"Being Grateful For Our Visionaries"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 28, 2008

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40

     As we approach the New Year, we generally find articles in the newspaper and in magazines that tell us “What’s In” and “What’s Out.”  Readers can see at a glance how some commentators are viewing the passing parade of rapidly changing fads and trends.           

     There are also articles concerning the rapidly changing environments of so many disciplines. For example, soon there will be groups of pharmaceutical products that will shut down the opiate centers of the brain thus reducing if not eliminating a person’s dependence on alcohol and illicit drugs.   The companies focused on nano-technologies are racing an array of products to the marketplace from wrinkle and waterproof fabrics to microscopic probes that will attack cancer cells. 

     My point is that in order to see where our species is headed, we need to pay attention to the work of visionaries at almost every level of society.  In more recent years, visionaries are the ones who give us hope that all of us will live longer and have more useful lives at a fraction of the cost that we pay today. 

     Visionaries are not extraordinary people.  They are people who do extraordinary things.  The way industry defines a visionary today is not someone who can see into the future.  They have no special powers that others of us lack.  Visionaries are specialists who are providing leadership for the rest of us because of the knowledge they have mastered. 

     Sometimes they are ordinary people who know how various systems work.  Lois’ brother Eric is one of these.  He is a very humble man who can fix anything mechanical.  He once told me that even if he has never before seen a particular piece of equipment, he could fix it if someone told him what the machine is suppose to do.  He honestly does not believe that he has a special gift.           

     It doesn’t take much for anyone to impress me with what they can do.  We are saved all the time by what others know.  The other night the folks who were in the kitchen for Warm Nights told me that they could not get the dishwasher to work.  Several of us worked on it unsuccessfully.  We had to use paper plates and hand-wash the silverware.           

     The following night, it was working perfectly.  I asked, “Who fixed the dishwasher?”  Someone pointed to John Jennings who has many of the same qualities as Lois’ brother.  He said, “The dishwasher was fine.  Someone had turned off the water valve.”  Earlier we were trying to fix a machine that would have worked perfectly had we known enough to check its water supply.  While that seemed like an obvious first place to look, it wasn’t because the rinse side had water.  What we did not know was that there were two valves.  The joy was that John did. 

     During a heavy snow storm one year our furnace stopped working.  Belair Engineering came to the rescue.  The mechanic and his wife looked at our furnace, pushed an obscure reset button and we had heat again.  That 10-second fix cost us $175.  Two nights later the furnace quit again.  I pushed the reset button and nothing happened.  Again, the same couple came and pushed a second even more obscure reset button and once again we were charged $175 for the emergency call.  Needless to say, because of the $350 for 20 seconds of labor, we switched to AP Mathews who sent people who took the time to solve the problem that was causing our furnace to kick the resets.           

     Most of us have heard that knowledge is power. This is true.  People have told me repeatedly, “Dick, don’t try to fix things. You stick to preaching.”  This is why we go to specialists when we have a problem.  We do not want our surgeon to tell us that we are her first patient for some unique procedure.  We want a surgeon who has performed hundreds of successful surgeries on our kind of problem.           

     When I went back to Dr. Brassard for my one year anniversary visit following my right hip replacement, I asked him if he would allow a technician to take an X-ray of my lower back so I would have a high resolution baseline.   He agreed. When he put the large slides up on the lighted glass, we both examined them.  I asked, “Marc, do you have any idea what you are looking at?”  He said, “I haven’t a clue.  I do hips and knees.”  Then he said, “If you schedule an appointment with Mary Ann, who is part of our team, she will know how to read these things.”           

     My point is that certain people have developed a specific insight, knowledge and information base to the degree that others may not have.  We rely on their skills to save us from making countless mistakes.  With their intuition, instincts, common sense and specialized training they frequently perceive what others do not.   Keep this in mind as we move to our Scripture lesson for today.           

     The Gospel writer, Luke, described an interesting event that took place in every Hebrew family upon the birth of their first born son.   Mary and Joseph delivered Jesus to the Temple and literally surrendered him to the Lord.  This was a practice the Jews believed because it was handed down from God through Moses, e.g., “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Dedicate all the first born males to me of every species.’” (Exodus 13:2)  This meant that each had to be sacrificed.   However, when it came to the first born sons, parents were allowed to buy them back. (Exodus 13:13c)           

     When they were presenting their son to the priests, there was a man named Simeon who was also present.  God had told Simeon some years before that he would not die before he saw the long-promised Messiah.  In a profound empathic way, Simeon and Jesus bonded. Simeon held the child in his arms and proclaimed publicly that his eyes were looking at the one who will bring the light of God’s truth to both Jew and Gentile. (Luke 2:32).            

     Mary and Joseph were startled by Simeon’s words. Next Simeon said the unthinkable to Mary.  “This child will define both the failure and recovery of many in Israel.  He will become a visionary who will be misunderstood and contradicted.  His struggles will bring pain as though a sword is being thrust through you.  His rejection will create a new clarity that will reveal what each person is becoming.”  (Luke 2:33-35 Peterson)           

     As Jesus’ parents were pondering the meaning of Simeon’s words, an 84-year old woman named Anna began offering additional insights.  She was a prophetess who belonged to a collective of people who were at the Temple day and night praying and fasting as they waited expectantly for the liberation of Jerusalem.  When Anna saw the child, she sang a hymn of praise to God for Jesus and told the other witnesses who he would eventually become for the entire world.           

     Luke is the only Gospel that contains these curious references. What do we make of these two people?  More to my point, what do we think about those who are visionaries concerning the human spirit?  What do they see?  How is it that what is invisible to most of us can be so apparent to a select few?  Do all of us give off an energy pattern, a vibration or an aura that allows observant seers, specialists in spiritual discernment, to counsel us from an informed knowledge base?            

     One day a Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson one of life's great lessons.  As the two of them walked around the rim of a lake that was nestled in the valley of a magnificent mountain range, the wise chief spoke: 

A mighty struggle is going on inside of me as I speak.  It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  One is evil – this wolf is filled with anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, deception, laziness, neediness and arrogance.


The other is good -- This wolf is filled with joy, peace, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, trust, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.  This same fight is going on inside of you and inside of everyone in every nation on earth. 

     The grandson thought about this struggle for quite some time. Then he broke his silence and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the struggle?”  The Cherokee chief turned to his grandson, placed his hands on his shoulders, looked at him squarely in his eyes and answered, “The one you feed! The one you feed!”           

     Spiritual visionaries are people who know about the human condition and know how to use symbols and words with which people can and will resonate.  No one listening to this story would doubt the truth spoken by the Cherokee chief.  Authentic spiritual visionaries can see behind the masks that we all wear and they know how to use their words to plumb the depths of the spiritual struggles that take place inside all of us.           

     Spiritual visionaries do not establish their authority because they are like others who have performed hundreds of successful surgeries, won countless cases in a court of law or can build a home with genius precision.  Spiritual visionaries plant seeds so that when they sprout in our behavior or attitudes in a later time, we will be able to recognize the areas in our lives where we have refused to evolve.           

     Some years ago I found a short piece that illustrates this point precisely.  It was entitled, The Riddle.  As I am reading it, see if you can name the obscure part of us that governs everything and yet often this process goes unrecognized during our years of evolution. 

     We are your constant companions.  We are your greatest helpers or your worst enemies.  We will propel you toward a fruitful destiny or drag you down. We are completely at your command.  Half the things you do might just as well be turned over to us and we will do them quickly and efficiently.  We are easily managed.  Show us exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons, we will do it automatically.  We have been the servants of all the great people who have lived and the demons of all the people who have failed.  We are not machines, although we work with mechanical precision. You may use us for growth or use us for delay and decay -- it makes no difference to us.  Train us, be firm with us and we will bring many of your dreams into reality.  If you are easy with us, requiring no specific qualities of character, we will destroy you.  What are we?    

     These words are saying in another way what the Cherokee chief told his grandson.  The answer to the riddle is our Habits. 

Both Simeon and Anna were providing testimony about the man that baby Jesus would grow up to be.  They both had an intuitive sense about Jesus’ identity.   Matthew 7:29 illustrates what they saw with further precision.  “Jesus was not like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority.”  How interesting that such testimony comes in the last verse of the Sermon on the Mount. 

     Henry Nouwen, the Jesuit priest who was a professor at the Boston University School of Religion once wrote:  “In God's sight, the things that really matter seldom take place in public.  It is the totally unknown people, praying and working in silence, that become the visionaries who make the difference in God's creative patterns.  Perhaps the greatest saints remain anonymous!”  Take that thought with you today as you add yet another definition to your identity.  Each of us has the potential to be a visionary, a quality that should inspire gratitude in all of us. 


     Eternal and always faithful God, we thank you for moments of anticipation coupled with times of reflection.  Jesus’ life gave us a window through which to view how spiritual life patterns appear to others.  We can now dream about where we are going while recalling where we have been.  From the mountains and the valleys we have encountered while on our journey, we can discern our meaning and purpose.  The New Year always provides us with moments to change uncertainties into opportunities.  We are given moments to reconsider the quality of our lives and dreams.  Please give us the vision that will guide us in how to stretch by letting go of what we cannot change.  As we leave our guilt and regrets behind, help us to remember, O God, that it is never too late to awaken to the reality of who we really are.  Amen.


     What a year it has been, Oh God. There were times when our lives were out of our control because of the demands of our schedules. There were other times when we could quiet ourselves, curl up on our sofa, and read a stimulating book or an escape novel. We come this morning on the last Sunday of the year asking once again for the guidance of your Holy Spirit as our lives continue to evolve and unfold.

     Teach us why complaining never drove a nail or hoisted a beam into place. Guide us to understand why resistant attitudes never motivated us to roll up our sleeves or say, "Here am I. Send me." Teach us why our spoken opinions are useless unless they are helpful, insightful and kind. Help us to learn why laughter is so critical to the balance of life and why doing something for others enables us to rise above the cares that usually defeat us. Show us why commitment and discipline are as essential to living as is our being open to possibilities.

     As we enter the New Year, may we do so free of old hurts, liberated from habits that obscure our loving spirits, and willing to embrace change as the only option that helps us to grow. Ignite in our souls the deep desire to live inspired lives. Inspire complete trust in your guidance that it becomes such a part of our living that fear remains an adjective that only describes what we used to feel. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .