"All Rivers Begin As Trickling Springs"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 20, 2008

Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42


     One of my favorite remembrances of my Grandpa Stetler was when he took me fishing for trout, bass or pickerel.  Sometimes we would travel great distances like to Perry Sound in Canada where we spent a week amid 10,000 lakes.  On another occasion, we found ourselves slogging through a marsh.  We paused by a group of springs that were perking out of the ground.  He said, “I wanted you to see this.  This is the eastern source of the Susquehanna River.”  I said, “Do you mean the same river that flows through Harrisburg?”  He said, “Yes.  This is where that river begins.”  I have never forgotten that moment.

     This morning’s Gospel lesson is very similar to viewing the source of so much that we call sacred.  John’s Gospel has helped readers through the centuries to examine the source of a revolutionary way of thinking, a new way of processing experiences and a bird’s eye view of the trickle that would one day become a massive river known as Christianity.  

     While Jesus was still gathering his disciples, John the Baptist pointed to him and said to two of his own disciples, “There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  This morning we are going to explore John’s words from a very different perspective.  Christianity evolved from the teachings of one carpenter and his twelve disciples.    This morning we are going to examine how Jesus changed the consciousness of humanity.

     Most of us understand the concept of evolution.  We typically associate any discussion on this topic with the clash between science and religion, e.g., did humankind evolve from lower life forms or did God suddenly establish humanity in the Garden of Eden?  What has more relevance for us is the evolution in our thinking that many of us have experienced during our own lifetime. 

     For example, twenty-five years ago I was sitting in the living room of a 94-year old gentleman named Kenna Livesay. He remembered the Spanish-American War.  He knew the intrigue surrounding the mysterious explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.  He remembered when President McKinley declared war and our Navy defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila. But more interesting than the geopolitical issues of his youth, Kenna experienced growing up in the trickle of creativity that one day would become a larger river of products and services that we take for granted today.

     He told me stories about rural America, the source of what we take for granted today.  He recalled the more primitive techniques of farming, cooking, making butter down at the springhouse, delivering babies at home, having doctors come to the house in their horse and buggy and their laughter at seeing the first cars. 

     He recalled the miracle of electricity coming through wires that would eventually do away with the kerosene lanterns in his home.  He remembered when the iceman delivered a block of ice that went in the top of what we now call our refrigerators.  Non-homogenized milk came from their cows and each container of straight milk was loaded with cream that rose to the top.

     Sometimes we find ourselves frustrated when some of our products do not work to our satisfaction.  We need to allow gratitude to be in the mix of emotions so that we can celebrate the distance we have come.  A good number of us are too far removed from the inventiveness and creativity of our foremothers and fathers to achieve the appropriate level of appreciation for our inherited lifestyle.

     When our son attended Clemson University, we bought him a secondhand bike from a man that lived in the neighboring community of Seneca.  The person who sold us the bike had a warehouse filled with antiques.  He invited us to see his collection.  The owner had assembled an array of products that were considered new advances in technology in their day.

     He would say, “Look at this and tell me what you think it was used for.” On many occasions, we had no idea.  He had instruments that physicians used during surgery that were one hundred and fifty years old.  Yes, gratitude is the proper emotion for appreciating these pioneers in every field. 

     Even children in our church family have experienced this kind of evolution, e.g., home computers, the cellphone and wide-screen, high definition televisions.  Many of today’s young people have no understanding about the source of technology for the products they take for granted.

     As we return to our scripture lesson, did Jesus take away our sin or did he give us something in its place?  To a very primitive people, Jesus was attempting to teach his listeners what true spiritual evolution looked like, a growth pattern that was beyond anything they had known.

     Try thinking of yourselves as living in a cabin on the bank of the Susquehanna River when it is only a creek about 35 feet wide. If this location is the only experience you have of that river, your conclusions about it will be drawn from your localized understanding.  Use your imagination and try to picture what that river will look like as it passes through Harrisburg, then the Conowingo Dam as it winds its way to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace. 

     Obviously living on that river’s bank is a metaphor that describes where Christianity is in the world community today.  We can personalize Jesus and believe we have the answers to life. There is nothing wrong with that. God’s plan, however, is global.  We are looking at a creek when God sees the Chesapeake Bay emptying into the ocean.  Jesus once taught, “You are like salt for the whole human race.  You are like light for the whole world.”  Jesus was teaching from a global frame of reference.

     Whether or not we believe it is happening, humanity is evolving.  Just in our lifetime, we have seen enormous strides.  People in every society and major religion believe they have the answers that enable life to work. However, they are only looking at the section of the river that they have chosen to understand. Regardless of how steadfast our faith appears to be for us, our understanding would be viewed as very primitive if we could view it along side God’s plan for humanity.

     In our own lifetime, we have seen the 4,000-year old culture of China leap into the 21st century because they have learned from other cultures how to grow crops to feed the masses.  The cellphone has enabled them to leap frog over having to spend billions of their currency to build a network of landlines.  The Internet has given the Chinese instant information from around the world. 

     Here is my point -- they are learning that it is far superior to put people to work manufacturing and shipping products that serve the needs of the world’s people than to maintain their ancient ways of thinking, or to annex Taiwan by military force.

     Jesus taught people to serve one another.  Jesus did not take away self-serving sin; Jesus replaced such behavior with a better idea – love and serve one another.  Regardless of what we think or believe, this is happening as people awaken to the fruits by accepting a different way of thinking – a true evolution of thinking in our lifetime.

     The cultures in the world that are still in infancy reflect their more primitive stages of evolution.  Their own behavior betrays their level of understanding.   We still witness people in parts of the world who believe that killing others is what will lead to prosperity and somehow be pleasing to God.  Yet, the reality is that those who use fear, intimidation and death to manipulate how people think are investing their lives in that which destroys what our Creator declared good.

     Among the most profound words that John the Baptist spoke were these: “There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  Let us now turn our attention not only to how Jesus accomplished this, but also how he has influenced billions of people who do not know him or what he taught.  Most of the world’s people have no idea regarding the source of the world-view they now possess. 

     Jesus brought a new understanding that had the power to revolutionize the patterns of human thought and consciousness.  He brought specific sinful attitudes and behavior into the light.  Each time we miss the mark, nothing works.  Jesus warned that if we acquire all the toys the world has to offer, our happiness would not be among them.  (Mark 8:36)  Sin is self-serving behaviors and attitudes.  However, when we extend ourselves in meeting the needs of others, humanity thrives.  We feel good when we help others.  Put those feelings on a global scale and we see massive result areas.

     We have learned that it is better to create a product and take it to the marketplace than to grow rich by stealing what others have made.  It is better to grow the spirit of happiness within us than assign the responsibility for our enthusiasm for life to someone else.  It is better to find contentment and peace with what we have than spend our lives dwelling on all the things we fear we lack. 

     The people who understand this know that they are floating down a very lengthy river that will empty into the vast ocean in God’s time not ours.  The people who still strive after youthfulness, beauty, possessions, political power, fame and control are focusing their lives on aspects of self, aspects that have always been changing since the dawn of civilization.

     Such people have not yet learned that they are not their bodies.  They are not their accomplishments.  They are not what their material wealth has made of them.  We are all students and nothing more.

     Jesus offered humanity an opportunity to seek higher ground, a place of safety from the flood of temptations that swirl around us to identify ourselves with the material world.  Jesus gave humanity a new choice – we have the ability to change how we think.

     Even as I speak this morning, scientists all over the world are proclaiming the same message.  We have to become better caretakers of our planet -- its rivers, its atmosphere and its food chain.  It is fascinating how Jesus taught his listeners to love their neighbors and their enemies.  Now scientists are saying the same thing in a different form – “It will take all of us working together,” they claim, “to save our planet.”  We must learn to think about Jesus’ message differently.  What other evolutionary changes have we witnessed in our lifetime?

     Today many nations are recognizing that we are living in a global economy.  Orbiting the earth is the International Space Station.  Are the world’s people finally getting it?   Yes, they are.  Jesus’ teachings have become the leaven for the loaf.  The source of this new consciousness has nearly disappeared just as he said it would.  Jesus took away our sins by replacing them with attitudes and behaviors that work for the well being of others.        

     In the fifth century an innocent monk named, Telemachus, died in the Roman coliseum because he dared to disrupt the gladiatorial games. He took away the games by bringing them into the light and showing them for what they were – watching people murder people for entertainment.

     Martin Luther King, Jr. took away segregation by bringing this social cancer into the light and replacing it with a dream of living together in community. 

     Jesus took away our sins by teaching how people could move away from gratifying their needs to moving in the direction of building communities that serve everyone.  As with all things, following his lead is our individual choice.  Collectively, however, humanity is well on its way.  Nothing can prevent the will of God from happening.   On that thought, each of us can stake our lives.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving God, as each of us enters our worship experience we are sensitive that we live in a world where people appear more skilled at building walls than communities that work.  Guide us to minister wisely to those whose values and attitudes isolate them from being loved.  Help us to move beyond our initial judgments so that we can recognize in others their calls for love.  Open our minds and hearts to the truth that few people desire isolation over being in community.   Encourage us to reach beyond the barriers others have created so that we might all enter our shared future together in hope and trust.  Help us to remember that it is harmony among the notes that produces the melody.  Inspire us to place community over the needs of self.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Loving and always-present God, we thank you for calling us to be more than we ever thought we were capable of being.  Your Son called his listeners to become "the salt of the earth and to become as light for the entire world."  There are many times that we do not feel we could live up to his calling.  We confess that far more often we are the ones who believe we need prayers.  We are the ones who need healing.  We are the ones who come seeking the courage to go on when our circumstances appear the darkest. Somehow many of us conclude that what we are is not enough.   

     How easily we forget that people needing and seeking Jesus frequently overwhelmed him. The Jewish authorities sought Jesus in order to accuse him.  Another came under the cover of darkness to seek his wisdom.  Another wanted to sneak up behind him so she could touch the hem of his garment and be healed.  Mary and Martha both scolded him when he did not come immediately to Bethany when he learned their brother lay dying. 

     And as we come seeking him, may we hear again his request to follow him.  He would rather we give away our gifts than seek for more.  Dr. King never knew he could change the consciousness of his country’s citizens until he stood forth and tried.  How grateful we are that he had a dream that we could be one.  Encourage us to do less seeking and more giving away who we are.  We might find doing so is enough for you to move the mountains in our path.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray ...