"Heaven Celebrates A Changed Mind"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 18, 2007
Joshua 5:9-12; Luke 15:1-10
There was also one community church in the village that served about 250 families. Nearly everyone went there on Sunday mornings. In the steeple hung the carillon that played seasonal music during the year. Everyone could set their watches and clocks by the Winchester chimes that announced the time every 15 minutes.
The inevitable happened, however. Change began to occur ever so slowly. Some people retired and moved away to be closer to their children. The new families entering the valley had little institutional memory of this little community. Some of them did not appreciate the racket created by the music from the church’s tower and took legal measures to have it stopped. They succeeded. Several young people decided one night to tip over some of the tombstones in the church’s cemetery. The traffic patterns had changed. Drivers were now exceeding appropriate limits on the village streets. For the first time in 65 years, the village had to post the speed limit.
There were growing tensions between those who had lived in the village all their lives and those who looked at this place as a bedroom community. The lives of the newcomers were anchored in the booming business center in town where most of them worked. They had not taken the time to get to know their neighbors.
One Saturday afternoon panic spread through one of the new families. Their 8-year old daughter was missing. She was to be home by 3:30 p.m. and it was now 4:15 p.m. No one remembered seeing her. The next-door neighbor of the distraught family called the pastor. The bell tower once again came to life with bells that signaled an emergency. Neighbors gathered and news of the missing girl quickly spread through the village. The search was on. It was now 6:00 p.m. and then 7:00 p.m. The sun was beginning to set and the evening was growing cool. Many feared that she had been abducted.
That evening human chains were formed as they combed the hillsides leading up to the mountains that surrounded the village. At 8:15 p.m., someone who had not given up the search heard the girl crying, sobbing and hyperventilating almost a mile from the village. One volunteer had located her as she sat on a fallen tree, shivering.
This strange man with his flashlight knelt down in front of her and said, “You are going to be okay, honey. Everyone in the village has been searching for you.” A call went to the pastor. The Alleluia Chorus played from the tower and everyone in the village knew that all was well. Little Becky had gone exploring and had become disoriented among the tall trees. She had walked for hours and had never heard the voices of those calling her name.
A number of things happened in that village when it was discovered that one of their children was missing. People learned that their heaven was the spirit of community that swung into action. Newcomers learned to appreciate the creative possibilities of the church’s carillon. Attitudes about the music from that church tower changed and once more its sounds filled the air with new meaning. People who had been neighbors for years met their new neighbors. From that day onward, everyone worked together to insure that the new spirit became permanent. Everyone had some adjusting to do. What was being lost had been rekindled.
This lengthy introduction preserves the meaning of Jesus’ stories about the lost sheep and the lost coin in our lesson today. In both instances when what was lost had been found, Jesus said, “I tell you the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents.”
The break in continuity could lead us to wonder, “Who was talking about sinners. People were happy for the shepherd when he found his lost sheep and for the woman when she found her lost silver coin. Where did the issue of sinning and repentance enter the picture?” These are good questions.
Everyone in the life of any church knows the meaning of the words “sinner” and “repentance.” In fact, there was a day when such labels were fair game for preachers who would seldom talk about anything else. Most of us grew up knowing that sinners were the bad guys and repentance had to do with the spiritual awakening of accepting Jesus as our savior and suddenly our lives joined those of the good guys.
As some of you know, I do not like labels, particularly when societies have supplied their definitions. For example, to sin does not put us in the company of the bad guys. To sin means that we missed the mark in terms of revealing the angel who lives within our solid form. It means to fall short in the way we use our creative energy. There are a lot of wonderful people who miss the mark with their lives. Each of us does this several times a day.
Likewise, repentance does not mean to surrender our lives to Christ as the Church has suggested through the years. When Jesus used the term during his ministry, there was no Christ. What he was asking people to do was to change their minds, change how they think and change how they respond. He wanted people to live in what he called, The Kingdom of God. He wanted nothing to hide the light his Father had placed within them.
During the Lenten season, people are called to repentance. We are invited to reflect on our lives in order to root out thoughts that do not fit those of angels. We are invited to discard habits that do not radiate our angelic nature. We are invited to look beyond the differences in people so that we allow them to be where they are in their spiritual journey without our making judgments about the quality of their souls. The Church has never received high marks in this area of its witness.
When we have a change of mind, heaven is restored for us. Heaven, when we are still in our physical forms, is a state of consciousness where love governs all other emotions, thoughts and responses. What was missing in the village was their consciousness of community where caring for each other had been of supreme value.
How many of us instantly lose this consciousness when we meet people whose values are different? Aggressive drivers cut us off in traffic and we label them “jerks, idiots or lunatics.” Someone is rude to us and we respond with attitudes that miss the mark. Some intoxicated, uninsured motorist totals our car and we become bitter for months. We had just made the last payment on the car and now we have to start the cycle all over again. We want this menace to society off the road and in the electric chair. The need for repentance is there even for good, decent people. Repentance is the process that fuels our evolution.
There is a large spacious cul-de-sac in Calvert County that was always magnificent at Christmas time. Families living there would put up lights in such remarkable configurations that people from miles around would bring their children to see the display.
A new family moved into the center of that cul-de-sac. When the four daughters left the home on their way to school, neighbors saw by how the girls were dressed that the family was Muslim. Christmas came and went and the dark house left a stain in the long-standing tradition that had once belonged to their neighborhood.
As spring approached the Muslims did not use any weed control. Dandelions and other weeds were everywhere. As the weeks went by it was obvious that no one intended to cut the grass. All the other lawns were immaculate but these people did not appear to care. Enough gossip had taken place among the new family’s immediate neighbors that it inspired someone to throw a rock through their living room window.
Late one afternoon two of the girls came out with cardboard and began using duct tape to repair the broken window. One of the neighborhood boys, who had come home from college for the weekend, noticed what a terrible job the girls were doing. He knew nothing of the gossip. He walked over to help them. As he approached he noticed that one of the girls began to cry because she was afraid of him.
As he helped them, he learned that their Dad had been in the hospital and later in a rehabilitation center for months. He had suffered a massive heart attack and had been near death a number of times. The older girl said, “We are different and we know that people don’t like us.” The boy said, “That’s not true. No one knows you. You are new neighbors. You should have said something.” The youngest said, “Who could we tell? We don’t know anyone. Someone threw a rock through our window. Why would someone do that?” He was silent.
The boy got his family’s mower, cut the grass and gathered up and bagged the clippings. When others learned that the new family was struggling, they changed their mind from all the assumptions they had made. The college boy’s family cut the grass regularly. Others in the community began bringing meals and helped this family regain a place of respect in the neighborhood. A spirit that was lost had been found. It had become easier for Christians to celebrate Jesus’ birth with outdoor decorations than to live what he had taught.
We are lost when who we are slowly becoming takes us away from the potential we are given at birth. It is so easy to allow our initial judgments to determine our responses. During Lent, we are called upon to repent, to change our minds. Everyone begins as good, decent people. Jesus came to the earth to remind us who we have the potential to be. In three of the Gospels Jesus said, “Those who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but only those who have lost their way.
An article in yesterday’s Washington Post drew my attention. A District Superior Court judge sentenced a 17-year old to 41 years in prison. After doing so he said, “I am not taking your life away from you, sir. You threw it away.” That young man did not begin life dreaming about engaging in robberies and sexual assaults when he got older. He missed a very crucial step in learning how to develop life skills that would allow his angel to become visible. He slowly put a basket over his light and lost his way.
Repentance is a process that each of us needs to engage in every day. Our attitudes do miss the mark. We do not stand as guardians over our thoughts as we could. We easily become lost in activities that do not polish our stone and do not allow our light to shine. We obscure the radiance of the angel that lives within us. Sometimes this happens without our realizing it.
Perhaps now we can understand why it is that angels celebrate when what was lost has been found. There is nothing worse than losing our identity because of what tempts us in the physical world. There is nothing greater or worth celebrating more than when we find it again.
The prodigal son remembered, “All I have to do is go home and become one of my father’s hired hands.” That is not what happened. The father saw him coming and celebrated, “This son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost but now he has been found.” It is interesting that in the Gospel of Luke the Parable of the Prodigal Son follows right after the two stories in our lesson today.
Remember, engaging in the process of changing how we think is the only way to continue our growth. We all miss the mark with our lives. How wonderful it is that we always have the ability to change how we think. We all know that no one can grow by staying as they are. Lent is the perfect time to reflect about the places on our diamond that still need to be polished.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
What peace comes over us, O God, when we understand that you love us just as we come before you. We are so much like students who have come to the Master carpenter to learn how to build a life. We thank you for inspiration and guidance. We thank you for the ability to change our minds, to refine our thoughts and to set our sights on more wholesome horizons. Spare us from attitudes that make us complacent, comfortable and satisfied with who we have become. Help us to remember that each day is a gift, each relationship is a treasure and each moment of uncertainty is a time when we can allow our trust in you to become visible. Use us as channels of inspiration for others. Amen.
Ever faithful and loving God, when we pause to recognize how our lives are filled with so many remarkable treasures, how easy it is to express the light that you have placed within us.
Yet we confess that our treasure trove of gifts is surrounded by clouds from our physical world that prevent the clarity of our vision. We cannot travel anywhere, listen to, watch or read the news without experiencing words and images that disturb and preoccupy us. There was a day when global information was not so readily available, but our world has grown smaller because of our technology. We have a hunger and a preoccupation to be exposed to what produces fear and uncertainty. Would that we would give equal time to reflecting on our blessings as well as the countless opportunities that surround us.
Inspire us during these days of Lent, to live peacefully. We have the power to allow our treasure trove of hope, generosity, peace and joy to become more visible. We have the ability to reflect what living in your Kingdom looks like even though countless others do not possess the consciousness to see what Jesus came here to give us.
Inspire our world leaders to recapture what has been lost -- that remarkable sense of what it means to live in community. Heal the ancient hurts. Offer us guidance filled with wisdom. Help us choose wisely when faced with circumstances that would prevent our lights from shining. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .