"God's Infinite Compassion"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/21/1999
Psalm 100; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ezekiel had God say, "I will judge between the strong sheep and the weak sheep. You are the ones who pushed the sick ones aside and butted them away from the flock. But I will rescue my sheep and not let any of them be mistreated any more." God spoke about leading all of them back to the mountain meadows and streams of Israel where they will feed in safety in the pleasant, green pastures.
As we approach Thanksgiving Day, I thought we might spend some moments together remembering how infinitely compassionate God is toward each of us. This means that God's compassion has no limits. Do each of us really understand and believe this about God? If we say "yes," we may have to rethink some of our fundamental beliefs.
For example, if we believe that we know the nature of God and what "is required" for our personal salvation, without our knowing it we have just constructed a barrier that will blind us to any new insights that might enhance our understanding of God's nature. What is interesting about theological barriers is that we who build them believe that we have the truth.
Recently a couple of people sent e-mails to me featuring letters to God written by children. In their innocence, children often have insights that can be missed by people in their twenties, thirties and forties, people who believe they are far more informed about such things. Children can be skeptical when learning about a God who appears small and limited. Sense the spirit of these children as you listen to a few examples.
One child wrote: "Dear God, do you really hurt people who do not believe in you? If I were you, I would love them anyway. My Mommie tells me that people who do not believe in you do not know any better. Why don't you teach them to know you better? You are God. Love, Jennifer."
Another child wrote: "Dear God, is there anything that you cannot do if you make up your mind? I change my mind all the time. Do you change yours? My uncle George died because he drank too much. I liked him because he read to me. Please change your mind about him. Love, Bobbie."
One more: "Dear God, my Sunday School teacher told us that you got mad and flooded the world because people were bad. What I want to know is this. What did the animals do that made you mad? Why didn't you give them to someone else to love if you were that mad? We had to give our dog away when we moved here. Love, Ben."
When we hear such letters, children are sensing limitations in God simply by how God has been represented to them. Even children realize that some of the things God allegedly has done, they would not do. Where do images of a limited God come from? They come from people who are passing on what they were taught.
It is very challenging to believe that God is infinitely compassionate, a compassion without limits. Frequently the Scriptures describe God as a being who regularly practiced "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The God of the Covenant, for example, did not have infinite compassion for people. The God of the Covenant was a negotiating God who said, "If you do this for me, THEN I will do this for you. If you do not do what I command you to do, THEN I will turn away from you" The Scriptures over and over again describe God as a being who promises condemnation for people who miss understanding the "path to salvation." How do we reconcile such an image of God with the one that Jesus revealed?
In Ezekiel we are greeted by a different image of God who said, "I will rescue my sheep and not let them be mistreated anymore. You were the ones who have pushed the sick ones aside and butted them away from the flock." His words point out that many well-intentioned people through the ages have not liberated God from the shackles of more confining images.
If more of us want to stand with the spirit found in the children's letters, what would have to change about the way we think? If God is infinitely compassionate, we would have to assume that God is incapable of punishing anyone. We would have to learn that ultimately we are not in control of our spiritual destiny as many of us now believe; God is. How many of us are prepared to believe that God has such an ability?
Imagine what it would be like to be free from fears about what God will think of us on "Judgment Day." Imagine what it would be like to be free of guilt and free from the "requirements" of obedience. Some people believe that if we remove such contingencies, we would automatically become prey to all manner of evil. Some people believe that our fear of God is the one major ingredient that keeps us faithful. Is this true? Is it fear of our being lost that motivates our own loving nature?
Think about this: How many of us are forgiving because we are afraid of what will happen to us if we are not? How many of us are generous because we know God perceives what is within our hearts? Such thinking would suggest that all spiritual gifts are motivated by selfishness, i.e., we do these things to insure our spiritual safety. Do we actually extend ourselves in love simply to feel safe?
I cannot speak for any of you, but one of my simple pleasures in life is being courteous and gentle with people who are displaying their vulnerabilities. We are constantly surrounded by people who have not matured. That is no big secret. We have all made that observation. Just because people are living in aging bodies does not mean that they have grown in spirit.
Perhaps such people did not have informed teachers as they were growing up. Who knows why people behave the way they do? Our only concern must be how we behave while with them. Many of us have learned how to be compassionate with people who greet us with rudeness and a lack of consideration. If we do not choose to judge people for being immature, would God?
Is there a downside to believing in an infinitely compassionate God? The only downside to understanding God as all wise, all loving, and all compassionate is that it might take some of us a long time to learn that there is no magical plan for salvation.
The simple truth is that we cannot earn God's love by our beliefs, our actions, or our thoughts. An infinitely compassionate God could not possibly have left such an outcome up to us. Salvation is ours free and clear because it is God's Will. It is God's gift. Nothing can separate us from God's love. To experience the full joy of this awareness, we have to awaken to its presence.
For a number of us, such a teaching will remain totally unacceptable. We have a desire and a need for God to adopt our form of justice and punishment. "If we do not have to do anything to please God, that is too easy," some will say. Others will say, "Such a concept is not Biblical." However, let us see if God's infinite compassion might become more clear to us if such theology were illustrated on a material level.
Suppose after the service this morning a very generous person decided to give each of you one million dollars. Further, let us suppose that this person told you that the taxes on it had already been paid, and with the money you were free to do anything you wanted. What would you do with it?
Some of you might buy things that thus far you were unable to afford. Some of you would either fix up or buy a more convenient and better-equipped home. Some of you might like to travel. Some of you might up-grade the car that you drive. However, those of you who are used to having all the money that you need, might choose to do something more with your life than remain a consumer. This choice would represent a dynamic shift in your consciousness.
As you begin to give much of your new money away, you would develop the same kind of spirit as the one who gave it to you. The rest of the people would rather enjoy themselves as consumers. Remember, their choice to do so is fine. There were no strings attached to the money when it was given. There were no requirements. The gift was free to spend exactly as you wished.
Only those who choose to experience generosity would become like the one who initially gave the money. Generosity is one of those timeless qualities of spirit. Once people learn the joy that comes from being generous, they do not return to being stingy. They no longer find their joy in feeding their appetite for things.
In the same way when God gave us life, God said, "You can do anything you want with it. Spend your life doing anything you want." If we choose to use our lives to enhance the quality of our creature comforts, we inherit results that are always going to change.
We eventually outgrow our expensive clothing. Cars get old. Our homes eventually become unmanageable because of our increased age. When we learn that giving ourselves away brings us closer to our Creator, we discover Heaven. That is what Heaven is. A stingy person would not be ready to experience it. Thus for some of us, it simply takes longer for us to realize which treasures endure and which ones do not.
A God of infinite compassion would not punish those of us who are slow learners. We do not intentionally inflict pain on the slow learners among us. If anything, we increase our attention toward them. We become more creative in our teaching of them. Our love for them becomes more focused. Would God be any different?
A God of infinite compassion would simply give us more time. Why punish, why excommunicate, why judge as unworthy those people who simply need more time to learn that having possessions, power, and influence are useless in a Kingdom where such things have no meaning? Sooner or later we will all awaken to that understanding. There is no place for fear in our lives because there is only growth. In truth, we do not all grow at the same pace.
How do we know that Ezekiel's understanding of God is more mature than other images of God that are found in the Scriptures? Ezekiel knew the same God who would later be revealed through Jesus. After the revelation of God through Jesus, all former images of God must be viewed as being the products from minds of the more limited people who wrote about them.
In the Gospel of John we read these words, ". . . the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us." It is this new insight into God's nature that inspires us to think differently. Jesus revealed God as being infinitely compassionate when he answered Peter on the issue of forgiveness. Jesus said, "No, not seven times, but seventy times seven because this is the way it is in the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 18:22)
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, let us do so knowing that God would never want us to be afraid of anything, most particularly of God. No loving parents would ever want their children to fear them. God invites us into God's presence just as we are, just as we come. That is the miracle of God's love. This is the Good News Jesus came to give us!
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for awakening us to the understanding that we have never been separated from you. We confess, however, that we are not always careful guardians of our thoughts. Our fears can easily distort our ability to sense your presence. Our need for a particular outcome often elevates our desires above yours. Our inability to understand your ways can bring hesitancy to our trust. Our need for security prevents us from remembering our heritage as spiritual beings. Thank you for knowing how easily we are fooled. Thank you for understanding how easily we take for granted everything that makes our lives work. Thank you for remaining our guardian, guide and friend even when we seek joy and pleasure in places that cannot give it. Bless us this hour with an awakened spirit, a spirit that recognizes that we have been called to represent you everywhere. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Once again, O God, we find ourselves in that wonderful time of the year when many of us are thinking about turkey dinners, of being off from school, of having that needed pause in our song to be with family and friends. When we consider our lives, what a distance we have come in such a short period of time. And what a distance we have yet to go in order to grow together as a world community.
Some of us here this morning remember times when our houses were not wired for electricity. There was no indoor plumbing. Automobiles were owned by a few. Water was brought out of the ground by a hand pump. People heated their homes and cooked with stoves fueled by wood. From our current vantage point, we can hardly imagine what life must have been like.
Sometimes, O God, we charge toward tomorrow with all our new technologies, services, and ideas hoping to improve the quality of our lives. Would that we could bring the same intensity of energy to focus on one of the least understood frontiers that has stood before us in every generation. We still have not mastered how to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We have not learned how to communicate "I love you" in all the ways that we can. We have not learned how effectively to use the wondrous skills and abilities that you gave us. Sometimes we seem so powerless to open the gates that would flood our minds, emotions, and spirits with understanding. Help us, O God, to open those flood gates. We eagerly look forward to the day when your will will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .