"Wanting To Learn Is Key"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 9, 2003

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 15:1-10

     Now that we are in Lent, I thought we would spend some time today considering what might be helpful as we live through this turbulent period of our nation's history.  The Lenten season offers us the traditional theme of self-reflection.  Many Christians use this time for giving up certain habits and routines. Today we are going to consider how we can move forward, rise above life's challenges and navigate through experiences more creatively. The types of decisions we are going to discuss today are not easy to make.

     The process of learning new information happens to us every day.  We use what we have learned in our decision making, our relationships and our work environment.  Think how much easier life would become if we remembered that we are students who one day will become highly effective, skilled human beings.  Without this awareness, we remain mere recipients of what happens to us.

     For example, when a teenaged boy listens as his steady girlfriend tells him that she would like to date other boys, he is learning that relationships can change.  When a well-liked, highly skilled employee in a Federal agency gets bumped by someone who has more years of service, she is learning that skills are often secondary to seniority.  When a mom and dad decide that they no longer wish to live together, their children learn that life can be confusing.  No one asks for such experiences to come, but they come nevertheless.  We often agonize about life if there is no one coaching us on what such experiences can mean.      

     When many of us were younger, we learned that, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."  The problem with such wisdom is that it only applies to those who have learned a particular skill.  Words do hurt us.  For those of us who have not learned how to rise above the insensitivities of other people, words can profoundly affect the spirit by which we live.  Indeed, they can hold us prisoner for months and even years.

     How many of us are truly eager to learn new skills?  Of course, we all say, "Yes!  Absolutely!  Who would not want to learn new skills?"  Even though we read, study and join churches, often we find ourselves spinning our wheels when it comes to developing new habits, better ways of communicating and more wholesome attitudes toward the "old crimes" others appear to commit against us. 

     While Lois and I were in Arizona, we were in daily contact with a number of seniors. Each family unit had several shoe boxes filled with bottles of natural remedies for blood pressure regulation, cholesterol, arthritis and a host of maladies we associate with aging. We were probably looking at hundreds of dollars worth of bottled promises.  Also we were surrounded with magazines filled with the latest health tips about green tea, garlic and esoteric sounding herbs grown in China, India and Tibet. 

     Both sets of our parents and so many others like them have become apostles of over-the-counter life-extenders.  Lois and I heard more about controlling our intake of carbohydrates and about the cancer fighting properties found in the skin of tomatoes and grapes than we care to admit. However, last Sunday we went to brunch at a place called The Old Country Buffet.  How much we had learned was about to be tested!

     For $6.50 you could eat anything you have ever conceived of having for brunch. The freshly baked sticky buns and cinnamon rolls filled the air with aromas that would shatter the dining disciplines of even the most resolute disciples of healthy eating habits.  The line of patrons eager to eat their weight in food extended into the parking lot. 

     While we were eating brunch, the staff of the restaurant began their transition into the dinner menu.  The eggs, Belgian waffles, sausage and bacon surrendered to sliced ham , prime rib, real mashed potatoes and gravy.  In checking with the waitress, we learned that customers could stay at their table all day if they wanted to without paying another cent.  Needless to say, we left the restaurant in the early afternoon.

     How quickly we discover that learning all kinds of information has little value if we cannot apply it during our most vulnerable moments.  If, however, we could understand that everything that can produce pain and pleasure comes to us for a wonderful reason, we might become more aware of how God guides us toward higher levels of awareness, consciousness and fulfillment.

     Psalm 15 is entitled, What God Requires.  It begins with the question, "Lord, who may enter your Temple?"  The verses that follow are like a menu of behaviors and attitudes that will better equip people to be in fellowship with God.  Similarly the Beatitudes of Jesus offer the same kind of spiritual flow chart of attitudes as that of the Psalmist.  Jesus said, "Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully." (Matthew 5:6)

     Perhaps the key question that each of us could ask ourselves during our Lenten season is this, "How can we understand every episode of life as an invitation for growth?"  How do we learn this?  We can meditate each morning.  We can study and memorize Scripture.  We can pray without ceasing.  We can be faithful in our responsibilities to our church. Will such activities help us accomplish the goal we seek? 

     How can we recognize this invitation for growth when we are verbally insulted, abandoned, betrayed or deceived?  Are we equally aware of this opportunity when we are facing more food than anyone could possibly eat for $6.50, or when we are asked to dance by the Homecoming Queen, or when someone leaves us an inheritance of a 2-acre parcel of real estate on Martha's Vineyard?  

     We must always keep in mind that our feelings are not perfect indicators of what is happening to us.  Only the student who really wants to learn how to reveal their inner light will sort through the pieces of each experience so that their spirit will shine-  not get even,  not demand justice, not clamor for a re-vote, not gloat over our superiority or good fortune but shine.  This means learning how to allow our divinity to show.

     We cannot have information in our heads and call ourselves "informed."  There are  many brilliant people in our world who do not know how to reveal peace, harmony and self-control.  They may not know how to understanding someone's hurt feelings or enjoy the pleasures that come from generosity. It is one thing to know about such things and quite another to reveal them.

     The retirees who live next to Lois' parents in Arizona loaned me several power tools for a project my mother-in-law had asked me to do. During the course of our conversation, they told me an incredible story. 

     The couple had sold their home in another state and put their furnishings into a local storage facility until they could make other arrangements.  Within a matter of days, a truck entered the storage area, thieves broke into their bins and took their belongings. These individuals got into the couple's file cabinets, stole their identities, and were in the process of emptying their accounts and extending their credit card debt when an observant employee at the bank alerted the couple.

     They have good reason to suspect that the theft was an inside job, but there were no witnesses, no video tape and little they could do but file a police report. The things that adequate insurance will not replace are memories, keepsakes and antiques that were mom and dad's. 

     For a while they were very bitter.  Then they realized that not only had the thieves stolen their belongings, but they had succeeded in stealing something over which the couple still had control -- their minds, hearts and spirits.  The woman said, "Of course, we were very saddened by this experience. When we die, we were going to leave everything behind anyway.  With help from the thieves, we just did that a little earlier than we had planned."  After saying that she smiled.  I told her that she was in possession of the pearl of great price.  What they knew served them during a very fragile moment and it showed.

     All of us know that we live in very challenging times. We have successfully gotten through the ordeal of two snipers who were predatory in their world view. There have been the code orange days where the sounds of jet aircraft flying over head may have heightened our anxiety. Our President talks about disarming Iraq one way or another.  Many of us are connected to people whose life-paths have been diverted by military obligations.  The Psalmist wrote, "Lord, who may enter your Temple?" and the menu of attitudes follows.  Fellowship with God is not a given to us. To experience that, we must first clean up a lot of our thought patterns.       

     The moment we awaken each morning, events begin to happen to us. Husbands are hogging the bathroom, children are irritable, we cannot find the right pair of shoes, the car battery is dead -- if you can name it, it will happen.  This is just the beginning of our day.

     When we become aware that our experiences are nothing more than a parade of events prodding, encouraging and cheering us on to pick up heavier spiritual weights, we have successfully learned how to become eager students.  When we are ready, we plunge into life with one objective -- to create a better version of ourselves than we were the day before. This is another definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Such changes are not automatic simply because we hold certain beliefs.  They appear when we choose to let what we know show.

     According to the Gospel of John, Jesus "overturned the tables of the moneychangers and scattered their coins; and he ordered those who sold the pigeons, 'Take them out of here!  Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!'" (John 2:15)  There is no mention of him using such violent behavior again.  He changed and moved on to more loving responses.

     We steadily watch Jesus mature in spirit until he arrived at a place where he said, "I have come into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.  If people hear my message and do not choose to believe it, I will not judge them.  I have not come to judge the world, but to save it." (John 12:46f)

     This is true for all of us.  We live in a world where not everyone can see the light of God's Temple.  Not everyone knows how or wants to be in fellowship with God.  As we have heard before, "If our only tool is a hammer, we will tend to see every problem as a nail."  God has equipped us with an infinite number of tools that are far more creative to use than the violence that comes from a hammer. 

     This Lenten season, let us spend time finding them and move beyond the tools we have used for years.  Perhaps on Easter morning we, too, may experience a resurrection of our spirits.  Let us allow this Lenten season to better prepare us for the rest of our lives. 


     Eternal God, how grateful we are that you love us.  We are aware of our confusion over what is important in our lives.  We often are drawn to areas that appear to add to our security and physical comforts.  Our relationships are often defined by how others respond to us.  We remain uncertain how our decisions and judgments create the experiences we have.  We pray that during this Lenten season, each of us might examine our lives more honestly.  Encourage us to make our decisions more thoughtfully.  As we strive to be more peaceful in our attitudes, we thank you for sending Jesus to be our guide and friend.  Amen. 


     Merciful and loving God, during these Lenten days we are glad that we can experience our walk together.  We look eagerly for the winds of inspiration to give flight to our wings, and for the stream of spirit to enable more warmth and kindness to become part of the spirit by which we live. 

     As we reflect on this past week, we remember with gratitude the times when we checked our anger and replaced it with patience.  We remember a moment when we gave time to listen to the thoughts of another.  We thank you for the privilege of giving before being asked, of being caring in the presence of another's frustration, and of carrying our burdens with peace as we realize that frequently they are much lighter than those others must endure. 

     We thank you for the quality of faith that has enabled us to take risks.  We thank you for experiences that have allowed us to broaden our horizons.  We thank you for the voice of conscience that has called us back when we have found ourselves entering circumstances of compromise. 

     Continue, O God, to challenge us with life's many alternatives while we attempt to walk peacefully in a world where so many are crying out for a community where acceptance, sharing and love abound.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .