"Why Vision Guides Us"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 18, 2001
Psalm 118:1-17; Isaiah 65:17-25
For example, have you ever noticed how one challenging or upsetting episode in life seemingly has the ability to fill up your entire universe. We know that life is much larger than the results of one moment in time, but while we are living through that one moment we cease to see all else. What happened to our vision?
Do you remember the first time you were dating someone and your experience with that person did not work out? There was pain connected with that "break-up" unlike anything we had ever encountered. There were feelings of rejection, of not being good enough, or of fear that we said something that we might have stated differently. We frequently wondered, "Did I appear too clingy, too possessive? Was I too childish in my behavior? What was it is about me that he or she did not like?"
All these feelings filled up our universe and, for a while, we lost our vision of the big picture. We allowed the experience to attack our identity and we found it hard to sleep. We could not concentrate on anything else. We felt our pain would never go away. We did not want to be told that we are going through a phase, or that this is all a part of growing up. In fact, we did not want to talk about it with anyone. Strangely enough, these same feelings come to adults when they experience a change in one of their primary relationships.
All of us have had many moments that put us in the closet, preventing us from seeing the rest of the house. And these moments creep up on us and sometimes catch us completely unaware. There is this little voice inside of us that says, "You are a failure. You are a failure. You are a failure." The next time any of you hear that little voice simply say, "Thank you for sharing!" and move on. God created us with the capacity to deal with the unexpected and what appears unpleasant. We frequently ignore that we have this ability. What happened to our objectivity? What happened to our vision?
Clarity of vision must be built on a foundation that will prevent little flies in the ointment from becoming major upsets. Right now we are in the time of year when we celebrate that foundation. Do not look upon Thanksgiving as a day when our family or loved ones sit down to a turkey dinner. Thanksgiving is a way of living. A life lived in a state of gratitude prevents a lot of internal, self-inflicted injuries. We have to move into that frame of reference intentionally; it will not come to us automatically.
The other day I was driving to Holy Cross Hospital to visit Don Ryan. As I drove past St. Pius the traffic stopped. I sat there for the longest time. I found myself thinking, "What is this? If it takes me forever to get out of Bowie, I'll be in rush hour on my way back home." I have an acute allergy to rush hours. I do not see how many of you survive that day after day. As I crept closer and closer to the intersection of Rts. 197 and 450, I saw the problem—the traffic light was blinking red.
Because I have had a number of incidents like this in the past, I stopped myself from slipping into impatience. I intentionally moved to a different state of mind. I remembered that this was my opportunity to practice what I preach. As ridiculous as this may seem, I began to think thoughts of gratitude for all the times that light has functioned properly. I changed the station on my radio from WTOP to WGMS because classical music is soothing and the news these days is not.
Almost instantly my patience returned as I watched people taking turns going through that intersection. Watching that comedy unfold was a most entertaining spectacle by itself. People really do want to take turns, but there are a few of us who appear to have missed that lesson in kindergarten. After 25 minutes of confusion, I was on my way.
Any anxiety I could have generated during those moments was not going to fix that traffic light. I had a choice. I could either proceed with peace or increase my stress. One response would serve me while the other one would not. We have the same power over every one of life's reversals. God made us this way.
Most of us enjoy Thanksgiving Day. This signpost in our road is totally unique to our American culture. This one moment in time gives all of us the opportunity to see through the immediate clutter in our lives so that we can remember everything else that God's created order has set before us. To miss this vision of God is to miss life. To be emotionally drained by any particular event is to miss being able to witness how our vision of God sustains us. Living graciously does not discriminate between who gets to live that way and who does not; it is a choice.
This summer I had a older gentlemen come to see me. He was contemplating taking his life. Again, he was experiencing a painful episode that filled up his universe, blocking his vision of everything else. I told him that suicide would always be among his many choices. Then I asked him to engage in a little exercise before doing anything else. And if this experience did not prove helpful, I asked him to call me immediately.
I told him to take a chair outside and sit in his backyard for awhile. I told him to flood his mind with grateful thoughts as he spoke to God. I said, "Thank God for the grass, the flowers, the birds, the magnificent sky, the sun, his wonderful neighbors, and for the many beautiful memories of his family." I told him to allow the tapestry of creation to lift him up and away from this one life-issue that had deceived him into believing there was nothing else left. Gratitude does that. Gratitude helps us to recapture our vision of God and helps us to get out of ourselves.
He tried it and he called me to tell me that it had worked. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to hear confidence again in his voice. The spirit of thanksgiving provides us with a vision to see what we often cannot when we are hurt. Thanksgiving strips away the narrow walls of the paper prison we have built. Thanksgiving prevents us from feeling that everything with which God has provided us no longer matters. Thanksgiving is what gives us the vision to see with greater clarity our role in the future.
If we go back in time 2,300 years, try to imagine Isaiah writing the words that were in our lesson this morning. Had he remained preoccupied with the issues facing his people, he could not have written what we heard today. It is remarkable how anyone could have imagined what his words described. Isaiah was not describing life in Heaven; he was writing about the future conditions on earth.
Listen again to the contents of his vision: The painful past will be forgotten. There will be no weeping. No one will be calling for help. Babies will no longer die in infancy. Life spans will exceed one hundred years. In fact, people one hundred years old will be considered young. People will live in their own houses. They will fully enjoy the things for which they have worked. It will be a time when former enemies will live together in peace.
In his day, words such as these had to be looked upon as sheer fantasy. Were they? Many of the things Isaiah described are already here. And many other elements in his description are well on their way. To see across time, Isaiah had to know the Creator and know that God's will was that one day we would arrive there. We need to understand that the human race is evolving according to the will of God. Absolutely nothing can prevent God's will from unfolding. We have our part to play in that future.
If we have some hurt that is currently active in our lives, we feel overwhelmed. We may feel that the quality of our life has greatly diminished. We may feel that there is no one who understands. And we might even think that if God loves us, why does God appear so distant? Life might be difficult for us right now, but when we have vision, vision based in gratitude for the blessings of the big picture, it will guide us accurately.
William Klingaman wrote a book entitled, The First Century. The book has portions that provide a very graphic description of life among the early Christians. We have nothing to compare to what these people went through as they tried quietly to live their faith.
This past week eight people escaped the clutches of the Taliban and many of us felt relieved. They had spent weeks believing that their deaths were imminent. Such fear could not compare to what the early followers of Christ faced. Here are Klingaman's words:
The story of the Church's survival is an epic in itself. People did not give up even when there was plenty on the landscape of their lives to make that choice a distinct possibility. They helped each other, met in secret, and maintained their numbers because they understood the vision that God was creating the future through them.
With gratitude they thanked God that they had been given the opportunity to present a witness to that vision. They were the leaven for the loaf. They were the torch bearers that would help inspire others to enter the future with a purpose. It was their vision that guided them, not the substance of their experiences. Today we stand at the very edge of tomorrow. It is now our turn to remain faithful to that same vision.
Isaiah had no understanding of how humanity would achieve what he saw. All his readers could do was walk into each tomorrow guided by the gratitude that God's will was being done through them. Such vision is a gift. It sustained them and this same vision can sustain us.
Vision is why we are building an addition to our church. Vision is why we use everything in our power to create an environment at St. Matthew's where people can come among us and know they will fit in. We have so much this morning for which to be thankful. Never lose sight of that vision. God is still creating, and what a joy it is to know that we will be a part of what tomorrow will become. Isaiah saw it. Jesus Christ gave us the blueprint for life. Now it is our turn to make that blueprint visible.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving both on Thursday and every day.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Ever present and faithful God, how grateful we are to recognize our blessings as a source of joy. What price would be put on the freedoms we experience? What price might we place on our standard of living, or on the relationships that affirm us? And yet, O God, how often we forsake our vision for anxiety. We want peace yet we worry. We want character while knowing compromise appears the easier path. We want truth while desiring security and comfort. Lead us to understand that your Kingdom is built one choice at a time. Use our moments of reflection, O Lord, to remind us that your will is made known through our inspired living. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
In this unpredictable world of ours, we pause this morning to give you thanks for so much that we too often have blocked ourselves from experiencing. We are so much like children who become distracted by whatever interrupts the comfortable flow of our lives. We thank you that you made us with so many unique qualities that surface at just the right time of our need. And we thank you for your creativity in helping us discover those qualities.
We find ourselves once again in the season of Thanksgiving when thoughts of gratitude help us to move beyond the issues of self-interest. We are invited again to look at the larger tapestry of abundance that surrounds us: The freedom to be here this morning. The freedom to determine the direction of our lives. The unlimited amount of choices we have when we purchase everything from our food to the vast assortment of items that have improved the quality of our lives. Truly the harvest has come that men and women have longed to see for thousands of years.
Yet how strange that only the grateful seem to have developed the vision to see beyond their personal concerns, to express their thanksgiving, and to sing their praises to you who made our experience of creation possible. Free us, O God, from the paper prisons we have built that may prevent us from celebrating our joy and thanksgiving. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .