"Detachment Is An Art Form"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 11, 2004

Psalm 29; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


     Regardless of how old we are, most of us have heard a lot of chatter from people during our life time.  If there is one thing we have in abundance it is our ability to dispense words. No longer does the teaching, "Silence is golden!", operate anywhere in our culture. 

     Words appear to be the glue or the connective tissue that binds us together. There is nothing more graphic which illustrates this then to look at cellphone use.  Wherever we go these days, we find people talking out loud to people we cannot see.  As soon as an aircraft touches down on the runway, for example, people begin making their calls. We hear phones ringing during our worship services about twice a month.  Words surround us and bind us together.   

     Verbiage can easily stir our emotions. We may have had the occasion to hear Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura some afternoon.  As we listen to their wisdom, we are delighted that we are not the recipient of their often surgically precise comments.  Or, we may have had our emotions piqued by listening to opinionated personalities like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, both who can evoke strong agreement and disagreement. They are masters at preventing their listening audiences from remaining chronic fence-sitters.

     Some of us have had the opportunity to listen to highly skilled motivational speakers whose finely honed words create an environment that brings audiences to levels of enthusiasm that are well beyond the realm of normalcy.  We find such talented people at regional sales meetings for multi-level marketing companies like Amway, Mary Kay or Avon.  Audiences swear that they have just attended an old fashioned Gospel revival meeting where appeals were made for their salvation.   

     While recognizing that we live in a highly verbal environment, let us be honest with ourselves -- how often do the words of others give us pause?  How often do they make us think about where we are going in life?  Do the insights carried by words inspire us to do anything more than rise and give someone a standing ovation?  We frequently leave some meeting saying, "That speech was absolutely incredible!  He had us in stitches one minute and in tears the next.  Or, she was an absolute delightful spirit, both informed and beaming with enthusiasm.  I could listen to her all day."    

     Have we ever noticed how easily we could place such people in the category of entertainment?  Many churches today have preachers who fit into this mold. Their skills have made them spiritual entertainers. They can lift us to the rooftops of joy and enthusiasm for Jesus Christ, conclude such moments of inspiration with a glorious hymn, we get into our cars and life is back to business as usual.  However, our feelings are so positive we might say,  "Goodness, did we have fun in church today!"

     Even divinely inspired words mean absolutely nothing if they do not cause us to change the way we order our lives.  We can praise God all we want, but when we do not allow words, insights and challenges to take us to another level of awareness, it is as though they were never spoken.  We all enjoy passionate, informed, sincere and energetic speakers, but when we find ourselves still unmoved to change anything, what have we learned?  What is the point? 

     This morning's lesson features high drama in the life of Jesus.  Words that were destined to change his life dramatically did not come from John the Baptist. According to the Gospel writer, the words came from God. It is unclear from this passage whether Jesus was the only one who heard them or if hearing them was part of a community experience.  Dr. Luke, however, did capture the moment with some interesting imagery that leaves us with a mystery. We learn that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form "like" a dove.  We are not clear what that looked like to the witnesses. 

     Christians all over the world for thousands of years have been so thankful to Jesus for who he was, what he said and what he did.  Few of us, however, pause long enough to consider what he went through after hearing words from God.  Jesus realized that he had to detach from nearly everything that he knew and valued.  His normal routines and daily patterns abruptly ended. 

     Think of it.  He had been in the carpentry shop for perhaps 15 years.  He helped his mother with the rearing of his brothers and sisters.  Presumably he was the chief wage earner for his family.  As the eldest son he led the family devotions each evening and led them through the liturgy during the high, holy days.  He slept each night in the family dwelling. All of this he would leave behind.   

     Today what Jesus experienced would be called a major identity shift. Some clinicians might even refer to it as a mid-life crisis.  He detached from so much that he knew because of hearing these words, "You are my beloved Son with whom I am very pleased." 

     When is the last time that words caused any dramatic shift in us? Maybe we suddenly realized that some habitual behavior was no longer helping us grow.  We stopped reaching for the alcohol at the end of the day. We decided to stop engaging in deception because honesty and integrity were now going to rule our new identity.  We stopped using other people's bodies and our own sensuality to prop up our flagging self-confidence.  Perhaps we left a perfectly secure job because we could no longer tolerate the tasks that left us so unfulfilled and empty. 

     Change is remarkably difficult when we are into controlling our destinies.  Regardless of how free-spirited some of us believe we are, most of us believe we are carefully managing our lives. We do exactly what we want to do. Let us not forget that!  For example, we have become locked into house payments, saving for our children's college education, putting a portion of our salary away for retirement, thinking about upgrading to a new car while eyeballing one of those 55 inch plasma screen televisions.   

     Do we really want to hear a voice saying, "Let go of such things.  Do you think that I will abandon you when you do?  You, too, are my son and daughter.  Trust me with your destiny." If we heard that voice in our mind, how easy would it be to let go and step out on faith as Jesus did?   

     For some of us, it would be akin to a bride walking down the aisle on her father's arm. She suddenly screams, "I can't do this!"  She runs and embraces a young man in the back of the church and says, "I love you, Nicholas!"  She turns and faces the groom standing near the minister and says,  "I'm sorry, Jeff!  Believe me, I am so sorry.  I have been lying to myself and to you for too long.  Dad, I know you and Mom have paid for a wonderful reception.  Please, find it in your hearts to forgive me.  Nicholas and I have to go."   

     Talk about an awkward moment!  Sometimes words change everything.  Let us go back in time and use our imaginations.  Do you suppose the conversation that Jesus had with his mother went something like this? 

Mother, I went to the river this morning to listen to John preach.  I decided that at 30 I really should be baptized so I walked toward John as he stood in the Jordan.  Mom, when I came up out of the water something very strange happened to me which I cannot fully explain.  I heard the voice of God telling me that I am his Son. I am sorry, Mom, but I have to go away for a while and learn the meaning of these words. Please tell my brother that he now has the responsibility as head of the household. Take care of yourselves.  I'll be in touch when I can make sense of what has just happened.  

     When is the last time verbal symbols sent a shaft of light into our inner sanctum where we live?  We cannot stay where we are and make the claim that we are living by faith.  There has got to be constant movement in the direction of our growth.  If not, we may find ourselves on a treadmill without realizing it.   

     No one wants to hear, "I have known her for 18 years and she has only grown more narrow, defensive and self-absorbed with her attitudes and behavior. While she believes she is a strong woman, she is actually very fragile.  She has been burned so many times by her friends that she doesn't let anyone get close any more."  If that perception is correct, 18 years is a long time to be in the cave of dormancy. 

     Learning how to detach from our current patterns of thinking and behavior is an acquired skill.  As we have mentioned, it does not come easily to us even though we make claims of walking by faith. We must remain clear that not everyone wants growth.  The process is too frightening. Some of us cling to our current patterns of thinking and living like evangelical zealots.  Desiring to be frozen where we are translates into our need for security.  If detachment were easy to accomplish, Jesus would not have spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness thinking about his options. 

     We have to believe that God is constantly calling us to move beyond where we are.  We also have to realize that we cannot move anywhere until we are willing to let go of other things that may symbolize our comfort and safety.  God has more in store for each of us than we could possibly imagine, but God has allowed the pace of our getting there up to us. 

     We may not have to change what we are doing. What we may need to change is how we do it.  The essential question has never been, "How many people love me at the office?"  The question is, "Can I love those at the office?"  Can we let go of feelings of dread, of longing to be elsewhere, of wishing we were thinner or wishing we had not grown so old so quickly?  The issue is not the location, age or physique of our physical forms; the issue is the message we bring to every setting because we have recognized that we are a son or a daughter of God. 

     The Holy Spirit cannot easily communicate through us when we are wheeling and dealing to be elsewhere, to be with someone else, to work for the perfect company, to own a more flattering wardrobe, to drive a particular car, or to take a cruise on the new Queen Mary.  Such things belong to this world. Such things are not even formidable distractions until they begin to define us. Then our branch is beginning to lose touch with the vine.  

     The world already has plenty of people who want and have such things.  What the world needs are people who radiate integrity, character, kindness, peacefulness and laughter.  What the world needs are more people who are no longer needy for all the things they believe they lack.   

     I was saddened to hear on Thursday night that what has been missing from the Redskins' locker room is laughter, character and the sense of being family.  Many of us are going to be pulling for Joe Gibbs because he is a man of faith who will be walking into an environment where such qualities have been missing.  Few people realized that until the other night when there was a collective sense of what it meant to have Joe's spirit return to the Redskinís organization. 

     All of us will be witnesses to what happens when such a light once again shines its authenticity  on a group of individual millionaires who may have forgotten something about a game they are paid very well to play with all their hearts. Saviors come in different forms because each of us has a different function. 

     We cannot all be miniature Christs, patterned after what he came here to do.  What Jesus promised we could do is carry the same spirit into the universe where we live.  This is what makes a house a home.  This is what helps a group of people to become a family.  This is what moves an office staff into becoming a team.  This is what made America a great nation. 

     Every day when we rise in the morning, we need to greet the world with a slightly better version of ourselves.  Not to do so is an unrecognized choice.  We must learn to detach from yesterday's patterns which will only grow more rigid with the passing of time.  Detachment is an art form that takes daily practice.  The journey begins with that first step.  Ask yourselves -- "Who do I want to be tomorrow?"   You can be anything you want, but you cannot go there until you cut the ropes to the anchors that are being dragged behind you.  Once you taste the freedom that brings, you will never look back. 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Thank you, God, for sending us signposts that forever point to the horizon of human possibilities.  Enable us to learn how to surrender what is complex so that we may embrace the simplicity of Jesus' message.  Enable us to resist clinging to second handed thought patterns so that we might rise to our own creative ways of thinking.  Through our circumstances, encourage us to become greater risk takers as we surrender our need for control, security and comfort.  Teach us the wisdom of trusting you, so that we might more fully understand what it means to live by faith.  Just as Jesus learned these responses during his ministry, so may we as we engage in ours.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    Loving God, our loves and our many desires constantly surround us in ways that focus and shape our destinies.  Yet during our worship experience, we frequently pause to check where we are in our growth.  So often we find ourselves seeking more for the sake of having more.  Have we misplaced our gratitude for what we have?  We want to find love in the world while failing to remember that it comes to us by our giving it away.  We want increased security but we fail to remember that there is none that is absolute in this world. 

    O God, help us to become more refined in interpreting the numerous opportunities we have every day to make your will known.  When we feel insecure and we need to blame others for our  frustrated moods and attitudes, cause us to remember our role as a light in darkness.  Help us recall what it means to be a disciple when others are hurling hurtful words and barriers into our path.  Help us to understand the strength and stability that comes when we step aside and allow your will to be done through us.  

    Often we find ourselves in traffic patterns that have stopped.  We find ourselves among people who are complaining and asking, "Why?" We are among those who feel lonely and depressed.  Teach us the art of being like the sponge that never grows tired of absorbing what others fear they can no longer carry.  Truly this is what it means to be a friend. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .