“How Far Should Our Tolerances Bend?


Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – January 28, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13

 

    Last Sunday, I opened the service with these words:

I may have the gift of inspired preaching, have superior knowledge that no one else has, and have the power to move mountains but if I do not have the energizing power of love within me, I am a useless human being.  Love is all that matters.

    The Apostle Paul expressed these thoughts in a number of his letters but the letter and chapter that is most familiar to many of us is his famous love chapter of First Corinthians 13.  In that chapter Paul really does a good job defining what love looks like and the power such energy gives to anyone who takes the time to develop their spiritual nature.

    If I asked for a show of hands by those of you that believe that these words from Paul are true, more than likely everyone's hand would go up.  However, if we had a round table discussion about Paul's teachings, we might surprise ourselves by how easy it is to set aside his thinking.

    For most of us, love is not all that matters.  Each one of us has our own personal tolerances for the shortcomings of others.  How far should our tolerance bend to accommodate people whose values are in another universe?  How long should we allow others to try our patience?

    Just this last week, an ambulance arrived at a scene driven by a Taliban suicide bomber who detonated his explosives killing 105 people and injuring 225 others in Kabul. When do our tolerances bend?

    Our lesson this morning features an issue that frequently divides people even today.  The division that Paul discussed is over the values that some people had regarding their dietary restrictions.  Some people during Paul's lifetime refused to eat anything that was formerly sacrificed to idols.  Paul described this practice and went on to write that dietary preferences will not enhance anyone's relationship with God.  (I Corinthians 8:8) His answer was that any response to such people should be guided by their love because love is all that matters.      

    Paul must have known about Jesus' teaching that it is not what goes into a person that reveals their identity but rather what comes out of them from their words and attitudes. (Matthew 15:11) 

    What should give us pause is that Paul's response to everything that troubles us is to extend our love in all cases.  We should not avoid anyone because they respond to life differently. He tutored his readers to be humble enough and loving enough to keep their understanding of truth to themselves when it would serve no constructive purpose by trying to share it. 

    Wishing that everyone could understand life the way we do will not give them the wisdom, insights or the motivation to do so. When it comes to how far we allow our tolerances to bend, the answer is the same as when Peter asked Jesus, "How many times should I forgive someone?"

     Jesus' answer was, "As soon as possible every time." (Matthew 18:21f) How can we justify such a response?  What are we to do with the understanding that, "evil will only triumph when good people do nothing"? 

    In spite of how noble and wonderful that quote sounds, suppose that love IS all that matters, and we are the ones that justify our lesser responses by citing our values of justice, fairness and resisting evil wherever we find it.  The Old Testament provides a divine model for us to follow and has set the attitude for many of our responses to life.    

    Old Testament writers assigned to our Creator all kinds of activities that they believed were performed by God. If love is all that matters, why would God give land that belonged to other people to the Jews?  Was it really because of an earlier promise that God made to Abraham?  (Genesis 15:7) 

    How is love the only thing that matters when God saw to it that the first born among the Egyptians died just prior to the Jews exodus from their task masters? (Exodus 12:23) How is love the only thing that matters when God strategized with the Hebrews to destroy the Egyptian army? (Exodus 14:17f). 

    Was God's true identity showing itself or were these activities assigned to God because this is the way the Jews understood God's nature as their nation's history unfolded?  Throughout the Scriptures the list of activities ascribed to God is extraordinary. 

    Could it be that human existence is understood quite differently by God?  Love does not judge.  Love does not condemn.  Love's energy can be extended because that is all that matters.  (I Corinthians 13:4f) However, like the Jews, in many instances, we want God to be our protector from evil, our guardian during surgery or airline travels, our comforter, the deliverer of our peace, and our dearest friend.

    There is solid evidence today that God's love does not intervene in the human drama in the same fashion as it was historically understood by the Jews.  This was the concern of Jewish scholars during World War II as six million Jews were being exterminated by Nazi Germany.  Where was God?  Where was the God that the Old Testament writers glorified and praised?

    In 2017, we witnessed the results of massively destructive hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, torrential rains, devastating mud slides, tornadoes, deaths during freezing weather, car accidents, the spread of a deadly strain of the flu virus that has taken the lives of a number of children and varieties of violence where scores of people were murdered. What does it mean when God chooses to remain invisible while knowing that the power and ability to intervene in the dramas of human life are clearly available?

    God loves each of us, but perhaps God pays little or no attention to what happens to the vehicles in which we live.  We are the ones that remain passionately connected to the forms in which we and others identify ourselves. We anoint our faces with anti-wrinkle creams, tint our hair to darken the gray, and worry about our belly fat. While being good stewards of our vehicle by carefully maintaining it is an excellent discipline, our real value is what is inside of us.

    One of Paul's great dilemmas was that God allowed Jesus to be captured, tortured, mocked, and crucified after only three years of his ministry of teaching others how to love. How could this possibly happen?  However, Paul graduated from remaining preoccupied by the death of Jesus' physical form and developed a much different understanding.

    Paul experienced an event that offered unequivocal evidence for him that Jesus was still alive in spirit. (Acts 9:3f) He wrote repeatedly that we are also God's sons and daughters.  (Romans 8:14f, Galatians 4:5f, Ephesians 1:5)

    It is through our spirits that our identities reveal themselves, not our bodies.  Perhaps these words do not seem correct. However, if I held a light bulb for you to look at this morning, it would never light up.  In order for it to give off light, it would have to be powered by electricity.  It is the same with our bodies.  Without the power of loving energy flowing through them, our bodies would not give off light.

    Paul offered insights on how to accept peacefully everything that is happening during our life-experiences. Not everyone lives on the same level of spirit that we have reached.  Not everyone wants to respond to life's circumstances the way Paul suggests. 

    Again, Paul was remembering what Jesus taught when he said that there are circumstances when it is best to keep our beliefs and practices to ourselves. Jesus said, "Do not verbally share your truth among those who are rigidly holding on to values that are void of love."  (Matthew 7:6)

    Last week we discussed Jesus' lesson, "Follow me and I will teach you how to catch people." (Matthew 4:19).  If we were taught by Jesus not to cast our pearls before swine, how are we to encourage people to change?  The answer will always be the same.  Extending our loving energy is the only thing that matters.

    Each of us is only responsible for our own life, our choices, our attitudes and our values.  When we polish those qualities with the abrasives that come from loving others, when we would rather distance ourselves from them, we are giving God a tool that God can use to polish others.  This was dramatically demonstrated by Jesus just before he died.

    This morning I was watching the final tennis match between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic during the final moments of the Australian Open.   Both men were equally skilled at tennis. During the last tie-breaking set, Marin got angry with the umpire and grew increasingly frustrated with himself. Marin's facial expressions became anxious and pensive as he dropped game after game allowing Roger to win the set 6-1. Throughout the entire tournament, Roger revealed his stoic, thoughtful, peaceful body language for which he is known in the world of tennis.     

    One of the secrets of our living happy, fulfilled lives is to follow an old mystic teaching.  "Learn to wear the garment of your spiritual awareness within yourselves while wearing as your outer garment the acceptance of the social realities that come with living in your culture." 

    When we realize that love is the only thing that matters, we discover that love becomes the key that unlocks our treasure trove of attitudes so that we do not need to choose sides, we do not have to debate what is right or what is wrong, and we do not need to decide what is best for other people. Each of us must make those decisions by ourselves. When we struggle with an attitude that "I will defeat you," we take on the attitudes of those we oppose without realizing it.

    Jesus remained committed that love is the only quality that matters, and he placed that understanding over the value of his own physical form. Jesus knew that all of us would one day leave the movie theater that featured our responses to our life's on-going dramas. 

    Life's countless dramas were here when we arrived, and they will be here long after we leave.  This is what the world offers to everyone.  Life in our physical forms gives us an environment to polish our skills of spirit. Lots of people, however, become fooled by the various venues and dead-end streets that life offers. (Matthew 7:13-14) Still, growing and extending our loving energy is the only thing that matters. (I Corinthians 13:13)

    Jesus knew that love is all that matters.  Think about what happened during the last week of his life.  He healed the ear of a slave, he submitted to the soldiers that came to arrest him, to the mock trial, to a painful flogging, to the crown of thorns, and to listening to a crowd shouting "Give us Barabbas!  Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!" Yet, he saved enough energy to forgive everyone during his painful crucifixion.

    Every life is in a process of evolving.  Just because we cannot reach the higher rungs of the ladder does not mean that we should give up climbing.  Never admit to failure.  It is not possible for anyone to fail.  Not everyone learns that love is all that matters during their lives in this setting.  Remember one thing:  We are intensely loved by God during every step of our journey.  However, God allows us to grow and to spiritually evolve at our own pace.

    One of the most amazing experiences will occur to each of us when we die. We instantly discover that nothing happened but the loss of our physical form while we were witnessing the end of our movie.  We may even think to ourselves,

I always believed this would happen to me, but perhaps what I was clinging to was hope that life continues.  Now, I understand completely why love is the only thing that mattered.  When I consider everything that I experienced and all that I thought, felt, and did during my lifetime, here I am!  I am still alive!

 

CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

There are no words, O God, that can describe our peace when we experience your presence. Even during life's more fragile moments, our awareness of you restores our confidence. We want to hold onto such moments of wholeness forever but doing so is a constant struggle.  We want to remain committed to our relationship with you as well as to the realities of our world.  Our priorities are always changing.  Remind us that little effort is required to bring your loving spirit into every aspect of our lives.  Amen.

 

PASTORAL PRAYER

We enjoy these moments, O God, because of what they allow us to do. Most of us realize that we do not take enough time for nurturing our spirits.  There are so many unrecognized needs that inflame our passions, siphon away our patience, and cloud our vision of tomorrow.  For this one-hour there are no demands being made of us. There are no vital decisions we need to make. We do not need to vent our opinions about anything. We can attempt to participate even though our minds occasionally drift in our attentiveness.  In many areas of life, we are made aware that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

Yet we know there is a part of us that never sleeps. We know that you are everywhere, always ready to support us with your guidance. When our fears bring the "Yes, but what if" thoughts into our minds, you are there to help us to remember that you made us bigger than any "what if" circumstance. You created us to be a light in darkness, and a diamond being formed in the midst of heat and pressure. Help us to understand our identity with greater clarity.  Indeed, you are the potter and we are the clay. 

Today we pray for people passing through fragile moments, for people facing challenging decisions, for those whose bodies are broken by disease or war, for neighbors who find loving each other so difficult to do, and for nations that cannot move beyond their violent power struggles.  We call upon you, O God, to provide patient guidance of what we can do as we walk toward a tomorrow that we want to be filled with hope and peace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .