"Life's Teachable Moments"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/23/2000

II Samuel 7:1-14a; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


     This morning we are going to be looking at one of our disguised "treadmills." It is that part of ourselves that wants a quick fix for something that troubles us. We get very excited when we hear about new products coming to the marketplace that promise to cut our workload in half, to reach our goals without our having to struggle, or to generate results without our having to change our attitudes, routines, or habits. It would be interesting to see how many quick-fix products we have in our homes right now.

     Several years ago, Lois and I were visiting our daughter when she lived in Laurel, and we noticed that her Health Rider had become a stand for her African violets. Her Step-Master had become a permanent resident of our attic and her state-of-the-art bicycle was in our shed here in Bowie.

     Please do not think that I am singling out our daughter for ridicule. Not at all. Many of us have diet books, exotic herbal and mineral supplements that promise us bodies that will look like the ones featured on the cover of our vitamin catalog. Yet how many Brittany Spears' look-alikes do we encounter on a day to day basis? Why do we forget that she is 18; the age when our bodies are very forgiving in spite all that we put into them?

     Now, lest we believe that this conversation has nothing to do with our Gospel lesson, let us take a few moments and visit the quick-fix frenzy that was going on around Jesus on a daily basis. Listen to this. "So they ran throughout the whole region; and wherever they heard he was, they brought to him the sick lying on their mats. And everywhere Jesus went, to villages, towns or farms, people would take their sick to the marketplaces and beg him to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well."

     Try to imagine what Jesus was experiencing? Have you ever taken children to a pond to feed the ducks? The children become amazed at how the word gets out. Even the geese and the swans begin paddling toward the free food. How interesting that when the food runs out, so do the ducks.

     In the various churches we have attended, we have seen people who remind us of those ducks! Someone has a loved one who is very close to death. They begin attending church every Sunday. The church family surrounds them during their hour of need. Suddenly their mother has a dramatic recovery and everyone celebrates the healing. Once the drama is over, however, quite frequently they drift away. Their immediate need has been met.

     Once someone handed me a check for $300 for the church. They were grateful for everyone's support during some very challenging times. But that flash of generosity was like some of the seeds in Jesus' parable of the sower. The seeds sprouted immediately and withered in the sun's heat because their root systems were too shallow. That particular person also drifted away.

     Think of what might happen to such people if they understood what the Body of Christ had to offer. Think of that first person getting involved in a group like our Angel Gang, whose purpose is to focus their energy on others who are being challenged by ill health just as most of them have been.

     Think of the donor of the $300 deciding that the church is an incredible place and they want to give that amount each month because they want to do more for the church than occasionally sit in one of its pews. What Jesus offered was no quick fix but a way of life. Yet even today many people still miss the point.

     The Gospel of John tells readers what happened once Jesus started telling people that they needed to live with a greater accountability before God. He began to challenge their life styles, their attitudes, and the way they selectively cared for people. Jesus was starting to preach about their need to change who they were becoming. How interesting that during this time in his ministry Jesus' popularity began to diminish. The crowds began to thin.

     Jesus said, "What gives life is God's Spirit; human power is of no use at all. The words I have spoken to you bring God's life-giving Spirit. Yet some of you do not believe that." (John 6:63f) John goes on to say, "Because of this, many of Jesus' followers turned back and would not follow him any more. So he asked the twelve disciples, 'And you -- would you also like to leave?' And Simon Peter answered, 'Lord, to whom would we go? You alone have the words that give eternal life.'" (John 6:66f). What were many of his followers missing?

     We all have those times when our lives are on cruise control. There is nothing particularly challenging us. We are not being pushed by any heavy deadlines or life issues. The family is fine. And probably most of us would prefer to stay right there, retire, age gracefully, and leave the earth without any major drama.

     The interesting truth is that the universe is big enough for that. We actually experience this on a daily basis. We have remote controls for our televisions. We can now pay a lawn service to prune, cut our grass, and rake the leaves in the Fall. And Lean Cuisine has such tempting meals that some of us do not have to cook as often. Some of us have people come to our homes a couple times a month and clean. Life is free from chores that were once part of our routine.

     But now and then a wake up call comes. Teachable moments arrive. For example, perhaps our marriage is not working. Attitudes outcrop that say, "How dare my spouse not meet all my needs! How dare my spouse not spend every waking moment wanting to be with me! How dare my spouse not adapt to my values!" The pulling in different directions may cause both to conclude, "I guess I want out of this marriage."

     Teachable moments come in every area of life. And it is not surprising that the thoughts we create are very similar to the ones that were being expressed in that marriage conflict. "How dare my job not meet my needs! How dare other drivers on the highway fail to adapt to my values. I feel my teenage kids and I are pulling in different directions. We do not communicate. I guess they can hardly wait until they are out of our family." How should we respond during teachable moments? The temptation is to run for the quick fix.

     Listen again, "So they ran throughout the whole region; and wherever they heard he was, they brought to him the sick lying on their mats. And everywhere Jesus went, to villages, towns, or farms, people would take their sick to the marketplaces and beg him to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak."

     We tend to look at Jesus as one who can fix our lives. And there are plenty of churches who promise that Jesus will. But I will tell you this, generosity will not come to us until we give our money and time away on a regular basis. Understanding others will not come to us until we stop wanting others to conform to our values. The healing of our spirits will not come until we are willing to let go of the poisons that we have carefully nurtured through the years because of an old hurt.

     Teachable moments can come in experiences that produce pain. Not all pain is bad. The pain warns us that we are not prepared to deal creatively with what is in front of us. We have spent too much time on cruise control. We have grown too accustomed to life being the same day after day that we are vulnerable to dramatic changes that dare to knock on our door unannounced.

     We should not be surprised when we travel across the landscape to find Jesus that he says to us, "Follow me." And we say, "But I thought you were going to heal me. Do you mean you want something from me? Can I sneak up behind you and touch the hem of your garment. Please, all I want from you is to make this pain go away. I'm fine otherwise. I really am!" And Jesus will look us in the eyes and say, "I know. But what you want is not on the menu today. Follow me."

     Teachable moments are ones where we have the opportunity to learn something that will permanently enhance our lives. The truth is that we do not have to learn anything if that is our wish. When teachable moments come we can bring the same responses we have brought for years. God created the universe so big that it will accommodate every one of us.

     In a way the universe is like our various school systems. There are plenty of teachable moments available for those students who wish to learn. The difference is that in life there is no pass or fail as many of us believe; there is only delay if we really have no desire to evolve. Life is a classroom where we learn at our own pace. No one rushes anyone. We reap what we sow, and we have an infinite time to sow. God's patience is never exhausted by what we choose to do.

     Something very interesting happens, however, for those who understand that the universe provides many teachable moments for us spiritually. Every such moment has the potential to make us soar. Every such moment can take us beyond our desire for the quick fix. They bless us with opportunities, friendships, wealth, the ability to role model, and wisdom. The list is endless. People who live just to get by have no clue of the fruits that will spring forth from them when they choose instead to become intensely alive and aware of God's presence every moment.

     Allison Edwards grew up in a rural community in Pennsylvania. She met a man in State College where they both attended Penn State University. They married and moved to California where he became an engineer for a high-tech company. After their third year of marriage, her husband came home one day and announced that he had found someone else and without any opportunity for the two of them to consider alternatives, her husband was gone. A teachable moment had arrived in both their lives. Fortunately, Allison was no stranger to knowing God was with her.

     She said to herself, "If this is what Malcomb wants, my love for him supports his leaving me. I want him to find happiness even if that means I will no longer share in his life." Her friends were amazed at her lack of anger. With her eyes filled with tears she said to them, "Every day I live knowing God is with me. God has called me to love even when I am rejected or replaced. I cannot change Malcomb nor make his decisions for him. We must all find our own way."

     She met and married another man. He was even better than her first husband. He was kind and attentive. They traveled and laughed. Life was beyond anything she could have anticipated. One night while driving home from a late meeting, he fell asleep at the wheel. His car left the road and once again Allison found herself without a partner with whom to share her life. Another teachable moment had arrived. No, life does not seem fair. No one has an answer for why moments of intense happiness come and then appear to be snatched away.

     Just as before, she knew her life would experience events she could not anticipate. Her drama was like the story of Joseph in Genesis. He was carried off by a caravan as it traveled to Egypt. He could not imagine his destiny. But he could understand and trust completely the One whom he honored with his life. Joseph said with confidence, "Well, I guess God has something for me to do elsewhere."

     After two years, Allison was invited to become a senior partner in a small company that will go public next year. She was selected by the company because a number of the staff had worked with her in other settings. They wanted her because of her radiant personality, her careful management skills, and because of how she inspired people. Interesting. Those are some of the same skills possessed by Joseph when Pharaoh placed him second in command of Egypt during the famine.

     Allison had taken advantage of her teachable moments in spite of the drama and pain connected with them. Each experience transported her toward a destiny she would have never reached had she chosen anger, bitterness, low self-esteem, or a sense that God had abandoned her.

     Teachable moments may cause us to run to Jesus for a quick fix. By all means, go! But remain alert and responsive if Jesus does not fix us but instead says, "Follow me."

THE CONGREGATIONAL  PRAYER

     We enter this place, O God, seeking and celebrating what nothing else in this world can give us. As we worship, we pray that our spirits will be inspired. Lead us beyond our seeking answers to personal matters, or wishing to fill up our emptiness, or coming to you so that our fears will diminish. Lead us beyond looking to you as our life raft and our savior. Inspire us instead to a confidence that knows of your love, that knows of your presence, and that remains clear on our role in this world. As the challenging and fragile moments come, may we understand each of them as opportunities to demonstrate our relationship with you. So guide our thinking that we become today what we hope one day to be. The world needs the presence of our loving spirits now. May we not delay in our own arrival. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     We cannot thank you enough, O God, for your being constantly available for each of us. We come to you with our plans and you listen. Then life happens to us and we are mystified. We come to you as if you will solve all our problems and yet we know how that would handicap our children if we solved all of theirs. We thank you that you allow us to struggle and make mistakes. We thank you that the future is uncertain. We thank you for the moments when nothing in our physical world meets our needs.

     It is then that we have teachable moments. It is then that we learn that our mistakes are often the tools for learning. It is then that not knowing what tomorrow will bring enhances our trust and faith in you. It is then that we understand that our spirits can never display joy because of the abundance of our possessions. And it really helps us, O God, when we realize that your son had no place to lay his head, yet still he could see with great clarity what your will is for all humanity.

     Spare us from coming to you with life issues that appear tailor-made for our growth. Teach us the value of trusting you with the outcome of all things. Inspire us to set aside our desire for the quick fix, so that our lives might develop habits and attitudes which dissolve the painful events that tempt us to blame and grow impatient. May we learn these skills while being faithful followers of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .