"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

     This morning I want us to look at an interesting cultural event that took place among the Jews centuries before Jesus was born.  Those of you who enjoy biblical history will recall that the King of Judah and members of the Jewish elite were enslaved and carried off into Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem.  This happened during the days of Jeremiah. 

     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 attentively.   

     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 anything else.   

     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 us.      

     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 community. 

     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 learn."  

     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 ancestors. 

     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 halt.   

     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. 


    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.  Amen.


     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 . . .