"Questions Make Us Stretch"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 28, 2003
Psalm 148; Luke 2:41-52
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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 . . .