"A Recipe For Building Depth"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/25/1999
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Genesis 29:15-28
This may not have to be something that gave you immediate gratification. It might have been something on the horizon but it excited you nevertheless. Thinking about it made you glow. You greeted everyone with a smile and you allowed toxic personalities to be whomever they wanted to be. No longer did you allow them to motivate you to respond to their smallness. How many of us can remember something like that? It gave you freedom and enormous energy to thrive within any circumstance.
Perhaps all of us can point to something in our past or present that brought us to such a level of motivation. This morning we are going to be talking about such a source of power that will carry us from one experience to another without fear, doubt, or hesitancy even when circumstances appear very frustrating.
Recently I was speaking with one of my younger colleagues who had just returned from a mission field. He was so excited about his adventures and was telling me about them. I said, "Why don't you leave the work of America's churches to people like me while you go off and work in the trenches?" He said, "Oh, I would love to! I feel that God is calling me to do this work. The problem is that God is not also calling my wife. And when Mamma ain't happy, there ain't nobody happy." I asked, "How old are your children?" He said, "My kids are ages one, two, and three."
I reminded him how Jesus must have struggled with the urge to preach and teach for most of his life. As the first born, however, he had family responsibilities that came first. I said, "If God wants you in the mission field, don't worry about the details. You'll get there. Relax and enjoy the journey."
How many of us can relax and enjoy the journey? How many of us feel comfortable allowing God to work miracles through us? Such a process sounds wonderful! Yet what will such words do for those of us who are absorbed by the American work-ethic? How does "letting go and letting God" motivate us when it collides with the philosophy, "If it's going to be, it's up to me"?
We are in a hurry. We have things we have to do and places to go. We easily conclude that life waits for no one. We become anxious and want to experience the results of a successful life long before we know what a successful life looks like from God's perspective. Most of us measure success by material yardsticks. God does not.
This morning we have an interesting grouping of Scripture lessons. In the Gospel lesson we listened as Jesus used a number of metaphors to describe the Kingdom of God. We heard that the Kingdom is like a small seed that grows into a large shrub. We learned that it was like a small amount of yeast that makes a batch of dough rise. We heard that the Kingdom is like finding a treasure hidden in a field or discovering a rare pearl. In response to such a find we sell everything we have and buy the field or the pearl.
The Genesis passage is very different. It appears far removed from anything dealing with the Kingdom of God. But the excitement is there. We find a story that features love between Jacob and Rachel, an experience that heightened his emotions and excited his abilities to greet life enthusiastically. This story of Jacob has nothing abstract about it. It is filled with many emotions that all of us have experienced.
Let us tune in to where our story ended last week. You may recall that Esau was threatening to kill his twin brother when he learned that Jacob had manipulated their blind father, Isaac, into anointing him as the leader of their family. As the first born, that right should have gone to Esau. When their mother learned of the murder plot, Rebecca quickly sent Jacob away to her brother Laban who lived in another region. While he was there, she hoped that Jacob might find one of his cousins suitable enough to become his wife.
When he went to work for his uncle, Jacob's male chemistry became aroused when he saw Laban's daughters. Our lesson says, "Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful." Jacob's hormones helped him select Rachel. An arrangement was made that if Jacob worked seven years for Laban he could marry her.
Jacob was patient enough to work for seven years. Our lesson says, "Jacob worked seven years so that he could have Rachel, and the time seemed like only a few days to him, because he loved her." A story can not get any more romantic than this. Even in those days, romantic chemistry erased the notion of the passage of time. Jacob was willing to do anything to obtain his pearl of great price.
What happened next is challenging for us to understand. At the end of the seven-year period, Uncle Laban gave a fabulous wedding feast. According to Hebrew custom, the celebration lasted an entire week following the wedding ceremony. Jacob must have engaged in some serious drinking because he married and spent his first night with the wrong sister. What is amazing is that he did not discover the switch until morning! Uncle Laban had used the old "bait and switch" sales tactic.
A major mistake of Jacob was that he had made assumptions. He assumed that Laban knew he wanted Rachel. After all, for seven years their romance had flourished in his presence. Jacob also assumed that there was no "fine print" in the verbal work contract. There was fine print.
When Jacob confronted Laban with the switch, Laban said, "It is not the custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Wait until the week's celebration is over, and I will give you Rachel, IF you will work for me another seven years." Shrewd Uncle Laban secured for himself 14 years of labor from Jacob as well as finding a suitable husband for his two daughters.
Had Jacob's movie stopped right there, Jacob could have experienced many angry responses. He could have felt deceived, betrayed, manipulated, and abused. He could have felt that he was a victim of the fine print. Jacob never experienced any of those feelings. What was his secret? The answer was located in last week's Scripture lesson.
Do you remember the dream Jacob experienced? In that dream God said, "I am God, and I will give you and your descendants this land on which you are lying. They will be as numerous as the specks of dust on the earth. They will extend their territory in all directions, and through you and your descendants I will bless all the nations."
The secret to living a powerful life is in our trust that God will create with our lives in ways we cannot now know. This is how his dream motivated Jacob to live. This is how the yeast will cause the dough to rise. This one orientation toward life will give us depth and patience. How can we ever know what God is capable of creating through us?
Think about where Jacob was at this stage of his life. He had no idea that Leah would produce six sons that would make up half the tribes of Israel. At this stage of his life, how could Jacob have known that Rachel would give birth to Joseph?
As you recall, Joseph would later be sold by his half-brothers to traveling Midianites as they made their way to Egypt. From there Joseph would slowly rise to become second in command of Egypt, where he eventually saved his brothers' families from starvation during a great drought that lasted seven years. Jacob knew nothing about the role he would play in the unfolding of Israel's destiny.
One of our desires is that we do not want our lives delayed. We cannot be inconvenienced. We do not like reversals. We have a low tolerance for people who cheat us out of what is rightfully ours. We become defensive the minute we feel that someone is taking advantage of us. Jacob never questioned when these events occurred. Even though he did not understand, Jacob had confidence that God knew the outcome. He was not about to make suggestions on how God might improve the blueprint, nor was he prepared to make decisions that were ill-advised.
All this week a number of people have had this fleeting thought that American history might have proceeded differently had John F. Kennedy, Jr., made the decision to make a telephone call instead of boarding his aircraft. We should never engage in "what ifs" because doing so can never change what is. Yet in time, what kind of a leadership might John have provided? What form might have been given to Carolyn's and Lauren's creativity?
Think of the number of times we rush our decisions because we want some result immediately. Think of the decisions we make because we want to please someone. Think of the number of times we have allowed our own impatience to take hold of our decision-making ability. Jacob was willing to work patiently for 14 years to achieve his pearl of great price. Do we have the same patience with the unfolding of our lives?
The other day I was in the family room of one of our members and I was being shown a beautiful piece of needlepoint. The various images that were stitched into the material had to go through stages where they showed no design. They made no sense because we can only appreciate what the designer had in mind when we see the finished product. Only the needlepoint specialist knew the outcome.
How many lives do we suppose have lost much of their beauty because they were always taking the needle and thread away from the artist in order to stitch their more preferred outcome? For example, suppose Jacob had responded to Laban's injustice by taking Rachel and leaving the territory. Suppose in order to continue his ministry, Jesus had left the garden before his arrest and escaped to Galilee. No one would have blamed them, but our history would have unfolded much differently.
"The pearl of great price" is trusting our destiny to God's creativity. This is how we achieve depth and patience. As smart as we sometimes believe we are, we could never weave a tapestry as magnificently as God can. Such wisdom must begin with trust in the artist. All we can see are the immediate results we desire. God sees all the way to the end of time. God knows how our drama ends.
God told Jacob that through him and his descendants, God will bless all nations. Imagine what God will do through our lives when we step aside and let God lead the way. When we bring such trust to every experience, we can remain confident that our lives are unfolding according to the best possible path. It is this trust that builds depth into every part of us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, the thought of timelessness is well beyond our grasp. We live in circumstances that will not permit us to see the bloom from the seeds we sow today. We are not able to see the character qualities we have learned from our mistakes. It is challenging for us to understand our losses as a healing process. We cannot know the impact our deeds, our words, and our attitudes have on others. Yet in spite of such insights remaining beyond our reach, we stand forth in trust that you will create through our hope, our faith and our enthusiasm. May we become the steady hand for another's uncertain journey. May we be the rock upon which another may stand to receive a better view. May our patience serve to give someone a second chance. May our faithfulness continue to advertise who we are and whom we serve. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, how grateful we are that our experiences in worship impact our lives in ways we can not adequately measure. We do not know how many times our anger has been diluted and dispelled because your Son reminded us to turn the other cheek. We can not remember how many times our generosity has been kindled because we have remembered, "Give and do not count the cost" or "As you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me." There have been moments when we have felt betrayed, and we remembered the words of Jesus from a cross and we understood the meaning of "forgive 70 times 7."
We truly feel blessed, O God, that all that we do together refines us and defines us in degrees that we seldom recognize. What a joy it is to realize that salvation is not something that we experience at the end of life, for we have come to understand it as a motivating force that we can experience now. Truly it brings us pleasure to walk away from the days when we were self-absorbed, when the church family was something we experienced when we had nothing better to do. Thank you for holding a mirror in front of us, inviting us to become all that you created us to be, and showing us how a church family can help that happen.
Oh God, it is in giving that we truly learn to live. It is in smiling that we radiate the joy and confidence we have within. It is through fellowship that we learn about each other. It is by helping that we invest ourselves in others, and it is through all of these experiences that we learn the meaning of true discipleship. Bless us as we continue our ministry together. We ask these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .