"Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - February 6, 2008
Isaiah 58:9-12; Romans 12:1-12
Today is the beginning of Lent. One of the gifts that the Church calendar gives to us is the period of 40 days leading up to Easter. In past centuries fasting was the traditional response among the faithful, a practice reminiscent of the period Jesus went without food just prior to his entrance into ministry.
It was not long that fasting was replaced. People dealing with intense physical activity associated with their respective jobs needed to eat. As centuries passed, Lent grew to become a time of self-reflection, not deprivation, a time when people could examine their lives, confess their sins and repent, a process that caused people to change how they think.
This is what life was like during Lent for people who had associated themselves with a church family. As our societies grew, the general public became less faithful in their attendance at their places of worship. Individuals gradually lost sight of the importance of attending to spiritual disciplines that were once important. Their response to the holy days became more lax. Recently, I heard someone say, “Oh my! Easter is really early this year. Didn't we just get through Christmas? I guess time flies when you're having fun!”
Society is accelerating at a far more rapid pace than most of us understand. When we no longer recognize some respected authority that suggests that it is time to examine where our lives are going and how we are responding to the demands being placed on us, ever so slowly the needs of self can assume a larger control over how we think.
For example, on Monday my eyes focused on an article in the Metro Section of the Washington Post that caused me great sadness. The article was entitled Teen Charged in Slayings of Four Relatives. The article described how the eldest son of a family had a challenging time getting along with his Dad. Some undisclosed incident occurred that evoked such rage in this son that he used his father's handgun to murder his parents and his two brothers while they slept. He later confessed to the slayings and has been charged as an adult with four counts of first-degree premeditated murder.
What went wrong? How could the needs of self become so commanding that he would murder his entire family B the only support system he had? Where were the counter-balancing thoughts that would have helped him to question his initial impulse to strike back and get even with such extreme violence?
Such stories are emotionally wrenching to those of us who are part of a church family, a family that continues to encourage us to feed our spirits, to enhance our skills of spirit, to be in relationship with God and to work constantly on polishing our responses so that love is made visible even in the most challenging of circumstances. If no one is exposed to such curriculum, they cannot learn it.
An increasing number of people do not have any training in spiritual development and they cannot recognize how to take the high road when painful episodes outcrop in their lives. People so easily slip into faultfinding, blaming, excuse making, and desiring a form of justice that communicates – “They deserved what they got. At least I got even with them.”
Among the most primitive of human responses is the desire to eliminate the elements in our personal world that disturb us, that establish boundaries for us, or that have shown us disrespect. If we think that this collective murder in Cockeysville, Maryland is an isolated incident, it is not. Extreme violence is an underlying pattern used by drive-by shooters. It is employed during gang rivalries. It is one of the strategies of radical extremists like al Qaeda.
This afternoon I was returning from conducting a funeral and there were two cars parked along route 50. As the funeral director and myself passed in the hearse, two men were fist fighting. Presumably these were men of means. One of the cars was a late model BMW. Since the dawn of civilization, this primitive way of communicating our disapproval of someone's behavior has remained visible in spite of how civilized our societies claim to be.
Jesus saw the need for people to change how they think over 2,000 years ago. Eugene Peterson captured the essence of Jesus' teaching when he translated what the Apostle Paul wrote to Jesus' followers in Rome.
Don't become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you and helps you develop a well-informed maturity toward others and life itself.
In a translation that may be more familiar to us, we find these words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, i.e., what is good, acceptable and perfect.”
The danger, even among those of us who seldom miss attending church, is that we can be conforming to our world without realizing it. How can we discern where we are? The answer to that question is very simply, clear and unequivocal -- Pay attention to your responses. This is one of the reasons why Lent is so valuable. This is the period of reflection.
This is the time to ask ourselves questions about the quality of our attitudes, our threshold for anger, how easily we can become hurt, how fragile our emotions are, or how frustrated we can become when others fail in meeting our expectations of them. What happens to us when someone or some episode has the power to chase smiles from our faces? When this happens, we have given away to someone or something too much power for determining the quality of our lives.
Not long ago there was a couple that had been attending our church regularly. They became spotty in their attendance and eventually they stopped coming. They were like an old car that began missing before it quit. I happened to see the wife in another context and I said, “You know, I really miss seeing you and your husband at church.” She said, “Oh Dick, I know. Our lives are going in all directions and coming to church is just one more thing. We can hardly keep up with the pace that our schedules demand. Sunday is about the only day we can relax. It has become our day of rest.” They have made a choice and it is one with which many of us can identify.
I also knew another woman. She is 42 years old but had become as physically fit as a 25 year old. When I commented about how good she looked, she told me that she was going to Curves three days a week and had a personal trainer. She was strikingly attractive.
I had not seen her in quite some time. Recently we saw each other at the Safeway. She had changed. Her eyes had lost their commanding intensity. Her body had gained twenty some pounds. I almost did not recognize her. She was waiting for a prescription for insulin for her recently diagnosed diabetes.
What she told me was interesting. Her words were very similar to those the other woman had said, “Our lives are going in all directions and going to the gym became just one more thing. We can hardly keep up with the pace that our schedules demand. With the price of gasoline, we had to cut somewhere.”
Most of us can observe when people are neglecting their bodies because they no longer exercise. What is seldom invisible to friends and acquaintances, however, is when a person's spiritual musculature has begun to atrophy. Yet in time, most of us do reveal exactly what is going on inside of us when our cups spill their contents.
Are we quick to assign blame? Are we quick to observe the flaws in others? Are we quick to ventilate our righteous indignation? Are we quick to judge others in whose shoes we have never walked? Are we quick with our responses when someone offends us? When that young teenager killed his family, he could not have known that a high road existed. Had he taken such a road, he would have developed skills that would have served him a lifetime.
Lent can be one of the most productive 40-day periods of our lives. We can live as business as usual, as most of us probably will. However, for the authentic students, the ones who really want to polish the skills of spirit, they will personalize the words of Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, i.e., what is good, acceptable and perfect.”
It is one thing to discern what we should do and quite another to go to the gym three times a week and have a personal trainer. Discipleship is not only a contact sport, it is also a daily discipline of knowing how to keep a sincere smile on our face as we carry our energy with a radiating happiness even during experiences that are very stressful. The word "repent” comes from a French word that means to change how we think. Lent is a time of repentance. It is our time to ask ourselves, “If we are not growing, evolving and changing, what are we doing?”
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, you are the infinite giver of second chances. If we consider your Son's teaching about being willing to forgive 70 times 7, that would mean that the Creator of everything we know, is also capable of an infinite number of opportunities to overlook our mistakes.
We thank you for coming to us through a variety of experiences. Even our unhappiness is a warning to change how we process each episode of life. Our emotional pain is a warning to change how we think. Our anxiety and stress are indicators that perhaps we need to take something off our plates, to take more time for reading and relaxing, to remember that the world will go on as it has for thousands of years even if we are not here.
We thank you for the Lenten season that allows us to reflect on all the processes of life that are insightful indicators of where we are in our growth. We can look in the mirror and be happy with our reflection. What we cannot see is a reflection of all that is happening within our spirits B the resentments we carry, the attitudes that reveal our unpolished skills, and the patience we can easily lose so quickly.
Help us to prepare our minds and hearts to reflect your will for all of us — "what is good, acceptable and perfect.” All of us are capable of experiencing more peace than we do. Help us to stretch beyond being human doings to become human beings. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray...