"The Gift Of Remaining Open"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 21, 2007

Psalm 19; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

     A couple that I married quite some time ago was in Bowie recently.  When I saw them, I was astonished by how they looked.  Both of them had been fairly stout as I remember.  Now, some 18 years later, the two people standing in front of me had literally transformed their appearance.  Had I seen them on the street, I doubt I would have recognized them.             

     They had come to Maryland for a wedding and stopped by the office.  What they told me has become a familiar story for a number of people.  Both of them had grown bodies that were in excess of 200 lbs.  They were not feeling well.  They found it difficult to walk any distance without their breathing and pulse rates skyrocketing.  Their knees were giving them difficulties.            

     Just as the low-carbohydrate-high protein diets were giving hope to many Americans, both of them made the decision to follow the new craze.  One of them went with the South Beach Diet and the other with the Atkins.  They immediately began to shed the pounds. Next, they turned off the television set and worked out together in their home.  She went with a treadmill and he went with a Bowflex.  Then at their chosen halftime, they switched machines.   

     Their lives were totally transformed by putting to use information that had been around for generations, i.e., eat sensibly, exercise and be very moderate in the consumption of sugar and alcohol.            

     They both claimed that it was very difficult in the beginning to build into their lives a routine that they had never had.  She said, “We both felt it was too late for us.  Our bodies were so out of shape and unhealthy because of years of neglect.  But now, we cannot believe the quality of our lives.  We have energy to spare.  We sleep well.  And we are always looking for places to get into trouble.  However, that proverbial journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step.”   

     Translated, getting into trouble meant taking dance lessons, going on cruises and backpacking in some of our National Parks.  Anyone talking to them would feel their energy and spirit radiating from them.  Both of them had rediscovered a familiar truth because they were open and ready for change.  This morning we will consider how open we are to new directions for our lives, particularly when we are positive that we are fine and that life is good.           

     Our lesson today comes from the book of Nehemiah that describes a pivotal point in the culture and history of Judaism.   The Jews experienced a transformation when they were exposed to the reading of Moses’ Law, a body of material that had been lost.   

     Following a major conflict that destroyed Jerusalem, the Jews who possessed potential and skills were enslaved and taken to Babylon.  Those who were left behind became known as Judeans.  Fending for themselves often meant interracial marriages and the fading of any remembrance of God’s presence in their lives.  The loss of a growing faith can happen to anyone at any time.      

     It might be helpful for us first to consider some history before we discern the message this story has for us.  Nehemiah was one of these captive Jews who possessed many skills.  He had risen to the rank of being the cupbearer of the Persian King.  He was the highly trusted official who guaranteed that the king’s wine had not been poisoned.  When word reached Nehemiah that the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruins, he wept.           

     When King Artaxerxes noticed Nehemiah’s sadness, he inquired as to the reason.  Upon hearing from his servant the cause of his strong emotions, he gave him orders to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls. Nehemiah went to Jerusalem with an elite military contingent and Jewish laborers.  There was high drama when he arrived and a cultural clash between the returning Jews and the Judeans who had been left behind.  There were assassination plots and intrigue.  This book is a good read!  You might want to read it this afternoon.              

     Nehemiah told his listeners that he had been empowered by God to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.  The local people scoffed at such a claim.  They made fun of the feeble Jews who were doing the building and claimed that the construction of the walls was so poor that a fox could bring them down just by walking on them. (Neh. 4:2-3)  Almost miraculously, the walls and gates to the city were repaired in 52 days.  Surrounding nations were both astounded and fearful of Nehemiah’s power and abilities.           

     Nehemiah is represented in the Scriptures as the primary architect of the Jewish faith as it is practiced today.  Not only did he rebuild the city, but tradition also claims that in addition to gathering the five books of Moses, he restored the rest of the Scriptures to the Temple.           

     The chief priest, Ezra, gathered the people into the square and the Law was read to them.  This was the first time anyone had heard the words of Moses.  Once the Law was read, other priests known as Levites gave the audience an oral translation so that they could understand God’s will for them.             

     Our lesson says, “When the people heard what the Law required, they were so moved emotionally that they began to cry.”  Ezra said, “No, you are not to be sad.  This is a time of celebration.  This day is holy to the Lord your God.  Go home and have a feast.  Share your food and wine with those who do not have enough.”  They went home and did as Ezra had told them because they understood what had been read to them.           

     In no time, people came together in gratitude and were eager to hear about the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.    Their rituals and recitations awakened within them a love for their identity as God’s people.  So many of their attitudes and behaviors that did not honor God, were discarded.  Does our faith and trust in God generate that kind of enthusiasm? Are we empowered to transform how we think and how we behave?   

     Many years ago when I was the pastor of our church in Arden, I conducted a memorial service for a young man who had been killed on his motorcycle.  He had been part of a gang and had gotten caught up in drug and alcohol abuse.  I remember going to the funeral home in Charles Town on the evening when the family had their visitation.  The air was blue with the choking exhaust from cigarettes.  The place was crowded.  All the players were there with their tattoos, motorcycle jackets and uniforms that featured their rank in the various motorcycle clubs.  They turned out for one of their own.           

     During the service the next day, I reminded the group that happiness was not something that is automatic because a person belongs to the right club, or has the right look or hangs out with the right people.  Happiness was a quality of spirit that bubbles up from within when the person is doing something for someone else.   

     Whether these rough looking people believed it, I reminded them that they had taken that step by being there for Johnny and his family during a very difficult time.   Understanding the meaning of my words made a number of these tough looking people weep, as did the Jews when they heard a truth with which they resonated.           

     When I was walking toward my car following the service, I noticed a young woman standing under the shade of a tree.  I was ready to open the door of my car when I felt her spirit reaching out to me.  I turned around and said, “Did you wish to speak to me?”  She said, “Yes.”  She was out of place.  Her dress code was church and Sunday school.  Most of the people who attended the service were dressed for a motorcycle rally.             

     She said, “I have gone to church all my life and I believe in God with all my heart.  I need to know if Johnny went to Heaven.  Please tell me the truth.  I need to know.”  I asked, “Were you his girlfriend?”  She said, “Yes.”  I asked, “Did you love him?” Choking back tears she said, “Oh, yes, very much.  I was the only one who really understood Johnny.   He was a wonderful person.  In fact, most of the guys are when you get each one by himself.”  Then I said, “If you loved him in spite of all that you knew about him, think about how much more God loves Johnny.”  She opened up her arms, grabbed me and exploded with uncontrollably sobbing.  We exchanged energy until her spirit became peaceful again.           

     She had been in church all her life and was not sure if God’s love was capable of exceeding her own.  Where are we in our walk with God?   We have beliefs.  We are in church.  We get involved in missions.  How many of us are like the young woman who knew the words to describe her Scripture-based faith and yet lacked the confidence of spirit when a BIG reversal in life’s direction appeared on her landscape  

     Recently, Mel Grier sent to me an interesting list of questions to ponder. Our answers may reveal who we have become and how open we are to changing the direction of our lives.  Here they are: 

1.  Isn’t it strange how a 20-dollar bill seems like a large sum of money when we contribute it to the church, but such a small amount when we go shopping? 

2.  Isn’t it strange how 2 hours seems like a long time when we are at church, and how short they seem when we are watching a good movie?  

3.  Isn’t it strange that we can’t find a word to say when we are trying to pray, but we have no trouble coming up with words when we are speaking with a friend? 

4.  Isn’t it strange how difficult and boring it is to read one chapter of the Bible, but how easy it is to read 100 pages of The DaVinci Code

5.  Isn’t it strange how people want front-row-tickets to concerts, plays, the opera or athletic events, but choose to sit in the back of the church? 

6.  Isn’t it strange how we need to know about church events 2-3 weeks ahead of time so we can include them in our schedule, but we can adjust immediately to more exciting events when they come up at the last minute? 

7.  Isn’t it strange how difficult it is to share profound insights about God while it remains easy to repeat gossip? 

8.  Isn’t it strange how we give credibility to the information that we find in magazines and newspapers but question what we find in the Bible? 

9.  Isn’t it strange how people want to go to heaven, but they do not want to develop the quality of spirit that would place them there now?  

10. Isn’t it strange how we can send jokes about blondes around the world 10 times but sending a message about God’s love to a friend may give us pause?  

     Spiritual nourishment is not like feeding the body.   We can coast for months and years without realizing that we are not growing that invisible quality that has the power to transform us every day.  Our marriages grow stale.  Our work environment becomes boring.  We grow careless in performing our responsibilities.  These events happen while we are busy assigning blame elsewhere from where it belongs.   

     The couple I mentioned earlier did not awakening one morning to discover that their bodies were over 200 pounds.  The young woman who was standing under the tree was not aware that her faith had not evolved until she was confronted with something that made her doubt.  The Judeans and the Jews were not aware that their lives were missing the dynamic presence of God until they discovered that they had been living in a vacuum that did not include the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  

     Can we create a better version of ourselves today than we were yesterday?  God created us for growth and evolution, not coasting and drifting because we believe that life is good.  What spiritual skills are we sharpening?  How has our understanding of faithfulness deepened from the days of instruction by our childhood Sunday school teachers?  Are we truly open to God’s presence so that each day becomes like a diamond to be polished?  I hope so, because each day is just that – one moment in time to continue our transformation and evolution. 


     Loving God, even though our New Year resolutions are fresh in our memories, we still enter our worship experience with minds and hearts that need to be coaxed into solitude.  There are times when it is difficult to be open to your guidance.  There are people in our midst who challenge our ability to love.  The demands of life appear to take from us more than we are willing to give.  Move us beyond such thoughts.  May we understand that with your presence within us, our reservoir of kindness is always replenished.  As we follow the Master, may we do so with the sense of joy – not sacrifice.  May we seek to give away our gifts of spirit rather than receive what we feel we deserve.  Thank you for giving us insights into your guiding presence.  Amen.