Sermon delivered November 6, 2004 by Chaplian John McGraw

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

Biblical quotations are from the New King James Version NKJV unless otherwise noted. Divine pronouns and titles are capitalized.

In the Blind Spot

Luke 15

It's great to be with you again. Especially on a Sabbath morning in this beautiful part of the country. Another reason I here is that my daughter attends Southern University. That gives us an excuse to get down to this are and spend some time here.

Presently we estimate that we have from five to seven Adventists that are serving in the military in active duty. Now, with the activation of the reserves, and the National Guard, we have many more. We have about fifty chaplains that serve on active duty across all services. About 25 in the Army and the rest in the Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard. We probably have a another dozen or so in the Guard-Reservists that are activated. Many of them are deployed in Iraq.

So, we want to remember them, and I like what you have set up here, the way that you're communicating with them as well with letters. It means a lot.

I read an email from a soldier recently that said that he loved getting the packet from home because it felt like home. There was something from Walmart in it. When considering the dirt, the mud, the rations they receive, even Walmart feels like home. That seems a little strange, but it was.

Myself, I've been in the Army sixteen years. I've pastored about seven years in the Potomac Conference prior to coming on active duty. Presently, I'm stationed at Fort Jackson at the U.S. Chaplain Center and School, where I've instructed for two years. My job the last six months has been to look at where the Army is going to be in the future twenty years from now, and figure out how we, what equipment chaplains need to provide ministry on that battlefield. So, it's a little different. Then I got a call last week that said I am moving to the Pentagon. So, in February 'll be moving to the Pentagon to work for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. Interestingly, he's the only General office that was killed on September 11. His office was a part of where the plane went into the Pentagon. Fortunately my office in over in another place where they're renovating part of the Pentagon.

It'll be a chance to serve our nation, but also to serve our church. As chaplains, there was a Supreme Court ruling about twenty-five years ago that said that a chaplain serves his denomination a hundred percent, and serves the military a hundred percent. And so, a large portion of what we do is minister to our Adventist soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and also serve all those who are there. In a typical battalion of eight hundred soldiers, only about twenty percent are what you would call, active in their faith of any kind. The neat part of that is, the other eighty percent, I'm their pastor whether they like it or not. I see them in the motor pool, I see them in the field. If they have a problem they and their wife talk to me. So, it's neat place for an Adventist to minister across a spectrum of many people that would never talk to a clergyman, never be involved with a pastor at all. And it's a little dangerous, but that omes with the territory.

Let's bow our heads for a word of prayer.

Lord, as we open You Word to reflect on a parable that You gave us, may You, in our mind, help us to reflect on our own needs, and may You help us to rely on You and accept the gift You provide us in Your love, your care for each of us. In Jesus' name, Amen.

I wanted to tell you about my uniform. The Army you usually think of as having a green uniform. Right? Well, this is what we call in the Army, our dress blues. It has a tradition. The military is full of traditions. So, let me give you the tradition. I know that I'm in the South, but I claim to be a southerner myself. After the Civil War, the Yankees had the blue, well the U.S. forces had the blue. The next mission of the Army was the West. So they headed out west. And in the West, they would have hot summers. And so, in the summers the Cavalry went on patrol, from fort to fort, from outpost to outpost; they'd leave their jacket at home and just wear their shirt and their dark blue pants. Well they'd come back after three or for or five months of the heat of the West, and over time the pants would fade. When the put on their blue coat it would be darker than their blue pants. And so, as a tradition, we have decided in the military we have kept that tradition. At least that is what I've heard. So, that's why the uniform has the color it has.

Tradition is also important when we look at Veteran's Day. Veteran's Day started off as Armistice Day: the end of World War I. The date is very significant. On the eleventh month, on the eleventh day, at the eleventh hour the peace treaty was signed for World War I to end. Over time it has developed into Veteran's Day, which is a time when we reflect on those who served.

If you remember, World War I was a horrific war. Technology had changed; tactics hadn't. In World War I, more artillery was fired, if you're looking at Verdun, in an eleven-mile area than ever before. They're still finding ordinance that's still active over there when I was over there ten years ago. They hadn't figured out tactics for the machine-gun yet. They tried to mass of human being to charge the machine-guns. It didn't work. Thousands were killed. So the root of that tradition comes out of that first catastrophic war of the modern age of the last century.

I walked into the office of my battalion commander and his face looked tense, it looked flush. I braced myself for the explosion. He started the conversation with these words: "John, before you say anything, I've got to tell you something. You've made the wrong decision. You abandoned six hundred troops in the desert when they needed you the most." My heart sank into my stomach. I was there to tell the battalion commander about the ministry I had provided to the families of five soldiers that died in the desert. My mind raced back. Those six months in the desert had been the most miserable for almost everyone who had served in that battalion. The battalion commander was verbally abusive. He intimidated everyone from a private to his executive officer.

One day, after the ground war ended, a chinook helicopter from my battalion crashed, killing one of my closest friends and three other soldiers. As soon as we held the memorial services there in the desert for those troops, the brigade commander, my battalion commander's boss, cut orders for me to return to the States and to minister to the families of those who had fallen.

But now, my commander had somehow turned the tables. Somehow, my coming back was the wrong decision when I thought I was just following orders. As I left his office that day, these words echoed in my mind: "You abandoned six hundred troops in the field. This will reflect.!" Seven weeks later I moved with my family to Germany. I received no awards from that unit, which was traditional from combat tour to receive some type of award as well as the three years I had served at Fort Bragg. In fact, at our hail and farewell, that kind of formal event where we welcome people that arrived in the unit, we farewell those who are leaving, the commander didn't even talk. He had another captain say how good I was, you know, show the reflections of the appreciation for what I'd done.

I felt like I was a victim of injustice. The "old man," as we called our commander, was going to become a "bird colonel," and I felt like I had been used. I kind of felt like the guy in that old country song as he lamented his divorce sentiment, "She got the gold mine and I got the shaft." Well, I had supported this commander when no one else in the unit did. I had ministered and felt that if I did the right thing and ministered to those who were there, I would be properly rewarded. But I felt like I had gotten the shaft.

For the next year or more, I nurtured the anger of being treated unfairly. I cultivated the resentment that my perpetrator had what he had brought to me. My family, my spiritual life, my home all suffered greatly. I couldn't get past the resentment. I couldn't get past the anger. I had thought that if I was connected with Christ, if I had worked hard and ministered hard to those He had given into my care, that I would be treated fairly.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever experienced that? Maybe you have given all on the job. You've done your best. Maybe it's in a relationship, a friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse. I guess I'm going to go to meddling. Even in the church. Maybe you've been treated unfairly in your church family, you might feel. Have you felt like your boss, like my commander, benefitted and moved on? Your friends, your co-workers seemed to get the better edge, or maybe your family has given you the shaft. You feel that the perpetrators of your injustice prosper. Have you ever been there? Someone gets a better job. It may be in your family, your spouse gets the kids. It's not just unfair, but it's unjust. Have you ever been there?

I want us to reflect this morning a little bit on how we can deal with this. I want to share from Desert Storm my experience to Viet Nam. Bob Wyland went to Viet Nam, a six-foot-two-inch two hundred seventy pound prime premier baseball pitching prospect. He returned from Viet Nam, listen to this, a two foot eleven inches tall and weighing eighty seven pounds. A Viet Nam land mine literally blew him in half.

He tells that when he came to in the hospital, his first thought were these: "Well, Lord, they tried to finish me off here but I am still alive. So, what do you want me to do? What is You purpose for my life?" Bob Wyland was a natural athlete. He had to give up the dream of being a major baseball pitcher, but instead he took up weight lifting. Day and night he trained. Finally he began to compete. His dream was to set a world record in his weight class. The day finally came.

He stepped up to the bar, he grabbed the three hundred seventy pound weight and in one herculean effort he lifted it above his head. He established a new world record. But before the joy could set in, Bob got the news. His title was being taken away. He was disqualified because someone, one of his competitors found a rule that said, "you had to wear shoes while lifting in competition. He had trained to break a world record and they disqualified him because he had carelessly left his legs behind in Viet Nam.

What do you think Bob did? Did he yowl and scream and blow up? Well, that would seem natural to me. I've had the tendency to choose that option. Did he do what athletes often do today: threaten to get a lawyer and sue? No. Listen to this. This is what Bob did when faced with this injustice.

He smiled, shook the hand of the judge and said, "I understand." Yes, Bob said that he understood.

Now, do you see any contrast here? You know, as a preacher it is better to use yourself as an illustration rather than one of the parishioners. Let me ask you, do you see a difference in my response and Bob Wyland's response to perceive injustice? Bob Wyland's injustice was much greater than mine. And yet Bob was able to say simply, "I understand."

This morning I want us to look at a passage that I hope brings home to all of us how we can deal with the injustices we face in life. It's a familiar parable. It comes from Luke 15. In verses 1 and 2 we find that the parable is set with sinners and Pharisees in the audience. Basically what Jesus does here, he talks about the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin and the story of the lost son. I really believe as I study this passage that what Jesus was really trying to set up with these stories was to tell the story of the older brother. For today, I want us to look at how this passage focuses on the way religious people often relate to restoring sinners among them.

And I'll describe first the older brother. He was a devout religious man. He had spent his entire life fulfilling the obligations that he had to God, to his father, and to all those who were around him. But suddenly, when his bother prodigal returns the older brother feels that he is a victim of injustice. What do you think caused him this sense of injustice? I believe he was living a split life. He felt that he could be a good believer and be half God's person and half of his own man. Or we might say, half God's and half his own god. When the crisis of his brother's return hits home, the part that takes control of his life is the part that he is god of himself. He becomes, we might say, his own god.

How are these changes revealed in his life? Well, if we look at Luke 15, I'll read three verses near the end. The first characteristic we noticed in the older brother is jealousy. He's jealous. And here's how he describes it as he talks to the servant: Luke 15:27, 28. "And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.'

"But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.

One of the traits of an older brother, when I'm acting like the older brother is jealousy. He was jealous of his brother's return and the attention that his father gave him.

The second characteristic of the elder brother is self-righteousness. Luke 15:30. "'But as soon as this son, speaking to his father, "of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.' "I stayed home as a good boy and here this guy who lived on the wrong side of the tracks was treated like this. I am self-righteous. I'm the one who has been doing everything right.

And then verse 29. The third characteristic, is self-pity. Many of us are very good at this, myself included. Luke 15:29. "So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.'

Jealousy, self-righteousness, self-pity. Why do you think he reacted this way? I believe it's because if we look at this text both sons were prodigals. The younger son was a prodigal of the body. He said to his father, "Give me the money. I'm going to go have a good time and make my fortune." But his heart was still connected with his father at home. He even believed that he could return home and his father would accept him to be a servant or a slave in his house. Yet, the younger son's body was in a far country, but his heart was still at home because he still knew his father's love.

The older brother was a prodigal of the heart. He did everything that was asked of him. He'd always been around. He was there in body with his father. But his heart was in a far country. He really, it's amazing, he was to inherit everything his father had. He had been there with his father the entire time. But he didn't know his father's love.

You know, it's interesting when you look at our passage in Luke 15. The first two verses I read, describe these two. The audience is listening to Jesus' parable. Luke 15:1. Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. The sinners, the prodigal younger brother who went far away in this passage says they listened to Jesus. Luke 15:2. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them."

The Pharisees are the prodigals of the heart. They are there. They're in the church every week. And yet, they're always mumbling and muttering to themselves about how things are being done, about how life has been unfair to them. And, like the prodigal brothers, these Pharisees focused on the injustices around them.

You know, when we mutter about injustices, we tend to ignore the facts that are around us. The younger brother, we would say, took what he had, went far away, but he always knew the love of his father. It was when he was feeding those pigs that his father's mercy came back to his recollection..

The older brother. It's interesting. According to Jewish law, the older brother always got two thirds inheritance. The older brother, by law would inherit two thirds of his father's estate. The younger brother was given the other third and had already left. There was no way legally that the younger brother threatened the older brother's inheritance. The older brother was the sole inheritor of everything his father owned and had developed and would develop until he died. So, the only claim the younger brother had was to his father's love and mercy.

As I look at these two brothers, I make a frightening discovery: I am the older brother. You know, when I face injustice I often ignore the facts, rarely listen to God, and start mumbling and muttering about how I have not been treated properly. I am just like the older brother, often jealous of others, self-righteous in my stance, and self-pitying about how others treat me. It's interesting. I hadn't often looked at this text in this way. I always envision myself as the younger brother, the sinner that had been far away, coming to the open arms of the father's love and mercy. But the truth is often I focus on myself internally. I spend days and weeks muttering about how I've been mistreated. I did that from that story I shared at the beginning for almost two years. My body was at home. I was a pastor, a chaplain. I was a husband and a father. But my heart was in a far country as I nurtured the resentment, the anger, the pain, the injustice.

So, I want to ask myself as well as ask you, how can we change? How can I respond like Bob Wyland and wait patiently for God's justice in my life, rather than muttering like the Pharisees did. How can I focus outside of myself rather than at the injustice that I perceived then perpetrated upon me? And, I believe maybe this final story may help us understand.

It's a tale that is told of a kingdom long ago. There was a poor farmer who had a prize white stallion. The king offered to buy this horse from the farmer and make him a very wealthy man. But after thinking about it, the farmer said, "I'm sorry. This white stallion is like a member of my family. I can't sell him."

Some weeks later, as the farmer always did, he got up and went out to the stable in the morning and to his surprise, as he opened the door the door to the stable was open and the stable was empty. The prized white stallion had run away, escaped through the gate.

Now as the villagers came by they evaluated the situation and the said, "God has cursed you because you didn't sell that stallion. Now he's gone. You'll never see him again." The farmer said, "I don't know if it is a blessing or a curse. All I can say is that my horse is not in the stable."

Well, two or three weeks later when he came out, as he did early each morning to the stable, there was the white stallion. This time the white stallion had six wild horses that had returned. He closed the gate. And the villagers soon came by. The said, "God has blessed you! You stallion is back and you have six more horses. You are now a very wealthy man." To which the farmer said, "I can't say if it's a blessing or a curse. All I know is that my stallion is in the stable and there are six other horses with him."

Well, now to take advantage of the wealth he had received in these wild horses, he and his son set about breaking these horses so that they could be sold or kept or used. As they were breaking them an accident occurred. The son fell of the horse and broke his leg. At which time the villagers came around to give their assessment of things. "It was a curse that those wild horses came to you! Your son will not be able to help you bring your crops in from the field this year. You are going to be a pauper as a result of this." To which the farmer said, "I cannot say if it was a blessing or a curse. All I know is that my son fell off the horse and broke his leg."

Well, some time later, a king's herald arrived to the village. He told the villagers that a neighboring rival king had attacked their country, and that the king was taking all able-bodied young men to go and fight this terrible invader. The villagers began to weep. They all turned to the farmer and said, "Our sons will go off and die in war, but God has blessed you because your son's leg is broken. He cannot go off to war." To which the farmer replied, "I can't say if it's a blessing or a curse. Al I know is that my son can't go to war."

Now, why do I share this story with you? Well, often in our spiritual life we try to interpret every event that happens to us as a blessing or a curse from God. Is this good? Is this bad? What is it? And we end up being like the villagers, or the Pharisees, kind of mumbling in a very contradictory way about how God is working in our lives. But what God calls us to do is to listen patiently as the farmer did, as Bob Wyland did, to allow God to bring His justice into our lives, the justice that God has prepared for us.

What about Bob Wyland? Bob Wyland did set a world record. I'm rather old now, but I can remember it was in the late seventies. Bob Wyland was the first man to walk across the United States on his hands. I can remember on "Good Morning America" or whatever. Almost for a year they show Bob a Christian man on his trek to walk across the United States on his hands. He received more publicity, he was a greater witness over that long period of time, and it was a much greater record to God's glory than that one that was unjustly taken from him with his weight-lifting.

So now, what about the prodigal chaplains here, the story we started with? Well, I didn't realize it at the time, but the brigade commander, my boss's boss, my commander's boss, gave me an evaluation, what we call an Officer Evaluation Report, OER. I didn't realize it at the time that he gave me an evaluation that was a good as commanders get. One year after I was in Germany, he heard about my not receiving any awards. He initiated a bronze -star medal and an award for my first three years of service. But I still had trouble seeing god's justice in my life. I cultivated a low-level resentment towards my commander that had treated me wrong. It was three years after that time I was running at my advance course with an Adventist chaplain, a friend of mine, and they had just come from the Pentagon and shown us how our promotion boards worked. I told him, "Hey, my best OER was the one I got leaving Fort Bragg after the war in my awards that I received." He laughed. He said, "I remember how angry you were in Germany right after the war. Isn't it interesting that what was meant for bad by your commander turned out for good.?" In fact, it was that OER that I was selected to attend Yale University. I had a whole year to go and do a Masters for the Army. And yet I had cultivated this resentment, this sense of injustice.

So, I started thinking, and that is when I realized that I was the older brother in this parable. But what shocked me the most was that God was working to my good, my benefit, my blessing the whole time I was in a far country, my heart was.

How many of you have been driving down the road and you look in your rear-view mirror and you're getting ready to change lanes and its clear. But what happens is that as you begin to move into the next lane, suddenly their's a car right behind you. What do we call that? They were in my blind spot. What I discovered was that's how god works in our lives. I may bve going along and think that God isn't working. I'm ticking off what's good, bad, what's unjust like the villagers were doing. And the whole time, God is working in my blind spot of my life to bring about good, to bring about justice, to bring about something much better than I would be able to bring about on my own.

So, when I allow God to remove the blind spot in my life, I am no longer the older brother. I truly become the younger brother, the prodigal, running to open arms of a merciful and loving father.

So, encourage each of us in our daily life, maybe it's on the job, maybe it's at home with the family, maybe it's with our church family, to focus on God's justice. And in that context, the injustices of life seem to fade away. And truly, God is honored.

Hymn of Praise: #21, Immortal, Invisible, God Only One Scripture: Luke 15:1,2 & 25-32 Hymn of Response: #316, Live Out Thy Life Within Me



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