"Detours Can Be Very Costly"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 23, 2005
Most of us have little snap shots in our minds of incidents that stay with us. For me, this was one of them. If we could have stayed on our path, we would have saved nearly two hours of time. Such incidents in life provide us with opportunities to develop patience. If we can master the little pauses in our life, we will be more prepared to manage the much larger ones.
A more universal application of this illustration has to do with some of our responses to life. Many of our reactions to the issues we face cause us to travel far from our preferred path, taking us to levels of hostility and resentment we never imagined that we would reach.
This morning our lesson was the eighth chapter of Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs represents a minority opinion on humanity in the Scriptures. One of the reasons why people collect wise sayings is because they reveal valuable insights that knowing people have discerned. In the Bible, such material is called “Wisdom Literature.” Such guidance assumes that God did a masterful job in creating us, reflecting the Genesis passage that God looked at everything He had made and found that it was very good.
I referred to it as the minority opinion because of the major theme in Scriptures that men and women are fallen creatures. For example, in the Hebrew Bible we find that our best deeds are nothing but filthy rags in the presence of God. In the New Testament the assumption is made repeatedly that we were born into sin.
Proverbs 8 captures the value of wisdom. The first two verses say, “Wisdom is calling out. Reason is making herself heard. On the hilltops near the road and at the crossroads she stands.” The idea that Wisdom calls to us comes from the author’s knowledge of how often we use poor judgment. Similar to Jesus’ lesson plan for living, wisdom provides markers that quite clearly light the path for those who are obedient.
The entire chapter is telling its readers to grow up. Listen to these priceless words, “To those with insight, life’s lessons are clear; to the well-informed, decision making is easier. Choose my instruction instead of silver; choose knowledge rather than the finest gold.”
The author also knows the value of Divine Common Sense when it is sought. He wrote that Wisdom was the first thing that God created. “The Lord created me first of all,” he wrote, “the first of his works, long ago. I was there when God laid the earth’s foundations. I was beside God like an architect, I was God’s daily source of joy.”
Our problem is that we personalize so many events that happen to us, particularly when we have to struggle against what we do not like, or experience a controlling personality in our midst, or have to deal with what we perceive is God’s absence. Typically, we do not step back and ask, “What can I learn from this experience? What guidance am I being offered? What skills will I gain if I persevere? How costly will this detour be if I react emotionally rather than think?”
The other day an author was being interviewed on WMAL. He was a divorce attorney who has written a book entitled, What Were You Thinking? His theme focuses on couples that are heading for a divorce. He said, “It is tragic what is happening today in so many families. Most couples experiencing problems within their marriage are dealing with issues that could easily be fixed with a little education and some changes in what they expect from each other. That is not what is happening. Marriage partners try to tolerate their unresolved conflicts until their stress and tension levels create resentment that grows into hatred. They don’t seek help early enough. By the time I see them, it is often too late.”
With only slight variations, a very familiar storyline unfolds. The house is sold with the proceeds divided; there are struggles over custody of the children along with issues of child support and visitation. Each has to find another partner who is willing to tolerate the constant intrusion from a former spouse and the children. Eventually the discovery is made that any unresolved conflicts from the first marriage are carried into the second relationship. This is why 42% of second marriages also end in divorce.
Many of us do not seek higher wisdom that lies beyond our own thinking when we find ourselves in conflict. We often take the seemingly more attractive detour that produces years of distraction. This happens because of our reliance on a mysterious quality described in the following riddle:
We are your constant companions. We are your greatest helpers or your worst enemies. We will push you onward or drag you down. We are completely at your command. Half the things you do might just as well be turned over to us and we will do them quickly and efficiently. We are easily managed. Show us exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons, we will do it automatically. We are the servants of all great people and the demons of all who fail. We are not machines, although we work with mechanical precision. You may use us for growth or use us for decay -- it makes no difference to us. Train us, be firm with us and we will bring many of your dreams into reality. If you are easy with us, requiring no discipline from us, we will destroy you. Who are we?
The answer is, "Your Habits."
In our recent series of sermons associated with Stewardship Sunday, we must consider something that may not be visible -- the value of St. Matthew’s to our lives, our families and our relationships. We need to ask ourselves, “Where else do we experience the Wisdom of God? Where else can we go where our essential purpose and meaning of life are discussed and repeatedly defined and refined?”
Even the Psalmist said, “God leads me beside the still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Where does this happen when the habit of sleeping in or heading to the golf course on Sunday mornings is the voice to which we listen? Most of our responses are born from habit, not by Divine Wisdom and our faithfulness to it. The reason why so many of us find it difficult to change our responses and attitudes is because we have spent a lifetime being controlled by the habits we have created just as the riddle suggests.
For all his wisdom and prophetic abilities, even Elijah had to be challenged by God. God said to him, “Elijah, what are you doing in this cave?” For all his abilities, Moses had to be directed against his will to confront Pharaoh with the demand, “Let my people go.” For all his brilliance and intellect, Saul of Tarsus had to be made blind before his vision, his power of discernment, could originate from his heart and spirit rather than his eyes.
All of these heroes of the Bible thought they had God at the center of their lives before circumstances forced them to look again at what their behavior and attitudes were communicating. To their way of thinking, they were people of faith, but they were still being obedient to their fears and habits until some form of God’s presence confronted them. Had God’s presence not been a significant factor in their lives, would they have recognized God’s calling them to become something more?
Detours can be costly when life’s pressures and distractions cause us to forget who we are. If the church is irrelevant in our lives, where is the environment that allows us to commune regularly with our Creator? If God is only a concept, who will supply the guidance and warning that we are creating a life that will produce confusion, disorientation and costly detours?
If we are around people who mirror the world instead of God’s Kingdom, where do we find the fellowship that supports us, that encourages us, that draws us back into remembering that our task is to make God visible everyday, in every way to everyone. Who does that for us? Detours can be costly.
One of my favorite illustrations is one that some of you have heard before. It deals with a conversation between two men on the golf course. The one was talking about his life in the church and all the activities that stimulate and support his journey. His golfing partner was very reticent and had nothing to do with the church.
He said, “I used to go all the time, but it was so boring. I used to sit in church and think about all the things I would rather be doing. I guess I’m pretty selfish with my Saturdays and Sundays. I have to be honest with you, I cannot remember listening to or experiencing a single thing that was earthshaking enough to cause me to change my thinking.”
His friend listened to his thoughts, sunk a four-foot putt and he took a long time logging his score on his card. When he finished he said to his friend, “I’ve been married for 18 years. During that time I have eaten well over 6,000 suppers with my family. I cannot recall many of our conversations we had as a family and I’m ashamed to say that I cannot recall much of what we ate during those years. However, I can tell you this -- without those moments of family time, my wife and I would probably be strangers to each other and our children.”
We may not be able to measure what St. Matthew’s means to us, but if we have listened to the stewardship moments by the Schneiders, the Swishers and the Marshall-Hakes, we have heard what represents only the tip of the iceberg of what so many of you could say. If people sit on the sidelines waiting to be loved by the church family, they may miss the ride.
If we remain involved in giving of ourselves through the three “t’s” – tithes, time and talent – when our personal needs overwhelm us, the world of others rush to our side with their love and support. That world may be the disciples of a new member’s class, a circle, the bell ringers and the choir – there are so many little pods of people who look after each other. Those whom the ministers miss -- and believe me we do -- others do not.
There is Divine Wisdom present whether we believe it or not. As the author of Proverbs 8 so apply stated, “The Lord created me first of all long ago. I was there when God laid the earth’s foundations.” There is a plan for life that we may misplace or have not yet learned. When we experience injustice, losses, unfairness or reversals that we feel we do not deserve, we can feel lost or forsaken. Knowing Divine Wisdom prevents this.
When we stay close to the ties that bind and continue to be fed by the hidden springs that nourish our souls, we grow from God’s wisdom. When we perceive that life is overbearing and unfair, there is nothing better to help us regain our perspective than from the words of the Apostle Paul.
He wrote, “Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. Often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without shelter and clothing.” (II Corinth. 11:24f) Yet, in spite of his life challenges, he was made stronger, so strong that he wrote most of the New Testament beyond the four Gospels.
Take time to remember who you are the next time you think that a detour looks more attractive. Ask yourself if taking that detour will better equip you to make God visible, or will it represent a path that feeds and serves only your shadow side. Remember, detours can become very costly. God has a better plan.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Creator of peace, wisdom and kindness, we thank you for creating us to give and receive love. In spite of our quest for communicating our discipleship more clearly, we know we stumble. We experience moments of thoughtfulness along side those of insensitivity. We experience the tension between maintaining our values and resisting our desire to be more adventurous. We appreciate our confidence of faith while realizing that our fears never go away. Help us to use what we have learned not to be noble and good, but to be useful instruments that enable you to work miracles through our words and deeds. Amen
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We come together this morning in humility and in gratitude for our lives, our families and our ability to love and care for each other. If life has taught us one irreversible truth, O God, it is that being loved by you is beyond and above everything else that our world might give us. And when your son came to be among us, surrendering all that he knew elsewhere just so he could become one of us, we marvel at his clarity when he said, “I love you; will you follow me?”