"Why God's Memory Is Different"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/16/1997

Psalm 113; Hebrews 10:15-25


    Have you ever taken the time to consider the wonderful gift of memory? What is it? Is it our friend or an enemy? Why is it that some people are blessed with wonderful memories while others of us are haunted by chapters in our lives through which we wish we had never lived? And what exactly did God have in mind by giving us this capability?

    As we experience our many relationships we discover that once people feel safe with us, occasionally they will share various aspects of their past. As we listen to them, we quickly learn that an experience was pleasant or challenging based solely on their interpretation of what happened. We know this because under similar circumstances in our past, we responded quite differently. As a result, the response we made gave us a memory that was much different from theirs.

    Prior to my coming to St. Matthew's, I listened to a number of memories that other people had about you. "That congregation chews up ministers," they said. Others said, "Something happened within their music program years ago that caused a great division in the congregation. The undercurrent of that is still there." Still others said, "People in that church have significant differences in their understanding of the Scriptures and those differences have not healed." Are such memories accurate descriptions of St. Matthew's identity or are they interpretations of events held only by some of us?

    There are no teeth marks on my arm so I haven't been chewed up, at least not yet. This morning we are getting an enormous vote of confidence by 31 people who think enough of us to have said yes to membership. And this new class has decided on a project that will enable nearly every able bodied person in St. Matthew's to give a filled Christmas stocking to each of 400 children whose parents are in our county's Detention Center.

    As we contribute, as we extend ourselves, and as together we make visible our generosity, look at the kind of memories we are creating. These are memories that create possibilities. These are memories that do not place an emphasis on differences among us that may exist. These are memories that allow us to participate as the Apostle Paul stated, "with the mind of God."

    In the Letter to the Hebrews today, the following words are attributed to God:

This is the covenant that I will make with them in the days to come. I will put my laws in their hearts and write them on their minds. I will not remember their sins and evil deeds any longer.

    As we achieve a greater clarity about the mind of God revealed in the Scriptures, we see how different God is from us. God chooses not to hold our errors in judgment or sinful acts against us. Think about that. There is no clearer image of this truth than in Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son. That father was so filled with joy by his son's return that the son's prior identity and life-style issues no longer made any difference. Are we able to do that with each other?

    Our minds can process events differently. We can easily cling to the unpleasant. We allow challenging relationships to distort our point of view. We can withdraw and smolder, preventing our joy from being visible. We know how to wear that look that says, "I am really hurt this time." And we also know how to make others feel like "damaged goods" when they have made a mistake. Not so with God. And this morning's message in the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are free to accept God's state of mind as our own any time we wish.

    Our lesson ends with these words:

Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more....

    When the community of faith behaves like this, we are at our best. We feel enthusiastic. We engage in lots of laughter. When we get our creative energy flowing, many new acts of faith enter our field of thought, acts that few of us would ever considering doing by ourselves. When we learn how the mind of God is different and how it makes us different, why would we ever consider thinking any other way?

    It may be that we know nothing about miracles until our life has been touched by one. It may be that we do not know how to extend ourselves until we do it with a group of people who are working with the shelter program or rehabilitating houses during Christmas in April. It may be that our faith is merely a belief system that says, "this is what I believe!" until we face an impossible situation. During those moments we learn to trust that, like Joseph in the Book of Genesis, we are right where we are supposed to be for the glory of God. The church leads us to think differently.

    Leigh Sandell recently said to me, "When you and Patti visit Mrs. Evans this afternoon, will you please tell her how much she meant to me as my mentor when I was taking my confirmation classes." We went to Johns Hopkins that Sunday afternoon and told Nedra what Leigh had said. With tears streaming down her face, Nedra said, "Thank you for telling me that. We never know what young people are thinking or what they are learning from us. That is so nice to know."

    What would motivate Leigh to make such a request? It was a memory, a memory of a past experience here at St. Matthew's. And hopefully that memory will be with her for as long as she lives. Here in this community of faith someone made a difference in her life. The church helps us to think differently.

    As we support each other on our faith journey, our pilgrimage may take a different form for every one of us. As we intentionally support each other as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, who cares about the areas within each other that still need attention, refinement and growth? Those areas will eventually take care of themselves.

Our purpose is to create an environment where everyone is allowed to feel safe and loved, a place where the spirit of Christ is made so visible that we can feel it. As we participate in the mind of God, we will discover that God's mind isn't so different from ours after all. When we develop that understanding, we will have discovered the Kingdom of God.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    We thank you for the marvelous truth that you have given to us in Jesus Christ. Only through him do we achieve vision. Only through him is our hope transformed into courage for living authentically what we know. Yet, how often we turn away and make mountains out of trivia, oceans out of fleeting conflicts, and earthquakes out of minor inconveniences. How often we set aside the capacities for kindness, patience, and joy that you gave us at birth. Bring such understanding to our motives so that making you visible in all circumstances becomes the source of our greatest pleasure. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    We thank you, Lord, for the silences of our sanctuary. We thank you for the joys and the concerns we have just shared with each other. As your Spirit moves among us, we ask that each of us might be open to your healing presence. We know that we all experience truth a little differently.

    As we are reminded of our diversity, grant us understanding. We have families who are walking through the valley of the shadows and we have families who are just beginning their lives with babies. We have people searching for mates alongside those who have remained together for years. There are those who are frustrated with their jobs sitting beside those who thrive with the work they do. We have people who focus on bad news while others of us see only opportunities into which we may bring Christ's spirit.

    How grateful we are today that into this diversity, we will experience even more of it coming to us through our newest members. Bless them as they bless us. Nurture them as they nurture us. Enable all of us to share our lives openly so that St. Matthew's remains the place where all people experience safety, acceptance and nourishment. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...