Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
A Sunday school teacher was attempting to define or explain one of the many words that theologians often slip into conversations, and occasionally print in the lessons of even very small children. The word was “omnipotent.” The teacher defined it as “all-powerful.” She should have dropped it at that, but she had to go on to say something that always seems to bring unanswerable questions out of the woodwork. She said, “It means that God can do anything.” Johnny immediately responded with, “I know something God can’t do!”
Wanting to continue, without embarrassing the boy, the teacher said, “Now think real hard about this, and remember that God can do absolutely anything.” “No, I mean it,” Johnny insisted; “I know something God can’t do.” “Well, then, what is it?” asked the exasperated teacher. Johnny said, “He can’t please everybody.” Johnny must have read this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.
The St. Louis Cardinals have a pretty good baseball team this year. Early in the season they rarely had success in coming from behind. Recently, they’ve been making a habit of it. In one recent away game, the opposing team brought their ace reliever to the mound in the ninth inning and the crowd greeted him with loud approval. Cardinal batters greeted him with one hit after another. Even before the winning blow was struck, the crowd booed their same pitcher unmercifully.
Contending with fickle followers is just part of the game in sports–especially among the professionals. We may want to think that the followers of Jesus would be above all that, but it simply isn’t true. We may even want to think that things have changed over the years of Christendom, but that is just another pipe dream. Jesus tried to point the crowd to eternal and spiritual realities. They were stuck on a material and sensory level.
A grandmother took her grandson to church for the first time. Before they entered, she gave him a dime for the offering. Not knowing the purpose of the gift, the little fellow was delighted, and he dropped the coin into his pocket.
A little later, when the plate was passed, she had a hard time getting him to release the treasure into its intended receptacle. From that moment on his behavior was obnoxious–the 3-year-old had fully reverted to the “terrible twos.” Grandma began to think she had made a mistake, that he wasn’t ready for the church service yet, so she asked if he wanted to go to the nursery with the other little boys and girls. His affirmative response was immediate, and he started dragging her down the aisle toward the exit. When an usher got up to hold the door for them, the lad held out his hand and said, “I want my dime back. We’re not staying!”
People have a lot of reasons for not staying in a church. While I don’t know of anyone asking for money back, I’m sure some would if they thought they could get it. It has been noted that people have a very long memory for slights and hurts, but a very short one for kind words and deeds. There are people in churches (more likely out of them now) who can remember incidents from many, many years ago in which they felt hurt or slighted, and they resent it to this day. Maybe that is why, in Sunday’s Epistle lesson, the very first item on Paul’s list of things that grieve the Holy Spirit is “bitterness.” Long-standing resentment and unforgiving spirits destroy organizations and sever beautiful relationships.
The truth is, however, that no matter how long you nurse a grudge, it will not get better. Grudges never get better. People who release them d o. It is odd, but the very things that make us bitter can make us better! Holding a grudge makes us bitter, but letting it go–genuinely forgiving–makes us feel better and makes better people of us in the process.
Jesus came to lift people out of the quagmire of material sensuality and sin, and set them on a plane of spiritual sensitivity and faith. The Holy Spirit picked up where He left off. Besides bitterness, St. Paul says the things that cause the Spirit grief are rage and anger, loud mouths and slander, any kind of malice. In contrast, God would have us be kind to one another, tenderhearted and forgiving.
Since lack of trust is the very essence of sin, we would expect resentful bitterness to be the way of the world, but why does it raise its ugly head in the church? I think the reason is because we find such joyful love in the church. It warms our cockles and soothes the raging beasts inside of us. When something goes wrong, we feel it all the more and the beast escapes.
If a stranger steals “our” parking space, just as we are about to pull in, we may fail to remain cool and kind. Some may even be tempted to say a few things their mothers never taught them, but that will be the end of it. When a sister or brother hurts us, we tend to feel it forever. Sometimes my heart just bleeds when I hear people talk about events that occurred years ago in their family or church. The event is so old it should be decrepit, brittle and dead, but their pain sounds as fresh as the whimper of a newborn.
It is God’s mission that His church grow in numbers. It is also His plan that we who are in that number grow up into the fullness of Christ. Jesus told the hostile crowd that His flesh was the bread He would give for the life of the world. At the time, they didn’t understand it. Later some were a brutal part of it. Still later some were faithful receivers of it. Jesus had an unswayable commitment. No slight, no hurt, no murderous activity could turn Him away from it. He was committed to you and to me and to all people. He would give His life for us–His all–so that the world might live. We Christians need that kind of a “so that” in our lives as well.
Jesus did not just tell people what to do and be–He showed them and enabled them. Similarly, St. Paul does not simply give the Ephesians a list of “should nots” and “shoulds.” Paul says we are to forgive one another as Christ forgave us. We are to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus’ sacrificial love is the means of our salvation. It is both the example and the means of the way we are to live in the church and the world.
The world is filled with bitter people. Let there be no doubt that if we are to be better people, we must first be immersed in the self-giving and forgiving love of God. Let there also be no doubt that we must be committed to His better way. St. Paul urges us to be imitators of God, but it cannot be a cheap imitation–loving only when we are loved in return, and not slighted or hurt in the process. Cheap imitations constantly look for excuses not to be like Christ.
People say, “I know I should tell the Good News about Jesus, but … I know I should forgive her but … I know I should support Christ’s mission, but … I know I can do that job, but….” God’s love in Christ enables and nourishes us to grow in doing His will. At the same time, it is not likely that we will ever outgrow the need for a stern self-discipline whereby we do what we ought in spite of ourselves, eliminating those “buts” from our imitating Him.
A few moments ago a fly was buzzing around, aggravating me. It landed on my papers, so I clapped my hands above it. The motion caused it to attempt escape. It wound up between my hands, and then fell to the desk with an insignificant “thud.” I continued to write. A few moments later, the “dead” fly had revived and hopped up onto my hand. Sin is like that. Christ has defeated it, but it has an annoying habit of reviving and hanging around. Sin still hops around in the church. People slight and hurt. They are too lazy, too busy or too bitter to tell Jesus’ Good News or serve Him in other ways. They are materialistic and selfish. We all need to be forgiven … and to forgive.
People develop, cultivate, or simply receive as God’s gift, some truly great abilities, but the greatest ability in the service of God is availability. Sociability, compatibility, accountability, adaptability, any ability at all without availability is a liability. When we hold back and do not put ourselves totally at God’s disposal, we actually put restrictions on God. Only when we give Him our all, do we discover the joy, freedom and wonder of receiving His all.
Thomas Merton, in Thoughts in Solitude, wrote a prayer that reveals commitment even in the face of uncertainty: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust You always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”