"Peeling The Onion Of Truth"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 25, 2004
Luke 4:14-21; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-12
Much later the Persians, who
were the ancient people of modern Iraq, came to power and conquered
Babylon in 539 B.C. King Cyrus made a decree that the Jews should
return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple, a task that was
completed 23 years later. Another King of Persia, Artaxerxes I,
sent Ezra to bring order to the Jews and provide them with structure
and an organized form of governance.
Further, he sent Nehemiah to
rebuild the walls around Jerusalem in 445 BC, a project that took
his organized labor force only 52 days to complete. With the power
of Persia behind him, Governor Nehemiah began offering correctives
to the Jews who had been living outside the Laws of their people.
The Hebrew culture was in
great disarray from their sojourn in Babylon. For example, many of
the Hebrew men had engaged in the forbidden practice of taking wives
from other cultures. Babylonian customs and ceremonies had crept
into many of their sacred practices. Such things occurred
because the Jews had few threads from their historic faith to
provide guidance during this period of captivity.
Many of them no longer had
the sense of belonging to God which their former culture and faith
had afforded them. To make cultural matters worse, the returning
Exiles arrived with the understanding that they would assume control
of their land, a response that resulted in great bitterness
and strife with the settled Jews who had escaped captivity.
Given this historic backdrop,
imagine the scene that is described in our lesson today. The Jews
had gathered with very little in common but their race. The setting
was very similar to a town meeting. Ezra, who was a priest and
scholar of Mosaic Law, read to them from an ancient scroll. From
the early dawn until noon Ezra read and everyone listened
When the people heard what the Law required, they were so moved emotionally that they stood weeping and sobbing. This was the first time many of them had heard guidance coming from what many of today's scholars believe was some portion of the Law of Moses. The Jews began immediately picking up and piecing together portions of their rich cultural and religious heritage. It was a day of celebration which later became known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
At first glance this
little bit of biblical history may appear to have nothing to do with
us. Yet when we closely examine the story line, it represents only a
slight variation of what we are experiencing now in our culture. We are
not at the point where we will gather and weep when we have spiritual
truth read to us but we may well be on our way to getting there.
Right now we are convinced that
we have the truth. I have chosen to use the metaphor of an onion
to describe the form of this truth. It remains big, nebulous and
undefined in our minds but we believe we have it securely in our grasp
and that such truth sits at the heart of our culture. We take its
presence for granted. What I am about to say next is not a judgment, it
is only an observation.
Rather than we Americans being
carried off into captivity as were the Jews into Babylon, other cultures
are coming here and bringing with them their systems of belief and
social practices. In fairness to them our national leaders and the court
system have been most accommodating. Given the spirit of our
Constitution, this is the correct thing to do.
As a result of this influx of newcomers, we have been experiencing incremental changes in our society. Many of the well known symbols of our onion are now being adjusted due to the necessity of political and cultural correctness. As a nation, because we are willing to walk the talk of human freedom and self-expression, we are raising the bar for every culture for what religious and cultural tolerances look like.
The rub comes when we have the
onion of truth in front of us and it no longer provides guidance because
we are forgetting that it remains our task to peel it. The fault
is not with the onion, it is with us. Having the onion in our midst
provides the illusion of security. It has become more of a symbol than
For example, many people who
fought to have prayer remain in our public schools did not pray
themselves. As our media repeatedly has demonstrated, those who wanted
The Ten Commandments on display in government buildings could not
even recite half of the Laws. Once they got beyond adultery, lying,
stealing and honoring our parents -- their memories faded. Many who
want "In God We Trust" to remain on our currency, only do so in theory
with their personal lives. We all own Bibles but some of us cannot
recall the last time we sat, read and studied them. The onion is
fine but are we peeling it? Today that is our responsibility; it
is not one of the duties we should expect our nation's culture to give
The Hebrews were adrift in
Babylon. Their exposure to all kinds of intriguing philosophies,
cultural stimulation and permissiveness were initially greeted with
disdain. As time passed, however, they found that they could indulge
themselves without experiencing negative consequences. They enjoyed the
pleasures and comforts of their new setting even though their freedoms
had been compromised. There was very little guidance from the faith of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Like all of us have the ability to do, they
adapted to their new circumstances.
The question we need to
address is this: How can we prevent ourselves from drifting from the
substance that resides inside that onion? The onion is filled
with knowledge about who we are as God's creations and what we have the
potential to become.
For example, Jesus brought us
insights that enable us to circumvent the spider webs in which we
can easily become entangled. He gave us the knowledge of how to
transcend the painful communication difficulties that frequently outcrop
in our relationships. In that onion is the pathway that leads to a
highly energized life-style that radiates the creative genius that Jesus
mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Are we peeling the onion or
are we merely treasuring the fact that we have it?
The skills we do not practice on
a daily basis will soon join the ranks of those we never developed.
The realization of this is what made the Jews weep as Ezra was reading
the Law. So many times we find ourselves caught in marginal behaviors
and holding on to attitudes we would never have considered ten or
fifteen years ago. All of us are changing. Our circumstances are
changing. The truth remains that only we can determine the spirit in
which we greet these changes.
I cannot recall the gentleman's
name nor could I find the article that I have describing this man's
unique experience. Let us call him John. John deliberately entered a
monastery for 30 days but he did so without leaving his home.
This is what he did. He unplugged
his television and computer. He stopped his daily newspaper. He closed
and locked the door on his liquor cabinet. He dusted off the treadmill
and got out his weights. He bought a good reading lamp and placed it
near his favorite chair along side the large stack of books he was
always intending to read. After finding a church that suited his
perceived needs, he began to attend and to become involved in that
As I recall the article, he
nearly lost his mind during the first two weeks of his new program. He
immediately learned that his entrenched behavioral patterns were a
challenge to change. Voices in his head were telling him to cease and
desist from his insane behavior. He fought and ignored the habits
which, through many years of practice, had literally established the
definitions of his life.
His discoveries were obvious.
Being a single man he awakened to what his home had become. It was like
a well equipped cocoon, appointed with an entertainment center, video
games, computer, food, and so many other things which had been allowing
him to escape living. At the end of the day, he enjoyed his isolation,
his alcohol and his mild use of recreational drugs. He discovered that
ever so slowly his life had been losing its meaning, value and purpose.
It was as though he had become like a captive Jew who was adapting to
his surroundings in Babylon.
One of the things which saves us from remaining as we are is how we were made. God's creative genius outcrops very visibly at this point. We were designed to remain attached to our Creator. This design is a fixed aspect of creation and does not require any belief on our part for it to be true. When our choices cause us to vary from our hard-wired design, we find something very interesting happening to us -- nothing in the material world satisfies us for very long.
For example, we want our next house to have
all the appointments we currently do not have. Even though we dine out
more often, we want a larger, better equipped kitchen. We wonder how we
would look if we had a total body make over? We may look at our mates
and fantasize about trading up to a better model. God smiles and says,
"Do what you wish. I'll wait for you at the end of the ride. We'll try
something different if you fail to develop the skills you came here to
Something triggered John to enter
his monastery. Even though he possessed what many people in the
world might envy, he did not have fulfillment. This happens to all of us
in different forms because of the way we are designed. This longing
caused him to change his thinking. His 30 days stretched into six
months and then into a year. He continued feeding his body and mind
while exercising both. He extended his energy in the direction of
others both on the job and within his new church family.
Instantly, he noticed a
resurgence of his life's energy. As his self-serving indulgences were
changed into new energized patterns, he began winning the war with
himself. He had the onion all along but it had not dawned on him
that he had to peel it.
The symbols of the onion are in
our midst. As we look around our community, churches are everywhere.
Even though symbols like these are present, many people still experience
that massive disconnect with God every bit as profoundly as did the
exiled Jews who were finding their way back to the homeland of their
As our society and culture
continue to accelerate in speed toward the future, who do we want to be?
Do we really want our culture to define us with its smorgasbord of
disguised forms of how to escape living? In case you have not
noticed, everywhere we look there is an advertisement on how "to
escape." Such activities become like cancers that metastasize to our
routines, habits and relationships. We do not even sense their
presence. They are pleasurable at first until they grind our lives to a
We begin missing church, one of
our most important resources which helps keep our spiritual identity
alive in this material world. Our Bibles grow dusty. We indulge
ourselves with pleasures that we associate with rewarding ourselves. We
become more opinionated and self-absorbed. The illusion of wealth and
power causes us to lower our guard. What are we thinking? What is the
object of such decisions? We would rather escape than develop the
tools for living creatively.
Perhaps a day will come when a
great collective of people from all nations will stand in a square,
having experienced every possible blind alley their perceptions and
ingenuity could create. A book of spiritual laws will be read and they
will weep. They will weep because of all the living they missed as a
result of surrendering their energies to fleeting pleasures and causes.
Lots of us know the onion well.
In our heart of hearts, however, many of us know that a different truth
is being practiced in our heartland. Many Americans turn to medications
and to exercise programs which only mask symptoms. Their well rehearsed
habits have made them blind to the meaning of many of their choices
which have bound them to the material world. We have the onion. Let us
not forget that to receive God's guidance and to nourish our spirits
we have to peel it, something no one can do for us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you,
God, for your mercy and love. We often grow impatient with ourselves
when we display our frailties. There are moments when we choose
disappointment over understanding. On occasion we desire our form of
justice instead of forgiveness. We frequently have our love intimately
connected to our expectations of others. We settle all too often for
expedience rather than perseverance and character. Like all students,
lead us to remember that failure is a part of mastery. May we be
humbled when painful consequences enable us to choose again. Thank you
for guidance when we miss the mark because of our perceived neediness.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
As always we come into our church, O God,
eager to calm our minds and allow our spirits to become reflective. You
have created the perfect world for us to accomplish what we came here to
do. As we learn and grow, help us to remain faithful to the guidance
which you constantly provide. May we open our minds to new ways of
perceiving what enters our lives.
When our relationships challenge us, may we
realize that we are being taught the freedom of how to love in the midst
of differences. When we learn that the world will not conform to our
wishes, help us realize that we are being taught how to live peacefully
anyway. When we sense that we are struggling with life, enable us to
learn more creative ways of expressing who it is we want to be. Only
then can we teach others because we, ourselves, have learned.
We ask for your comforting spirit to rest upon those who are experiencing fragile moments. There are those who cannot move beyond their anger. There are people who are working through losses and unanticipated change. There are people who cannot perceive beyond what their senses tell them and they miss interpreting your presence. Thank you for loving us just as we are and for allowing your spirit to surround us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .