"An Ancient Insight That Invites Change"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 29, 2002
For example, people are
invited to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior without
knowing exactly what that commitment means. When our acceptance of
him does not communicate the same meaning as it does for those who
belong to another group, inner fears can be evoked which may cause
us to doubt our eternal security.
Sometimes there is pressure
for the baptism of new arrivals that can come from relatives who
request that "this be taken care of as soon as possible!" Baptism
can also be wrapped around fear of what may happen if there is
delay. It is as if Christians are saying, "We are the way, the
truth and the life and no one comes to God but through us."
Such theological twists and
turns probably number in the hundreds. When we look at the
"requirements" and beliefs that surround membership in various
Christian groups, we can understand why there is confusion over who
has the truth. Along with Pontius Pilate many of us would enjoy
asking Jesus not only, "What is truth?" but also, "Who is living it
today so that the world's people can feel included?"
If we made a listing of
such theological preferences and put them alongside what Jesus
taught, there are very few similarities. Yet our beliefs in
this secondary body of information remain very strong and they can
become very controlling of the judgments we make about other
people. It is as though we belong to tribes, because each of us
seeks for our own kind without asking ourselves "why?"
History, traditions and
heritage have slowly built such a framework of understanding within
us making change very difficult. When Jesus attempted to liberate
Judaism from its prison of legalism, he was branded, judged and
eventually sentenced to death. We Christians can resist changing
how we think even though what we struggle to preserve has little to
do with Jesus' message of loving our neighbor.
For example, when people arrive in a new community and begin shopping for a church, they frequently know exactly what they want. Obviously, they look for an environment that is friendly. They may also be looking for a church much like the one in their former community. The imprint made by a much loved pastor or quality fellowship still lingers. Inso far as possible, they want that kind of experience to continue.
A woman called the church on Christmas Eve and I happened to answer the phone. She said, "What time are your services tonight and are they traditional?" She knew what she wanted. She was not looking for a contemporary worship experience that features drums, guitars and Christmas carols flashed on the wall through an overhead projector.
People also tend to look for the theological perspective coming from the pastor. People who know what they want can attend a service one time and know whether or not they want to return. During the worship experience, people listen carefully for particular words and phrases. There are those who want their minister to inspire fear in them. They want sermons that talk about Satan's power and how Hell awaits to engulf them if they stray. Others look for messages of hope and guidance that empathize more with what they are experiencing. People know what they want.
Church shoppers want to know about the culture of the church. Are newcomers bombarded by letters, calls and visits urging them to join? Is there a well-grounded church school, a youth group and a friendly nursery environment for little ones? Is the church engaged in outreach and mission? These are ingredients that help newcomers make their choices.
Did Jesus specifically teach about such things? The answer is, "No." In fact, there was no Church as we know it. Jesus never became a Christian. There was no Bible. Only the Torah and several scrolls from various prophets were in use. The thoughts that have developed about Jesus after his entrance into our world have severely diluted the universal message he brought.
Jesus wanted people to understand his message, not make him the object of their primary focus. This is why he said, "Follow me." As Christianity evolved, we appropriated Jesus for our own purposes. That is when our beliefs became exclusively ours. Was this what Jesus intended?
Our Gospel lesson today mentions
the first person who recognized Jesus as the Savior of the
world. According to the Law of Moses, a woman was required to offer
two turtledoves or pigeons in a ceremony of purification. She was to
present her son at the temple 40 days after his birth. As Mary and
Joseph were doing this, an elderly prophet named Simeon noticed their
baby. When he held the child, he connected with the spirit within
Apparently God had promised
Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. After
recognizing the child, Simeon utters this prayer of thanksgiving:
Lord, you have kept your promise. Now, I may
die in peace. With my own eyes I have seen the means by which your
salvation will be accomplished, a salvation which you have prepared for
all people. You have given the world a light to reveal your will to the
Gentiles and to bring glory to the people of Israel.
As we enter the New Year, this is an excellent time for us to revisit this 2,000 year old insight. The process of salvation has to do with everyone on this planet, not just a select group who refer to themselves as Christians. Jesus came to save everyone by teaching us how to stop sabotaging our lives by how we think. He taught people how to replace a thought system based on fear with one based on love.
While various Christian groups
struggle with each other over "the truth," we forget that Jesus taught
everyone how to get along, to communicate well, to be gracious and
generous to a fault while trusting God for the eventual outcome of
history. The proof of our faithfulness is not found in our beliefs
but in how we behave toward one another. Jesus knew that love was
within us because we were created in the image of God. All we ever
needed to do was to let it show.
How many of you remember the
story several weeks ago about Heidi Tomassi, a waitress at an Applebee's
restaurant in Olathe, Kansas? She discovered that one of her customers
had left an envelope on the table containing $3,300. She immediately
took the money to the manager for safe keeping until someone reclaimed
it. She knew how to let what was inside of her show. What is more
interesting is what her honesty evoked in those who learned of the
The waitress was struggling financially. Her son, Griffin, had a congenital defect requiring open heart surgery the day after he was born. The expensive procedure was not successful and the couple was told that their son had six weeks to live. To make matters worse, when Heidi's husband asked to take time off work for a couple of days to be with his family, he was fired from his job.
When the community learned about
the honesty coupled with the financial circumstances of the waitress,
the story began to spread over the news wires. Eventually ABC News had
Heidi and her family appear on Good Morning, America. Money has
continued to pour in for Heidi's family ever since. The couple found a
surgeon at Stanford University Medical Center who performed another
procedure and now Griffin is going to live.
What was happening to the
spirits of people as this saga unfolded? Was God rewarding a waitress
for her honesty? Some people think so. Yet, Jesus taught that the
Kingdom of God is within all of us. Our consciousness of this Kingdom
can be awakened, stimulated or inspired when we learn that by extending
the love within us we can brighten someone else's world. We have
experienced this here. The two Sundays following September 11, St.
Matthew's collected and sent $14,311 to the United Methodist Committee
On Relief (UMCOR).
Charles Dickens understood this. It took the three spirits from Christmas past, present and future to awaken this consciousness within Ebenezer Scrooge. Such an understanding could not have been stirred into wakefulness had it not been there from the beginning of Ebenezer's life. This universal aspect within our common humanity is what Jesus' pointed to during his ministry. For far too many people, however, the universal aspect of our spiritual center has remained undeveloped.
All of us are capable of changing
the way we think. We could start today by drawing a line in the sand and
stepping over it. This is what the Apostle Paul did. One of the
miracles about life is that we can change. God wired us to grow not
plateau and stay. Our church family helps us with this process. We
seldom grow alone; we grow by extending ourselves together.
Simeon was the first person to recognize God's plan. He prayed, "You have given the world a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and to bring glory to the people of Israel." In those days, Simeon understood that there were only two kinds of people -- the Jews and everyone else. He grasp the universal aspect of God's plan. What an incredible insight to come to someone nearing the end of his life who had been immersed in Judaism!
We all have friends who have no
idea what Jesus brought to humanity. They will not attend a church
because of what they fear they will experience. We need to revisit the
ancient insight of Simeon who understood that God's Will for recovering
our sense of wholeness included everyone. Think about what is
happening all over the world because Jesus' message has become
fine-tuned to meet the needs of those who prefer to stay within the
cloistered walls of their churches.
Right now we are being told that North Korea may be engaged in the process of building nuclear bombs. Their government did not start expelling the United Nations inspectors until they watched us, the only super power in the world, begin to encircle Iraq with our military. In spite of our noble aspirations for preventing a catastrophe on a global scale, who is interpreting our military's behavior to the world community? We will not even communicate directly with North Korea!
Suppose they have chosen to ignore United Nation's protocols because they are afraid of us? Suppose North Korea's leadership is using what is so clearly visible to the world to see for the advancement of their own agenda? Fear is a strong motivator. Are we making smaller nations afraid of us, particularly those who do not understand our intentions?
These are sad times because God created us to be in community where we share and care for each other. The United States truly is the great melting pot of all cultures. Every nation has citizens living within our borders. The great experiment has proven that it works. Two thousand years ago Jesus understood why it works as he attempted to teach people how to make possible what seemed impossible -- "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."
Perhaps the growing difficulties of our country stem from several newer generations of people moving away incrementally from the common values that have provided a culture that the majority of us enjoy. We are entering the New Year. There is no better time then the present to revisit this ancient insight of Simeon. What Jesus brought into the world is for everyone. Is anyone in the world paying attention? Is the Church? Are we?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, as
we approach the dawning of a New Year, teach us the best way to be
reflective about the effectiveness of our lives. Jesus warned us not to
look back, but we do. The vision of our past is much clearer from the
present. We are aware of promises we did not keep, of relationships
that we were going to heal, of habits we were going to shed and of
attitudes we were going to change. We often long for the dramatic
growth experienced by the Apostle Paul. Guide us, O God, to realize
that we are being exactly who we want to be. Inspire our desires so
that we want to become more than that. Teach us how to be for others
what we want you to be for us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How good it is, O God, to be on the other
side of Christmas. We experienced the rush and haste to get our homes
ready. We enjoyed open houses, family gatherings and the exchange of
gifts. Sometimes our homes were more prepared than we were for all that
we celebrated. And now we face the coming of a New Year.
Sometimes when we celebrate, we content
ourselves with very impressive rituals in both our churches and
families. We enjoy all that we have received, but confess that we might
not be as joyful about loving our neighbors as you asked us to be. We
enjoy fellowship and a good time with friends, while sometimes
forgetting that Jesus had no place to lay his head. We enjoy the Good
News of Jesus' coming among us, even though like today, he preached his
message to many who could not or would not hear. And now we face the
coming of a New Year.
This morning, we ask that you create in us a new heart, one that helps us see through the joyful events that do not last, to the permanence that love can establish through our caring, our attentiveness, our friendship, our being there for those who are sad. Bring us into the New Year with the consciousness that You have sent us to be the mouth, hands and feet of your Son, Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .