"Questions Make Us Stretch"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 28, 2003

Psalm 148; Luke 2:41-52

     The season that spans both Advent and Christmas has an almost magnetic quality about it that draws a number of people to consider God's presence among us. A number of these people may not be part of a community of faith and they may not have given much thought to their need to grow spiritually. People who find themselves in this arena often know very little about the connection between their spiritual lives and their biology and the quality of their biography. 

     For some of these people, their experience during Christmas could have unfolded like this:  Perhaps their family was gathering for the "big day" and everyone thought "it would be nice" to go to a Christmas Eve service together.  They called the church to get the time of the services and they went. When they arrived, they were amazed at the large number of people who had done the same thing. Had they waited to arrive at a later time, sitting together would have been impossible. 

     As the service progressed, their emotions and thoughts became focused. Perhaps there was something about the Christmas tree, the poinsettias and wreaths. There was a story or theme in the preacher's message with which they identified. The choir sang a very familiar anthem which brought back memories. There was the lighting of the candles as everyone sang "Silent Night." Suddenly they found themselves back in another day when their Mom and Dad were still alive.  Their eyes became moist.   

     They left the service honestly thinking, "We have to get back to church; that service was beautiful!" As time passes, however, they learn that one moment of heightened emotions, beauty and inspiration was not enough to jump-start a habit that had been years in the making. They had good intentions but the Sabbath had become a personal day for unwinding from the week's demands.  The need to recoup, dress down and relax tended to overwhelm all other options.   

     Nothing may happen to awaken the spiritual hunger within such people until Easter when the same behavior unfolds again. The disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way some people conduct their lives may be so profound that neither one has any perceived relevance for the other.    

     For example, if any major life-drama produces stress, worry, fear, frustration, loneliness, or a generalized lack of fulfillment, often the initial response is to seek the resourcefulness of therapists and the healing powers that are frequently found in bottles of medication.  Why does their stone skip only across the surface of the pond? What is not happening for them? 

     Recently I met a woman whom I had not seen in years.  She had lost over 60 pounds.  She looked healthy and energetic, radiating energy that was clearly coming from a different place then when I knew her years ago. I commented on her weight loss and I asked, "How did you do it?"  She answered,  "I'll e-mail you and tell you the whole story."  She did and here is part of what she said:

I started off with the Atkins diet and lost much of the weight. I also began to ask myself questions about why my weight would never stabilize.  I would lose and gain it back, lose it again and gain it back. I concluded that I was lazy, that I lacked the commitment to watch what I eat and to remain faithful to some regimen of daily exercise. 

I always had excuses for not sticking with my plans. That ended.  When I decided to follow through on what I really wanted, I got results. I feel wonderful. Had I known this would happen, I would have started asking myself questions years ago. I found that I had been turning to solutions that provided comfort instead of the ones that would make me grow. I had never considered the power of asking the right questions. I learned that we become what our habits make of us and I decided to take control over where my life was headed.

     We take our lives for granted when we live without asking questions.  For example, "What unrecognized beliefs am I reflecting with my responses?  Why do I always settle for pouting and withdraw when I don't get what I want?  Why do little things upset me?  Why do I defend my faith so vigorously when I recognize that I still perceive others without love?  

    Questions like these can make us stretch.  If we are not in a constant process of asking questions about everything perhaps that is one of the reasons why our stone only skips across the surface of the pond.  Jesus clearly had other ideas for humanity.  Today we are going to consider what Jesus had in mind. 

     In this morning's lesson, Luke describes the only episode we have of Jesus' childhood.  He was 12 at the time when Mary and Joseph, his brothers and sisters went to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.  Jesus became so focused by a hunger for understanding more thoroughly what he believed that he became separated from his family. 

     No doubt Jesus was a young man who took very seriously the heritage of his Hebrew faith. Few preteens have their own thoughts about faith.  In fact, many adults today take what their priests, rabbis and ministers tell them without questioning it. Jesus, however, was different.  He seized an opportunity to inquire about his faith with the priests.              

     Our lesson states;  "On the third day his parents found him in the Temple, sitting with the Jewish teachers, listening to them and asking questions.  All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence."  

     Had we been there to overhear their conversation, we might have heard Jesus ask the priests: 1)  If we obey the Law and observe all our traditional Holy days, is that enough to prove that we love the Lord our God, with all our heart, mind, soul and strength?  2)  Will our obedience to the Law be sufficient to empower us to love others no matter what the costs are to us?  3)  Is it possible to be obedient to the Law on the outside while remaining unfaithful to it in our minds and hearts? 

     As an adult, Jesus recognized that there was a major disconnect between practicing what the Law required and the way the more righteous people were choosing to live.  In fact, this is the same disconnect that people have experienced in every generation when they settle for their perception of life instead of asking, "What drives me to respond this way?  What is it that prevents me from making changes?"      

     During Jesus' ministry his lessons were not about him. His hope was that we would discover how to live in harmony with God, not by some rigid discipline as the Pharisees had beautifully mastered but by our choosing to do so out of love.  He taught us, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness and everything else you need will be yours as well." (John 6:33)  Jesus was grounded in a different place from where we Christians stake our claims about right living.  

     We need to remember that Jesus was a Jew and he remained a Jew until his death. He was not a Christian. In fact, he did not honor a single tradition that we observe. For him there was no Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent or Easter. His observance of Pentecost had nothing to do with the significance we give to it. He did not personally hold many of the beliefs that currently are the mainstays of our faith. His frustration was over the inability of his listeners to grasp the significance of his message.   

     When Jesus' disciples failed to make the connection between Jesus' world and their own, he said,  "How long must I put up with you?  Why is it that you demonstrate such little faith?  Have I been with you this long and yet you do not know me?"  Even though the disciples were with Jesus daily, such direct contact was not enough to inspire their choices, attitudes and behavior to rise above the vision they held of a new kingdom of Israel. 

     Many people cannot make the leap from our world to his, a world that energizes and governs our spirits.  This is why Judas betrayed him.  This is why Peter showed up in the garden with a sword. This is why meaningful moments during a Christmas eve service do not typically evoke permanent change.  We often fail to associate what Jesus taught with the quality of life that we want. So often we Christians direct our message toward specific beliefs when the focus of Jesus was on the development of a love-directed spirit by which we express ourselves.   

     Within recent years a woman joined St. Matthew's for a very unique reason.  We spent two hours together one evening discussing her questions of faith.  With her permission I have telescoped her comments:   

I have not attended any church for probably 20 years.  I have no trouble loving people, even perfect strangers.  My challenge came from trying to love people in the churches I used to attend.  I gave up.  In order to love them, I had "to buy" their packaged beliefs. My spirit rebelled.  I was too honest, I suppose. I could never accept the way they characterized Jesus and his teachings.  I have never felt lost nor have I felt that God would ever abandon us because some of us thought we were.


In this church I do not sense your need to control what we think. You and Patti appear to accept diversity in beliefs.  The people here do not over react when someone brings a different point of view to the table. I find that very refreshing. In fact, both of you appear to encourage people to think for themselves. There is no packaged theology here. If I am correct about this, I think I have found a church home.  

     She was correct and she found a home. She wanted her stone to leave the surface and dive deep into the pond. She had lots of questions that could not be satisfied by the standard answers provided by people in the churches of her past. We Christians tend to have our truth fixed within in a particular frame of reference.  For some Christians their perceived truth has become so sacred that no one dare question their interpretation of it.    

     Many of us tend to hold our statements of faith with as much energy and passion as did the Priests, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law.  Yet they had strong, even violent reactions when Jesus began asking questions and making statements on his own, statements which, in all likelihood, were extensions of his thinking from when he was twelve.  

     Today, we give thanks for people like Copernicus and Galileo, Newton and Darwin, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Erasmus and Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Marie Curie, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.  In spite of their flaws of character and their mistakes in judgment, they and so many others like them never stopped asking questions about truth.  Such personalities have taken humanity to frontiers no one before dared to explore.   Jesus saw such a vision and for that vision he gave his life.   

     Try to imagine where humanity would be today had people not been allowed to question the prevailing interpretation of truth? We must recognize that in every generation humanity has greeted those who dared to challenge the truth as Devils incarnate or Antichrists. Yet Jesus stood as a light in darkness and proclaimed, "I am telling you the truth:  those who believe me will do what I do -- yes, they will do even greater things then these, because I am going to God." (John 14:12) 

     There is absolutely no question that Jesus had the vision that needs to be understood by every man, woman and child. What he pointed to with his words had nothing to do with the often sentimental practices of our faith. He understood who God created us to be.  Further, he understood how blind we are to our vast potential and possibilities. He invited us to follow him by nurturing our spirits that will produce the fruits about which he preached.  

     With God overseeing the care of every soul on the earth, a major commitment is called for. Will we follow Jesus and produce the fruits he promised would come? The choice is ours. 


    Loving God, our lives have been touched by the spirit of love which you allowed to become flesh.  Through the centuries, Jesus has shown us your likeness.  He was like a torch lighting the darkness.  In our attempts at refining his message, we have created barriers.  Instead of joining hands as one, we have created denominations.  Rather than trust you for the outcome of all things, we have looked to laws that promote social reform.  We have wanted our brothers and sisters to change their lives without honestly looking at the changes we needed to make in our own.  As we travel into each tomorrow, may we learn to cherish the inspiration and guidance we have received from your gift of truth neatly packaged in a baby.  Amen. 


    Eternal God, whose love is far greater than we can possibly conceive, we thank you for your infinite patience with us.  You sent your love in a form we could understand and we celebrated with pageantry, surrounding ourselves with all the symbols and carols of Christmas.  You brought us an unusual gift through a humble couple who experienced very trying circumstances in a highly obscure part of the world. We responded with cathedrals, stain glass, trained members of the clergy and exquisite theological formulas for salvation.  Jesus grew up to teach a simply message of "love one another" and we responded with division, power struggles, the "right" and the "left," "the lost" and "the saved."

    With the celebration of Christmas behind us now, lead us to find within our hearts the essential qualities of what it is you want us to understand.  May we find you filled with compassion, mercy and kindness, as you invite us to open our minds and hearts to your will.  Help us realize that you do not go where you are not invited.  Even though you love us more than we can imagine, you do not force us to seek the pearl of great price or that which will  end our hunger for the trappings of our classroom that we call the earth. 

    As we approach the New Year, come into our hearts.  Free us from the bondage of thoughts and feelings that cause us to perceive others without love.  Liberate us from our thirst for security so that our love will express itself by serving one another in truth and love.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .