"God Is All Over Us!"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 21, 2002
Romans 8:12-25; Psalm 111139:1-12; 23-24
One of my mentors from a much
earlier day came by St. Matthew's to see me. He brought with him a
small set of books that I once admired in his office. He gave them
to me as a parting gift because he knew his time on earth was very
limited. Several months ago Robert died. The three volume set was
simply entitled Fragments, written by the French philosopher,
I doubt many people have
heard of this author because these books had only a limited printing
in 1916. Yet if you purchased or read a more recently printed book,
such as Wayne Dyer's There's A Spiritual Solution To Every
Problem, you will find many of Cavẻs ideas there.
This is not to suggest that authors borrow from each other. I doubt that Dr. Dyer knows of this obscure writer. What this duplication of ideas may suggest, however, is that humankind's quest for understanding has been constant and it outcrops in fresh new ways within every generation.
The story of our spiritual journey through time is told and retold by stories, metaphors and illustrations with which newcomers to the world can identify. The miracle is that such a quest for understanding has never become lost. There are always people who find truth, and then later write or speak about it. The people who benefit are those who are intrigued with the idea that there is much more to life than what their senses tell them.
Our lesson this morning was
written thousands of years ago by an unknown author. The Psalms have
traditionally been attributed to King David. However, because of
their wide variety in literary style and subject matter, scholars
now know that the Psalms are a collection of poems written by many
authors over a much larger period of time. When words inspire us and
teach us how to grow, we hold on to them and pass them on to future
Whoever wrote Psalm 139 understood the nature of God and of God's unqualified, infinite caring for each of us whether or not we recognize it. He wrote, "You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is so deep; it is beyond my understanding."
Can we learn from an author that
has been dead for thousands of years? What could he possibly say that
might instruct us today? The answer is plenty. With all our computers,
our abilities to teleconference, our sophisticated farming methods and
ability to produce medical miracles, we still plumb the depths of our
experiences for answers. We still seek meaning and purpose for living.
We want to know how we are to understand change. We seek ways to
interpret and face death. The issues of spirit have not changed even
though history has moved on and now surrounds us with an entirely
different set of distractions.
Listen again to what the psalmist
wrote, "Examine me, O God, and know my mind; test me so that you may see
who I am." Very often we find ourselves praying for deliverance from
pain, uncertainty, illness, troubled relationships and unpleasant
circumstances. This author was requesting God to bring them on! He
wanted God to test him. He wanted the abrasive aspects of life to
polish his stone. Think of how an orientation toward life like this
would benefit us.
Many of us have a value structure
which tells us what is "right" and "wrong." We enjoy such values
because relativity is unsettling for those of us who need a moral
compass. This writer knew something was at work in life much greater
than merely being directed by values. He knew that life's circumstances
reveal who we are.
Clearly what happened to Jesus on the cross
was wrong, but his response to being crucified taught us what salvation
looks like. Salvation is having the capability of being a light that
shines in the midst of darkness. Most of us have trouble with
shining in circumstances that have the potential to devastate our
emotions and thoughts.
I had a lengthy telephone conversation this week with a young mother whose marriage may be ending. She currently resides in the Midwest. She said to me, "Dick, you always told me to look inside myself and to let my husband be my teacher. I looked inside myself and I found nothing. I looked at my husband and I saw a volatile, irritable, unloving man. I want him to love me but he does not know how. I could not put to use anything you were telling me."
Such thoughts represent where many of us stay. We become hurt. We become angry. We want our form of justice before anything else can be accomplished. As much as we want something in our world to change, it often does not. We will continue to miss a passing mark on our tests until we understand why the psalmist wanted to be tested.
The reason our self-esteem remains low at times and we feel empty when we look inside is for one very good reason. We must first use what is within us before we can discover what we have. Instead of anger, we can develop patience. Instead of being hurt, we can develop detachment. Instead of self-pity, we can engage in recreation. Instead of withdrawal, we can live a life of service.
For example, we will never know
if a successful gardener lives inside of us until we plant some flowers
and they die. We plant some more and we lose them again. But do not
give up. We plant some more and this time we water them. Then we learn
to use a little fertilizer. Then we do some reading and learn about
pruning. We may even consult with Jessie Smith. Soon our gardens become
the envy of the neighborhood and everyone calls us "a natural." They
say, "You have a green thumb. Everything grows for you. I have no luck
Our skills grow only when we
use them. How does anyone become an expert at anything? Do we
think that God somehow blesses us with fully developed skills? The
people who believe that, will be waiting for a long time. Think of
all the people who have died clinging to their poverty of understanding
because they never took the time to mine the gold that was within them.
The author of Psalm 139 wrote, ". . . test me so that you may see who I am." When every circumstance is looked upon as a test, our entire orientation to life enables us to define who we are. The specifics of any event have little to do with the opportunity before us.
When we read the Hebrew Bible everyone from Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, to Moses began their specialized tasks in the same manner. Look up the passage where Abraham stood over Isaac with a raised knife as he prepared to sacrifice him. Read again about Moses' response to God at the burning bush. He argued with God over his inability to communicate well.
In the New Testament even Jesus
started out wandering in the wilderness. In the beginning of his
ministry he overturned the tables of the money changers and wielded a
whip. Is that how he wanted to teach his disciples to respond every
time circumstances were not to their liking? The Apostle Paul started
out as an aggressive preserver of the Hebrew Law Code. He had a very
difficult beginning because he thought he was "right" and the followers
of Jesus were "wrong."
The next request of God by the
author of our Psalm was as intriguing as his first. He wrote, "Help me
find out where my weaknesses are and then guide me in the everlasting
way." This writer knows the power of our behavior to reveal exactly
who we are. First, he wanted to be tested; next he wanted to learn
about his weaknesses.
Let us return to the woman in the Midwest. Later in our conversation she confided that she finally realized the lesson. She got it! It took an unloving spouse to teach her about love. Love is effortless when the other person adores us. This is why love so easily disappears when we feel betrayed or challenged. Authentic love shows itself when we continue to care for those who have just driven nails into our hands and feet.
Currently, she is extremely
pleased with the distance she has come. While it has not been easy, she
has learned how to detach herself from the opinions and actions of her
husband. It never matters what people think about us. What matters is
our character. She rediscovered the value and power of her character by
demonstrating its qualities.
Some Eastern religions teach
that when we find someone who is capable of offending us, we should bow
to them in gratitude. They have just helped us see a facet of our
diamond that does not sparkle. Our ancient Psalmist wrote, "Help me
find out where my weaknesses are and then guide me in the everlasting
way." We have the opportunity to grow from those who love and
support us, and from those who do not.
Finally, what did the author mean by the "everlasting way?" When I was in elementary school, we used to receive a little newspaper called, The Weekly Reader. I understand that the publication is still being used. In every issue there was a little maze where you had to find your way home. Probably all of us worked on one of those at some time.
Life can be like walking in a maze. Some roads are dead-ends. All of us crawled before we walked and this applies to our emotions, desires, responses, thoughts and goals. We have all said things we have later regretted. We have engaged in activities that would embarrass us if they were made public. We all know failure. Sometimes we behave as though none of these experiences are a part of our lives. This understanding gives new meaning to Jesus' words, "The one who is without sin, cast the first stone." Jesus looked up and everyone accusing the woman had left.
Clearly the author of Psalm 139
was aware that life is an infinite process of refinement. He desired to
be tested so he could discover his weaknesses. Then he trusted God to
guide him along life's infinite path into eternity. He provided
future readers with imagery about a path to salvation that will work for
every person in the world. He was writing this centuries before
Jesus was born.
All humankind is working on the same kinds of problems and life-issues. Time cannot and does not separate people from the curriculum each of us has to learn. We are all products of God's creativity and we are loved at a depth we could not possibly measure. None of us has the ability to be where God is not. Paul revealed this understanding in Romans 8:31.
God protects us from such a
separation just as the Psalmist understood thousands of years ago.
There can be no greater hope than this. But it is up to us to decide
who it is we want to be. Everyone from Abraham to Jesus had to follow
through on their choices. Now it is our turn.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Lord God, we
thank you that we have been created in the image of your spirit. This
morning we confess that too often we do not demonstrate our heritage.
In our search for security, we place great trust in the things of this
world. In our desire for increased self-worth, we engage in activities
that bring recognition and approval. In wanting success, we frequently
seek the devices in our world that measure it. Lord, lead us away from
our impulses to grasp at the shadows while forsaking what has
substance. Focus our inner eyes to perceive more accurately what Jesus
came here to give us. Help us always to be led by truth and not by our
unmet needs. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
God, we thank you this morning for planting
inside of us the desire to grow beyond our current reach. There are so
many times we find ourselves in the throes of uncertain experiences,
wishing we had insight, the skills for coping creatively and more
wholesome ways of greeting life's constant changes.
We live in some very interesting times. Our
economy is growing while we watch our retirement accounts shrink to
alarming levels. We allow the story of a murdered five-year to cause us
to become more protective of our family's safety. We find that we
cannot ignore abandoned packages in airports and subways. We are
confused as to who caused many of us to react this way, a few angry,
misguided people or our own fears. The world has always been a
dangerous place, O God, and we thank you that Jesus chose to come into
it. Now he sends us forth to become as lights in darkness.
Help us carry ourselves as cheerleaders for those who appear to struggle. Help us wear confidence on our faces. May a helpful spirit become visible in our service, the kind that many of our young people will display this week in West Virginia. Help us all to make this world a better place because we lived in it. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .