"What Communicates Love, Cannot Be Silent"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/14/1997
Psalm 89:1-4,19-37; Luke 3:7-18
When I was appointed to Arden in 1980, one of the families in the church offered us the opportunity to share a vegetable garden with them. After we put strawberry plants in the ground, Stewart McDonald asked me to get a bale of straw from one of the area farmers to mulch them. As the plants matured, Stewart could hardly find them among the tall weeds. What had happened was that I had mulched the strawberries with a bale of hay instead of straw. Hay is loaded with all kinds of seeds that sprouted. Having come from the suburbs of Maryland to the rural environment of West Virginia, I thought everything that was baled looked like straw to me. My journey into gardening definitely started at zero.
There was another time when Stewart sent me to the store to buy .3 ounces of red beet seeds. I thought he figured incorrectly, and knowing how much our family enjoys beets, I bought 3 ounces of seeds. The row I made went 90 feet across the garden. You cannot possibly imagine the number of beets that we grew that year. Every seed must have germinated. We pickled them, froze them, canned them and gave them away. After three years of gardening with that family, I was still learning.
Our life experiences should tell us that we can always learn better ways to accomplish the results that we want. That seems easy enough to understand, but are we that honest with ourselves? Do all of us approach life wanting to learn the basics first and then move on to higher levels of understanding? Many of us want to start somewhere in the middle believing that most skills of life are common sense. Even though such skills often appear that way, are they that easy to master?
We see young teenagers communicating their affection to each other through teasing and batting each other around. Getting each other's attention and communicating their feelings is so awkward in the beginning. Few people are teaching courses on relationship development. And if someone offered such a course, would teenagers come? Young people want to learn such things but to attend such a course would be admitting something to themselves and that would not be cool. They would much rather "hang out" and learn by trial and error.
Yet, errors can be devastating. When I first started to date Lois, the night came when I wanted to kiss her for the first time. I did everything correctly until the point of contact. She was either smiling or talking because when I made my move, my lips kissed her teeth. I was horrified and I could not sleep that night because of how I had bungled what at first looked like a fairly simple task.
Think of all the possibilities that are ours when we greet each day knowing that there are many different ways of dealing with our life issues? Some are better than others. What all too frequently happens is that we settle into routines and patterns because they have become very familiar to us. They feel comfortable.
For example, we travel the same way to work until someone shows us a less congested way to go. We talk to our children the same way until it dawns on us that they are no longer children. We support the church financially in much the same manner year after year until we learn what the spirit of tithing creates in us. Sometimes it is very challenging to admit that we are not as far along in our relationship with God as we want to be. And frequently we do not know where to begin to enhance that skill.
As we focus on our lesson for today, we find that crowds were coming to hear John preach. The listeners appeared to be interested in learning how to change many of their familiar patterns of living. They had not started with the basics because no one had been there to teach them how to do that. Being obedient to the law did not necessarily teach them any skills of the spirit. To answer their requests for clarity on how to change, John said, "Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins."
As the lesson continues, we learn that distinct types of people had come to listen to John. For each group of people, John had something specific to tell them. First, he told the general public to be more generous with their possessions. Second, he told the tax collectors to be more fair in dealing with people. Third, he told the soldiers not to abuse their power. While his words sound fairly straightforward, John was actually teaching them to bring a much different spirit to what they did for a living.
Then he told them that a person was coming after him who would make it very clear how they could purify their thoughts and how they could eliminate many of their mistakes. John said, "I baptize you with water. The one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
How many of us find it easy to learn something new in the area of how our spirit communicates? How many of us are willing to say to ourselves, "My spirit can stand all the polishing I can give it." Remember John's first words in our lesson, "Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins." In other words, begin to live life in a spirit much different from the one that keeps on missing the mark, that does not generate the happiness and joy that we want, and that fails to create relationships that are fulfilling.
There is no need for any of us to remain frozen in patterns of thought or behavior that do not work for us. Yet, we do it all the time. We convince ourselves "This is who I am" as if we cannot learn anything new. The coming of Jesus into our world turned every form of behavior and every commonplace attitude upside down. For example, he taught us to return good for evil, to return mercy and kindness for injustice, and to pray for those who say all manner of unkind things about us. We know and have studied what he taught, but many of us live as if we still need to settle the score.
On Thursday, someone laid a prayer on my desk.
This prayer makes us smile because we know it provides the common blueprint for behavior we know all too well. We are fine until we are in the company of other people, or we are on the road with other drivers, or we are in department stores with other customers, or someone makes a decision with which we vehemently disagree. John was teaching that one was coming who would help us learn how to grow in spirit.
The vital truth of our lesson today is that Jesus was coming to teach us how to separate the nonsense in our lives from that which holds substance. John said that the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that would enable people to surrender their chaff to the fire and gather their wheat into the barn. When we pay attention to and learn what Jesus came to teach us, our lives will communicate what they may not at the moment.
If we digress just a moment and remember the words of that prayer again, they tell only half our story. They describe in some detail only the chaff portion of ourselves. Listen again, "I haven't gossiped, I haven't lost my temper, I haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or self-indulgent." Jesus came to teach us how to communicate something else.
Today we lighted our third Advent candle -- the candle representing love. This is a mysterious energy possessing qualities that can enhance everything about us. Rather than motivating us to chase down and fix all the wrongs, love energizes and orchestrates what enhances our depth of spirit. The spirit of attack is what generates the kind of chaff that was described in that prayer. Jesus came to teach us how to live with a much more refined spirit.
John said, "Do those things...." that will demonstrate that you are now standing on higher ground. When we really want the chaff to leave us, we must do those things that extend the wheat part of ourselves. As we learn to do this, we will grow. I learned the difference between straw and hay. I learned the difference between what .3 and 3 ounces of red beet seeds would produce. So it is with the growth of our spirit.
We learn in increments. We increase our skill by doing, refining, doing, refining, and doing, just like with any other skill. A loving spirit is not a piece of software that God downloads into our minds the minute we accept as truth some theological formula. Yet, the Church has been teaching something very similar to this for centuries.
Love happens each time we greet a challenging experience as an opportunity to do something totally unexpected and unanticipated, communicating kindness, gentleness, and caring. The chaff of defensiveness and anger goes into the fire. As we extend the abilities Jesus taught that we have, pay attention to what happens to us. Pay attention to who it is we are becoming.
The reason love is confusing for so many people is that it is understood and used as an emotion. Many psychologists define love as an emotion. Is it? Like the seasons, emotions can change. Love is frequently looked upon as a tool that we can get out, use and put away when some task is accomplished. Is it just a tool? We are glad that God's love is constant and changeless. If our love is love, it should contain the same qualities. When we do love, it does have the same qualities.
For example, when we love animals, we create a friendly environment for them, feed them, nurture them and enjoy them. That is all we can do. Wild birds will always be what they are. We have known people who have taken a wounded stray to the veterinarian and paid whatever the costs of treatment simply because they care. We are no strangers to this kind of love. Only with each other does this kind of love appear strange, awkward and sometimes difficult to give.
John said, "Do those things that show that you have turned from your sins." In other words, do the things that communicate the spirit Jesus taught. What communicates love, cannot be silent. That is what he came through a stable in Bethlehem to teach us. Are we willing to learn?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for placing truth in our midst. Thank you for placing within us at birth, everything we need for a loving, joy-filled life. And thank you for the challenges that prevent us from taking your free gifts for granted. We have learned that we experience your gifts only when we give them away. Hope comes alive for us when we encourage others. Joy radiates to all who surround us as we make your spirit known. And love for others becomes an extension of who we are as we communicate to others our total acceptance. As we give these gifts away, it is then that we experience the peace that comes from knowing we are a part of you. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, gracious God, for all of the simple joys that automatically come to us by living this marvelous adventure we call life. Each day brings to us new opportunities to enhance who we are.
During these days of Advent, we are filled with thanksgiving that you chose to come into our midst in such a humble manner. You showed us that not all strength appears as strength as we define it. Not all love comes in a form that we readily recognize. Not all sorrows need to cause us to set our faith aside. Not all rejection needs to prevent us from discovering purpose and vision.
We pray that even though our hearts are less than perfect, you will come to us anyway. We pray that even though our lives are not always lived in harmony with others, you will come to us
anyway. We pray that even though our words sometimes do not reveal the understanding you gave us the capacity to have, that you always find us worthy to come to us anyway.
During this season of joy, O God, may you find each of us becoming more and more instruments of your love, peace and understanding. We pray these things through Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...