"The Flaws of Antiquity"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/31/1997

Psalm 72:1-11, Mark 7:1-8

     Our Scripture lesson today features an issue that is every bit as timely for our lives as it was for those living in Jesus' day. In fact, what Jesus was teaching is currently being debated in nearly every discipline, every vocation that exists. The topic causes people who are conservative in their beliefs to become less flexible, while it stimulates the thinking of people who thrive on going in all directions because a line of reasoning appears new and innovative.

     Jesus was suggesting that the truth handed down from generations in the past is not sufficient for people living in his changing world. Talk about being on the cutting edge, one cannot get any closer than this topic for stimulating lively debate. And that is exactly what occurred.

     Until a short time ago information had been doubling about every 50 years. Today it is doubling every five to seven years. By the year 2,000 many authorities are predicting that information will double every year. This is both exciting and yet frightening, particularly when it comes to many assumptions in life that we believed were always going to be true.

     It seems fitting since students everywhere are returning to the classrooms this week that we use what is happening with education as our primary example. Most of us have heard for years that education is the most important aspect of life. American tax payers invest billions of dollars in it. However, what is rapidly changing right now is our entire educational system from pre-kindergarten to the university. With the information we currently have available, everyone is having to re-think assumptions that were considered true and were never challenged in the past.

     Most of us know the symptoms that are outcropping from our educational system. For example, a large percentage of students graduating from high school have little grasp on life skills let alone have a data base in their memories sufficient enough to pass standardized tests. They have not learned how to create a resumé, interview for a job, communicate to superiors or work with others in a team environment. Such skills are essential in much of today's work force.

     Parents want to place the blame at the feet of administrators, inferior standards, poorly trained teachers or student attitudes. It is interesting, however, what current information is suggesting. Educators are slowly learning that we cannot teach children today as we did 50 years ago. The Information Age is impacting the early stages of mental growth in children in ways that could not have been predicted.

     Today's students are more apt to have their brains' learning centers visually stimulated starting with Sesame Street. The impact of video games, television, and computers has created a different student than one who grew up on a diet of quality books and the "three Rs". The current rules for teaching won't fit these children who currently make up a third of the student population.

     On another level, the curriculum school systems teach is being challenged. More frequently industries are demanding people with very specific skills. The academic institutions have not kept up with the skill levels needed by the market place. The new question for educators is: "How can we best equip our students with the skills to enter a world that will be surging forward at a pace that defies current definitions of normal change?"

     Information that has come from interviews of college graduates in the class of 1995, has the academic community extremely anxious. They should be! What has surfaced is that 80 percent of their former students are not using their major course of study in their current field of work. In the Stetler household that figure is 100 per cent. None of us are.

     Companies are establishing their own training facilities that in time could challenge the need for an increasingly expensive college education. Motorola University is a typical example. Motorola's faculty says, "You have done well with your engineering degree from Harvard, now we are going to train you for reality." What is attractive about Motorola and many such training facilities is that the companies are paying for it.

     Information is expanding so rapidly in many disciplines that much of the curriculum students have been exposed to is outdated 18 months following graduation. Companies are deciding to train employees themselves so that newcomers can adapt to the culture of the company as well as learn the skills they want their employees to have. Companies don't care how much a student knows. They want to see the skill with which that student uses knowledge. This was precisely what Jesus was teaching.

     Education is just one example. This brief overview has been extremely simplistic but you get the point. We could cite many other examples in our society where what was true yesterday will not work today. There are flaws in what has been handed down from generations in the past. If changes are not made to accommodate our rapid growth of information, many institutions may go the way of companies that at one time manufactured carburetors and vinyl records.

     It is fascinating that Jesus was encountering the same issue nearly 2,000 years ago. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law asked of Jesus, "Why is it that your disciples do not follow the teaching handed down by our ancestors, but instead eat with ritually unclean hands?" These teachings were held in the same esteem that we hold our Scriptures. Such laws were thought to be inspired by God. They were not.

     What Jesus did was quote to the inquiring officials from the prophet Isaiah, "These people," says God, "honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!" The shift in thinking for Jesus came at the point where he was teaching that obedience to the law must one day surrender to something much more important. He taught something substantially different. He taught that the spirit by which we live is what determines the quality of our lives in the eyes of God. (7:15 & 7:23)

     One of the challenging issues facing the Church is whether it can honestly and sincerely question itself. Can it question the kind of product that it is producing? Can it question the kind of environment it is creating? Is the Church really making a difference not only in people's lives but in the world? Is the Church positioning itself to teach and preach a more useful and applicable Word of God to people who are beginning the race through the Information Age at a speed that they may not have the internal spiritual resources to sustain?

     The Church has always spoken from its self-appointed position throughout history while pointing fingers at the sinful ways of people and prophesying about its consequences. The church needs to re-think what it does and begin to show some leadership. The Church has never inspired people by telling them where they are wrong. Any uninformed person can do that!

     One of the troubles with our society right now is that it appears very skilled at dredging up negativity in people's lives. If our nation is not careful it could find itself at a place where well qualified people refuse to run for public office simply because they will no longer tolerate society's hypocritical thirst for near perfection in its candidates. The Church is in an excellent place where it can demonstrate leadership.

     Most of us are not wired to sustain the rapid changes our culture is requiring of us. The fallout from the acceleration of our lives is everywhere. Jesus was very clear that the spirit of living was far more important than being obedient to authoritative mindsets that have been handed down for generations. The Church needs to take the lead in not only defining this knowledge but also in teaching it.

     This teaching of Jesus perfectly dovetails into his message of last Sunday, i.e., maintaining the health of our tree will determine the quality of our fruit. Jesus was confronted by those who said, "This is how it has always been done. How dare your disciples behave differently?" Jesus responded with, "It doesn't matter what habits and rituals were time honored. What matters is who we are becoming as a result of them." This is the issue.

     During Jim Leahy's funeral, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Tim Webster, one of the minister's at Mt. Oak United Methodist Church. We found ourselves talking about our churches. I told him that a number of our people have been envious of Mt. Oak's youth program. He said, "Is that right? We have people at Mt. Oak who are envious of St. Matthew's. They think you are the biggest mission church they have ever seen, always sending groups into the world. They want to know why we don't do more of that ourselves. They also want to know why we are losing so many kids to Grace Baptist." Isn't that beautiful? Tim and I both felt grateful that there is such a variety of places people can receive nourishment.

     In closing, let us look at some patterns of thinking that have been handed to us. For example, if we have come to church "to get pumped up for the rest of the week," we need to re-think that reasoning. St. Matthew's is an environment that is peaceful. It is a place where you can meet people who are really not strangers. It is here that we can renew the sense of community we are increasingly losing in the world. To leave the building quickly because we are shy or because no one knows us is to miss an opportunity.

     Recently, we have had several groups travel to large farms to glean vegetables for the poor. As they worked their way down the rows when their eyes saw a squash, they picked it. Why not make it your mission this morning to pick up five new names of people before you leave? I can't tell you how much a sincere handshake and a smile means to people. For some individuals this is the only place where that happens on a regular basis. Don't let anyone miss getting to know you.

     If we come to church for the quick-fix salvation seems to promise, we need to re-think our reasoning. Very little of substance will happen here unless we become involved with others. The primary reason our lives don't change, even though we are active in church, is that we are not learning anything new. Join a class. Learn to share your beliefs. Learn to re-think what motivates, inspires and enhances the quality of our lives. Having a firm grasp on the Biblical message is not the same as being able to demonstrate the skills of patience, forgiveness, acceptance and peace.

     If we come to St. Matthew's looking for God, we need to re-think such reasoning. When we begin sharing many of the qualities which God has already given us, we will discover that God was patiently waiting by our side all along. The frantic fear of a search renders us incapable of recognizing love. When we rise above our worry-generating circumstances and give ourselves to others, our eyes will open to what was there forever.

     There are flaws in many of the thought patterns that have been part of the foundations of our faith. If such thoughts do not enhance who we are and our understanding of God, get rid of them. Old ways die hard. But, all of us need to prepare ourselves for a very challenging yet exhilarating tomorrow. Let's be ready! Let us prepare for it right here at St. Matthew's.