"Even Darkness Can Be A Stepping Stone"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 21, 2004

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20

     One of the theological principles of our faith is something called “free will.”  Through the centuries, the Church’s theologians have not been clear while interpreting this concept to believers.  Teachers have frequently addressed this issue within a context of fear. 

     They have described our human condition as a struggle between our will and Divine will.  If we do not choose correctly, we were taught; we will condemn ourselves to an eternity apart from God.  This is not free will.  Free will only exists when we make choices, confident that God will never abandon us when we make mistakes in judgment.  Let me give you an example.           

     A number of years ago, a friend of mine had a daughter who was off the charts with her behavior.  She was the personification of rebellion against all authority figures.  James Dobson once wrote a book on parenting called, The Strong Willed Child.  This volume would have been an excellent resource for this struggling family had it been available when their daughter was a child.  It was not.           

     Increasingly their daughter was becoming very controlling of the family, requiring her parents to take off work to intercede with her teachers, neighbors and the police.  Her parents would set curfews that were routinely violated.  Some nights she did not come home until dawn the next day. She would steal money from the home, shop lift and associate with people older than she who likewise radiated a fierce independence from the values generally held by responsible people.           

     Her parents were becoming exhausted trying to funnel her out-of-control, raging torrents of energy.  She was like a river overflowing its banks during a flood.  Weary and in extreme pain, the parents, in order to maintain their sanity, went to court in order to have their daughter declared an Emancipated Minor.  She immediately moved in with her companion, thrilled to be out from under the vigilant eye of her mom and dad.           

     The mother told me, “You can always remove a child from your family, but you can never remove her from your heart.  Whatever she is looking for, I sure hope she finds it.  We have done everything we know how to do to show her our love, support and guidance, but right now she cannot see beyond her need to express her independence through defiance.”           

     I wish I could tell you how this story ends, but I can only imagine. We changed churches.  It may not be a continued saga of tragedy that many of us might think.   A more accurate understanding of “free will” came from this daughter’s mother.  She said,  “You can always remove a child from your family, but you can never remove her from your heart.”  This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.  The father of that young man waited.           

     Free will is where God allows us to be whoever we want to be knowing that there is no attitude, no behavior generated by us that is powerful enough to separate us from God’s love.  Paul reminds us of this in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans. This is free will.  In essence, God’s Word for all humanity is this, “You can play whatever games you wish in my backyard, but it is impossible for any of you to get away from me.”            

     Many people are not comfortable with this understanding because they want people to experience consequences, even ones that are eternal.  When people venture into this arena of thought, they are entering into God’s territory, speculating about God’s limited mercy, God’s impatience, God’s inability to forgive or God’s lack of success when creating human beings to reflect God’s image.  People tend to understand God as a Being who possesses most of our human limitations.    

     We cannot possibly understand what is being fashioned within people because of all the mistakes they have made.  One of the immutable Spiritual Laws is this:  You will learn and grow either through pain or joy.” Our impatience comes to us when those we love do not mature on the timeline that we have established for them.  It is our inflexibility and rigidity that is showing, not God’s.            

     God created us to be free to look for love, validation and affirmation in all the places that cannot give it to us.  God knows it is impossible to find such things in the external world. Some people may have to struggle an entire lifetime before they learn this.  Some do not learn. 

     Regardless of how much partying we have done, however we want to characterize that behavior, in the morning we wake up feeling just as miserable as did the Prodigal Son when he found himself among the pigs.  God is not saddened by our behavior as many people suppose.  Again, people give God human emotions.  God simply waits. This is the good news.             

     As we read the Apostle Paul’s letters, we learn from his own words that he was much worse than my friend’s daughter.  While we can only imagine what Saul of Tarsus did as a young man reared within a wealthy family, we do know that he referred to himself as “chief among sinners.” (I Timothy 1:15)  He knew very well what his background was like.           

     Paul was writing our lesson today from having come across many stepping-stones in his past.  He wrote with authority about his experience of God.   Listen again to his words, “With joy give thanks to God, who has made you fit to have your share in what God has reserved for his people in the kingdom of light.  He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us safe into the kingdom of his dear Son, by whom we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven.”           

     There are so many people we know who have used their darkness as stepping-stones to get from where they were to where they are today.  There are members of the medical community who were once junior high bullies.  There are police officers who were vandals. There are graphic artists who used to practice their craft on buildings with spray cans of paint.  There are nurses, teachers and attorneys who cannot count the number of lovers they have had, or the number of mornings they awakened with a very bad headache from too much celebrating the night before.  These are people who were once out of control. 

     The people who have come from such mistakes in judgment, as did Saul of Tarsus, have realized that the external world holds very little that they really want.  If we have not discovered that being happy, peaceful and enthusiastic are byproducts of who we are becoming, there is nothing in the external world that will create that for us.   We develop such qualities the moment we begin to give something beautiful or useful to people around us. 

     God created this truth and this is why God is never saddened or annoyed by our immaturity and ignorance.  We are still learning.  How can we demonstrate skills we have never learned? God created this process and our judgments about it cannot change it in spite of our fervently cherished beliefs that suggest otherwise.   Love does not give up and walk away.  But if walking away from love is what someone needs to do, they are free to try their wings in some alternative reality he or she has created with their imagination. 

     No doubt, Saul of Tarsus did just that.  As brilliant and articulate as he was, his world collapsed.  All his PhDs did not serve him.  He obeyed the laws of the Torah to the letter, but when the light came on and understanding filled his mind – we cannot imagine the peace and joy that filled his spirit.  

     The verses in our lesson that follow are Paul’s response to his experience.  “Christ,” Paul wrote, “is the visible likeness of the invisible God.”  He goes on heaping accolades on Christ, e.g., “the first born Son, superior to all creatures, Christ existed before time.” Paul cannot express enough timeless adjectives as he described Christ. For him there were not enough magnificent words. 

     The portrait that Paul verbally paints of Christ is not what matters here.  What matters is what happened to Paul once he received understanding.  Christ begins to matter to us when we learn that our slate has been wiped clean, when we learn that all the baggage that once inspired guilt is gone.  We become a new person, free at last. We develop an entirely different orientation and perspective to life.  Will this happen to every one of us?  Absolutely! Eventually this will happen because rather than our beliefs, God is in charge of creation.  

     I once mentored a woman who had the most scandalous background I have ever listened to.  As she was revealing her past, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Because of the distance she had come, she was living proof that kids eventually grow up.  

     Her behavior was more challenging than the young teen I discussed when I started my message. Since the days when she was unable to control her attitudes and behavior, she became an Air Force fighter pilot, had a Master’s Degree in Theology and was headed for ordination in the United Methodist Church. 

     During one of our sessions, she told me that her mother had suffered a severe stroke and could not speak.  In hearing this story, it became apparent that she had not seen her mother in over 20 years.  She had been such a cruel and recalcitrant daughter that it became awkward for her to think about showing up in her mother’s life again.  I encouraged her to go so her mother could receive a more complete story of her daughter’s life.  

     When she returned from New Jersey, she had quite a story to tell.  As she sat with her mother, she described how she regressed in behavior to that of a little girl. She pleaded, “Mommy, please forgive my stupidity, arrogance and lack of respect when I left you and dad so many years ago.”  She cried and sobbed, as did her mother. 

     Her mother reached over with the hand that still functioned, took her daughter’s hand and said with hesitant, slurred speech, “You have just made my life complete. Now, all is well.  I have lived and prayed for this day to come.”  A nurse overhearing her words said, “ Very good, Mrs. Smith!  She looked at the daughter and said, “These are your mother’s first words since her arrival here.” 

     Just as Paul wrote in our lesson, this candidate for the Christian ministry could not stop talking about how powerful and good God is for giving her those moments with her mother and the feeling of forgiveness that resulted.  

     When we come out of the darkness and understanding shines across our minds, we have so much for which to be thankful.  When we recognize that all is forgiven, we are made new and high levels of energy will pour from every part of us.  This is what Paul wanted the Colossians to celebrate.  God is perceived as being so good when we come into the light that truly there are no words that can describe the experience. 

     So many feelings and thoughts of our unworthiness come because of remembrances connected to our stepping-stones.  This is not what they were designed to do.  We must reframe their meaning so that we can learn from them.  Knowing we are forgiven transforms our past.    

     Very enthusiastic Christians are often those who realize that their past no longer defines them.  Personally, I have found people with very colorful pasts to be among the most warm, affectionate and kind people I have ever known.  No wonder Jesus loved sinners.  There is no pretense or religiosity about them.  They are not proud of their stepping-stones, but they also realize that activities in their past no longer hold them prisoner. 

     When Jesus tells us not to judge anyone, we need to listen to him.  Even though our sons and daughters, moms and dads, friends and colleagues may frustrate us beyond belief, we can never be sure how God may be using them to fashion them, others or us. 

     This Thanksgiving, thank God for your blessings, but also give thanks for those stepping-stones.  Without them, you would not be who you are today. 


    Thank you, God, for reminding us that nothing can separate us from you.  Even with such assurance, we have not been careful guardians of our thoughts.  Our fears often distort the sense of your presence.  Our need for a particular outcome leaves us vulnerable to disappointment.  Our inability to understand your will can bring hesitancy to our trust.  Our need for security often prevents us from taking risks of faith.  Thank you for wanting to teach us even when we are more fascinated with aspects of the classroom.  Thank you for your opened arms of acceptance, even after our aimless wanderings.  Thank you for forgiving us seventy times seven and washing away our immaturity as though it was never there.  Amen.


    Once again, O God, we find ourselves in that wonderful time of the year when many of us are thinking about turkey dinners, being off from school, having that needed pause in our song to be with family and friends.  When we consider the complexity of our lives, what a distance we have come from the days of Plymouth Rock to the present. And yet we ponder the distance we have yet to go in order to become a world community.           

    It is a challenge to recall the times when our houses were not wired for electricity, no indoor plumbing, no furnace or air-conditioning.  What highways there were had only two lanes and cars were few. Water was brought out of the ground by a hand pump.  People cooked with stoves fueled by wood. From our current vantage point, it is interesting to ponder that those years were not that long ago. 

    Loving God, we accelerate ourselves toward the future with our new technologies, services, and ideas hoping to improve the quality of our lives.  Would that we would bring the same intensity of energy to focus on how better to be kind to all our neighbors.  We have the bounty from our material desires and needs while realizing how much we need to stretch to make this world a safer, more peaceful place to live.  We eagerly look forward to the day when your will, will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .