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Sermon – August 1, 2010: A Person’s Life

Sermon for Sunday, August 1, 2010 First Baptist and Beaver Memorial Joint Service

A Person’s Life

Psalm 85; Colossians 2: 6-19; Luke 11: 1 – 13

Back when I was a young man there were ads in the back of magazines which

portrayed a good-looking young woman toying with her collar and facing the camera with a

vacant look on her face. In big letters it said something like “Get Women Through

Hypnosis.” At the bottom was a little form to fill out and send in with money to get the

program which would teach you how to get women with hypnosis.

Of course the model in the picture was instructed to have a blank look on her face

because it suggested two things. The obvious thing it implied was that hypnosis was

going to give you the power to put women into trances, like Bela Lugosi used to do. It also

gave the woman an expression which, though not very intelligent, made her look open to

new possibilities.

Of course those ads were aimed at insecure men, just like the ads for using “Dynamic

Tension” to get a physique like Charles Atlas. It was pretty embarrassing for a guy to admit

that he had responded to the ad, but one evening, as a friend and I were riding in his car,

that’s just what he did. He told me, with considerable chagrin, that he’d bought the product

which was supposed to help him learn to use hypnosis to get women. The most

humiliating part of it seemed to be that he felt he’d been cheated.

It turns out that the kind of hypnosis offered was self-hypnosis, that the whole secret

was using hypnosis to convince yourself you were attractive to women and at ease around

them. It they had told people that up front, they wouldn’t have sold very many little

booklets. The last thing people want to accept, no matter how often they hang around the

“Self-Help” section of a bookstore, is that the only way their problems are going to be

solved is if they do something to change themselves.

All those titles in the “Self-Help” section are supposed to help you help yourself,

but the reason there’s always new titles there and livings to be made in self-help advising is

that the books all by themselves don’t accomplish much. What has to happen is for the

person who reads the book to change. A person has to want to change and be willing to

change and have a way to change.

This is how I see this encounter between Jesus and the man who asks Jesus to bid

his brother divide the inheritance with him. He has the idea that getting this descendant of

David to pronounce judgment on the case is going to solve his problem, but Jesus, for

once, doesn’t meet the need of the anguished person in the crowd. This man is treated

more like one of Jesus’ opponents, whose remarks often begin a long discourse on a

better way to understand things. Jesus, apparently, can heal you and give you your

eyesight and make you walk again, but if your problem is that another person has to change

his or her mind in order for you to be happy, he won’t do that. No; it’s you–the person

there listening to him, the person Jesus has contact with- – that’s the person with whom

Jesus is going to work.

This is where I feel sorry for the man: Not because he doesn’t get from Jesus what

he requests, but because Jesus points something out to him which is painfully and

problematically true– that the power of God is used effectively to change, not other

people, but ourselves. The right way for this man to make progress with his resentment of

his brother’s possession of the inheritance is not for some unanswerable authority to

compel the brother to share it. The right way –the right way from Jesus’ perspective– for

the man to heal from the hurt he feels from what he regards as a wrong is to get a new

outlook on the whole thing. The unhappy man has to change his mind. The unhappy man

has to change his heart.

That’s just as bad as when we go to the doctor and complain about some ache or

pain and the answer isn’t that we have a bad back that the doctor has to do something

about. The answer is that we have a lack of exercise that we have to do something about.

Of course in the longer run if physical therapy and a daily routine of stretching and making

sure to take long walks solve the problem, that’s really better than taking drugs or having

surgery–but our immediate response to this kind of advice from a doctor is dismay. Oh–

we have to take care of it ourselves! For our problem to become different, we must

become different. We can’t just go on with everything the way it’s been and have an

outsider take care of whatever’s bothering us. We have to change who we are.

A Christian once wrote “The only hope of the world is a universal reformation, and

every man ought to be ambitious of being the first.” Jesus approaches this question of the

inheritance as if the only hope there is rests with the reformation of the unhappy brother. He

takes it as an opportunity to tell everyone to be on guard against desiring what someone

else has. He exploits the topic to make the point that life consists of much more than

possessions, and he tells this cautionary parable about the rich man who invested himself in

accumulating wealth, wealth that he inevitably would lose to others at his death.

Don’t you get tired of hearing that you can’t change others, you only can change

yourself? I’m sorry, but that seems to be the message from this gospel reading. The man

unhappy about the inheritance comes to Jesus expecting Jesus to change another person,

but Jesus treats the patient he has there. It’s similar to what happens when someone isn’t

happy about what’s going on in an organization. You know if you say, “Someone should

form a committee to put on a social event, to get everyone better acquainted,” you’ll be

told, “Why don’t you put on that social event?” There has to be a willing self in the picture.

The world is full of problems because of all the individual selves who inhabit the world, and

a solution always begins with a willing self. The question is whether there’s a willing self to

be found.

If we could take this seriously, it would take away a lot of the power of the

scapegoating which goes on all the time in public discourse. The world’s in a bad way–

there are dangers and difficulties, scandals and scares– and there is a huge industry

devoted to trying to direct our attention to some other people somewhere who can serve

as believable targets for blame. That fits right in with our lazy instinct that the way the world

should improve is for other people to have to change, and not us. But if we accepted the

truth shown by Jesus’ in this encounter– that the world only changes for us if we are willing

to change ourselves–we’d be less susceptible to the idea that the way to solve our

problems is to do something about those rich people or those poor people or those

strangers, or whoever that somebody else is. We all of us have the power every moment

to change the world by becoming different ourselves, and we all of us all our lives never

attain the power really to force another person to change from the outside.

This is why Jesus spends so much time telling people who they are. You are the

salt of the world. You are children of God. Your work is important. Your prayers have

power. Jesus can’t make people believe those things, but if people can believe those

things, they can make a difference.

That’s why Paul urges the Colossians to remember who they are. What seems

reasonable from a human perspective isn’t the whole story. Wonders and miracles have

happened to reveal the true nature of persons, and the real promise of life. Don’t be

misled, not by someone else’s estimate of who you are and what life is, nor your own

instincts about how life should work. Life works the way Christ has shown it to work– by

devoting oneself to a God who is devoted to us. That’s the message of Hosea, that

despite our failings God loves us and always has the will to restore and forgive. When we

know we are God’s, and that God is so good, it gives us the chance to be changed, and

change gives us the chance to lead the life Christ has come to provide.

When we take communion together, it’s a way of proclaiming that Christ’s is the life

that we want. It’s a way of announcing our discipleship, to share Christ’s table. We know

we need always to be reminded of our true nature and our calling, that we choose to live in

the world with confidence and contentment.


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