine the pain that Elizabeth’s emotions evoked.  To realize that her mother had not read a single word she had written through those years had to make her heartsick.  Yet, she went on with her life, undaunted by the person her mother had chosen to be. Elizabeth knew that she was not in this world to please her mother, but to create images with her words.   

    She went on to become a prominent poet during the Victorian era of English history as well as the leader of the Romantic Movement. A number of us are familiar with two lines in one of her poems.  “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”  She goes on to list those ways with such eloquence.

    Jesus had this same love for his people.   Jesus faced incredible rejection during his ministry.  Scribes and Pharisees were always looking for flaws in Jesus’ character when he would depart from the strict interpretation of the Law.  Toward the end of his life, his most outspoken disciple, Peter, denied knowing him, and his band of followers abandoned him as they ran for their lives from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Only his disciple, John, stood by Jesus during his trial.  Only John stood at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying.   

    Many of us want to make others more accountable with their words and actions but that was not what Jesus was teaching.  The focus of Jesus’ message was never about fixing people.  That is not how the world works.  As painful as it is to understand, we will always be the ones that grow by making changes within ourselves in how we greet what is confronting us.  Instant forgiveness and letting go has never been about the other person. Forgiveness and letting go is our statement to the world. 

    In the face of all the lies being said about him, Jesus mounted a defense only once. When Jesus questioned the High Priest about the charges against him, a guard slapped him across the face and said, “How dare you talk like that to the High Priest.” (John 18:22)   From that moment on, Jesus remained silent and presented no further defense.  Will truth ever remain silent when noisy children believe they are winning by their caustic remarks and the power they wield?  With God in charge of creation, I would not place any bets.

    Once I was doing a series of evening services for a colleague.  The last night there was a question and answer period.  An older gentleman took exception with one of my illustrations.  He said, “Were you suggesting that Mahatma Gandhi went to Heaven when he died?  When I told him that he had done more to heal his people than many Christians have done, he stood up and exclaimed, “That man was a Hindu!  I can no longer sit here and listen to this rubbish.”  He and his wife walked out of the service.  Needless to say, the moment became very awkward.

    His orientation toward God was in another universe from mine. That is the way of the world.  We have to express love from the way we understand it even when others have a very different frame of reference. 

    Just so you know, Hinduism is an ethnic religion liked Judaism.  One is born a Hindu just as one is born a Jew. The reason Gandhi never officially became a Christian was that he was turned away from a number of Christian churches because of the color of his skin. 

    This is the way of the world. We are serving in it in spite of the number of others that have not chosen to expand their spiritual awareness.  They remain firmly anchored to the drama of this world.  When we have hurt feelings, we need to remind ourselves of something that Jesus taught, “If you only love those who love you, where is the reward for doing that.  Even tax collectors do that.”  (Matthew 5:46)

    Jesus was inviting us to be like God.  When we have reached the place where we are at peace in spite of living in a world where there are constant wars and rumors of wars, it will be like owning the pearl of great price.  We cannot give that skill to someone else.  We can only model what that pearl has done for us.   This is all that Jesus could do with his life as well.