"Only Knowledge Produces Results"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/21/1997
Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3
He was humbled by the response and upon seeing an old minister in the audience, the actor invited him to read the same passage. When the older gentlemen finished, there was no applause. In fact, within the hush that followed many people were moved with emotion. The actor went over to him, placed his hand on his shoulder, and said to the audience, "I appreciated your applause when I read. When this man read, it was obvious to all of us that he knows the Shepherd." There is a dramatic difference between people who try to use information and people who can make visible what they know.
The marvelously insightful Book of James asked if any of us have knowledge. Then James wrote, "You are to prove it by your good life, by your good deeds performed with humility and wisdom." Listen how James described the state of mind that produces "good deeds." He wrote, "Wisdom from above is first of all pure; it is also peaceful, gentle, and friendly; it is full of compassion and produces a harvest of good deeds; it is free from prejudice and hypocrisy."
Has anything written by James been a surprise to you? Are his words really that insightful? The answer obviously is "no." There is nothing new here. In fact, we have all heard of such wisdom before. We can easily conclude that James is simply reminding us of our need to be good people. This morning, however, I want us to look more closely at his words.
We all have an abundance of information, but does having information necessarily improve our lives? Again, the answer is "no." Results will come only when knowledge has become a part of who we are. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Once as a little boy, I was boiling eggs for my mother who was near me during this experience. I moved one of our kitchen chairs to the stove and decided to check on them. When I lifted the lid, the steam rose and scalded my arm. I screamed, dropped the lid and my mother responded immediately by applying ice to the affected area.
My mother wisely chose that moment to teach me a lesson. She said, "When you lift the lid of a container that has something boiling in it, lift and tilt it away from you so that the steam will rise harmlessly." To this day, that knowledge has become part of my life.
Now think about what I am about to say. There will never come a time when I would be tempted to lift the lid in the way that had originally scalded my arm. Why? The knowledge of a much better way is now part of who I am. It is the same with all knowledge.
This is what James was telling us. Paul used to say, "I can't do the good thing that I want to do." The traditional reasoning behind his failure was our sinful nature. But, there is an extension to Paul's understanding. That extension is that having information does not automatically trigger our best behavior. Only knowledge can do that. We may know what Jesus taught but we may not be clear in our understanding why his teachings are the only way we can become whole.
For example, Lois and I enjoy walking together around Allen's Pond. As we were walking one evening, Lois drew my attention to a father who apparently believed he was spending quality time with his children. The children had their empty McDonald's Happy Meal containers lined up on the bench. While the children were fishing in the pond, good old Dad was polishing his pick-up truck 15 yards away. The Dad had the information about spending time with his children, but the information had not inspired him to interact lovingly with them.
This scene reminded us of the Standford University study made some years ago. Do you remember my telling you about the fathers who voluntarily wired themselves for a 30-day research project? The results were revealing. The average Dad in the test group spent one minute and thirty-eight seconds of quality time each day with his children instead of the hour and a half each had estimated.
This leads us to understand what can easily happen to the practice of our faith. When Christianity is viewed as a lifestyle built upon dos and don'ts, it is no wonder our behavior can lack faithfulness. Jesus' teaching had little to do with dos and don'ts. Like my mother, Jesus' instructions were designed to teach us how to lift the lid so that we would never burn ourselves. He was teaching us how to live so that joy and peace would be constantly present.
James was telling us that if we really have such knowledge, our lives will be peaceful, gentle, friendly, full of compassion and free from prejudice and hypocrisy. Most of us want every one of those qualities, but merely having the information isn't enough to enable us to practice these qualities automatically.
We can claim to know a lot about football while never having played the game. We can know a lot about psychology while remaining a tormented, fearful person. We can consider ourselves an extremely informed Christian while harboring controlling attitudes that hold others at arms' length. How come? If we don't have the desired results, we only have information, not the knowledge. What is knowledge? How am I defining it?
Once we learn to walk, we will never go back to crawling unless, of course, there is a physical problem. Once we learn how to use words, we will never stop using them to communicate. It is the same with knowledge of the spirit. Once we understand how to meet the needs of the spirit, there will be an enormous number of temptations that will no longer appear enticing. Some of you may not agree, but have any of you ever been tempted to revert back to crawling or silence? Even if we considered ourselves weak, vulnerable, and sinful such a temptation would never come. It would not come because we have learned knowledge of a better way to live. And there is no backsliding.
Jesus once taught that if we asked for anything in his name, it would be granted. James may have been reflecting on his words when he wrote, "And when you ask, you do not receive it because your motives are uninformed; you ask for things to use for your own pleasures." If we really want to check ourselves on this, let us ask ourselves a threshold question. If we could choose anything we want for ourselves and could be given a 100 percent guarantee that we would get it, what would that request be? Take a few moments to think about your answer. Above all else, what do you want?
This question was asked to millions of Americans during the largest poll ever taken in this society. It used the same scientific principles for validation as the Harris and Gallop polls. The results were published in a book entitled, The Day America Told the Truth. In that poll nearly everyone cited happiness as the quality of life each person wanted the most.
Look around in our society and our world. Here we are living in a land of incredible opportunity. Many of us can get whatever we want. If we are not happy about something, we believe we must move on to something else. We are always looking for what will produce this happiness. We have some information about happiness, but very few people have learned the knowledge on how to sustain it.
It is almost as if God is saying to us, "Well, if you believe you will find happiness by changing your mate, you can try that. If you believe that you will find it in a different job, you can try that. Would you like to buy a new house in another state? How about a new car, will that give it to you? How about an affair? Certainly a little validation coming from someone just might help you overcome your increasing doubts about your self-worth. Why not allow your increased alcohol consumption to begin suggesting to you where real happiness can be found? How about more real estate, more power, more money? How much wealth will guarantee for you this happiness you seek?"
It is fascinating to realize that there is nothing new in this list. This list, or one like it, has been available in every society that has ever existed. God created us to be free, to explore every avenue we find available. Many of us do just that believing that happiness can be found. We do not want to awaken to a much different truth. That truth is that happiness is a state of mind that comes every day once we have learned about the wonderful gift of spirit God gave us at birth. Our spirits cannot experience happiness by getting anything.
Listen again to the words of James: "And goodness is the harvest that is produced from the seeds the peacemakers plant in peace." We cannot find happiness by getting anything. Happiness comes to us when we are planting seeds and when we are giving, just as James suggested. Who is wealthier this morning, Ted Turner who is giving one billion dollars over the next ten years or the United Nations who will be receiving it?
What does all of this say about our sinful nature? We can't sweep who we are under the carpet. The fact is we are going to sin. We are going to miss the mark. We are going to make mistakes in judgment. We are going to engage in activities that we mistakenly believe will bring us increased happiness and pleasure. And, for awhile, many of our choices do create the illusion that we have finally captured happiness. But the consequences and the complications to life will always suggest otherwise.
I have been told that a good high from crack cocaine is like going to heaven. But the young man who told me about his experiences no longer had the desire to sow any seeds. His stated purpose for living was to snort heaven up his nose each day until something better came along. That is quite a mission statement.
Just as sin can tell us about our nature, it can also teach us about how and why steam will scald our arm. Once we thoroughly understand how our seeking happiness only delays its coming, this marvelous state of mind will come. Why? Because that is how God created us. All during his ministry, Jesus verbally pointed to this truth. I believe the day will come when the concept of sin will be discovered to mean nothing more than a word which further describes our ignorance. Many of us have not yet awakened to what we are doing to ourselves each time we pursue something we believe will bring us happiness.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with a series of examples with the words, "Happy are those who...." What Jesus taught was not a "feel good, touchy feelie" faith but an ironclad way of finding joy. Happiness comes not from our searching and getting, but by our giving and sowing. This is the only way happiness will remain a permanent aspect of our daily experience.
In closing, let me illustrate with a quality that not only is a central teaching within our faith but also remains a daily challenge for us. We call it forgiveness. Once we have the knowledge about the dynamics of forgiveness, it will have the same effect on us as learning to walk or communicate with words. Most people only have information about forgiveness, and information is not enough to make it a part of who we are.
Think about what happens to us when we refuse to use forgiveness as a tool for healing ourselves. When someone has hurt us, we tend to engage in damaging ourselves further by brooding and sulking- responses that can easily lead to a breakdown in communication and eventually estrangement. If happiness is what we really want, Jesus would ask us, "Why did you do that to yourself? If you think the other person caused you to respond with such seething resentment, look again! You did this to yourself. You allowed the steam to scald your arm again." Do we have knowledge or do we only have information?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, O God, for your mercy and patience. We confess that during much of our lives, we sense the limitations of our faith. We experience flashes of thoughtfulness alongside moments of insensitivity. We find ourselves enjoying the areas of our growth, while knowing how vulnerable we are to the tyranny of little things. We enjoy celebrating our faith during moments of confidence, while knowing we also hide behind masks when we feel lonely, unloved and underappreciated. Lead us to the awareness that our faith journey is also a process of education. Help us to remain patient with ourselves, knowing that we are still students in the midst of all we have yet to learn. Heal our sense of incompleteness by helping us experience self-acceptance. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, how grateful we are for this worship experience so that we might bring into your presence our needs, desires, our hopes and fears. We come knowing that always there will be greater truth that we can learn.
We thank you for the moments of emptiness that inspire us to want fulfillment. We thank you for our fears that motivate us to seek understanding. We thank you for miscommunication that stimulates us to work harder in how we use our words. We thank you for the mistakes we make, because often they become the rungs on the ladder to the next level of more thoughtful living.
We ask this morning that you heal our minds. You created us to experience joy and peace, gladness and vision, enthusiasm and creativity. Somehow, we focus on the flaws in others, and we seem to search endlessly for new things about which to worry. We ask questions that reflect more about our fears than our genuine need for enlightenment. We belittle ourselves when we make mistakes, rather than sharing in the same confidence that you have in us.
Bless each of us this day. Allow us to lay our needs before you, confident that you can manage well what we fear we cannot. Give us the confidence that trusting you will bring us, as we learn that no mountain exists that we cannot climb together. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...