"Translating Flesh and Spirit"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 9, 2008
Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-5
We are now in the fifth Sunday of Lent and today we are going to address the dualism that lives within us, that place of tension that temps us to be patient with life’s events or insists on our swift form of justice. The choices we make can either reveal the angel or the devil living within us.
The Apostle Paul divided us into two levels of consciousness. We can listen to the voice of the flesh, meaning the desires and needs of our material bodies. This is the part of us that assumes that what is of vital importance in our world we can determine through our five senses and use our intellect to make our choices.
The other voice invites us to obey the desires of the spirit. The choices we make from spirit allow us the power to interpret life’s events without fear. Spirit enables us to find opportunities to enhance and practice the achieved quality of our thought patterns and attitudes when other people are often very hasty to wage war in whatever form that may take.
There is not a person in our sanctuary this morning that has not experienced this inner struggle. For thousands of years the Church has preached, “The sins of the flesh produce death.” What does that mean? Did God create a flawed vehicle in which we live? Are our bodies and the way they respond to our physical world somehow an evil aspect of creation? Perhaps there are times when we believe that this is so.
Almost every day there is news coverage of a person who is senselessly murdered by someone who is dead. The Apostle Paul defined death as people who have surrendered their minds to the impulses and appetites they have created. (Ro. 8:5) Basically, their spirits have not yet awakened. When we think about Paul's definition, we recognize, as did Jesus, that countless people are asleep. They have no idea what lies dormant within them. We have inexplicable examples of this behavior every week.
There are people who find their deeds in major media headlines because they have made others suffer, e.g., the murder of Eve Carson, the University of North Carolina student body president, the murder of the Auburn University freshman, Lauren Burk or the lone gunman who indiscriminately murdered eight seminary students in Israel.
Everyday there are events, people and circumstances that invite us to define ourselves. Who is going to show up in any given circumstance - the angel or the devil? During Lent we have been called to examine our motives, our attitudes, our thoughts and the source of what inspires us. Again, is there something inherently wrong or evil about our world? Did God really put a curse on the human experience?
Perhaps answers to these questions can be found in the Book of Kings and the words that God spoke to King Solomon:
If there was anyone in the ancient world who achieved everything humanly possible in terms of fame, fortune and international importance it was King Solomon. Just to feed those in his inner court, Solomon needed 150 bushels of fine flour, 300 bushels of meal, 10 stall-fed cattle, 20 pasture-fed cattle, 100 sheep, plus countless deer, gazelles, roebucks and poultry. (I Kings 4:22)
The Scriptures tell us that King Solomon annually received over 25 tons of gold in addition to the revenues that came to his court from the merchants, traders and the tribute paid by other kings. (I Kings 10:14) Solomon married seven hundred princesses and had three hundred concubines. (I Kings 11:3)
He wrote over three thousand proverbs. He wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. Rulers and pilgrims came to talk to him because of his wisdom. When they arrived, they confessed that in all their travels, they had never seen such opulence as displayed by King Solomon. The story of his reign is fascinating. A reader can begin the story in I Kings 3.
The point of this illustration is that there was nothing evil about wealth, power or fame. The down side to Solomon was his endless searching for life's meaning in the midst of plenty. Meaning and purpose had escaped him. He had everything he wanted. He was fair and just. God was at the center of his life until some of his pagan wives piqued his interest in other religious practices. He was always searching for more understanding, but he could not find it.
Solomon wrote these words:
Life is useless, all useless. You spend your life working, laboring and what do you have to show for it? Generations come and generations go, but the world stays the same. Everything leads to weariness - weariness too great for words. Our eyes can never see enough to be satisfied; our ears can never hear enough. Life appears to cycle. What has been done before will be done again. I know what wisdom and knowledge really are, but so what? Seeking the ultimate answers to life’s unsolved mysteries is like chasing the wind. (Eccles. 1)
Solomon had it all, but there was no one to help him break through the barriers imposed by the material world. For people who are unaware of the angelic spirit that resides within them, it is no wonder that most of their decisions are self-serving. The illusions of this world appear very real and appealing. Solomon had everything and yet his spirit still wandered in a barren desert. He remained unable to give meaning to any of it.
The Apostle Paul's brilliance helped him pierce the barriers of the material world. He wrote that God sent Jesus to become the gateway through which everyone could be saved from the prison similar to the one in which Solomon found himself. What gives life meaning is not our string of accomplishments. A number of people become caught in the prison of defining themselves by their past.
When I was in college, it was quite common to hear people talking about having been the President of the Student Council, or the President of the National Honor Society, or the first halfback in high school's history to rush for over 1,000 yards in one season.
The same can be true for senior citizens that are always looking in the rear view mirror as they describe what they have done and the places they have visited. What appears to last, however, is the spirit in which those tasks were done.
When I visit my soon to be 94 year old Mother, she cannot remember many of her achievements, but her spirit is alive and well. She exudes gratitude, compassion and understanding, the fruits of following the spiritual path Jesus carefully outlined in his teachings.
One of my many fascinating visits in my career took place when Pete and Ann Fauconnet had gone to the Orkney Islands in Scotland. I went to see Muriel who was Pete’s former mother-in-law. She was close to being one hundred years old. During the course of our conversation, I asked her how many children she had. After a thoughtful pause, she said, AI can't remember, but do you know what? I don't care. Tomorrow I will probably forget that you were here, but now that you are, let me show you some doilies that I have made.”
Everything we hold sacred in the material world changes, but what grows is the spirit by which we live. If all humanity understood that life in our physical forms has a clear spiritual purpose, think of all the activities that we would ignore, think of the circumstances that would no longer have the power to pull us into their webs and think of the attitudes we would by-pass because they do not represent nourishing bread for our journey.
Jesus made it very clear that one of the purposes of life is to purify our thought forms and attitudes. We may be disciplined not to strike back with an angry response when someone offends us, but if we are thinking hostile thoughts - that is who we are. He taught us that the judgments we make reveal the nature of our spirit. He taught us that the way we pray can reveal what is within us. He used the long eloquent prayers of the Pharisees as an example of how not to pray.
King Solomon did not understand that life in the material world is a training exercise. It is as though God said to us prior to our arrival here:
Jesus taught and demonstrated what life in the spirit looks like. When our attitudes and thought patterns reflect the compassionate spirit by which we live, we become the leaven for the loaf. For those who discount Jesus’ message as lacking relevance for them, they will constantly be disappointed by a world that will never become what they want it to be. They remain asleep. They do not know how to use the illusions of life to evolve in spirit.
Think of the people who invest their genius in creating computer viruses. Think of the people who honestly believe they have succeeded in life because they have purchased everything they have always wanted with credit cards from someone's stolen identity. Think of the people who are addicted to pornography. Think of the people who believe they are serving God by murdering others, creating patterns that create fear, mayhem and the destruction of property. Everything about their goals and purposes begins and ends with their extremely limited understanding of why they were born. They remain spiritual infants who remain asleep in their cribs.
I once performed a wedding ceremony for a staunch atheist who married a classmate of my twin sisters. He was a captain in the Prince George's County Police Department. John had a lot of discomfort with the wedding ceremony because I had several prayers. He tolerated all this nonsense about God, however, for the sake of his bride.
Some years later John became hospitalized with heart issues. John was being transported to the operating room for a procedure and was sitting up at the time, or so he thought. He began flirting with an attractive nurse when she started screaming for the crash cart. He said to the nurse, “Are you out of you mind? What's the matter with you?” She did not answer.
Everything happened so quickly. John turned around and saw his body on the gurney. He was clinically dead but he was very much alive. He watched everything. When the defibrillator delivered its shock, John told me that he spun around and his eyes focused on the acoustical tile that used to be on the ceilings of Prince George's Hospital as he reentered his body. This one glimpse of what happens to us after our earth-experience completely changed John's life.
As we approach the Easter message, we need to ask ourselves, “Which world commands our allegiance, the world of flesh or the world of spirit?” Only one of them ultimately matters. Jesus came to lead the way through the maze, but not everyone has awakened or cares to follow. What is so remarkable about our Creator's mercy is that God knows that one day they will. One day every knee will bow.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, as we enter our worship experience today, we are conscious that we come from an over-stimulated world; one that communicates through every medium known to humankind. Too often we comply willingly to its values and opinions. There are moments when we realize that our best thinking fails us. Slowly the world stains us into its likeness and we are not aware that it is doing so. We look at the stock market, the housing market and the supermarket as coaches for our decision-making. During these Lenten days, help us to remember that Jesus gave us a better road map for life and a much superior script. Spare us from forsaking the timeless values he brought for the constantly changing symbols prized by our material values. Inspire us to live with confidence that when we trust you, fear has no place in our consciousness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Ever patient God, this morning as we worship we thank you for our pilgrimage through these Lenten days. We are made keenly aware every day that even though we live in a land of opportunity, so many people still find it challenging to focus on matters of substance. We remain bombarded by the news of people whose lives have no relevance to them, no meaning and no spiritual awareness in which to anchor and center their lives. They choose violence to send a message, to achieve a goal or to hurt those they cannot control.
Fear is such a misleading presence in our lives. It causes us to dwell on illusions that feed our worries. Fear causes us to doubt our faith, the sincerity of our friends and the purpose and meaning of our lives. As we follow Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, we are inspired as we watch his courage in the face of being betrayed by a friend he chose as a disciple, being abandoned by his dearest companions and being misunderstood by his accusers.
When these moments come, help us to sense our calling to reveal the angel within us rather than radiating our insecurities. Enable our circumstances to help us develop more fully our courage, faith and trust. And if the worst we can imagine might come upon us, help us to understand that it first took the challenge to face a cross before Jesus could give the world the truth that no tomb is strong enough to imprison any of us. Thank you, God, for your infinite mercy. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .