"The Right Compass Means Everything"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 10, 2008

Psalm 84; Romans 10:5-15

     There is an engaging maritime story that concerned a ship that was under sail during the days when the tall ships with the square sails were major carriers for shipping.  The ship encountered a fierce storm.  The captain and crew did everything their skills permitted to preserve life and limb.   

    When the storm passed, the ship had part of her main mast broken, the housing of the compass was badly damaged and the powerful winds and waves had carried the vessel off course.  The seasoned captain did not worry about the compass because he had some older instruments by which he cold navigate the ship.           

    A major problem faced the crew as they entered an area of the sea known as the doldrums.  The captain knew that the ship had drifted near the Equator, somewhere off the coast of South America.  There was nothing the crew could do when their ship became trapped in this stretch of water where there is no wind.  As the days passed and their supplies became exhausted, the crew was facing death.            

    One of the crew members perched high in a secondary mast was making repairs when he spotted another ship on the horizon.  The crew became energized with hope as they hoisted flags signaling trouble -- “Water, Water, Water.”  The other ship saw the distress and signaled for the crew to lower their buckets.  The crew on the stricken ship knew instantly that they were standing in the mouth of the Amazon River, far from the view of land.  They were surrounded by fresh water and had not realized it.  That single piece of information saved their lives.           

    For millions of people, their lives are adrift on the sea of their experiences of the physical world.  They have not been associated with a church nor have they sensitized themselves to the existence of a world that is far different from the one they know.  All they know is what their senses tell them.   Just like the sailors on that ship, while they are surrounded by what could provide a compass for navigation, they do not have the information.  They need guidance from someone who understands the bigger picture.      

    In his letter to a small colony of Jews living in Rome, the Apostle Paul was instructing them on how to keep their lives in harmony with God.  He told them that the Laws of Moses were designed to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah, an individual who would provide the right compass for living.             

    Eugene Peterson captured this understanding beautifully in his translation.  Here are the words of Paul: “Moses wrote that anyone who insists on using the law code to live right before God soon discovers that it is not easy – every detail of life is regulated by the fine print.  BUT, trusting God to shape the right living patterns in us is a different story.  This is the core of our preaching.  Say the welcoming words to God – ‘Jesus is my Master’ – embracing with your body and soul the spirit by which he led his listeners -- that’s it!  You do not have to do anything; you simply call out to God, trusting him to do it for you.  Knowing this is salvation!”   This is also the meaning of the word, Grace.  God will not let any of us go.           

    People who do not have this spiritual compass will not have the same coping skills as others who do.  They have no place to stand comfortably and securely to weather the storms that come to all of us from time to time.  What are they to do?  What are we to say to someone who has no idea about the much bigger picture, i.e., the talents, abilities and skills of spirit that will come through them when they take the inward journey?             

    Last week one of the ushers gave me a green prayer card she had found in one of our pews.  On the back of it were these words, “I don’t believe in God anymore.  He allowed my best friend to die.”  Translated that means I don’t trust God anymore.  Whether this writer was young or old, the message communicates where so many of us are today.  Sometimes it takes the death of someone very close to us before we embark on that journey to find out what surrounds us. We are like those mariners – we live in ignorance of what can help us.              

    We remember the time when Mary and Martha were so unhappy with Jesus because he did not immediately come when he learned that their brother Lazarus was ill.  Each of them approached Jesus on separate occasions and scolded him, “Had you only been here, our brother would not have died.”   

    Whoever wrote the note that I just read for you, no doubt, feels the same way.  It appears to be a natural response to blame God for everything that brings drastic change in our lives, particularly the death of a loved one.      

    Some people are trapped in the cocoon created by what their senses tell them. Just imagine the freedom they would have if they were told to lower their buckets because they are surrounded by an enormous reality that would provide everything they need.  The truth is that we do not die.  None of us do.  We transition from our solid forms when we return to the reality of our origin.   

    I have a cartoon featuring two butterflies in flight.  The one is saying to the other, “Do you remember all that stuff that we learned as caterpillars?  None of it applies anymore.”  Think of what would happen if a caterpillar met and communicated with a butterfly.  The one crawling would either not believe such preposterous thoughts coming from the butterfly or it would believe because it had faith that the promises made by the butterfly were true.           

    The Apostle Paul has the same mind as many of us do when we come upon people who have no understanding of the vast invisible reality that surrounds them.  Listen again to Peterson as he translates Paul’s questions.  (1)  How can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust?  (2)  How can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted?  (3)  How can they hear if nobody tells them?  (4)  How is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do so?   Paul was instructing his readers to get out there and tell the story that will help others find their way.

    I don’t think any of us can imagine what it must have been like many years ago trying to convince members of the medical profession that germs existed long before the microscope was developed that would prove beyond doubt that they do.             

    Think about the writer of the 23rd Psalm as he slept under the magnificent canopy of what we call the Milky Way.  No one could have convinced him that one day a telescope would be placed in orbit around the earth that would reveal that there were 50 billion Milky Ways just like the one that inspired him to contemplate the greatness of our creator.  When the next generation telescope is launched in several years, estimates are that the data we receive will confirm the existence of more than 200 billion galaxies.  Even then, we will only be scratching the surface of what is out there.             

    Everything in the universe has been there long before humans could discern its presence.  Just like those ancient mariners, surrounded by water they needed, so we are surrounded by many levels of reality that we cannot recognize at this moment in our evolution.  This is why faith and trust in the path Jesus taught provide the ultimate compass, a tool that helps us navigate through all the fears that try to enter our consciousness.            

    Years ago, a group of high school seniors was asked by college and university administrators what they wanted to do when they eventually entered the job market.  One bright eyed, highly energetic young woman said, “Right now I cannot tell you what I am going to do when I start my job hunt, but I can tell you this -- I am going to be good at it.”   

    She has the right compass.  She may not be able to name her eventual vocation precisely, but she has prepared her mind and heart to trust that life will be a wonderful adventure if she brings that attitude to everything that enters her life’s stage.  When Jesus was teaching the Kingdom consciousness he was saying to his listeners:  

     Can you imagine a time in your lives when there will be no more brooding, no more outbreaks of anger, no more painful hurts because you personalized someone’s words, no more fearful thoughts about the Roman occupation of our country, no more thinking that you are better than someone else and no more sleepless nights worrying about what tomorrow will bring.  This orientation toward life will come to you when you let go of your fears and accept the path of faith and trust that I am offering you. 

     This is the compass.  This is the Kingdom of God that allows us to remain spontaneously alive in all circumstances.            

       Ignancy Jan Paderewski very well may be the greatest pianist the world has ever produced.  He was discouraged from playing the piano by every one of his music teachers, but in 1885 he launched his career anyway.  His instant fame swept over the world.  Crowds stood in long lines just to get into his recitals.  While performing over 1,500 concerts in the United States, there were nights when he played encore after encore.One night just prior to a concert, the lights lowered and the crowd grew quiet.  As the curtains parted opening up the stage, the spotlight focused on the marvelous Steinway piano.  The audience was stunned, however, to see a 10-year old boy sitting at the keyboard.  Somehow he had managed to slip away from his mother and had gotten to the piano.  Seeing him the mother grew frantic.  She couldn’t believe it.  To the chagrin of everyone, the boy began to play a piece from Mozart that we know as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  His mother began her emotional melt down as she rushed to the stage to retrieve him.           

    Paderewski waved her off as he entered the stage.  There was no applause at his entrance.  The audience was pensively watching how this great musician would handle this awkward moment.  Paderewski moved in behind the young man and whispered, “Don’t quit, son.  Just keep playing.”  Paderewski leaned over with his left hand and began to fill in the bass.  In a moment, he reached around with his right hand and began playing the running obbligato.  To the absolute delight of the audience the great master and the novice played a magnificent duet.  Both received a standing ovation as the master escorted the young man to his anxiously awaiting mother.           

    Paderewski had the compass.  People claimed that every concert was like a spiritual awakening.  He could interpret the masters unlike any other. He had people skills that could handle any situation in life that might prove awkward to most people. As a young man, however, he was surrounded by talent that none of his more experienced teachers could see. When he lowered his bucket, everything he could ever have hoped for was waiting for him.           

    This is the message for us today.  Not everyone will hear it.  Not everyone will believe it.  Those who discover and come to know that we are surrounded by an invisible support system will understand what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote, “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for and to be certain of the things we cannot see.”  Peterson translated this same passage in this manner, “This fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  In other words, having the right compass means everything.


     Merciful God, we thank you for the generosity of your spirit.  You have surrounded us with treasures that can be acquired and used by everyone.  Yet those treasures are like a burning bush.  Moses turned aside to seek your presence; so must we.  It is we who must search for your guidance.  It is we who must desire peace, kindness and compassion when there are moments when we experience the temptation to be otherwise.  You designed us for growth while leaving in our hands the pace of that growth.  We thank you that in the garden where choices are made, we find the tree of your guidance that comes in many different forms.  When Jesus invited his listeners to be followers, he did so knowing that your spirit, O God, would go with them.  With grateful hearts, we come this morning celebrating our faith and our journey with you.  Amen.


     Loving God, we are so thankful for our lives and the beautiful tapestry that can be created when we allow you to weave the threads of our bittersweet moments into a work of art.

     So many times we become caught on the edges of an experience that we feel is so unjust or unfair, without ever knowing how that experience might be preparing us for a more fulfilling future.  We are quick to judge our circumstances without knowing how one piece of the puzzle fits so perfectly into another, a process that we only recognize through hindsight.  We marvel at how failure can lead to an open door, how a fractured relationship can lead to one that heals, how the loss of a job can lead to a remarkable opportunity or how frustration can inspire our creativity.  Help us, O God, to trust your guidance in how we interpret how our lives are unfolding.  Only when we doubt your presence do we find ourselves blind and lost.  Only when we forsake our trust in you, do we strike out on our own by seeking fulfillment in places that cannot provide it.

     Lord, help us to be more open to the movement of your spirit.  Encourage us to be more expressive of our trust that you can pour crystal clear water from what we may think is a life filled with more than our share of poor choices.  Help us to lead others to the discovery that they, too, have a spirit that needs to be nourished.  Help us to remember that if others are to learn what Jesus taught, it may be up to us to do the teaching.  Enable us to look upon all who enter our path as people who have been sent to us for guidance.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .