"The Joy Of Being Centered

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 14, 2004

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

     I am always happy when our younger people have an opportunity to write some of our forms of worship and then participate in a service by using what they created. Young people have a lot of things distracting them today, voices that simply were not heard when a number of us were young teens.  Matters of faith can often become tied for last place when considered among all the other pressing requests for their time.  Thank you for what you have done for us today. 

     On Thursday afternoon, I had a Mom, a Dad and their four boys come to my office.  Three of their sons had completed work on the God and Me material for their Cub Scout merit badge and we were discussing what their experience had taught them.  They knew the required information and had worked many hours to complete the lessons in their handbooks. 

     Our heritage, faith and traditions provide young people with an excellent foundation upon which to build their lives.  The boys knew the story of creation in Genesis.  They knew the story of Jesus having dinner with Zacchaeus; they knew the parable of the lost sheep.  They understood the meaning of love and even knew how to translate the concept so that it would influence their behavior toward others.  

     Such an orientation to life reminded me of a lesson that I learned when I first owned a compass.  When I was in junior high, a friend of mine had a case of the most remarkable compasses I had ever seen.   They were filled with liquid. Each one had two arms that swung into place.  One arm had cross hairs.  These were aids for helping the user to determine a more precise fix of the desired direction.  I believe these navigational tools were surplus from World War II. 

     A number of years later, I used that compass. I had joined a squadron of the Civil Air Patrol and a group of us were working our way through a dense forest to an old crash site of a small single engine aircraft.  This was a disaster drill.  The only guides we had were topographical maps of the area and my trusty compass.           

     If you have never been in the heart of a seemingly endless forest, you do not know the value of a compass.  All of us were taught that moss grows on the north side of trees.  We found trees with moss growing all over them.  We could observe the position of the sun but the east and west orientation is only reliable in the early morning or the late afternoon.  It was frightening to realize that we were blind.  We had to trust the eye of our compass.   Christ calls us to use God as our compass.  The world can be as frightening as a dense forest.  We can feel lost in it.           

     In our Scripture lesson today, Jesus was merely describing for his disciples the unexplainable events that can be found in the physical world.  His words were as descriptive as any front page of the Times or Post.  Jesus was not describing the end of time, but merely telling his listeners not to be afraid of the chaos that we humans and nature often create.  Jesus said, “Make up your minds ahead of time not to worry about such things.  Nothing ultimately will happen to you.  Stand firm on your trust in God and you will save yourselves.”            

     Our heritage, traditions and faith are so easily set aside when life experiences begin to impact us.  For example, a young teenage girl who has the physical features of a 20-year old can suddenly find herself surrounded by older boys who would like to date her. Mom and Dad ponder whether or not she has the wisdom to match her physical charms. Is her moral compass strong enough to give her guidance or will she set it aside for the sake of popularity, acceptance and possibly become lost in the forest of relationships that will try to define her?           

     A young man has his first job stocking the shelves in a Home Depot or Lowes and he is handling lots of merchandise that one day he would like to own.  At the moment he does not have the money to buy any of it.  Will his compass work or will he set it aside and slip a number of the smaller items into his pocket?                       

     Some weeks ago I saw an intriguing commercial on television.  The setting was a classroom where students were preparing to take an examination.  A teacher noticed that one of the young women had a small piece of paper in her hand, no doubt filled with information that would be useful while taking her test.  The teacher walked over to her and took the piece of paper. The student looked anxious and embarrassed.  The paper said something like, “You have prepared for this test. Do the best you can. Believe in yourself as your Dad and I do.  Love, Mom.”   The teacher smiled.  Parents were helping her remember her compass.           

     The compass only works when we choose to trust it for guidance.  At any age, we often forget that our eyes, thoughts and emotions can betray us. There are times when we are so convinced that we know exactly what we are doing, when clearly we have entered a world of compromise.  Even if a good friend points this out to us we may say, “So what? This is my life. I am doing this for me.”  Or, “Mom, Dad leave me alone!” The compass will always guide us correctly but it needs to be consulted when our need for gratification or validation is doing the talking.             

     The laws associated with our faith journey are extremely valuable.  They teach caution while living in a world that glitters with opportunities and is constantly changing.  Not everyone knows how to shut down the search engines of curiosity and experimentation.  Jesus was telling his listeners that outrageous events will be constant, but trust God and you will save yourselves from a lot of unnecessary anxiety, stress, fear and a sense of being lost.           

     Many people are like Esau in the book of Genesis who traded the rights that were his by being the first-born.  He gave them away for a bowl of oatmeal. His twin brother, Jacob, was more than willing to make the exchange.  As a result, Esau lost his inheritance.  

     Jesus taught, “Make up your minds ahead of time.  Have a plan before anything comes your way.  Have an exit strategy.  Nothing ultimately will happen to you.  Stand firm on your trust in God and you will save yourselves.” 

     Shakespeare once wrote, “To thine own self be true.”  Absolutely no one else can do that for us.  We cannot mine our inner gold if we are always reacting to every infuriating story on CNN.  We claim to understand that we are all sinners; why then does it come as such a shock when it is discovered that we really are? We live in a world where people have the freedom to display their own level of maturity.  Not everyone is on the level where we think we are.  

     Jesus said, “Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another.  There will be terrible earthquakes, famines, and plagues everywhere; there will be strange and terrifying things coming from the sky.”    This is an interesting list, particularly the last item.           

     Apparently Jesus understood that history was not designed to do anything more than provide us with countless opportunities to expand and grow when, in the midst of it, we remain centered on the compass God provides.  As people change so will the quality of history.  

     To remain centered on God in the midst of chaos is not easy when we have not defined our purpose for being alive and we have not defined our mission.  Moving around in the world can be terrifying for people who have lost their connectedness to the vine.  We have to trust his path and no other path.  I would be misleading you if I told you that this process is easy.  It is not.            

     As Jesus illustrated in our lesson, sometimes we will lose our popularity, sometimes people will tell us we are wrong, sometimes our friends will abandon us, but the one thing no one can ever take from us is our centeredness on being God’s representative on earth.  When this becomes our purpose and mission, a different group of people will come our way.  

     When we carry ourselves with this understanding we will also learn that we are not doing God’s work.  It is God who creates through us in ways we may never understand or recognize. People may come to us for advice and counsel and we may be completely mystified as to why they come.           

     I was listening to the mid-day news last week and heard an interesting story.  Those of you who love animals may resonate with this experience. Tom and Shirley Thomkins live in a trailer near a large forest in British Columbia. One day a red fox showed up at their residence, exhausted and in pain.  

     Shirley noticed that the fox had the use of only three legs. The fourth one appeared to be broken. They trapped the wounded animal and brought it into their trailer. Shirley splinted the leg and fed their new friend hotdogs and raw meat.  The fox healed and in time it was released into the wild.  The Tomkins watched as it scampered away.           

     Almost a year later, Shirley saw the most remarkable thing.  The red fox had returned.  He had brought with him a silver fox that had a badly injured leg.  When the silver fox was safely trapped, the red fox disappeared into the forest.  Shirley once again set and splinted the leg of the silver fox until it was healthy enough to be released.

     I mentioned this unique story because animals often recognize loving energy when it comes from people.  This fox had a compass, which told it where to come when a colleague needed specialized help that was beyond his ability to supply.            

     Jesus never had an agent. He never published a scroll. His audiences were made up of people who were not complicated.  Yet, Jesus was like a magnet that attracted others.  He did nothing deliberately to promote himself and yet he impacted the world-view of millions of people.  His spirit communicated extremely well, “Why not try loving each other more than you do.”  Who might we become if we remained centered on God as we give our gold away? 

     Recently I was speaking with a CEO of a moderate size company of about 2,500 employees. He seldom missed being in church and was one of its strong financial supporters. Unfortunately he was not a United Methodist.  

     We were talking about leadership and the invisible origins of spiritual gifts.  He said, “When I’m away from the office for an extended period of time, my managers go crazy over the most ridiculous turf issues. The flow and harmony of the company is disrupted. I often fear leaving because of what I will find when I return.  As soon as I return to the office, however, everyone’s attitude immediately returns to normal.  Why is that?”           

     I told him that he had a unique leadership style that exuded from him.  Just his presence instills confidence and control over the entire domain of his company.  He was not aware of what I was talking about. Interestingly, he did not recall the story of what happened to the Israelites when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai for an extended period.  I chided him for being a Presbyterian.  United Methodists would have known the story.  I used a more familiar reference.  

     I directed his attention to the most recent World Series.  I asked him if he noticed how cohesive a team the Boston Red Sox became each time their wounded hero, Kurt Schilling, was on the mound?  He got the picture immediately, yet still he was confused about what his managers and other employees were sensing from him.  

     When we are centered on God, in spite of the chaos around us, something happens to the people with whom we associate.  When we are a light in darkness, I do not think we notice this quality about ourselves.  We can be involved with politics, be on the stage, volunteer in a museum or be on the faculty of a college, it does not matter.  When our light shines, others notice and become more loving and kind human beings.   

     Jesus did this for his people and he asked us to follow him.  Yes, the Gospel is this simple.  He asked us to be for others what he is for us. In a world of such change, it is a joy to be centered on and guided by our creator.


    We thank you, God, that our lives are as varied as they are.  You have equipped each of us with ways of expressing our love that are uniquely ours.  Some of us are good listeners.  Some of us love to talk.  Some of us use our vocational environment as a place to be in ministry.  We have learned that if we have a group of colleagues, we have a congregation.

    This morning, many of us will be declaring our financial support for our church family and its numerous ministries.  We thank you for equipping us with your spirit of generosity.  Thank you for reminding us that as we sow, so shall we reap.  Even the ancients, who were far less economically blessed than we are, knew how to honor and reverence you with a tithe of everything they grew or earned.  They looked at their gifts as a duty; we look at our gift as a measure of our faith and as a fruit of the spirit. 

    Today, our minds continue to be anxious about activities in Iraq where fear and terror tear at the souls of those who seek peace.  It is so difficult to find solutions for any part of the Middle East when so many factions of people are inspired by hate.  Help your people, O God, who cannot see beyond their needs. Quiet the minds of the warriors and the anxious families who await their return.  We give this problem to you, O God as we pray the thought, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .