"The Invisible Source of Nourishment"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - February 11, 2001
Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10
Actually, the study of human behavior is as old as humanity itself. We have always been trying to figure out why people do what they do. For example, today people who study behavior can somewhat accurately predict those of us who have a high probability of being successful and those of us who will more than likely fail. Is this information new? No, it has been around for thousands of years.
If we took the time to compare certain portions of the Old Testament with many of the themes found in the literature of behavior science, we would find striking similarities. Many of the books of the Hebrew Bible were written by insightful authors who were very accurate in describing why some people are fulfilled by life's experiences while others feel victimized.
Today our lesson comes from the prophet Jeremiah whose understanding of human behavior is extremely precise. What is amazing is that Jeremiah was born 2,641 years ago. This morning we are going to consider a teaching of this prophet whose words are very timely for those of us living today.
We may find these images easy to understand, except for one. We have trouble understanding a God who says, "I will condemn those who turn away from me and put their trust in human beings." "After all," we say, "Where is the God who forgives seventy times seven? Where is the God who turns the other cheek? Where is this God who seeks the one who is lost?" Our trouble obviously comes from the word, "condemn." Does God actually condemn people, many whom are already confused about the meaning and purpose of life?
Before we consider this question, let us examine something Jesus taught. He taught the same thing and even used similar agricultural images, images with which his listeners could easily identify. Listen again to what he said,
"I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who do not remain in me are thrown out like a branch and dry up." (John 15:5-6)
Now let us come back to the question. Does God condemn? The answer is no! The translation of the word "condemn" is not the searing judgment that we might suppose. God is not a being who condemns what we do. After all, God created everything there is, even the vast number of possibilities for every choice we can make. (John 1:3)
It has been the Church's historic insistence on a condemning God that has driven many people away from giving any serious consideration to the very path that would grant them wholeness. For example, who would want to honor and love a God who is no different from a human being? We have this strange preoccupation for creating God in our image. If this is the case, are Jeremiah and Jesus both wrong?
What both of them understood is that God created us in a very unique way. When we violate our design, we short-circuit. However, when we cultivate and grow within that design, like all other life forms on earth, we thrive in all directions. If we want to associate the way we are nourished with the metaphors of Jeremiah and Jesus, that is fine. Let me illustrate their thinking in a much different way.
Years ago, when our son was a student at Clemson University, he planned to come home for spring break with a young man who lived on Kent Island. The problem was that Steve had been up studying all night and he needed sleep. I said, "Let the other guy drive." He said, "I can't." I said, "Why not?" He said, "The guy gets lost big time." Steve went on to tell me that once his friend left Clemson at 4:30 a.m. on his way back to Maryland. He found himself 20 miles from the Florida border before he realized that he had not been driving north.
What does this story have to do with whether or not God condemns? Just this -- God's creation allows us the complete freedom to drive anywhere we want. But only one way will bring us from Clemson, South Carolina to Maryland. We must drive north.
This may sound rigid and unfair. We can blame God for being cruel, condemning and lacking in compassion. We can say, "Yeah, but I had a unfortunate childhood. No one liked me. People called me names. I had poor teachers. I was an only child, a middle child, or the oldest child. I was 22 years old before I heard the words, 'I love you.'" We can reach into our grab bag of excuses and say anything we want, but the truth will not and cannot change. If you want to drive to Maryland from South Carolina you have to drive north.
This illustration may sound ridiculous, but this is the way our relationship with God and with all of creation works. And God will not do anything to change it. There is nothing magical, mysterious, or mystical about it. God does not have to condemn anyone for experiencing the numerous possibilities of creation. The challenge we face is that not all of those possibilities will contribute to our being nourished by God.
We may consider ourselves to be a model Christian. BUT, if being a follower of Jesus Christ has not yet become a way of life, we will not experience the results of that trust. Jeremiah wrote that we must be like trees that grow near a stream. Such a person does not have to think about how their nourishment comes. However, when we place trust elsewhere, a very different result occurs. That result was described by Jeremiah -- our spirits slowly dry up.
Three or four years ago, we had a wedding at St. Matthew's that Lois and I will never forget. The bride's parents had been divorced for 10 years. The marriage of their daughter was one of those occasions that required the joint appearance of both of them. Dad was going to give her away, while Mom was going to sit in the first pew on the left and be the queen bee.
Something was said between the two at the rehearsal dinner that caused the bride's mother to refuse to attend the wedding. This was a very sad moment for their daughter. Yet a very practical issue surfaced. Her mother had made the bridesmaids' dresses and she was still putting the finishing touches on one of them. The daughter pleaded with her mother to bring the dress to the church.
On the day of the wedding the dress had not arrived. The moment came for the processional to begin. As the bridesmaids started down the aisle, one was not dressed. Suddenly the mother's car came speeding into the parking lot. Seeing her, the bridesmaid ran outside. The dress was handed through the window and the car kept on going.
The bridesmaid took off her pants and sweatshirt in the parking lot, put the dress over her head, and ran back into the church. Lois zipped her up and she started down the aisle with not one second to spare. When she came down front she looked at me and rolled her eyes as if to say, "Whatever!" The processional was perfect, but what a scene!
Think about that mother. Think about a 10-year-old hurt to which she was still very sensitive. Just a few words were successful in scraping off the scab of that wound. Talk about Jeremiah's shrub in the desert! Jeremiah said, "Nothing good ever happens to it. It cannot bear fruit."
This is why instantly letting go of hurts is such a skill. Forgiveness is never about the other person; it is a skill we cultivate through constant practice. We can immediately move beyond our hurts because that is how God made us. Forgiveness is just as definitive to our wholeness as driving north is to our arrival in Maryland from South Carolina. It is here that the ancient prophets and modern psychologists are very close in their analysis of human behavior.
Sometimes when we listen to an extreme illustration, we can see how there are active issues in our lives that still hold us prisoner of resentment, anger, and the inflexibility of our needing to be right.
We know there are people who would readily defend that mother. They will say, "What he did to her was horrible and unforgivable. When you listen her side of the story, she has every right to her resentment and bitterness." Of course, she does. She has every right to tear herself apart for the rest of her life if that is what she wants to do. But she will never get to Maryland until she drives north. There is only one way for such a destination to be reached.
None of us will experience wholeness and harmony with God until we let go of those attitudes that prevent it. To have a relationship with God we cannot be like oil and water. It is not possible for the two liquids to blend in spite of how determined we are to make that happen.
Again, this does not mean that God is harsh or lacking in understanding. Quite the contrary. God was absolutely brilliant in creating us the way we are. Further in our lesson, Jeremiah has God say, "I, the Lord, search the minds and test the hearts of people. I treat each of them according to the way they live, according to what they do."
At first glance Jeremiah's words sound as though God will be kind and loving when and if we are, and God will ignore us if we ignore God. This would give us considerable power over how God communicates to us. Of course, the issue is never about how God relates to us, but rather whether we can receive what God sends every minute, every hour, of every day. Who among us can experience God when we are distracted and preoccupied by holding onto loveless perceptions?
Once again, God may appear to be callous, aloof, and not at all like the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in order to seek the one who had become lost. However, when we do not consider ourselves to be lost, when we know exactly where we are, and we know exactly what we are doing, we are not aware that God has a different road map. All we know is that we are not fulfilled. We are needy and empty in spite of being in a sea of plenty. And worse yet, we may not even know why.
The Prodigal Son came home because he learned that he was empty where he was. This did not mean he was evil or that his father had condemned him for engaging in what the Scriptures refer to as "riotous living." That lesson teaches that while he thought he was headed to Maryland, his belief system actually took him to Las Vegas, Nevada. Many of us do that from time to time. One of the ways God loves us is that the results we experience always tell us where we are.
Jeremiah was suggesting that when we are in harmony with God, our trust is so profound, so deep, and so encompassing that our external environment will not affect the quality of our spirits. This happens because we are being nourished by an invisible source.
Throughout life we will experience feast and famine. We will experience rejection as well as incredibly fulfilling relationships. We will feel oppressed, ignored and passed over and also celebrated, praised, and rewarded. We will experience both seasonal rains and droughts.
Trusting God is that invisible source of nourishment. We will be able to bloom in spite of the direction the stem of our lives has been bent. We were designed by God to grow. When we honor our design, a design that was created by God in God's own image, we will always bloom.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, how often we take for granted so much that you have made. Your creation is trusted by all of us without question. The sun rises each morning. Our hearts beat and our lungs breathe even while we sleep. Spring comes as automatically as Winter. You have given us this world as a gift, where we reap exactly what we sow. In your world, it is our thoughts that make us worry. It is our expectations that create frustration and disappointment. It is our ability to respond without love that makes separation possible. We come this morning knowing how easily we sabotage our own joy and peace. We trust in those aspects of creation we cannot control. Lead us, O God, to trust you equally in the aspects of our lives we can control. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, Lord, for Sundays. Perhaps more than in any other generation, we need a day that allows us the opportunity to nourish ourselves with what we often neglect. We live in the moment, forgetting that moments lead into weeks and months. We forget our need to renew our understanding of why we are on the earth. Without realizing it, our spirits becomes burdened by the signs of a slowing economy, by wrinkles on our faces, and by worries over the destiny of our children. Our identities become associated with the roles we play, the jobs we do, and the duties we perform. And we often blind ourselves to any image that does not fit our current understanding of you.
We are grateful for your mercy. And during these moments in our pews, your presence is so welcomed. We know you are everywhere, but being here and collectively having our thoughts guided, our spirits open in ways they do not at other times. Here we are not as distracted and preoccupied. Here we remember that there is nothing like this experience anywhere else. Here we are reminded that with you there are no secrets. You know our thoughts and our desires and yet you still love us. Heal us, O God, from the disease of perceiving without love. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray. . .