By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have a question for you to consider this morning. I don’t want you to answer it; just ponder it for the next 15 minutes, and perhaps as you leave this place today. The question is this: What would you be willing to do for a million dollars? For one million in cold cash, what deed would you be willing to do?
That question became a topic on talk shows and around water coolers in 1993 when a film, starring Demi Moore and Robert Redford posed the provocative question as a wealthy man offers another man $1 million to spend a night with his wife.
At about the same time, actually in 1992, a book was published that asked a similar question. The book was entitled The Day America Told the Truth by James Patterson and Peter Kim, and their question was this: “What are you honestly willing to do for 10 million dollars?” I think you will find the answers both interesting as well as disturbing. What would people do for 10 million bucks?
· 25% said they would abandon their entire family
· 25% said they would abandon their church
· 23% said they would become prostitutes for a week or more, and
· 7% would kill a stranger (1)
There are about 200 people here today. Fourteen of you are dangerous!
I’m not sure that it’s any encouragement but, while those numbers are about the same when the payoff is reduced to $5 million and $3 million, the numbers drop considerably when the payoff is only $2 million.
Those two illustrations beg the question “Is there a character crisis in America?” In the ten years since those events occurred, we have seen personal character compromised at the highest level of our government; we have seen integrity compromised in leadership of the church, and in spite of all the rhetoric about “family values” we have seen the fabric of the family erode even further in the past decade. Colin Powell once defined character as being “the way we live our lives when nobody else is watching.” If character is in short supply among us today, how can it be restored? How can we become a people of character in the 21st century?
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I am reluctant to use simplistic equations in sermons, even though I know they are popular for those who listen to sermons. I once satirically entitled a sermon “Ten Ways to Get Whatever You Want from God.” I never saw Lutherans taking notes during a sermon before! However, when the equation comes directly from scripture, then perhaps we need to listen up and take notes about that. How can we become a people of character? What’s the road map? The Apostle Paul offers us just such an equation in our Second Lesson today, and I think it’s worthy of our attention on a summer Sunday morning. This is what Paul writes:
And not only that, but we boast in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us.
So where do we begin, as we seek to become people of character? Paul says we begin by looking at how we perceive suffering. Pastor Leith Andersen says that “suffering is today’s forgotten value” and I think he’s right. Who wants to suffer in this life? What’s the value in it? Why would we, as Paul says “boast in our sufferings” when we spend much of our time and our money and our energy trying to avoid suffering?
Now, there are certain examples in our lives when we are happily willing to endure periods of suffering and pain. Women in childbirth, for example, or athletes honing their bodies for a race, or missionaries volunteering to serve in Third World countries, or military personnel volunteering to serve in harm’s way; these would be examples of suffering by choice.
But most of us flee from every sort of hardship. We don’t want to wait more than a minute for a meal, so we invented microwaves. We don’t want to wait until we have saved to buy things, so we simply put it on our credit cards. We don’t want to endure the pain of conflict and controversy, so we put away our unpopular opinions and positions and “go with the flow” as they say. The cliché “no pain, no gain” is from another century. Watch television for an hour and see how many times you are invited to embrace things that are quick, easy and painless.
And we don’t just want to avoid suffering for ourselves; we who are parents want our children to live pain-free as well. So when our children face challenging situations, we look for ways to rescue them. When they are faced with consequences of their poor choices, we look for ways to excuse them or lighten their load. Students as young as first grade turn in their homework that was actually done by their parents. If it starts at age six, then when does it end?
I have a friend in Sioux Falls, a doctor, very successful and very wealthy. He told me something when I was a young father that I resented at the time, but have since come to deeply appreciate. Lowell said “Steve, you’re lucky you don’t have a lot of money. When your kids ask you for things, you can honestly tell them you can’t afford it. When my kids ask me for things, they know that I can afford it, so I have to come up with another reason.” Lowell’s point is well-taken: things that come too easy to us are, in the long run, not good for us.
The Apostle Paul knew something about suffering. He was shipwrecked twice. He was imprisoned twice. He was beaten, abandoned by his friends, and disowned by his family. But he learned through all of this that his suffering produced within him an endurance to survive other situations that would come his way. Late in his life, Paul was not deterred by conflict and criticism, because he was a survivor of trials in the early days.
In our culture, I wouldn’t say that endurance is one of our strong suits. We change cars and we change houses with regularity. But we also freely change jobs with ease. Our parents may have stayed in one place of employment for their entire careers; the last estimate I heard was that we will have as many as sixteen different employers in our lifetime. And it is similar with marriage; not much endurance there. When the going gets a little tough, some find that flight is preferable to fight, and the marriage ends too quickly.
Suffering produces endurance, Paul says. Athletes in particular have learned that when a person punishes their body during training, then endurance will prevail in the race. Our speaker on the final two Thursdays of Summernary will be Dr. Mary Hinkle. When I asked Mary to provide an interesting tidbit for the people of Our Savior’s in advance of her coming, she wrote “Tell the people that, by the time I get there, I will have completed my first marathon, Grandma’s on June 22.”
Mary didn’t decide on June 1st to run 26 miles; she has been training for months. Those daily runs of 12 or 15 or 20 miles have prepared her to push herself to the limit on race day. But you see, by race day, she will have established a routine. Her body will simply do what it has been trained to do over these many months. And that’s what character is: it is doing the right thing naturally, because a person has done it over a long period of time.
I often marvel at people who make consistently good decisions quickly, and then move forward and don’t look back. It’s not that they take decision-making lightly; on the contrary, they take it very seriously. But they seem to known, instinctively, what the right decision is. I think these are people of character. They have come through the struggle over a period of time, and it has produced in them a definite sense of right and wrong. Someone was once asked “How can I learn to make good decisions?” and the person answered “Make some bad decisions.” That is to say, the pain of the past is the greatest of teachers.
My dad was like that…a person of character. From as early as I can remember, whenever I asked my dad a question, I knew what his answer would be. I didn’t always agree with his answer, you understand, but I always knew what he would say, even before I asked. There was a constancy about him that I wish I had, but I’m sure he gained it through personal experiences over a lifetime; experiences of suffering and endurance.
So finally, Paul says “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character…and character produces hope….” The word “hope” for Paul, was not like “hope” for us. For us, the word hope is used synonymously with the word “wish.” I hope I get a raise – I wish I’d get a raise. That’s how we use that word. But for Paul, the word meant certainty, or confidence. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or the great hymn of the church “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Paul says that character leads to confidence.
When we become people of character, we don’t have to wonder if we are doing the right thing, or thinking the right thing, or saying the right thing. When we are people of character, what we think, or say, or do will simply be extensions of who we are. I guess that’s what I long for in my life; a consistency, a confidence that who I am on the inside will be reflected by what people see on the outside. When that happens, then I will know that I have character. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth, New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991)