"The Slow World Stain"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 19, 2006

Psalm 19; John 2:13-22

    During my days of study at Wesley Theological Seminary, Dr. Lowell Hazzard introduced our Old Testament class to an interesting metaphor, the one that I used as a sermon title this morning.   His concept was simple and extremely accurate.  He grew up during the days of the depression and he had many illustrations of what he called the slow world stain.           

     He remembered when electricity was coming up the valley.  When it reached his house, instantly the kerosene lamps began to earn their label as being antiques.  When his mother got her electric stove, the wood stove was kept to heat the house.  Soon knickknacks were sitting on it but eventually the wood stove was gone.             

     Some of you may remember the layperson that used to come to your church at 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning to stoke the potbelly stove so the congregation would be warm by the 11:00 a.m. service.  This was an early version of outsourcing since few preachers were going to get up at that hour. 

     Some of you may recall how long it took for many congregations to think about air-conditioning the church.   For a long time, when air-conditioning was looked upon as a luxury, installing one was not part of any plan by church trustees. However, once this seemingly miraculous product became standard in all homes and cars, church families reconsidered their earlier position.            

     Dr. Hazzard called this process the slow world stain because he was illustrating our movement in tiny increments toward more and more creature comforts.   When we think about it, most of us can recognize this movement in our own lives.            

     I met Lois at Albright College in Reading, Pa.  In those days, women had to be in their dorm rooms by 10:00 p.m. on school nights.  Staying out until midnight was allowed only on weekends. Women had to wear dresses or skirts for dinner in our dining hall. Guys had to wear sport coats.   Of course, we had linen table clothes and napkins to go along with such a setting.  Most of us know “how ancient” such behavior would be viewed today.           

     You may have read the front-page article in the Washington Post yesterday entitled, Cooking 101:  Add 1 Cup of Simplicity.  In spite of the numerous cooking shows on television, industries from Kraft Foods to Betty Crocker have recreated recipes that no longer feature words like, dredge, braise, fold, cream and sauté.  The sentence that best captures the essence of the article was this one: “When the country’s top food companies want to create recipes that millions of Americans will be able to understand, there seems to be one guiding principle:  They need to be written for a nation of culinary illiterates.”   This is a direct result of the slow world stain.            

     I hope I live long enough to see the gigantic number of changes that might cause today’s younger generations to look back on with a touch of nostalgia.  What customary, character-building and socially acceptable behavior will be totally outdated thirty-five years from now?     

     Today’s lesson in the Gospel of John records the moment when Jesus emotionally lost control.  This episode occurred around the time of Passover.  He entered the Temple in Jerusalem and became so angered that he turned over the tables of those who changed international coins into ones that could be used in Jerusalem.  He made a whip and drove sheep and cattle out of the Temple.  He ordered those who sold doves, “Take them out of here!  Stop making God’s house a marketplace and a den  of thieves.”           

     Before we come back to the slow world stain, let us first examine the context of this episode.  What had made Jesus so enraged?   It was mandatory that every adult male Jew living within 20 miles of Jerusalem attend the Passover Feast.  In Jesus’ day, Jews were scattered all over the world, but they never forgot their ancestral land.  In any given year it was not inconceivable that Jerusalem’s population during Passover could swell to well over two million people.  Such a throng of pilgrims made an attractive environment for profiteering by the Temple authorities.           

     Jews earned about eight cents a day.  There was a Temple tax of two days wages that had to be paid.  Silver coins from Rome, Greece, Egypt, Tyre, Sidon and Palestine were circulating everywhere.  The Temple tax, however, had to be paid in Galilean coinage.  Foreign currencies were not acceptable as a worthy tribute to God.  The logical place to exchange currency was the Temple.           

     From secular records from the time of Jesus, we know that the Temple tax generated about $175,000 for the Temple’s on-going operations.  The exchange rates generated $25,000 profit for the moneychangers.  Jesus was furious that many people, who could least afford this required tax, were being fleeced by the moneychangers.      

     Secondly, Jesus was infuriated because people had to bring perfect, flawless and unblemished animals to sacrifice to God.  Outside the Temple, for example, a pair of doves would cost nine cents.  Inside the Temple, an identical pair would cost $1.80.  The Temple authorities that inspected all livestock engaged in extortion by finding fault with animals purchased outside the Temple.  These two issues were totally unacceptable to Jesus causing him to label all participants as “a den of thieves.” 

     How did the Temple become a place where such racketeering became so commonplace and acceptable?  How did the Temple officials grow less careful of what was sacred? What happened to their remembrance of God’s words to Moses, “Take off your shoes, for the ground upon which you are standing is Holy ground?”  The answer is found in a very slow process Dr. Hazzard called the slow world stain.

     The systematic robbery of the Passover pilgrims by Temple officials had started many years before Jesus’ arrival in history.  For example, when Crassus captured Jerusalem in 54 BC, he raided the Temple treasury of over five million dollars.   Historical records show that he stole only what he and his men could carry.  Considerable wealth was left behind.   

     The slow world stain has the power to erode our historic, cultural, religious and personal values.  For example, from a personal standpoint, how easy it is today for us to forget the importance of boundaries.  How easily we set aside our manners, if we were ever taught them.  How often we misplace our respect for authority.  We easily justify our use of inappropriate language.   After all, it pours into our living space every evening.  Very violent video games train our children in the skills that terrorists use.  The only time a linkage between such games and behavior is considered is in the wake of a murderous rampage like the one some years ago at Columbine high school. 

     The slow world stain has a way of clouding our vision and easing us into a false sense of security until someone or something enters our personal domain or into our cultural setting and turns everything upside down.   

     Not too long ago I entered a mega church and greeted what I saw with a broad mixture of emotion.  I looked at millions of dollars of electronic wizardry, posh seating for thousands of people, an acoustically perfect sound system, a fellowship hall replete with large flat screen monitors every 20 feet along the sides so that no one could miss the events taking place up front and a parking lot that would accommodate thousands of cars.   

     Some churches have a Starbucks franchise inside their facility, gift shops, bowling alleys, family life centers and state-of-the-art sound and broadcasting studios.  Some of them own retreat centers on prime real estate.  I am not clear where the mega-church movement is headed, but my intuition tells me that it is bordering on big business. 

     Worship is becoming theater, high drama and entertainment. It is very sensual and emotionally stimulating.  The lights and the carefully choreographed music have a hypnotic, seductive effect on participants.  Such drama may have little to do with helping people learn how to live peacefully in a diverse community.  This style of worship may have little to do with the teaching of a humble carpenter who had no place to lay his head.     

     As more of our municipality, state and national leaders look for more sources of revenue to service their mounting debts, I do not think it will be too long before the Internal Revenue Service will enter the Temple courtyard and turn the tables of the moneychangers upside down. 

     The slow world stain is among all of us and is impacting all of us.  A rapid acceleration of the occurrence of skin cancer and the increased violence from hurricanes and tornadoes reflect the growing concerns by the scientific community that the results of global warming are here.  What we saw with Katrina and Rita may be just the beginning of Nature’s increased violence to states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.    

     The temptations that are unique to our generation are to reach for a bottle of medication rather than engaging in meditation, to start our day with Starbucks rather than prayer, to center our lives on worries and what we are lacking in life rather than on our blessings, and to dwell on our failings rather than savoring the adventure the precious gift of life gives us the opportunity to experience. 

     Think of what would be missing in your lives if thoughts of God, thoughts of St. Matthew’s and thoughts about what is sacred were gone from your minds.  The truth is it is never too late to address the slow world stain with a little Clorox.  

     Jesus came into our midst to help choose between this world and his.  We can become the leaven for the loaf as he was.  It is so easy to lose our sense of the sacred.  If it happened to the Temple authorities, think of how easy it is for us.   Jesus may have been fearful that people in the future might forget him and what he taught during his ministry.  He gave his disciples the bread and the fruit of the vine along with his words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”             

     While visiting Ruth Cagle last week, she let me examine a little book with a CD in the back that she played for me.  When I left her apartment, I went to Borders and bought it.  The little book is entitled, I Hope You Dance by Mark Sanders and Tia Sellers.  The CD in the back brings their words alive through the voice of Lee Ann Womack.   

     First, this is what Lee Ann wrote: 

When I heard the lyric of I Hope You Dance the first time, my children came to mind immediately.  These are the things I want for them in life:  to feel small when they stand beside the ocean, to give faith a fighting chance, to give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.  I remembered thinking, “If they understood the meaning of this lyric when they’re grown, I’ll have done my job as their mother.”           

I had nothing to do with the writing of this song or this book, but, thankfully, I’ve been asked to be a part of both. Mark and Tia have done a beautiful job – as our writers in Nashville are known to do – of putting into words the very things that the rest of us want and need to say but aren’t quite sure how.  They are masters of their craft and I consider myself truly blessed to have been the vehicle to bring their song to so many millions of people. 

     And now the words of the song:

I Hope You Dance

                                         I hope you never lose your sense of wonder

You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger

May you never take one single breath for granted

God forbid love ever leaves you empty-handed

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean

Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens

Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance. . . I hope you dance

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance

Never settle for the path of least resistance

Livin’ might mean takin’ chances but they’re worth takin’

Lovin’ might be a mistake but it’s worth makin’

Don’t let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter

When you come close to sellin’ out  reconsider

Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance . . . I hope you dance

Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.

Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder

Where those years have gone.

I hope you dance. . . I hope you dance

I hope you dance. 

     We don’t have to wait for someone or something to turn our lives upside down.  We can pay attention to the results of the slow world stain and clutch our faith just a little tighter as we continue our walk through Lent with Jesus who experienced everything that we do but never lost his vision of where we need to go.  Even as he hung on the cross dying, he was still pointing to what living in the Kingdom of God looked like.  He invited us to follow.     


     Eternal God, your presence is made known through spring flowers, songbirds, rainbows and sunshine.  Yet we prefer to seek you in miracles of our choosing and in stories from our faith history.  You surround us with everyday blessings that we easily take for granted; we grow frustrated just as easily when our faith is not rewarded as we had hoped.  Thank you for understanding that we are creatures of habit.  Thank you for remembering that we are like children who often do not recognize what is sacred, who seek validation in places that cannot provide it and who fail at expressing our gratitude for all that you freely provide.  During our Lenten walk, open our eyes that we might see you more clearly and love you more dearly day by day.  Amen.


     Loving God, as we continue to reflect on enhancing the meaning and purpose of our lives, may we never lose sight of the mystery and wonder of creation.  You gave us the potential for wisdom and for developing our imaginations.  You gave us minds that we might think with greater clarity.  You gave us emotions that we might experience life with a remarkable intensity for feeling everything between pain and joy.  

     As we continue our journey during these Lenten days, help us to keep our eyes fixed on the horizons of life that Jesus pointed to with his life.  We have discovered that we cannot progress spiritually at the speed that we would like, but we can learn how to stay awake.  We can remain alert to those moments when we begin to lose our boundaries, to those times when we build barriers, to those attitudes that do not reflect your presence and to those moments when we insist that others must live up to our expectations.   

     Help us to find the peace that comes by surrendering ourselves to the flow of your Spirit through us.  Help us to remember that extending ourselves in love is effortless when we understand that you are touching others through our words, our lightheartedness and the kindness of our perspective.  We pray all of these things through the loving and peaceful spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .