"Recognition, A Priceless Gift"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 12, 2004
Luke 15:1-10; I Timothy 1:12-17
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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,
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
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 . . .