"Learning to Love Chaos"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 16, 2003

I Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

     In the lore of Native Americans, there is a story of a wise chief who always found the right piece of real estate on which to settle his people. There were several essentials the land had to possess.  There had to be an abundant water supply.  The tribe had to have easy access to hunting grounds.  The topography and terrain had to be such that his warriors could successfully defend the village against an attack by a hostile neighbor.   

     About every thirty-six moons, or three years, the chief would suddenly and without warning move his people.  Such a decision always created chaos.  Breaking camp and returning the earth to the way it was were never easy tasks.  

     The chief knew that change was a great energizer for his people. He knew that when his tribal leaders had to abandon their routines, their skill levels increased.  He also had learned that smaller crop yields meant that something had happened to the soil.  When the sign of infertility appeared, he intentionally created chaos by moving the tribe.  Being forced to adapt to the unexpected always presents people with a choice. 

     When Thomas Edison's manufacturing plant was totally destroyed by a  fire, he stood in the ashes with an associate.  He knelt down and picked up a handful of debris.  With a gleam in his eye he commented that the fire had also destroyed a lot of ideas and projects that did not work.  He declared that the fire would represent a fresh beginning.  Yes there was chaos, but Edison understood why and how it was important to embrace it. 

     Most of us are not fond of change.  Rather than develop a sense of adventure, too many of us look with dread upon an accident, a death, a fire, a change of jobs, the challenges of a new job, the dramatic break up of a significant relationship, or a move to a new location.  We can feel so ill-equipped, so ill-prepared and our fears hover around us as though our faith has no legs.  The tribal chief knew that when our mental and emotional muscles are not forced to exercise regularly, they grow weak.   

     What did Jesus teach his listeners about living in chaotic times? Let us turn now to our Gospel lesson and find out.  In preparing his disciples for what was ahead of them, Jesus foretold the future by giving them a litany of events that would happen-a litany that is familiar to us.  He said that there would come numerous pretenders claiming to speak on his behalf. There would be news of wars.  There would be earthquakes and famines. 

     What we may not remember is Jesus' teaching that we are not to worry about such things.  "They will happen. Such chaotic experiences will not represent the end of your world," Jesus told them.  He made a further comment, "These things are like the first pains of childbirth."  How curious!  Rather than the end of life, chaotic drama will represent the beginning of something new.

     In order to love chaos we have to recognize such events as something other than a punishment or a refining fire sent by God.  It is our interpretation of rapid change that often is the culprit when we find ourselves not doing well in the midst of it.  When our faith has legs, we will greet all of life as God's gift.  The Apostle Paul teaches, "In all things be grateful."  We find this teaching particularly difficult to understand.  How can something so painful represent a beginning and evoke in us a spirit of gratitude?   

     Chaos would not be in our midst if God had not also equipped each of us with tools for coping, for seeing the rainbows, for increasing our understanding about how things work and for deepening our sense of self-worth as God's sons or daughters.  We simply cannot grow in a changeless vacuum.   

     By learning that chaos is a harbinger of new experiences to come, we have the opportunity to show others that our faith is far more than a unique set of abstract beliefs.  Faith is a way of life built on trust that our lives are unfolding according to God's grand design, a design that is beyond our purview to understand. 

     Some time ago I encountered an interesting couple who asked me to perform their marriage ceremony.  Both had highly energized personalities.  They referred to themselves as "Army Brats."  What made them a fascinating study was what moving from one military base to another had made of them.  When given the choice to sink or swim emotionally in the midst of constant and profound change -- Thailand, Germany and the Philippines -- they had decided to swim long before they found each other.                

     Again, if we are ever to learn the art of thriving in chaos, we need to transcend how we normally greet painful events. We experience pain because we have not yet developed the skills our circumstances are demanding of us. This couple gave testimony to this process of growth. 

     It took years for each of them to understand the homework that needed to be done within themselves.  One of them said, "When Dad's orders came, I thought that my death would be easier than being pulled out of high school in the beginning of my senior year."   

     The other said, "I attended three elementary schools and two middle schools before I had found stability during my senior high school days. In the beginning I did not understand. I cried and cried.  It was not fair.  I was always forced to leave my friends.  But," she said, "now I have friends all over the world."  Then she added, "Both of us have become free of most of the things to which many people attach themselves."  

     Learning to negotiate change is extremely difficult when we are not used to doing it. We prefer stability, security and routine. We prefer to be in control. The tribal chief believed that such things could lead to complacence.  He was correct.  There is always that danger because what we do not use we lose.  Too many people today get by rather than demand more of themselves.  Chaos often prevents this from happening.       

     What Jesus taught was a message we need to remember and practice everyday.  Life is not about plateaus but about climbing, growing and developing skills. "These things," Jesus said, "do not represent the end of your world, but are like the first pains of childbirth."  Such things represent new beginnings.  

     Our experiences can feel like earthquakes, famines and wars.  Growth may not occur until we want something very badly but we intentionally put off buying it. Growth may not occur until a critical mistake in judgment is made and we destroy our popularity.  Growth may not begin until our marriage fails.  Our motivation to develop new skills may not come until we lose our job.   

     Jesus understood that each of us has to begin our stretch from where we are if we want to experience the results he described in the Sermon on the Mount. He understood that along the way we will miss the mark or sin as the Scriptures label our misbehavior.  We do make mistakes. None of us is without blemish.  These, too, are like the pains of childbirth.  They do not represent the end of our world but a fresh place to begin anew.  We are never without that interpretive choice.    

     We live in such interesting, chaotic times.  So much that we experience does not reinforce our values or reflect our heritage.  Economically, what makes sense today?   The President of the United States, indeed the greatest leader of the free world, draws a salary of $400,000 a year. The darlings of television, the Olsen twins, are worth 300 million, and they are not yet old enough to vote.  John Chambers, the Chief Executive Officer of the high tech company Cisco, draws an annual salary of 87 million.  Sam Walton's Wal-Mart generated a 20.5 billion dollar inheritance for each of his heirs, placing the five of them in the top ten of the richest people in America.           

     In the sphere of political religiosity, what makes sense today?  We live in a world where men and women are indoctrinated with a message that to die while killing as many of the enemy as they can is doing the will of God. It is quite a leap of faith from believing in a Creator God to the belief that God will bless those who thrive on terror, murder and destruction. God could easily say, "Watch out for those who come in my name and who claim to represent me.  Such instruction and resulting deeds give testimony to their spirit, not mine."   

     On many levels of our personal and collective lives, there is chaos. There are moments when life makes no sense to us. Yet this is not a time to become discouraged.  As Jesus told his followers, "If you belong to the world, then the world will love you as one of its own.  But I chose you from this world, and now that you know the truth, you cannot belong to it any longer." (John  15:19)  

     Jesus' world has no borders.  We know that nothing in this world can be taken with us.  We are here to learn, to grow and to remember that all that we experience today is like growing pains toward a future few of us can comprehend.  The promise is that one day humanity will learn what we came here to develop.  

     Yes, we all have free will; however, we are not free to establish the curriculum that we must learn.  Our joy is that we are part of the new wave of humanity who are beginning to understand the task that lies before us.  The key to understanding and appreciating the meaning of chaos is knowing that it represents the potential for a new beginning, a new life.  Those who know this are well ahead of the curve.   


    Merciful and always faithful God, each new day brings with it many opportunities for creative change.  Old attitudes that do not serve us can be surrendered.  Expectations that we have of others can be laid aside.  Requests of you to better manage our lives in ways we refuse to do can be seen for what they are.  How often, O God, we rely on old patterns of thought and behavior to govern our days.  The light of new insights could be all around us and we remain blind to them.  We will not reconsider cherished beliefs that we were taught.  We search the Scriptures for what we want to see and hear.  Help us to become open to change and renewal.  Help us to trust in your guidance and not in our memories.  Amen.


     Loving God, thank you for these moments when we remind ourselves that in spite of all that swirls around us, we are still very much a part of your vine.  We confess, however, to smiling cynically within ourselves from time to time when we pray thoughts of gratitude for the experiences that confuse us and cause us pain.  It is sometimes difficult to follow the advice of the Apostle Paul when he wrote, "In all things be grateful."  We are likely to find ourselves asking "Why this? or wondering why it is that life appears to be so unfair for some people. 

     We are always searching for new ways to express our faith evenly and consistently.  We have these images of being the light in darkness or being the source of quiet in the midst of a storm while knowing how hard it is to conquer our fears.  We come to you this morning seeking strength for our weakness, depth for our shallowness, and bigness when we are tempted to display smallness.  Inspire us to show others what it looks like to live in a Kingdom that is  in this world but is clearly not of this world. 

     Thank you for each new member we receive into our fellowship today.  May we change because of what they bring and may they change because of what they find.  Experiencing your presence among us, O God, is like being blessed by the sunlight and nourished by the rain. We wish this experience for all who come among us.  With all things truly in your hands, we do trust that our lives are unfolding as they should.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .