"The Myth of Self-Sufficiency"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 2, 2001
Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Jeremiah 2:4-13
One of the most interesting aspects of our culture is that so many of us today can financially afford to have and do just about anything that we want. This was not true for the lives of our grandparents and many of our parents. Having it all and yet missing what makes life fulfilling is a painful paradox that was true in Jeremiah's day as it is in our own. Many people are growing up in our society without any functional relationship with God.
Slowly we can drift away from our heritage, our values, and those activities that one day nourished our spirits. Getting back to church after those college years, for example, may not be as easy as we might suppose. There is a lot today that clamors for our attention.
However, sooner or later in each generation a truth arrives on everyone's doorstep: If we do not spend time developing the skills of our internal world -- that which connects us to God -- we will gradually find that the successes in our external world may not deliver the quality of life we assumed they promised.
For example, we can be very physically attractive and have a fertile mind, and yet the motivation for rising each morning ready to embrace each new day as a diamond to be polished. We can have the financial stability we want and still find emptiness a constant companion. We can travel all over the world, seeing a number of beautiful capitals of many nations, and still be saying to ourselves, "I can run but I cannot hide. I need a purpose for living."
As in Jeremiah's day, God is very compassionate. God might say to us, "All these things you pursue with so much energy -- do you need them to be happy? Do you need them to have peace? Do you need them to be creative? Do you need them to use your talents and abilities? Why do you struggle so much to have what the world offers, when at birth I gave you everything you need? Your true nature and power lie within not without."
When I was taking my continuing education course at Wesley Seminary in July, I learned that the average age of students there is 38. There are a lot of second-career people attending seminary in recent years. The men and women with whom I spoke talked about having a sense of being starved in the midst of plenty.
They felt the need to come to seminary for saturation learning in an area of life they completely missed receiving while pursing their education and vocational goals. One students said, "You may not know what it is like, Dick, to wake up in a corporate setting with a nice salary and realize that something VERY BIG is missing in your life." Another student said, "When you miss learning what life is all about, nothing is fulfilling. Nothing makes any sense."
Jeremiah had God say, "I brought my people into a fertile land, to enjoy its harvests and its other good things, but instead they ruined my land; they defiled the country I had given them. The priests did not ask, 'Where is the Lord in our lives?' My own priests did not know me." Such amnesia about our inner world can happen in every generation and in every culture. The treasury of knowledge understood in one generation may not be passed to the next.
Our spiritual heritage was once learned as part of our education. Today it is not. We must learn how to repackage the core message of why it is absolutely essential that we "love our neighbor." This is not an option. This is not some religious perspective, some narrow point of view. It is the only point of view. And if we do not help every generation learn it, the dark ages may not be far away. When we have to teach courses on anger management, we have missed the mark. Life is not about getting everything we want; it is about learning how to use creatively what we have.
When we become like a branch that assumes that we can flourish without remaining connected to the vine, we make a big mistake! We cannot survive! We were not "wired" that way. We can have everything the material world has to offer, while the fruits of the spirit can easily escape our grasp. When that happens, we turn to the menu of quick fixes, which only serves to make life even more complicated.
We do not need to attend a seminary to learn what has been missing in our lives. We can begin by reversing how we approach life. For example, we can turn our vocational setting into a mission field. We can listen to people and authentically care about them. Remember someone's birthday with a note. Treat the office staff to pizza. Buy a can of coffee for the office kitchenette. Wash and wax your parents' car without being asked. Don't ask your parents for things that you can do for yourself.
Rather than looking for validation, start to give it. Rather than feeling guilty about something we have done or are doing, begin to offer comfort to someone else in pain. Rather than demanding that the world change to suit us, why not roll up our sleeves so that we can be helpful. When we engage in such activities, we are enhancing the skills of our inner world.
Remember Jesus never said, "Go into all the world and search for all those things that will make us comfortable, popular, and safe." He said, "Love God with your words, deeds and attitudes, and love your neighbors even when the seas are choppy, even when people do not recognize your love, and even when you stand alone in the midst of darkness."
When we give from our well all the things that will refresh a thirsty world, our source will never run dry. As we continue to do this, we will discover our priorities changing. We will not need a prophet having God lament, "Where have all my children gone?" I am sure this was one of Jesus' thoughts when he said, "Each time you take the bread and drink from the cup, remember me." He did not want us to forget where our roots are nourished. In today's high-speed, high-tech culture, that is something we can miss remembering.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for creating within us the desire to learn more about the art of living. We know that there are many hours that we commit to entertainment, and we call it "a needed break." Many of us would rather see a movie than read a book. We would rather listen to truth than develop a passion for living it. We would rather withdraw from conflict than give others the benefit of our views. Inspire us to make room in our thinking for miracles that anticipate your presence in the unexpected. Mold our lives around the curiosity of wanting to learn how you create through people. And once we have grown accustomed to living with such faith, inspire us to make our understanding visible by giving without counting the cost. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We enter worship, O God, eager to refine our relationship with you. Many of us are guilty of looking for you in every place but where you are. When we experience those moments of frustration, guide us to become for others what we want you to be for us. Then the miracle happens! You appear to us while we are doing for others.
With Labor Day upon us, we are reminded that the workplace provides us the perfect opportunity to practice what it means to serve one another. Teach us to view our work as the stage where we demonstrate our faith, our values, and our faithfulness. May the spirit by which we live become so contagious that our workplaces are transformed into environments where authentic caring and sharing are made visible. It takes just a tiny spark to make the fire burn. It takes just a little leaven to make the dough rise. Give us the courage to be the defining element that brings peace and the sense of "family" to every person with whom we work. And if that atmosphere is not present, may it become clear to us what you are calling us to bring.
Guide us in the coming weeks and months ahead. Encourage us to refresh our minds with remembrances of what and who Jesus asked us to be. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .