"What Changes The Chemistry Of Experience"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 17, 2003

Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20

     This morning I would like to spend our time talking about approaching, crossing and moving beyond what we will refer to as, "Our Spiritual Frontiers." Such frontiers are those areas in life that cause us to struggle, to be in pain, or inspire us to wear masks to hide what we do not want anyone to see. 

     For example, people who "suffer" from low self-esteem as teenagers should not continue to use that as an excuse for justifying their lack of motivation when they are in their mid-twenties.  People who have experienced the death of a loved one should not continue to define themselves around that painful episode for the rest of their lives.  People who have difficulty managing their anger should not defend their response by saying, "It's because I'm Irish or because I have red hair."  We each know our frontiers. How do we move through and beyond them?  

     Jesus would be the first to say, 

If you want to stay where you are for the rest of your life, that's fine.  But God has given you an incredible life filled with talents and abilities.  When you use them, you will bloom in a way that no one else can. I came to instruct you in the art of living, but if you want to remain frozen in a particular phase of your growth and advertise how unfair life is and how sad you are, you can do that.  But that is not why you came to the earth. 

     Would these words sound harsh if Jesus directed them toward you?  Would they sound as though he had grown insensitive to your needs?  Those of us who have a tremendous stake in staying the way we are could easily think so.  There is a certain comfort level we have grown accustomed to by living in our current life-patterns.  Change could threaten that security.  

     There was a chapter in my life when I used to be the Playground Supervisor every day at lunch time for Cheverly Tuxedo Elementary School.  My experiences with certain children have formed memories that have not yet faded.  Some children have incredible abilities to perceive beyond many of their counterparts who live in bodies considerably older.  

     I met a fifth grader who was wise beyond her years.  She had broken her arm and was wearing one of those heavy plaster casts of yesteryear.  One day I asked her, "Has the doctor told you when the cast will come off?"  She said, "In about a week."  I responded, "I'll bet you can hardly wait."  She smiled, hesitated and said, "I don't know. As you can see, there is no more room on it for anyone else to sign their name.  I'm going to miss the attention this thing has brought to me.  Look, I even have the names of four teachers."

     Children love to wear big bandages, causing others ask, "What happened to you?"  Here stood this young lady who had a thorough understanding of how people often use their wounds to gain recognition.  Today, she is probably a psychologist or teaching at some university helping young adults to move beyond their hurts which have a strange way of defining the rest of their lives. 

     Change is frightening to many people.  To them life is not the grand adventure that some people talk about.  For them risk-taking is not one of their tools for growth. They may have taken the boat across the rapids of uncertainty, but when they reached the other shore they chose to stay in the boat.  For too many of us "faith" means the things in which we believe, when what we need is a way of life that trusts God in spite of what life brings.

     If we know our frontiers and are not willing to take the next step, Jesus might say, 

Do not try to follow me.  You will only be paying lip service to what I taught.  You must be willing to change the way you order your life and the way you think.  You must be prepared to abandon the world that means security to you for the one I am offering. I want you to come only when you are ready to risk taking that first step.  There is no other way to grow. 

     In our lesson today, Paul provides us with one of the most powerful tools for changing our behavior, our moods and our attitudes.  Paul does not mince his words.  He puts his thoughts right in front of his readers.  

     He confronted many of the excuses people were using for staying exactly as they are.  For example, he wrote, "Be careful how you live," "Make good use of every opportunity," "Don't be fools," "Don't get drunk with wine," "Speak with generous, accepting words." His crown jewel came with these words, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father." This orientation toward every experience is the greatest tool we have to overcome all that makes us afraid.                 

     One of the most challenging aspects of life is to trust God when our life is being hammered on the anvil of circumstances that are beyond our control.  Our moments of struggle come AFTER we have assigned meaning to an experience and we have to live with the results. 

     A young woman had graduated from college and was disappointed that she had not met someone suitable to be her life partner.  She had met and dated a number of men but each had failed to measure up to the high standard she was using.  She went on to graduate school and was in the middle of a Master's program when she was involved in a fairly serious automobile accident.  

     She had some spinal injury and several lacerations on her face.  Some unthinking person honored her request and gave her a mirror.  After looking at herself, she was overcome with a sense of hopelessness.  She even asked why the emergency medical team at the scene of the accident had not allowed her to die. 

     There was a staff physician who was assigned to her.  He violated one of the rules for personal conduct.  There was something about this woman's spirit that triggered his interest and he found himself coaching her through many of her dark periods of self-doubt.  Some of his colleagues warned him to remain detached, but he chose not to listen.  

     During one of his more vulnerable moments with her, he said something that would change the quality of Loren Brendel's experience.  He said, "I honestly believe that this accident happened to you so that I would have the opportunity to meet you and fall in love with you."  Can you imagine the impact that hearing those words had on her?  

     Immediately Loren began to make enormous strides during her physical therapy.  All that doctor did was give Loren another interpretation to the same event which had caused her to create feelings of hopelessness and abandonment.  She got well and the two were later married. 

     How do we know when some massive rejection was essential if we were to gravitate toward something far more suitable for our talents and abilities? How can we be so sure that failure is not a disguised vehicle for moving us into a circumstance that we later will call, "a gift from God?"   Even the death of one of our children can give us sensitivities others will never have for dealing with people who have lost one of theirs. 

     The tool of gratitude is not so we will say to someone, “I am so appreciative that you overcharged me.” Or, “This cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Or, “Thank you for totaling my car.” Gratitude is not about the substance of any experience, but rather for the resulting changes that the experience brings to our lives and what those changes will require from our faith, abilities and talents.  We grow when we travel through our experiences, not around them.

     Paul was telling his readers that when we approach each experience with a sense of gratitude, no episode in life will ever defeat us.  When we have this tool of spirit, our vision, understanding and our entire orientation toward life will always be looking for what is going to enhance our skills.  We will no longer spend our energy developing an attitude that communicates, "Well, this is one more nail in my coffin.  Even God has turned away from me!"   When we refuse to define experiences that shatter our comfort zones, we are revealing, "I am trusting God with what is to happen next." 

     The gift of having such an orientation in life has nothing to do with our living without challenges, bad hair days, and moments of despair. We all have them.  Such an attitude is not something that allows us to by-pass the unpleasant episodes that test our patience and trust in God; it allows us to move through them without fear. Paul focused on this theme quite often because the spiritual tool of gratitude proved its validity in his own experience.  He wrote: 

We are always glad when we suffer because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

     Sometimes it is helpful to engage in a little fantasy.  Imagine Jesus walking with us to a gymnasium.  He tells us to begin lifting the 5 pound weights. As we work with the weights for awhile we become weary with the repetitions. When we complain, "How much longer do I have to do this?", Jesus does not answer.  He accompanies us to another part of the gym.  He says, "You can stay with the 5-pound weights for the rest of your life, or you can choose to grow so that you become like this person."  In front of us is an individual who is bench pressing 480 pounds. 

     Christianity is not a feel good "happy, happy, happy" orientation toward life. It is also not a passive way to greet what many people have labeled as "hardships" or "life-reversals".  Many people believe that to accept Jesus' teachings as the model for our life-patterns means that joy will fill our cups to overflowing day after day.  It does not.  It means we will graduate from 5 to the 10, 20 and 50 pound weights as we build our spiritual musculature.  

     Such an understanding is not a path of "good works," as some may suggest.  It is more a way of describing how our spirits evolve. Such an orientation means approaching our spiritual frontiers, whatever they are for us, crossing them, and moving beyond with a sense of gratitude that will continue to build momentum for the rest of our lives.  

     When Elijah experienced the wind, earthquake and fire, he found that God was not in them.  We remember well that God was in the "still, small voice."  That voice said, "Elijah, what are you doing in this cave?" (I Kings 19:13).  That cave can represent anything in our lives that is symbolic of security, comfort or our desire to keep our lives exactly as they are. We simply cannot grow if there is no movement away from where we are.  Jesus knew that.  Paul understood that. 

     People do not cross a spiritual frontier knowing ahead of time what will greet them.  This one aspect of life is certain-we have to risk and experience change in order to get there.  Jesus was nailed to a cross before he could give humanity the gift of knowing that life does not end when we leave our bodies.  

     Are we ready to face, cross and move beyond our frontiers?  A wise person once said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step."  When we take that first step in gratitude and trust, we change the chemistry of that experience, indeed, we change how we will greet the rest of our lives.  


    All of us desire, O God, to fill our cups with the water that will cause our needs to be silenced.  We search for the fulfillment that comes to us by doing your will.  Yet we confess to having moments when we say, "This for God and this for me."  There are times when our being "right" is critical to our identity.  When we experience conflict, our sense of justice often obscures our ability to love.  How easily we lose sight that the outcome of all things will be resolved within your spirit, in your time, and not ours.  Teach us, that our faithfulness in living what Jesus taught, is our greatest gift to each other.  May our lives become the signposts for people we may not know, as we each walk our paths toward eternity.  Amen.


     We come into our sanctuary this morning grateful that you are a God of mercy and peace.  When we stand in the darkness of night, we can recite with the Psalmist, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have created; who are we that you are mindful of us, mere mortals that you should care for us?"  What a wonderful sense of comfort that comes to us because we know that you do. 

     We confess, O God, to the moments when we forget the gratitude we feel while standing under the stars.  Our fears magnify certain episodes of life and our resulting anxiety has the power to block out the stars of the Milky Way as well as our awareness of your closeness.  We can become so blinded that we do not see the smiles that are directed toward us.  We no longer hear the music of the song birds.  We do not pause to enjoy a sunset.  Enable us, O God, to communicate our faith as a way of life and not as a mere a system of beliefs.  May our complete trust in you block the cancerous thoughts that are born from our fears. 

     Continue to enrich our lives with more horizons toward which to walk, more strangers who we can make our friends and more occasions to still the storms that swirl around us with our trust that your will is being accomplished.  Help us to stay on the path Jesus outlined with his words, "Follow me."  We pray these thoughts through the Spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .