Creatively Dealing With Rejection

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – August 23, 2015

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 88:1-13; John 6:56-60, 66-69

    This morning the scripture lesson from John's Gospel slightly overlaps last Sunday's reading because we needed to recall why many of Jesus’ followers totally rejected what he said and stopped following him.  This teaching was about eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood.

    This rejection of Jesus reminded me of an incident that happened years ago to a popular and much-loved pastor.  He had been the shepherd of his congregation for 23 years when he decided to come out of the closet during a Sunday sermon and declare that he no longer believed in the Devil and in the existence of Hell. 

    He reasoned that God's love for lost sheep, prodigal sons and sinners was so forgiving and understanding, that God could not possibly surrender any of God's children to an eternity of suffering because they made a mess of their lives.  He said, "It would be impossible for love to do that." 

    Within the week, the ruling council of the congregation charged him with heresy when he chose to preach against what is clearly in the Word of God.  They terminated their relationship with him by Wednesday, just three days after he had delivered his sermon.  The council did not want to hear anymore of this nonsense from their pulpit. 

    What was at risk of disappearing was his 23 years of pastoral and administrative contributions.  Think of the marriages he performed, the funerals where he compassionately officiated, the baptisms, the suicides he prevented and the two successful building programs.

    Everything he did for his congregation was at risk of being dismissed when he declared that God's love was more powerful than what Jesus was asking his listeners to do by forgiving others seventy times seven.  (Matthew 18:22)  One wonders who was actually on trial when that verdict was handed down, the pastor or that ruling council.

    Jesus said the wrong thing to many of his listeners. They did not want to stay around to hear any deeper explanations of what Jesus had said.  They did not take the time to ask questions that might have opened their minds to a deeper understanding of having a spirit within them for expressing understanding and loving attitudes.  They just walked away. 

    Jesus became emotionally withered in the face of such a massive exodus of those who once believed in him.  He said to his disciples, "What about all of you?  Do you want to leave me as well?  Peter answered, "To whom would we go?  You are the one who offers guidance that gives eternal life." (John 6:67f)   What was Jesus experiencing that caused him to ask that question?

    When we personalize the behavior and attitudes of others, we can become vulnerable to all forms of rejection.  We have waves of fear pour over and through us like a hot knife in butter, leaving us bewildered and defensive.  Jesus responded the way most people do. 

    This morning we are going to remind ourselves that Jesus was a student of life just like us.  He had been hurt by the actions of others.  The pain caused by rejection taught Jesus that his self-worth had momentarily been attached to a particular outcome.  It was Peter who held a verbal mirror in front of him, reminding Jesus who he was, what he offered and why his disciples chose to stay by his side.

    When we study the feelings associated with being rejected, we either grow or wither.  This is the way it is with every important lesson in life that we have the opportunity to learn.  Rejection can become a powerful tool for growth when we understand why we have chosen to be devastated when it happens.  We invested our self-esteem in a particular outcome. 

    In Jesus' circumstance, he was trying to change people’s lives with his words and he failed.  It may have been this event that helped Jesus to acquire the skill of peace when people chose to remain closed-minded.  This occasion may have been the moment when Jesus learned what he later taught, "Do not cast your pearls of wisdom before those who will not understand.   They will only attack you."  (Matthew 7:6)  

    For most of his three-year ministry, Jesus graduated from personalizing the responses of the Scribes, Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law.  He never again surrendered the passion he had for his purpose for coming to the earth.  He came to speak about the truth. (John 18:37)

    Eddie Houston was a Social Studies teacher in a Pennsylvania high school.  Almost as soon as he was hired, he became the most popular teacher in the school.  Every year teens were in the registrar's office trying to get their schedules adjusted so that they could be in one of his classes. 

    Eddie had a magnetism that drew students to him. One of his purposes for choosing to be a teacher was to package his passion for Social Studies in such a way that students would soak up every moment of class-time like a dry sponge. 

    A new supervisor for his district became interested in what Eddie was doing. She did a computer analysis of his students over a 3-year period and found that most of them scored off the charts not only in Social Studies but in most subjects.  She also learned that most of his classes were well beyond the student-teacher ratio permitted by the school system.  Administrators disregarded the rule because of the results that Eddie generated year after year. 

    This district supervisor decided to audit one of his classes and managed to isolate two hours each day for six weeks.  She was captivated by how he maintained order in a class of 48 students. Because of Eddie's style and ability to present each topic in an exciting manner, the students remained attentive to every word he said.  She never saw anything like it.  

    What he taught during the early weeks of the semester had little to do with Social Studies.  His lessons had to do with helping students develop a love of life.  He helped them to understand that having knowledge about life and how life works put them light years ahead of everyone else. 

    He talked about the value of having a sense of humor, of following-through in their responsibilities, of how to develop wholesome relationships, of how to deal with sexual attraction, of developing effective communication skills and how each of them could become a person of substance. Eddie taught his students the importance of turning a deaf ear to peer pressure and other teen distractions.  After he excited his students about what they had the potential to become, he launched into Social Studies and never looked back. 

    That supervisor found herself both delighted and frustrated. She sat in class and was just as enthralled by Eddie as his students.  In fact, she was sorry she could not remain in his classroom for the entire semester.  Her frustration came when she recognized that the abilities of a purpose-driven teacher cannot be transferred from one teacher to another. 

    Jesus also had a passion for teaching, not only with his words but also through the spirit by which he lived. Yes, there would be the naysayers, the elders who knew everything, the pious, holier-than-thou pretenders of the faith, but nothing caused Jesus to feel defeated or rejected again. He remained single-minded about who he was and what he offered. 

    The way to use rejection as a stepping stone to success is to never personalize anything that comes to us from the external world.  I remember a close friend of mine whose boyfriend of many years betrayed her trust. Unabashed she said, "Fine, get out of line, there are a dozen people behind you that love me.  You had steak when you were with me.  If you want to settle for fast food, have at it."  She went on with her life because she had a firm grasp on who she was and what she had to give.  Her confidence was not shaken by what someone said or did.

    What Jesus taught came from being anchored in his identity and in the quality of the energy that he extended to others.  Those two seminal aspects of life are located in a part of us that no one else can gain access to.  When we allow some rejection to take up residence in our minds, we have chosen to separate ourselves from being one of God's sons or daughters.   In that moment, we give up being a spirit-being by becoming overly attached to an inner-need for something in the material world.

      In the television program Sixty Minutes, there was a fascinating report on the results of stress on the bodies of women. Scott Pelley drew attention to a study that chronicled the lives of thousands of women who lived enormously stressful lives.  The findings took the viewing audience into what often happens to such women on a cellular level. 

    The study demonstrated that women who are exposed to unmanageable levels of stress experience changes in their DNA.  Women’s cells aged extremely rapidly so that the tissue samples of 35 year-olds resembled those of women 45 or older.   

    Pelley took a camera crew to visit a mother who had an autistic teenager daughter.  She had stressors in her life that were constant and severe.  She defied the findings of the study.  He went to see her because her cells had not aged.  When he inquired about her lack of stress, the woman had a remarkable answer:

All stress comes from our fearful thoughts about something in front of us. I make no judgments about those things.  I cannot change anything that comes into my life by thoughts that make something into a mountain.  I merely roll up my sleeves and begin dealing with what life is asking of me. Making a difference has never given me stress.  I stopped whining about life 35 years ago when I was seven years old.  It never got me anywhere then and will not help me now.

    Peter reminded the Master of something he may have forgotten, "To whom shall we go?  You are the one who offers guidance that gives eternal life."  He helped Jesus to recall his core identity and his reason for living. 

    We must do this for each other from time to time, because all of us lose our way.  Some of us are the teachers and others of us are the students.  What is fascinating about life is that quite often we change places just like Jesus and Peter.  That is very humbling but we also know that it happens.