"Recognition, A Priceless Gift"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 12, 2004

Luke 15:1-10; I Timothy 1:12-17

     This morning I would like to talk about how valuable it is to have “recognition” as one of the tools in our spiritual utility box.  Knowledge is priceless and sometimes it can be life-saving when we pay attention and recognize signs that are pointing to safety, growth or to our need for increased levels of skill.  A simple fact remains; many people do not know how or when to come in out of the rain.  

     In recent days, we have seen how recognition has proven to be  extremely valuable.  For example, former President Clinton recognized the warning signs of an impending heart attack.  He experienced shortness of breath, chest pains and had discomfort in his arms. His understanding of what these symptoms could mean  motivated him to seek immediate medical attention.  Subsequent tests proved that there were significant blockages in a number of his coronary arteries.  He had successful quadruple by-pass surgery. 

     We also know of people who refuse to recognize obvious signs.  One group of  people decided to take their chances when hurricane Charlie arrived in Florida.  They did not evacuate.  In fact, they did what they have done on other occasions.  They ordered pizza and had purchased several cases of beer for their hurricane party.   

     When they were interviewed by the media following their ordeal, they confessed how extremely fortunate they were.  One woman confided, “Had we known then what we know now, we would have never stayed.  As our home was being buffeted by sustained winds and rain, we realized we had no place to hide if the house collapsed. If something catastrophic had happened, we would have had no one to blame but ourselves.  We had plenty of warning.”  When Frances was threatening Florida, they were among the first to leave.  They learned the importance of recognizing the warning signs and responding with an informed choice. 

     Like this group in Florida, there are times when we may be surrounded by warning signs but we are unable to recognize what they mean.  We often content ourselves with trying to make the best out of our circumstances when the signs are telling us to take more risks, to change the security-laden values we hold or to become more open to radically different alternatives.  The signs are telling us to break the forms that generate our routine responses. 

     A young man had been dating a woman for a considerable period of time.  She was most attractive and talented.  Her gregarious personality proved to be an instant winner in most social settings.  Yet he could not continue to ignore his feeling that he had become excess baggage.  In social gatherings she would engage others in conversation while leaving him stranded.  He did not feel warmth from her.  She was the center of attention, a woman who easily controlled most conversations.  He adjusted and assumed that this is the way his life would be once they married.  

     One day while on a white-water rafting trip with some of his male companions, he met his friend’s sister who had tagged along.  The two of them found each other over lunch and talked for hours. He had never known such comfort with a woman. Almost every topic they discussed were ones in which they both shared a common interest. He recognized that he had found something he never had at any time during his two and a half years with Shannon.   

     Recognition helped him to make a decision.  After dating his new acquaintance for some time, he made another decision.  He eventually walked down the aisle with someone whose energy communicated, “I love you.  I very much want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  When he ended the relationship with his former girlfriend, her life never missed a beat.  She said, “Okay.  Whatever you want.  It’s probably for the best.” She never looked back.  

     All these illustrations lift up the importance of having the skill of recognizing when life is not what it could be.  We may be on a plateau.   We may need to break our routines.  We may need to examine why our life lacks that spirit of adventure, or that daily closeness and access to God, or the reassurance that our current path is embracing our purpose for being born.  Some of us are overcome by the sense that we are wandering in the desert. This is what recognition looks like. 

     In the first letter of Timothy, the Apostle Paul had this to say,

I thank God for considering me worthy and appointing me to serve Him, even though in the past I spoke evil of Him and persecuted and insulted Him.  But God was merciful to me because I did not yet have faith and so I did not know what I was doing.

    Paul goes on to describe himself twice as being the “worst of sinners.”  He made no pretense about his failings.   

     As Saul of Tarsus, he had no recognition that his life needed a complete shift in orientation.  He was well educated.  He was a Pharisee as well as a Roman citizen, an extremely rare combination in his day.  He was fluent in all the languages of commerce.  He had a great resume.  Saul of Tarsus knew he was correct in his thinking.  Further, he had no time for anything but truth as he understood it.  

     His extreme self-confidence led him to miss the mark with his life.  Saul was not open to other points of view.  He was not ready to think about an invisible Kingdom of God.  He was not aware how anger, intolerance and competition were fueling his responses. Saul’s life was so wrapped  up in Saul’s wants and needs that there was no time to think about the implications of loving his neighbors.  He was into persecuting them. 

     I cannot tell you the number of times I have spoken to people who have little or no understanding about the message of Jesus. They are complete strangers to his spiritual principles.  Life is about them.  What they readily recognize is whether or not they are happy.  Their understanding is seldom about what kind of energy they are communicating.  

     Yes, they believe in God.  Yes, they know about the Bible.   Many of them own the Book. Frequently their thoughts about a faith community are based on misinformation or  images of another day when preachers focused the attention of the faithful by using fear-based beliefs.  Many people loved those fire and brimstone sermons.  The problem with such sermons has always been that fear never taught people how to care about anything other than their own personal salvation.  This was also Saul’s central problem.  He could not escape thinking about himself.  

     For many people, ignorance is one of their unrecognized rules for living.  How many of us are willing to admit that we need to develop new attitudes, new skills for coping with life’s numerous reversals, new levels of understanding and new ways of perceiving our relationships?  We all need training. 

     Did the people who crashed our own aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Center know what they were doing?  They certainly thought so or they would not have been willing to give up their lives in the hope of murdering as many people as they could.  How can anyone claim to know what they are doing and base their hope on murdering others?             

     Even outside of the realm of religious thinking, no sustained culture has contributed to the evolution of human thought by building its philosophy on a foundation of death and destruction.  The Chechen freedom fighters wanted so badly to make a point that they failed to recognize what they were communicating to most of humanity by killing children and their teachers. When people lose their boundaries, the skill of recognition will remain well beyond their grasp.   

     There is an engaging commercial on television that opens with a  parrot walking back and forth on his perch saying, “Another day.  Another day.  I can’t take it anymore.  I can’t take it anymore.”  When the owner of this talkative bird comes home, viewers clearly understand where the parrot learned his speech pattern.  Viewers receive no insight whether this frustrated man ever learned that change for his circumstances is only one decision away.  Paul said, “God was merciful to me because I did not yet have faith and so I did not know what I was doing.” 

     What does it mean to have faith?  And what does faith do to our orientation toward life?  Those seem to be odd questions to ask a congregation.  As Mary McClurg said not too long ago when she was inviting people to join our chancel choir, “Dick is used to preaching to the choir.”  Nevertheless these are important questions because often people within the church have fixed ideas that have not expanded in scope or in depth for years.  Many of us could make such a confession. 

     This week as many of us watched the news we observed a steady line of people streaming  through the Russian embassy.  People gathered outside and left flowers, teddy bears and expressions of sympathy as individuals made their way to sign the embassy’s book of condolences.  What changed?  The Russian people were our mortal enemies not too long ago.  Maybe they never were our enemies.  Maybe someone taught us that they were and it took time for us to learn another truth.uth.

     Just imagine what would happen to the world if people recognized their need to change how they think about each other. If the Apostle Paul can do it, everybody can.  No one can make us happy!  Life is not about us, it is about what we bring to the table.  It is about community and our ability to make that happen in our families and our work place. 

     I had a fantasy the other day that there were at least four or five terrorist sleeper cells in Florida who were planning the destruction of shopping malls, university stadiums and part of the entertainment complex at Disney World.  Their plans, however, were disrupted by hurricane Charlie.  Their residences were demolished. Before they knew what hit them, they were stripped of all their computers and war plans by hurricane Frances.  They were forced to awaken to more damage by Nature than they could have accomplished through their years of careful planning.  

     In this fantasy the helpless terrorists came face to face with Americans who did not care how well they spoke English.  Like everyone else, the terrorists became recipients of food, water, clothing and shelter.   They watched as help streamed into Florida from all over the United States. They saw utility workers from 8 states stringing wire and rebuilding the communication and electrical infrastructure within days following the tandem disasters.  

     They felt loved and cared for by so many strangers that they began  to doubt the validity of what they had been trained to do.  Rather than creating more damage with their suicide bombing missions, the scales fell from their eyes and they could see clearly that love is stronger than hate.  They learned that maybe we Americans had a “pearl of great price” that the leaders in their terrorist training camps had failed to anticipate. 

     Faith is having trust in that invisible world Christ pointed to.  The Kingdom of God is here and there is nothing that makes that Kingdom more visible than a disaster.  In spite of our selfish ways, a national emergency has a way of creating community which makes visible our true spirit.  

     We learn that rather than demanding, complaining, blaming and whining that our world is not perfect, we can change the energy we are giving away, roll up our sleeves and begin together to create the world we all want.  This is what drove Paul to embark on three missionary journeys. He had found something.   He wanted others to know what is possible for all humanity when we follow Christ’s teachings.  Are we listening?


    We thank you, God for giving us an environment that prevents us from remaining stationary in our growth.  Hurricanes, failures, illness or the unexpected give us choices that will reveal who we are.   Thank you for helping us realize how useful our lives can be in every circumstance.  We welcome the opportunity to live inspired lives, to sow seeds of hope where there is despair, to offer encouragement where there is doubt and to teach insight to those who have lost their sense of purpose.  We have learned that there is no higher calling than to remain as you created us to be.  Thank you for placing in our midst the pearl of great price.  Thank you for giving us a unique vantage point that motivates us to make love visible.  Amen.


    Loving and always compassionate God, we find ourselves in the cross hairs of our remembrances of 9/11, the hurricanes of Charlie, Frances and Ivan, the increasingly hostile exchanges between our presidential contenders and the uncertainty caused by an orange terrorist alert.  In the midst of all these themes, we hear the words of Isaiah, “Here am I, send me.”   

    Enable us every day to remember your presence so that we might transcend those symbols that inspire our uncertainty.  Every day we are at risk.  Every moment distractions approach us with the temptation to be less that we are.  Help us understand the game our anxieties try to make us play. Help us develop the faith to respond with understanding, a sense of humor and hope for a future that has always surpassed even the most optimistic visionaries. 

    Each one of us has our own private struggles that may not be as global as others we face, but they impact us nevertheless.  Help us stretch beyond our anxieties. Enable us to remember that this too shall pass.  Encourage us to reach within and use the treasure trove of skills and talents with which you have endowed us.  Teach the art of letting go and trusting you so that our fears might dissolve on the peaceful sands of your love and faithfulness.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .