"Receiving What Cannot Be Earned"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 10, 2006
Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Yet, as I have contended for years, authentic love is beyond most of the definitions we human beings readily supply. If humanity really understood the vast number of forms in which love can be expressed, Socrates would never have been forced to drink poison. Jesus would not have been crucified. Early Christians would never have been hung or burned at the stake when they courageously departed from the prevailing orthodoxy or dogma of the day.
People who enjoy quoting John 3:16 often gloss over the words, “God so loved the world.” It was God’s love for all the world’s people that inspired a messenger to communicate how love could be experienced by anyone. So many faith communities have skewed God’s love toward their own unique interests that what they communicate has little to do with anything divine.
So far all major religions, including our own, have missed the point. When religions spend more energy communicating why their truth is the only version there is, they often have little time left to invest in their mission statement of building bridges to the rest of the world’s people. Religion is absolutely useless if it fails to help believers live more compassionate lives. If it fails to do that, its belief system is nothing more than a business plan that mistakenly has confused numbers and politics with fruits of the spirit.
We can utter all the theological statements we want, filled with code words and metaphors like personal salvation, God’s purposes and Jesus died for our sins, yet none of them matter if we have lost sight of who God designed us to be – physical forms that have the power and potential to make compassionate living visible on the earth.
It is easy to give God the praise and glory when life is good, when others are constantly validating our lives and when we score the touchdown and kneel in the end zone while pointing our finger toward the sky. We are masters at defining love when our cups are overflowing with what we characterize as blessings.
Have you ever noticed how quickly we wonder where God is when our personal security is threatened, when our marriage disintegrates or when our teenager begins to associate with a challenging group of peers whose values appear to be void of qualities that could produce character and integrity? Some people have thought, “If God is a God of love, how can such things be happening within my once loving family?”
Do we see how easy it is to understand God’s love as an incoming energy field that surrounds us with what enables us to feel good, loved, warm, secure and comfortable? Early in life we learn that everything that does not produce such qualities in our lives must be the work of the Devil. Are not pain, struggle and failure experiences that can teach us the skills of patience and humility? How can we learn the skill of forgiveness if we are never devastated by someone’s words or actions?
Years ago I had a very attractive, physically mature 14-year old girl come into my office to talk. She said, “Dick, I hate my parents. They don’t let me do anything. They monitor everything I do. They read my mail, snoop in my stuff and tell me what to wear. I am sick of it! I get nothing but lectures, chores and restrictions. They try to pick my friends for me. Do you know what? They don’t know a thing about me. They don’t try to understand me. There are times I wish they were dead. Finally I would be free from their stupid rules.”
Such words represented only the tip of the iceberg of her resentment. Obviously, communication between Karen and her parents had broken down just a tad. In fact, their relationship had become a real power struggle requiring lots of energy from both warring camps. With a hand on her hip she asked, “Okay, oh wise one, what should I do?”
I said, “So, you are admitting how fragile you are? She said, “What do you mean?” I continued, “You cannot accept boundaries? You have a problem with authority figures? You don’t recognize love when it is coming to you in a form that requires something from you.” She said, “Love? They are . . .” I held up my hand because it was my turn to talk. In five minutes, I got her to focus on the real issue -- her total lack of desire to become the skilled captain of her own ship.
I reminded her that part of the skill of a captain is relaxing in the summer breezes while the ship zips along on a surface of water that is as smooth as glass. The other part is the skill of sailing safely when the seas threaten to sink her ship.
She was bright and my words found their mark! She did not like hearing what I said but she had to admit that she could not function well when she felt no one loved her. She felt alone, misunderstood and abandoned. I reminded her that such times would come again when she is older. I reminded her that life cuddles no one and that right now she had the opportunity to master skills she did not have.
It was as though she was walking in a desert where she was a slave to what her passionate perceptions were telling her. She needed an attitude adjustment. She needed to reframe her experiences. She needed to take care of some issues within herself before she could understand more accurately what was coming up for her – an opportunity for developing skills that would serve her for the rest of her life. Her definition of what love should be was actually preventing her from experiencing it.
Love sometimes comes in a form that strips us of our self-assuredness, our cockiness, our comfort zones and successes. Sometimes love requires that we must first walk around blind and lost. We are angry when life is not the way we imagine it could be if we were writing our fairytale script. It is we who need to grow up. When we do, we learn that love was all around us in every experience but we were too emotionally bent out of shape to experience it.
Against this backdrop, listen to the words of our lesson today. The writer of the Gospel of Luke was quoting Isaiah.
Someone is shouting in the desert: “Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel! Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain leveled off. The winding roads must be made straight and the rough paths made smooth. The whole human race will see God’s salvation.”
We need to look at these timeless words metaphorically. They make no sense otherwise. Who among us is prepared to perceive God’s love when we have painful valleys that need to be filled in with healing, when we have experiences that have twisted us around the crooked roads of our neediness for others to make us happy and when we have sharp, jagged edges that need to be smoothed away because they have caused us to feel victimized by people and events? Who can feel God’s presence when we are looking for salvation from most of the responses to life we, ourselves, have created?
It is one thing to look at truth coming to us as a baby in a manger and quite another to realize the impact on us when that infant grew up and began telling people how to live. He taught his listeners to love their enemies, to forgive everyone with such regularity that forgiveness would become an automatic response, that people should embrace the Romans who make demands on them and to travel an additional mile because we choose to. He taught his listeners, “He or she who is without sin cast the first stone.” “Only if you are flawless,” Jesus taught, “dare you judge who among God’s many children is unworthy of God’s love.”
In order to develop a spirit that radiates the same light of compassion that we want from God, we cannot behave as that 14-year old who had committed her life to clinging only to the reality that she wanted, while refusing to love those whom she perceived as enemies, as unforgivable, as making unreasonable demands and as sinning against her by violating her personal freedoms.
If we do not take the time to transform our hearts and minds, we will always be looking for God to waltz into our lives, or come on the clouds to save us from our terrible circumstances. Jesus never taught such a thing. Rather, he taught us to bloom where we are planted just as he did. Jesus did not preach salvation, as we tend to define it. Rather he taught us how to be a light in darkness.
If we do not bring love to the table ourselves, the feast will be fed to those who do. How can people ever understand or perceive God’s many forms of expressing love when they already have a fixed image in their minds of how God creates? Be careful if you think you understand specifically the purposes of God. You may not be right.
Charles Dickens reminded us that Ebenezer Scrooge first had to fill in some deep valleys. He had to make straight some of his winding, twisted roads. He had to smooth out his rough edges. Ebenezer had to recapture his heart and mind that had been camouflaged by his passion for the things of this world. He had forgotten that his heart would always be where his treasure is. He had forgotten how compassion inspires generosity, thoughtfulness, joy and peace. These were treasures of the spirit that his money could not buy.
The moment he looked into his future and learned how his destiny would change if he changed, he became transformed. If only we could see ourselves, as God knows us to be, we would shed the petty clothing of this world so that others could see our shinning radiance.
Jesus came into the world to share a wisdom that remains the authentic jewel lying among countless counterfeits that only appear to glitter more brightly. There is only one reason for love coming into our world. It was to lead us out of Hell. It was to remind us that most of our troubles come from our perceiving without love.
Some of you may remember Mattie Stepanek. He was the young man who died of a rare form of muscular dystrophy in 2004. He was one of our neighbors who lived in Upper Marlboro with his mother. President Jimmy Carter wrote the forward in one of Mattie’s numerous books of poetry. These are his words,
Mattie Stepanek is my personal friend and one of the most remarkable young people I have ever known. He wants to be a peacemaker, and through his poems and own courageous example, he proves that finding peace within one’s self can lead to a harmony among families, communities, and nations. With wisdom and uncomplicated vision, Mattie reminds us how easy it is to forgive others, to find something amazing even in the most trivial things and to celebrate the little gifts of life each day. Journey Through Heartsongs will inspire readers of all ages with thoughts and images that bring both tears and expanded hearts.
In closing, I want to read one of Mattie’s short poems that reveals where this young man’s consciousness was rooted. He wrote this piece at the age of ten.
When I die, I want to be a child in Heaven. I want to be a ten-year-old cherub. I want to be a hero in Heaven and a peacemaker. Just like my goal on earth. I will ask God if I can help the people in purgatory. I will help them think about their life, about their spirits and about their future. I will help them hear their Heartsongs again so they can finally see the face of God. When I die, I want to be just like I want to be here on earth.
When we see with greater clarity what we have to do within ourselves, as Isaiah suggested, we would understand why it is we cannot earn what God gives away freely. To receive that gift, all we need to do is to give love away ourselves. There is no other way. In time, as Mattie suggested in his poem, we will see the face of God everywhere and in everyone.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments of reflection in our sanctuary. Our personal traditions, rituals and habits absorb our lives. We rush to meet self-imposed deadlines. Our homes become decorated. Our shopping centers bathe our senses with colors, music and sales. Yet, how isolated these events are from the birth that causes us to respond in these ways. For centuries humankind hungered for your presence and guidance. They looked for your coming in the form of another King David or coming as the Son of Man in the clouds. Who would have thought you would communicate your will for us through a form we could not recognize. Thank you for your faithfulness as we prepare ourselves to receive again your all-encompassing love. Amen.