"The Preoccupation of Spiritual Hunger"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 31, 2006
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Luke 2:41-52
The very curious response occurred when, out of nowhere, matters of spirit became the most important aspect of their lives. Some event, episode or experience seemed to flip a switch or trigger something in their consciousness. Their lives suddenly awakened to the spiritual dimension of life with such direct personal clarity that their lives were never the same. Let me give you two examples.
One woman in my past was almost inconsolable when her mother died. The two were inseparable. Betty Ann’s husband was a basketball coach and was gone for many weekends. His absence provided the opportunity for mother and daughter to embark on many adventures together.
Her mother had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness. There had been no personal time to say, “good-bye.” Since her mother was in her early 70s and was as energetic as a 40-year old, there appeared to be a lot of time left for all kinds of excitement and travel. Betty Ann’s vision of the future had vaporized just as it was beginning.
The preparation for the memorial service was difficult because she was angry with God. She felt robbed of her best friend, confidant and life companion. Her entire future appeared to be shattered because she could not see anything hopeful or positive now that her mother could no longer be part of her life.
When Betty Ann came to see me a month later, I was expecting that my task would be one of listening and consoling her as much as I could. I was pleasantly surprised. She was very composed. Then she told me about a recent experience and she wanted my thoughts.
Her mother awakened her from sleep one night by shaking her feet. Emily was seated at the edge of her bed radiating enough light to fill the room. That is where she sat when she would read bedtime stories to Betty Ann when she was a little girl. The two had a running conversation. Her mother reassured her that she was fine. She told Betty Ann that there was no pain during the process of death. She described it as going from one room into another.
She said, “We can even look the same as you remember us if we wish, however, there are no words in any language that could describe where I am. I came back to tell you that all is well and that God is beyond everything we were taught in Sunday school. Jesus was really one of us.”
Betty Ann asked, “Why don’t other deceased people come back and talk to their families? That would make going on with life much easier.” Her mother smiled and said, “You will have your questions answered when you leave. I came back to tell you not to hold on to me. What is important is that you have confidence that God will always surround you with love. Trust life. Bring to each moment the love you have and you will be guided by what you cannot see. Good-bye for now.” Her mother’s image faded. Emily had communicated without moving her lips.
I did not know how to respond. My experiences in this arena were very limited during the early days of my ministry. However, my thoughts would not have mattered. Regardless of what anyone told Betty Ann about her experience, no one could take it away from her. She told me that she had not been dreaming. She had not been hallucinating. She clearly had been awake and alert during the entire experience. I told her to write everything she could remember while all the details were fresh in her memory. She did and she gave me a copy.
Betty Ann felt both awkward and blessed because she experienced what literally millions of people have not. She became absorbed with Spirituality. She began reading books on angels, out of the body experiences, visions and prophecies. However, she always came back to what her mother told her, “What is important is that you have confidence that God will always surround you with love. Trust life. Bring to each moment the love you have and you will be guided by what you cannot see. Good-bye for now.” From that moment, Betty Ann’s life was never the same. She had an experience that was very similar to the resurrection experiences of the disciples.
A second example comes from the life of Shelly, a friend of Toni Roberson (Gangaji) who wrote the book, The Diamond in your Pocket. Shelly’s husband came home one day and announced that he wanted a divorce. He paid off the loans on the house, her car and left her with a $175,000 portfolio in her cash management account. He literally walked out of her life.
She had not been aware that their marriage was in trouble. She had so many questions. There had been no closure, no reasons for the marriage breakup, no horrible laundry list and no extramarital lover waiting in the wings. He simply did not want to be married anymore and he went to live in a community along the northwest coast of Spain where he could work more closely with one of his companies.
One evening she was walking along the beach near her home. She had not spoken to God since she was a little girl. Most of her words to God even during those days came from a prayer book her mother had given her. However, on this night she just started talking out loud about her loss, her upset and disappointment and about her dreams that would remain unfulfilled. She described what happened to her while she was speaking to the Creator of the universe.
My experience was like the opening of a clamshell. I found myself suddenly surrounded by spirit beings I could not see. I don’t know how many there were. I could feel them supporting me without words. They were warm in the cool breezes of the evening as though numerous pairs of arms were holding me. I felt my sorrow melting away or being lifted from me. I knew that everything was going to be all right and that my life was soon going to be defined by far more than my failed relationship with my husband.
Shelly suddenly found herself laughing and then dancing in the surf, behaviors that defied explanation given her circumstances. She had become awakened to the value of her life and she was beginning to become acquainted with a world she could not see.
Shelly had very limited knowledge or understanding of Christianity. What she experienced drew her into a level of awareness that helped her overcome our world of changes, losses and fear. She said, “My mind was opened to many possibilities I would never have considered without this experience. I remembered thinking at that moment, ‘I am whole and loved by God just as I am."
My point in relating these stories is that quite often it takes something extraordinary for us to begin our spiritual journey. Practicing our religious beliefs is different. St. Paul was a practicing Pharisee and was very secure with both his beliefs and his faith. However, he was only following what his ancestors had passed on through countless generations. It was not until he personally connected with that other world that he awakened to become the extraordinary missionary and author whose insights shaped Christianity. With these illustrations as a backdrop, let us turn to our Gospel lesson this morning.
What we have in today’s lesson is the only surviving story in the Scriptures featuring a brief episode of Jesus’ childhood. Something happened to Jesus that caused him to become curious about the world of spirit.
We can almost imagine him sitting in the Temple and asking questions of the religious teachers and priests. “Was the quality of our lives really governed by obedience to the Laws of Moses? Was the success of our lives really about Israel remaining faithful to its covenant with God? What is the meaning of life – our obedience and faithfulness? Those are self-protecting beliefs?” No doubt he asked, “Should we not learn to give to others without counting the cost? What are we doing for widows and the children orphaned by death?”
Jesus had become so intrigued by matters of spirit that his preoccupation distracted him from his responsibility of informing his parents where he was. Once they learned that Jesus was not among the other children, Mary and Joseph turned back to Jerusalem to find him. On the third day of their searching, they found him in the Temple listening to the Jewish teachers and asking questions.
Think of all the years Jesus spent alone working as a carpenter, supporting his mother, sisters and brothers. He suspected there was a world that no one can see. No doubt, he spent a great deal of time refining that understanding while working on products to sell in the villages.
This may be one explanation why he was prepared for what happened at his baptism. (Matt. 3:22) This is why he could feel spirit beings ministering to him after his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness (Matt. 4:11) just like Shelly. This is why Jesus was not surprised when spirit beings appeared to him on a mountain, an experience that sent Peter, James and John into hiding. (Matt. 17:2f) This is why he was strengthened by the vision of an angel while praying in the garden (Luke 22:43) just like Betty Ann.
Religions and religious beliefs keep before us the patterns of the holy life. We can be thoroughly ensconced in Christian education and yet have nothing more than second handed information that we call “our faith.” Again, Saul of Tarsus said the same thing before he dramatically awakened to become the Apostle Paul. The reason Jesus could speak “as one with authority” was because he knew intimately the world that is invisible to our senses.
Once we experience answered prayer, a miracle, an absolute off the charts coincidence, a vision and vivid dream, an out of the body experience during surgery, or a sense of Divine presence that overwhelms us, our lives become changed forever.
I wish I could give everyone a road map that guarantees that we will be able to pierce the veil of our material world that surrounds us. So many of the Christian mantras we have been taught that claim to do that, do not. We can have strong, powerful beliefs but quite often they are merely distillations of a faith orientation that others have cherished before us. With that said, I want to sow a seed in your garden this morning.
As long as we reverence the things of this world, the consciousness Jesus taught will elude us. For example, we cannot be in competition with other drivers on the highway. We cannot become emotionally distraught about what someone said. We cannot cheat on our income taxes. We cannot assume that God has abandoned us. We cannot question why we come this close to success and somehow opportunities slip from our grasp.
On and on we could go in listing our various responses to the aspects of life we literally reverence. What we reverence shapes and forms our lives. What we consider important becomes the foundation upon which we base our responses and decisions. Jesus faced these same roadblocks repeatedly with each audience he addressed.
Is it not fascinating that Jesus never wrote any books? Why was that? He had fabulous role models at his disposal. Numerous prophetic scrolls were in existence in Jesus’ day. Why did he not record his own thoughts for the future, as did Paul? No one really has the answer. Perhaps Jesus understood thoroughly that God would take care of such a detail. Jesus’ task, his mission statement, was to give form to and to describe the power of the invisible world that surrounds us.
He used the symbols that he hoped would help people see beyond this world. He called this awakened consciousness, “living in the Kingdom of heaven.” He used every metaphor he could think of to describe his Kingdom in terms others would understand.
If you would like to review some of these, read again chapter 13 in Matthew’s gospel. Communicating was Jesus’ biggest challenge. He was teaching people who seldom engaged in abstract thinking. He once told his disciples, “The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. The reason I use metaphors and parables is that they look, but do not see, and they listen, but do not hear or understand.” (Matt. 13:11-13) We can sense Jesus’ frustration about teaching those who were not capable of discerning the importance of his words.
In the New Year, he or she who seeks will find. He or she who knocks, the door will be opened. Once that door becomes opened, our appetite to connect the dots about the Kingdom Jesus brought will be insatiable. What Jesus brought has the enormous power to change everything in our world, i.e., how we perceive, how we interpret our experiences, how we detach from painful episodes, how we learn to stand on higher ground, but most importantly, how we learn to give ourselves away without counting the cost.
It requires little energy on our part to make a difference in this world. We first have to learn to let go of our need to make a difference and trust God to create through us. Look at what happened to Jesus who never wrote a single thought. He just spoke to audiences that did not understand. However, many people in the world today are still listening.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God of creation, as we approach the dawning of the New Year, teach us how best to reflect on the effectiveness of our lives. Jesus warned us not to look back, but we do. The vision of our past is much clearer from the present. We are painfully aware of the promises we made and did not keep, of relationships that we were going to mend, of habits we had hoped to change and of attitudes we were going to discard. A part of us longs for living faithfully a life that has learned how to make your presence visible. Yet another part of us knows we are living exactly how we want to live. Guide us to unite our hearts, minds and spirits so that we allow others to see your presence in the people we have become. Amen.