"The Joy Of Shedding Our Husks"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 17, 2006

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7a, 10-18

    For the last eleven years, I have been invited to speak to our church’s Boy Scout troop during their annual Christmas service.  That occasion occurred last Tuesday.   I am sure that a number of adults and some of the Scouts wondered about my topic.  About the only thing I said regarding Christmas was that our celebration marked the day when Jesus entered our world.   

     After that opening, I said nothing about the host of Christmas themes I could have chosen.  I spent the bulk of my time telling stories that illustrated what his humble beginning accomplished once that child became an adult.  

     Do we ever wonder about what our following Jesus has accomplished during our lives?  For example, how long does it take for the afterglow of Christmas to wear off?  How long does it take for us to plunge headlong into our former lifestyles and daily rituals, almost as though nothing happened during Christmas but an annual event where parties and family gatherings marked our landscape?             

     Many of us enjoy the entire Christmas season and the long, lazy week between our celebrations of Jesus’ birth and the New Year.  We enjoy giving and receiving.  We enjoy the aromas that come from the kitchen and letting go of our diets for a while as we eat seasonal foods that we may bypass during the rest of the year.  We delight in getting the cards, sometimes with lengthy letters attached, that up-date us on the life-events of people whom we have not heard from since last Christmas.             

     For a brief moment our physical environment is transformed.  Driving around Bowie at night always presents us with a portrait of how creative some people can be with their outdoor decorations. Our shopping centers are teeming with people and the stores open earlier and close later for our convenience.  We especially enjoy shopping at Kohl’s at 6:00 a.m. or dropping by Macy’s at midnight.             

     There is nothing that better illustrates the thrill of parents giving their children a gift for which they have longed than the new BMW commercial that features two small children screaming and screaming as they unwrap a large box.  The parents have their camcorders running to capture each moment of their children’s excitement.  For those kids the kingdom has come because of what is in that box.   

     Somehow children are supposed to translate their experiences of receiving into understanding how God extended divine love to us in the physical form of Jesus.  Quite often, however, with all their excitement children do not make that connection.            

     Once a family had gone to grandma’s to celebrate Thanksgiving.  As soon as little Logan received his plate of food, he began to eat.  Upon seeing this, his mother said, “Wait until we say our prayer.  Where are your manners?”  The little guy responded, “We don’t need to.”  “Of course, we do” his mother insisted.  “We always say a prayer before eating at our house.”  “That’s at our house,” Logan explained, “but this is Grandma’s house and she knows how to cook.”  Obviously, no one had taken the time to explain why we express our gratitude to God at mealtime.

     It is wonderful to celebrate the beginning of Jesus’ life with parties and activities just as we enjoy hamburgers and hotdogs on the 4th of July.  While talking to the Boy Scouts, I wanted them to know what makes the values they recite in their Scout Law and Oath visible in their lives.   

     Values that build strong character and integrity are useless if we do not choose them.   However, when we choose to allow certain values to mold our lives, there are many other values that must fall by the wayside.  Jesus came to teach us that his kingdom of hope, love, joy and peace is within us.   Experiencing these qualities of spirit is a matter of choice.

     The text that I am using this morning is recorded in our Gospel lesson today.  John the Baptist was telling those who had gathered at the edge of the Jordan River that the coming Messiah will bring something with him.  John said, “He will have his winnowing tool with him to thresh out all the grain so that he can gather the wheat into his barn.  He will also gather the husks that fall away from the wheat and throw them into a fire that never goes out.”             

     In the newest translation of the Bible from Eugene Peterson, we find these words, “He’s going to clean house – make a clean sweep of your lives.  He’ll place everything true about life in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”      

     Most of us have learned that what we think about constantly grows within us.  We also know that some values have the power to consume our destiny.  For example, rapists do not become sexual predators over night.  Video game addicts do not become prisoners of their imaginary worlds with only an occasional use of a Star Wars adventure.  The obesity of a high percentage of our nation’s people did not occur by an incidental hot fudge sundae or an occasional deep dish Sicilian pizza with all the toppings on it.   Ever so slowly, each thought, each response creates who we have become.              

     We celebrate Christmas because a baby born 2006 years ago grew up to teach a new understanding about human consciousness that would enhance the quality of our lives.  He taught his listeners which values would produce such a result.  He taught that we could become new creatures when we shed our husks.  Jesus could thrash the wheat from our husks   

     When we follow his teachings, what is left standing is a person who has become freed from the values that cause us to become greedy, to seek revenge, to grow angry when our world is not the way we want it or to lust after what we do not need.             

     During the late ‘60s, I was the coordinator of a drop-in center for troubled teenagers called The Lighthouse.  We had about 35 students from area universities who had been trained to deal with teen issues. One of our counselors was involved in a car accident and he asked me to co-sign a loan for him so he could get his car repaired.  Everything seemed quite reasonable so I did.  He made three payments on that loan and then left the area.  I never saw him again.

     Lois and I had our first baby at the time and our finances were limited.  I found myself reliving the pain of this young man’s deceptive deed each time I wrote the monthly check to cover his loan. One day, it dawned on me that not only was he stealing money from me, now my memory of him was growing a smoldering resentment that was poisoning my own mind.  That was too expensive. I countered this growing response with singing each time I wrote the check.  This experience was like a thrashing machine that tore away my husks.  

     The scales of justice hang within us. Absolutely no one gets away with anything in this life.  We cannot hide from God or ourselves what our decisions and thought patterns are making of us. The young man who left me a large bill to pay would always remain exactly as he is until he learns to shed his husks.  I was determined that he was not powerful enough to cause a resentful spirit to grow within me.  That was not who I wanted to be.              

     Listen to how Paul described this shift of consciousness when he wrote a letter to the Philippians, “All the things that I once thought were so important are gone from my life.  Compared to what I have learned from Jesus, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant.  I’ve dumped it all into the trash so I can embrace God and be embraced by God.”  (Phil. 3:9 Peterson)    

     Those who do not play by anyone’s rules but their own will always be among us.  We will be lied to.  People may break into our homes and take property for which we have worked hard to acquire.  Businesses and banks will continue to be robbed at gunpoint.  People who have not learned anything about their purpose for being born will always be out there.  As Jesus once taught, the weeds and the wheat must grow together until the harvest.                

     We celebrate Christmas because Jesus grew up to give us the most significant lesson any fully awake person can learn.  He refused to be a victim while hanging on a cross.  He glowed with loving energy even though nails had been driven into his hands and feet.  He continued to care for others as he asked John to look after his mother and as he spoke reassuringly to the thieves hanging on either side of him.  He forgave others automatically who have done their worst to him.   

     There can be no greater image of how life can be lived than what Jesus showed us from that cross. He had shed the husks of his physical nature.  He demonstrated how he had overcome the world, a world that so many of us still believe is the only one we have.  We are wrong.  There is a gigantic, infinite world that we cannot experience with our physical senses.  That world stands ready to embrace us the moment we awaken.           

     In many respects we are just like the Jews of old.  They were jubilant over the Passover, their exodus from Egypt and the countless acts of God they witnessed during their liberation.  God had defeated Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.    

     Yet, how quickly they forgot God’s presence when life confronted them with scarcity.    They came to Moses while in the desert demanding bread, meat and water. “Have you brought us out into the desert to die?” they asked.  “We had life much better in Egypt.  At least there we had plenty to eat and drink.”   

     Like them, our short-term memories of God’s daily presence fade when life becomes challenging.  Don’t let it.  We frequently make judgments about life without the slightest clue of where our unsettling experience might be leading us.  We ignore the adventure because we crave security that comes from our plans.              

     Advent gives us plenty of moments to reflect on life.  More importantly, we can reflect on what our choices have thus far created.  Every day is a new diamond that can easily be polished once we decide that life is our personal adventure into our personal evolution and growth.  Everyday gives us a new opportunity to present to the world a different version of who we are.  I will close with this poem.   Its entitled, Faces of Faith.

I wish that the people who have anger and hatred and sadness will remember about their Heartsongs and get them back.  Everyone is born with a Heartsong, but as we grow up, sometimes we forget about it, because we don’t listen to it enough.    And the people of war, well, they really need to get them back.  Their Heartsongs really need to live because when we die, they are what rise up.  I want that to happen to me.  I want my Heartsong to rise up, and I am trying my best down here on earth.  You really can go to heaven.  Everyone can.  But sometimes you have to sit in Think Time  (his version of “a time out.”) when you lose your Heartsong.  And that is sad because some people who go to sit in Think Time never come back.  And some people who remember who they are, they come back.  But if we remember to listen to our Heartsongs, we will not need to go to Think Time.  Our songs will just rise up out of our hearts, and take our spirits straight on to Heaven.  I will remember to listen to my Heartsong.  I will remind others, especially the grown-ups, to listen to theirs too.  And for the people who have forgotten theirs, I will share mine with them.  Maybe they will keep mine, and maybe it will remind them of their own.  But what really matters is that we keep the faces of faith, and listen to our Heartsongs, and live so that we can die and live again. 

     Mattie Stepanek, the young boy whose poem I read for you last week, wrote this poem when he was six years old.  When we capture our Heartsong, we will remember the music that celebrates our harmony and union with God, a reality we forget the moment we are born into our physical forms.  However, once we awaken to our heartsong’s delicate harmonies and melodies, we will remember and become the joyous angels in the flesh God designed us to be.


     Loving God, we thank you for creating us with the ability to give away and to receive love. Help us to remember that when we cannot extend ourselves with love, we often cannot receive it.  Heal us of having expectations of others that prevent us from being kind.  Inspire us to be generous of heart when we are among others whose values are different.  Cause us to radiate optimism that enhances our ability to encourage and teach others about your presence among us.  Help us to let go of those qualities of spirit that may prevent us from becoming instruments through which your music plays. At the beginning and the ending of each day, may you find us filled with gratitude and joy for your being our constant companion and friend.  Amen.