Sermon October 26, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

October 26, 2014

“Who’s Responsible?”

Micah 6:6-8

It seems to me that we live in the age of excuses. No one’s to blame for anything anymore. Aberrant behavior is explained as a psychological condition or a genetic predisposition. We complain that we shouldn’t be held responsible for something that’s not our fault. Some time back a college president was fired for indecent behavior. He went on a news program with his psychiatrist to explain that he was a victim of what’s called an uncontrollable-impulse disorder. More and more, bad habits have become addictions, and clinics and support groups declare – It’s not your fault. Whatever happened to responsibility? – to owning up to your faults? – to accepting the consequences of your actions?

One of the signs of personal maturity is the ability or the commitment to handle responsibility. There’s no shortage of people who will take credit when things go well, but who’s responsible when things go wrong? In Washington D.C., politicians and government officials use the passive voice to avoid responsibility. They’ll say – “Mistakes were made”. It’s refreshing, and in political circles unusual, when we see individuals step up and take responsibility for their actions. On trial before Judge Sirica for Watergate offenses, Jeb Stuart Magruder hung his head low and admitted: “Judge, somewhere along the line I lost my moral compass, and with it, the ability to navigate in life.” Interestingly, Jeb Magruder later became a Presbyterian minister.

To respond is to answer. Correspondingly, to be responsible is to be answerable, to be accountable. Irresponsible behavior is immature behavior. Taking responsibility – being responsible – is a sign of maturity. When we strive to help our children become responsible persons we are helping them toward maturity.

When we look at responsibility from the perspective of our Christian faith, I want to propose to you that it includes these three elements: responsibility to God, to self, and to others. Responsibility begins with our relationship to God. We were created to be in a relationship with God. But scripture tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Being responsible begins with confessing our sin and experiencing God’s forgiveness. We have to own up to who we are. As Shakespeare says in “Julius Caesar”: “The fault dear Brutus, is not with our stars but within ourselves.”

It is not an easy thing to admit our failures to God, no more than it would be to come clean with one another. We want to hold on to the pretense of respectability. The psychiatrist Scott Peck states in simple language: “We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it.”
Remember the story of Moses going up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments? The rest of the Israelites were camped at the base of the mountain. They became unnerved when several weeks passed and Moses had not come back. In their restlessness they reverted to the habits of their slavery. They went to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and said, “Make us gods, who shall go before us.”

They were anxious for a symbol of authority to lead them. So Aaron instructed them to bring the gold they had gotten from the Egyptians and with it he fashioned the image of a calf. Then people began to worship the golden calf. Just about that time Moses returned with the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and on seeing the golden calf he hurled down the stone tablets.

Confronted by Moses, Aaron was frightened by what he had done. He tells the truth until it comes to describing his own part in the affair. Aaron explained: “And I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” What do you think of that excuse? – “I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.”

The message of God’s reconciling love first has to be bad news before it can be good news. First we must recognize our human sinfulness, we must own up to who we are. We must acknowledge our neediness before God before we can receive the free gift of his grace. Our hands must be open in confession, before God can fill our hands and our hearts with his saving love. Our first act of responsibility before God is the confession of our sinfulness. As we grow in maturity we will have the opportunity to serve God. Then we hope to hear from our Lord the words: “Well done good and faithful servant.”

Responsibility also means that we are responsible for ourselves. Back when I was in college, William Glasser had developed what he called Reality Therapy, which was based on the premise that we must accept responsibility for our own lives. Glasser defined responsibility as “the ability to fulfill one’s needs, and to do so in a way that does not deprive others of the ability to fulfill their needs.”

When we are responsible for ourselves, then we are responsible for our thoughts and feelings. We say things like – He makes me so mad; she really embarrassed me; this lousy weather depresses me. But in reality we must own our own feelings. No one makes me mad. I may get mad, but if I do I am responsible for my anger not someone else. Either we own our emotions or we will blame them on someone else. Personal maturity begins where blaming ends.

When we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for our own happiness. One of Abraham Lincoln’s often quoted statements is this: “People are about as happy as they decide they are going to be.” One of my favorite authors, John Powell, takes this notion a step farther. He put a sign on his bathroom mirror, the first thing he sees in the morning, which read, “You are looking at the face of the person who is responsible for your happiness today.” When we accept responsibility for our own happiness then we are free. We cannot change the world to suit ourselves, but we can decide how we will respond to the world.

And, when we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for our actions. We are not merely reactors; we are responders. We decide how we will act. The columnist, Sydney Harris, tells the story of accompanying his friend to a newsstand. The friend greeted the newsman very courteously, but in return received gruff and discourteous service. After accepting the newspaper that was shoved rudely in his direction, the friend of Harris politely smiled and wished the newsman a nice day. As the two friends walked down the street, the columnist asked: “Does he always treat you so rudely?” “Yes, unfortunately he does,” his friend replied. “And are you always so polite and friendly to him?” Harris asked. “Yes, I am.” “Why are you so nice to him when he is so unfriendly to you?” His friend answered, “Because I don’t want him to decide how I’m going to act.”

The responsible person does not bend to every wind that blows. When we decide how we will respond, then we will not be at the mercy of all the pettiness and meanness and ill-temper of others.

The third element of responsibility I suggest to you is our responsibility to others. This time it is the story of Cain and Abel. Remember Cain murdered his brother Abel and then God comes to him and asks, “Where is your brother?” Cain’s answer was the classic line – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer to that question is “Yes”. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. When we have experienced God’s forgiveness, our response in gratitude is to be love for others. We are our brothers’ keepers. We are not in this world simply to make sure we take care of our own needs. The French poet Charles Peguy wrote: “Do not try to go to God alone. If you do, he will certainly ask you the embarrassing question: ‘Where are your brothers and sisters’?”

In 1982, passerby Lenny Skutnik jumped into the freezing Potomac River to rescue the victims of an airplane crash. When reporters asked him afterwards why he did it, he didn’t know how to answer the question. During World War II, the people of the French village of Le Chambon rescued over 5,000 Jews, hiding them in their homes. Asked afterwards why they did it, one villager said simply, “We helped because they needed help.” Another woman declared, “The Jew had truly fallen among thieves.”

The prophet Micah asks the question for us – “What does the Lord require of you?” What does it mean to be responsible? The answer is – “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Responsibility always looks beyond its own needs. God cares less about proper religious rituals than he does about acts of responsibility. God calls us to a new way of living; God calls us to act responsibly.

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