"When We Know the Truth, We Live"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 11, 2001
Psalm 145:1-10; Luke 20:27-38
The manager told me that the hotel had laid off a large number of employees. Occupancy was at a staggering 64 percent. Those of you who know the industry understand the meaning of that figure. He told me that he had never seen business this slow during his 27 years with Marriott.
One restaurant in the hotel had just opened for our convention, but it was soon closed while we were there. There were not enough patrons . The convention to which I was a delegate was the hotel's first major event since September 11. We brought close to 6,500 people to San Diego, the first wave of fresh dollars that came into that community where many of the smaller businesses survive on the tourist trade.
We spoke to various staff who were waiting tables and they told us the same story. One young man was a month behind in his mortgage payment. When we traveled with friends, we found easy parking in La Jolla -- a near impossible task under normal circumstances. The restaurant where we ate lunch was beginning to put food outside for passers by to sample, hoping to entice them inside. We found stores with very few customers and streets that were no longer teeming with the normal flow of traffic. Many vendors are frightened. The possibility of bankruptcy was unthinkable just a year ago.
It is interesting to observe what has been happening to us. In churches all over America, we talk about life and death issues all the time. We regularly discuss what gives us hope in times of despair. Nearly every Sunday, sermons in various churches deal in some fashion with how much God loves us. Those of us who are bathed in such thinking every week have been managing fairly well through these recent months. Our faith works for us.
Many of us have read and studied books like Why Bad Things Happen To Good People, thus equipping ourselves with some type of foundation to deal with life-threatening issues. We have all heard ourselves and others say, "My father's death was expected, but when it happened I was not prepared." We grieve, and with the support of others, we move on. Nothing holds us back. We are people of faith.
The vast majority of Americans claim to have a belief in God. I believe the figure is about 85 percent. Suppose many of them are not in church on Sunday mornings. Suppose they have not read books that have prepared them for times of uncertainty. Suppose they never learned how to navigate when rapid, unexpected changes sweep away the quality of life they had been counting on day after day.
How many people find themselves needing skills that they do not have? They easily fall victim to their own thoughts that the worst is yet to come. They cannot utilize an implicit trust in God or experience the results of faith if they never took time to develop them while they were growing up. Or perhaps they had a childhood faith at one time but abandoned it because they became too absorbed by the images of our physical world.
In our lesson today we hear once again a very familiar message. Perhaps our problem is that we do not hear it enough. The Sadducees did not believe that life goes on when we leave our physical forms. Like many Americans, they took all their clues for living from the material world. Their thinking was that when people die, they die. They realized, however, that Jesus believed that life never ends. One day they challenged him. The Sadducees used our physical forms in an attempt to trap Jesus by giving him a hypothetical situation to solve.
There was a practice among the Hebrews of Jesus' day that if a man died leaving a widow without children, the deceased man's brother was required by the Law to marry her. The Sadducees said to Jesus, "Suppose this happened seven times and each time no children were born. Then the woman dies. Now, on the day when the dead rise to life, whose wife will she be? All seven men had married her."
Jesus told them that only on earth do people marry. When we transition from our bodies, there is no need to marry. Jesus said, "We will be like angels and cannot die." Next Jesus quoted Moses, "God is the God of the living, not of the dead, for to God ALL are alive." The truth is that none of us ever dies. If this is what we believe, why do so many of us live in intense fear that we might?
Our physical bodies are only a tiny aspect of who we are. But if the majority of Americans do not know this, they will take their cues from what our society is currently being fed night and day. Each day fires are being fanned by every news anchor on television. Currently all we hear about is anthrax, anthrax, and more anthrax!
For perspective, please remember that only four people have died because of Anthrax. Fewer than 20 people have contracted the skin form of this disease. The media has become fixated on this issue. Our media preachers are giving us mental anthrax, and it is slowly eroding our confidence and our culture. We are not balancing what we receive from them with what we have received from God. And God has the final word on this.
Notice what happens to alarming information when no one is fanning the flames on a daily basis. According to the American Lung Association, 56,000 people die in this country every seven weeks because of their use of tobacco products. That was the same number that died in Vietnam when the media kept fanning the fires about our "senseless losses" there. Why are we not more excited over this number of deaths?
A number of years ago, Ralph Nader's group did an exhaustive, three-year-study on the causes of death in American hospitals. In their 1,500 page, carefully documented report, the Nader group published some astounding findings. Here is a quote from that report: "300,000 Americans are killed each year in hospitals as a result of medical negligence." And the word used in the report was "killed." But we go on with life because no one is fanning that flame day and night.
The greatest danger in our country right now is that we are being driven to despair because of what we read and hear every day. This is absolute nonsense! Many Americans will not fly. We will not spend our money. We are thinking twice about opening our mail. We may find ourselves wondering what is "really" inside the truck that is sitting next to us in traffic. We wonder where some evil menace is going to strike next.
When popular commentators "preach to us"every day that our bridges may be next, that our power grids may be next, that our nuclear power plants may be next, that our railroads may be next, that our bus lines may be next, that our subway systems may be next, or that smallpox may be next, we tend to forget what we celebrate when we worship. When we are not equipped with what gives us confidence, we can always find dozens of things to make us afraid.
Jesus was telling the Sadducees that God is a God of the living, not of the dead. To God there are no dead. We are spirit-beings temporarily living in these physical forms. When we leave these bodies, all we do is transition into another form. To God everyone will always be alive. To God, nothing can ever happen to us. All the things that make us fearful are based in our ignorance of how God made us. We need to hear this message again and again until we know it.
When we really understand this, we will live our lives abundantly. We will celebrate every day as a new diamond to be polished. We will not hold back on giving away any of our gifts. We will go on with life because we have recognized that absolutely nothing can hurt us, not even when we experience the moment when we transition from this life.
This past Thursday at the National Press Club, Laura Bush echoed this same perspective at the close of her talk.
To live any other way reveals something else we may not want to admit. If we cannot fully embrace life, we have fallen to the tyranny of an unrecognized belief. That belief is that we are in danger or that we might be in danger. This belief is everywhere in people. We have seen it here in Bowie as well as in San Diego. Fearful thinking is not something new, but it will win the day unless we reverse its course. We have to let go of such thoughts.
The world teaches us to think in terms of death and how final that is. Jesus taught us and showed us that God has another answer. And the judgment is in -- we live. Jesus gave his life that we might understand that answer. There can be no room in our minds for any other kind of thinking if we are to live abundantly.
During John Bridgewater's memorial service, his son Matt spoke of his father's faith. The new information that came to John about his cancer never erased the smile from his face. All John could ask was, "What is the next step?" John did understand how God made us and that was evidenced by how he lived. John knew what the next and final step was. He never experienced anything but life even as he was leaving his physical form.
During my last conversation with Tavia Wyatt, I asked her a question, "How can a musician like yourself learn to interpret what composers were trying to communicate through their music?" She said, "There is no way such a thing can be taught. You have to know it through your own intuitive empathy with that composer and then do it." The same thing can be said of faith. Tavia knew that life continues and she lived it. There was no fear as she approached her departure from our midst.
We can place before ourselves every available Scripture that speaks of hope or of our being part of God's wonderful plan of Creation. We can listen to excellent sermons on how much God loves us. But to make such an understanding visible, we have to let go of every fearful thought that we create. We have to come out of our caves and live, knowing that all is well all the time even when our movie appears to have a very challenging plot.
When we trust this thinking with everything that we are, fear leaves. Dwelling on fear is like praying for what we do not want. We must stand as guardians against such thoughts. We cannot allow the media preachers to drown our truth. We cannot allow darkness to put out our light. When we know the truth, we live fully every moment. And when we live fully, we enable others to do the same. This is who we are. Stay with it.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you for the marvelous truth you have given us in Jesus Christ. Only through him have we learned true vision. Our knowledge of him has transformed our hope into the courage for living authentically what we know. Yet how often we forget the power that is ours. When our memory fails us, we create mountains out of trivia, oceans out of minor conflicts, and major earthquakes out of small inconveniences. How often we set aside kindness, patience, and joy because we have chosen irritation as our response. Shed light on our motives so that making your spirit visible in all circumstances becomes the greatest source of our pleasure. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and always loving God, what a joy it is to be inside our church with each other. While the world expends so much energy struggling, pitting one neighbor against another, we enjoy hearing who we have become once we have learned how to love our neighbors. We enjoy creating rather than defending. We enjoy singing and making music rather than screaming insults and burning flags. We enjoy our ability to live in peace.
On this Veteran's Day weekend, all of us pause to remember the shoulders upon which we stand. Our veterans were the ones who struggled with Great Britain to win our independence. They are the ones who have stood in harmís way so that Americans can continue to live as we do. Oh God, for so long we have taken our freedoms for granted. We confess that we do not know how to react when there are those who want to take those freedoms away. How grateful we are for those who are prepared to surrender their physical lives so that freedom may survive for the generations who are not yet born. For their past, present and future courage to give away everything they have, we give you thanks.
Inspire us this day, so that we might stand forth and be who we are. The world needs leadership. Please help us inspire others to find you as we have. May the spirit by which we live guide, serve, heal, and encourage others who may still be searching. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .