"In Search Of Higher Ground"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 24, 2005
Psalm 78:1-8; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Some of us saw the pictures that were taken by one of our stationary satellites. One showed the enormous sandy shoreline where the water had drastically receded. Another showed the same shoreline as gigantic waves came thundering ashore. A third picture showed how the shoreline had been dramatically reconfigured as a result of the massive flooding.
As people spent weeks trying to find their loved ones, a curious discovery was made. There were no remains of wild animals found among the debris. All of them had instinctively escaped to higher ground. The stories are legendary how animals can sense an earthquake as many as three days prior to the event. Because of what they knew, their lives were spared.
What if there was a higher ground for people? What if there was a state-of-mind that could be reached that would enable us to rise above the fears that sometimes attack us prior to a surgical procedure? Suppose we could escape the anxieties that create our sleepless nights, the stress that comes during our company’s annual evaluation of us, or the pressures that we impose on ourselves because of deadlines we believe are near impossible to reach?
In every generation people have experienced uncertainty. Change becomes so rapid that now and then we find ourselves praying for a week when nothing out of the ordinary happens. After the repeated attacks in London, the other day someone commented during an interview, “Boredom never looked so good. Give me back my routine any day.”
On Thursday evening Lois and I were sitting in a car just outside of Capitol Hill South, one of the stops on the Metro’s orange line. We watched as two well-padded officers headed down the escalator with large caliber automatic weapons. Their facial expressions communicated that their presence was routine, but the experience was everything but routine.
Our observations could have easily triggered thoughts as, “How do we know that they are our police officers and not terrorists in very sophisticated disguises? Maybe we ought to get out of here! There is no way that we can protect ourselves from people who randomly want to destroy human life.” People can allow their fears to overwhelm them just as they did a few years ago during the murderous spree of the two snipers.
We could go into another universe where a number of us are right now. Sunday night along with Doc and Pam Mirelson, we drove to the Prince George’s County Men’s Shelter to feed them supper. We passed an enormous number of new housing developments. Everywhere we drive in the Bowie area during recent months we see hundreds of cleared acres where houses are to be built.
We could think, “We’ve got to get out of here! This is no longer the Bowie we used to know. There aren’t enough roads or schools to accommodate the families who will be moving into our community. All the City Council wants is to increase the city’s tax revenue base. Our city planners must be asleep at the wheel.”
Uncertainty, change and fear are accelerating. Where are we to go? Florida? Arundel, Charles or Howard Counties? How quickly we buy into the myth that there are better schools elsewhere, that there are a higher caliber of teachers elsewhere or that life will be more stable elsewhere. Jesus knew that we could easily change the scenery; however, nothing will change for the person who is always looking for a safer, more secure higher ground in the physical world. There isn’t such a place.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was attempting to describe such a place, but it was not located in the material world. Jesus was teaching about a spiritual higher ground. Even for a master teacher like Jesus, this lesson was very difficult to communicate. The problems facing his people were vastly different from our own, but their issues of uncertainty, change and fear were the same. He tried every metaphor he could think of to describe what it is like to be in an intimate relationship with God.
He said that the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. He said that the Kingdom is so powerful that like yeast it can cause other ingredients to rise. Then he equated the Kingdom with being a hidden treasure that someone finds or like an extremely valuable pearl that someone chooses to buy. Finally, he described the Kingdom as being like a net, where the “haves” and the “have-nots” will be caught and separated.
Just like during the tsunami, the animals knew what was coming but we bright, intelligent humans did not. Consequences of not knowing caused many people to cry and gnash their teeth in pain over their experienced losses.
By using numerous material symbols to describe a non-material experience, many of Jesus’ listeners were left wondering what he meant. No doubt they began searching for the meaning that remained hidden behind his words. Why was he likening the Kingdom to these material objects? Jesus asked them if they understood. They said, “yes” but these people were not masters of abstract thinking. They understood life in material terms. Did they understand?
Jesus was communicating that the Kingdom of God was something very small, something very powerful and something that was of extreme value. His Kingdom was not a piece of divine real estate somewhere in the non-physical portion of the universe. Jesus taught that we could live in such a place now.
One of the many dramas that played during our 6-hour delay at the El Paso airport several weeks ago was a woman who had to get to Dallas. Money was no object. She had already up-graded to first class, but there were no flights going in or out of Dallas, a fact she could not accept. She tried to secure a private jet. While I did not hear what else she said, the counter person said, “Why are you attacking me? I did not create the weather pattern that has shut down the Dallas airport. Like everyone else in this airport, you must be patient!”
There were other groups like ours who were seated in circles and playing games, telling stories and laughing. For them there was no crisis. For the woman, there was. Only we can reframe what we are experiencing. Life is like the net in Jesus’ description of the Kingdom; it catches all of us. Our responses separate the “haves” and the “have-nots.
Being in communion, harmony or community with God is a very peaceful place to be. While there, we can instantly let go of what used to appear so important to us. While there, we learn that life is more than our neediness, successes or meeting our goals. While there, we can creatively detach from needing to be thin, needing to hold on to our good looks until we are 95, needing to be the center of attention or needing to let everyone know everything about our past accomplishments.
We do not need to die and go somewhere to experience being in community with God. Many of us really enjoy singing that perky hymn where the chorus says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!” We love the tune but the words suggest that where we are is not a good place to be. Such a hymn teaches us to look beyond this life to another time in the future. While there is no denying that such an existence awaits all of us, Jesus lived in his Kingdom now and invited us to do the same.
We are in such a habit of saying, “If God is with me, why is this happening to me?” God would say, “Why not? You need patience, so try accessing it while you cool your heels for six hours in the El Paso airport. Where are you going that is so important? Is there anything that you and I could not accomplish together?”
We ask, “Why did you allow my husband to die?” God would say, “Why not? Was there a better time for him to make his transition? Don’t lose faith in me because you believe that you have reached the end of your road. Try believing that it is only a bend and see what happens. Use your faith to guide you instead of your anger.”
We want to see the big picture. However, if we did, our adventure would be spoiled and there would be no need for anyone to have faith or trust. Being in community with God is not finding ourselves among some privileged class of people where life unfolds exactly as we would prefer. Rather, it is our knowing that we walk with the Creator of the universe during those moments that appear most uncertain.
Many of us know the comforting poem about the two sets of footprints in the sand that recalls that during the greatest moments of trial and struggle there was only one set of footprints. The poem goes on to remind us that during our moments of greatest need we were carried. Such a thought is very reassuring.
Standing in another world to view the one in which we live may appear very difficult to do. Yet it is not, once we constantly practice observing this life from that higher ground. The Kingdom of God really is an attitude, a frame of reference and a windowpane through which to view the massive and constant drama that takes place everyday in our midst.
Imagine what we observe every day. There are people having a bad hair day, driving over 100 miles an hour as they weave in and out of traffic on their motorcycles, screaming at their daughter’s hockey games, jumping up and down because they won the 170 million dollar megabucks lottery in Ohio, lifting up their hands and swaying with their eyes closed during some gigantic worship service on television and politicians crying out for and against the current nominee for the Supreme Court. Such things make up the best reality show on earth. Only when we personalize life’s events do they catch us in their web of distraction.
Jesus lived in a Kingdom where he knew that all such things would never be recorded in the pages of history. What would remain for us to learn are the essentials of life. Have we learned greater patience? Can we love those whose levels of immaturity have gone grossly unnoticed by them for years? Have we carried ourselves peacefully through moments of chaos? Can we teach people how to find real solutions to their upsets? Are we able to sow our seeds of good will without needing recognition and applause? Can we hear criticism, lies, gossip, and exaggerations about us without having our feelings hurt?
People who live in the Kingdom and who have learned how to reframe life from this perspective, can do these things. This is not denial or magic. Like the animals in the tsunami, they have searched for and found that higher ground. Among all the things we think about, the one thought of walking with God is something small. Doing it is both energetically powerful and extremely valuable just as Jesus taught. This is the higher ground. This is the Kingdom of God.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Ever-present God, we are grateful that we can enter this place of worship and experience quietness within our spirits. We thank you for the symbols that surround us, symbols reminding us of a peaceful dimension of our lives. Such an experience nourishes us. We are invited to remember how Jesus taught us to overcome the many influences of the world. Yet, having enough money still worries us. We are distracted by poor communication with others. We become discouraged when life does not conform to our wishes. We easily allow other people to disappoint us when they cannot live according to our expectations of them. Awaken us, O God, that we might trust your leading us into moments of growth, instead of our deciding ahead of time by responding with discouragement. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, as our faith continues to be refined within each day’s events, we thank you for constantly being in relationship with us. We are not completely sure what it means to be created in your image, but we trust that you have given us the ability to walk with you through the fog generated by so many distractions within our world.
We do experience peace when we authentically allow our cares and concerns to dissolve in the sands of your presence. Equally, we experience the instant judgment as we swim against the currents of life, when we place our faith in worrying, as though fretting will deliver for us what we want or when we use the threat of withholding love as leverage for motivating others to conform to our wishes. There are moments when we forget what having faith means.
Guide and teach us, O God, to let go of the words and actions of others that may have been offensive to us. Perhaps in our becoming more like you in the way we forgive, we will learn better what it means to be created in your image. May we remember that Jesus invited us to be among people who are not like us so they might experience what we have found from being disciples of Jesus Christ, in whose spirit we now pray . . .