"Understanding Our Moral Compass"

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

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

     Our Gospel lesson today features one of those in between times for Jesus.  He had just come from what some people call a spiritual awakening, a moment of enlightenment or a midlife crisis.  He was where many of us have been when we had to make a decision that could change the direction of our lives.   We do not like periods of uncertainty but they come anyway.

     Many of us would prefer that God were a divine Global Positioning or On Star system like the ones that some of us have in our cars.   We ask for guidance and we trust that God will show us the way.  Give this frequent hope of ours some thought.  Would we really want God to say, “Don't choose that woman to become your wife,” “You will never be a successful entertainer. Get over it. Try accounting.”  “Don't buy that house.  The builder made too many structural errors and has hidden them.” What kind of a life would that be? 

     Jesus learned that God does not micro-manage the lives of people.  He would learn from these days in the wilderness that life had to be experienced from his vantage point and from the results of his decisions.  If God did not inform Jesus about which path to take to accomplish some divine plan, why would God do that for us?  What would be the point since our decisions and the spirit in which we make them is what makes life the grand adventure of faith that it is? 

     There are times when people ask, “If God never plans to answer our prayers, why should we talk to God?”  A number of people settle for the answer that we have heard, “God always answers our prayers, but perhaps not in the way we would like.”  There is something about that answer that satisfies many believers.

     God knows that our prayers are frequently based in insecurity, fear or wanting to please God with our choices.  Suppose God knows that all of us are perfect for what we came here to experience.  Suppose our struggle to find purpose and meaning is God's way of communicating.  This process is very similar to the butterfly gaining strength to fly by struggling to free itself from its cocoon.   

      While Jesus was weighing his options in the wilderness, a very interesting characteristic emerged concerning the thoughts that came to him, thoughts that the Gospel writer attributed to Satan.  The three were these:  “Turn these stones into bread!”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the highest point of the temple.”   Finally, “You can have sole power over all the kingdoms of the world if you will worship me.” 

     No readers of the Gospels can be sure how attractive any of these options were to Jesus.  My hunch is that none of them were.  Jesus had a unique moral compass that allowed him to choose his responses wisely.  The same compass he used is available to us and it has little to do with religion or what we believe.  Jesus was a Jew who grew up under the Laws of Moses.  Being obedient to the thought system of his religious heritage had little to do with his moral compass.   

     What specifically was this moral compass that Jesus used to direct his choices?  The answer can be found in observing the direction in which Jesus kept his energy flowing. Turning stones into bread was about his hunger.  His being miraculously saved from a fall that would have killed anyone else would have been about him.  Having power over all the kingdoms of the world, again, would have been about him.  

     As soon as Jesus began his ministry he said, “I have come among you as one who serves.”  There is a vast difference between satisfying his needs, being saved, having political power over all nations and giving himself away in service to others.  One kind of energy is about a person's needs, expectations, receiving, gratification, and status; the other kind of energy is about a person's caring, healing, listening, giving, creating and loving.

     Recently I told my Bible study class about a time I was working with a woman who was planning to end her life.  She was telling me about the many reversals that she had experienced and how she could not see any purpose for living.  She knew she would be better off dead.  I told her to bake a cherry pie.  She snapped back, “Excuse me!”  I repeated my comment, “Bake a cherry pie and take it to the elderly woman across the street who cannot leave her house without assistance.”  She said, “I don't feel like it.”  I said, “You don't have to feel like it, just do it.  You make great pies and I believe your neighbor would enjoy one.”

     She did it.  She took the pie across the street and the older woman was so thrilled that tears streamed down her cheeks.  She invited her to come in and their visit together lasted 3 hours over tea and excellent conversation.  The once suicidal woman came back to her home a renewed person who went on living and among other things, to bake more pies.  

     Reversing someone's energy flow is not complicated.  People who have themselves at the center of most of their thought patterns need to be taught how to reverse that flow.  All of us have the ability to communicate when we are not happy.  When we are not happy, it is fairly obvious why this is so.  We placed our hope in something in the external world and it disappointed us.  The external world does not exist for the purpose of bringing us happiness.  Everything out there is constantly changing.  That state of mind is our responsibility to create. 

     Anyone listening to us can tell where our lives are focused, particularly if we are quick to assign blame, quick to observe the flaws in others, quick to ventilate our righteous indignation, quick to judge others in whose shoes we have never walked, or quick to giving form to our hostility when someone offends us. 

     The headlines in the newspapers this week have been horrendous.  No one who is happy with his life could walk into a city council meeting at the town hall and shoot the mayor and several others before being shot and killed by police officers.  No one who is happy with her life could walk into a classroom filled with classmates and kill two others before she ended her own life.  Both shooters were not happy people because something in the external world failed to meet their expectations. 

     We live in the greatest land of opportunity in the world and still countless people do not know what to do with their lives, even when every physical need has been satisfied.   With great sadness, I call what is happening, The Brittany Spears Syndrome.  This syndrome happens to anyone who has absolutely zero knowledge concerning the infinite being living under their skin.  

     After Jesus successfully repelled all the thoughts that attempted to put self at the center of his life, the scriptures say, “Then the Devil left Jesus; and angels came and helped him.”  This scripture communicates exactly what happened when the woman took the cherry pie to her neighbor.  The angels came.  Her thoughts had reversed their flow from “Nothing is going right in my life” to “Maybe I can comfort someone with my cherry pie and good conversation.”

     In describing human nature, a woman named Martha Graham once said:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening of the spirit that is translated through you into action.   Because there is only one of you for all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours and to keep the channel open as you give it away. You have to keep your spirit open and be aware all the time of the presence of the urges that motivate you.  There are unseen spirits at work through us.  It is the knowledge of never being alone that keeps us marching forward and makes us more alive than the others.

     Had Jesus failed to keep his thoughts and emotional patterns flowing away from him, we would not be here this morning.  Our moral compass will always point to our most creative options when we are caring for others, listening to others, thinking about the needs of others, showing our love and affection to others while telling our imagined needs of self to take a hike.  Jesus said, “Go away, Satan!”  After that, the angels came. 

     God's radiant love flows in the same direction.  God never thinks, “Did I do the right thing when I created humanity?  They are wandering blindly all over the landscape of the earth.  They are hurting each other. How can they ever have a relationship with me if they do not know I exist?  Maybe I have failed my own children.”  Can we imagine God thinking such thoughts?  God's radiance flows away from its source.  That is what love does.  

     A person does not have to believe a thing, read any Scriptures, pray a single thought, nor reach out to serve even one person yet God's radiance is never interrupted.  The sun comes up each morning, the rains fall, the birds sing, the flowers bloom and the whisper of God's goodness surrounds everyone, believer and non believer, equally.  

     For centuries, visionary people in every society have recognized the flow of human energy patterns.  For example, the Dalai Lama once wrote some of the lessons he learned and subsequently taught during his life.   Several of them are as follows: 

1.  Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.

2.  When you lose, don't lose the lesson.

3.   Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of good fortune.

4.   Don't let a little dispute injure a great relationship.

5.   When you realize you've made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.

6.   Open arms to change, but do not let go of your values.

7.   Be gentle with the earth.

8.   The best relationships are ones where your love of others exceeds your neediness for them.              

9.   Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

10. Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.

     The Dalai Lama has a great sense of humor.  That is a wonderful talent as well.  There is no greater medicine for the human spirit than laughter.  Smiles and laughter always communicate a message of inner joy.  Whenever we ask, “How are you?” we never want to hear a weak, despondent voice reply, “Do you have six hours?”  We want to hear, “Fine!” and know that they mean it.

     The moral compass is a free gift.  It has little to do with our being good or bad.  Those are judgments that either we or others make.  How do we know that one of our mistakes might lead us to the recognition of a lesson we came here to learn?  We can succeed in far more activities as happy people who remain too busy to worry, or stay stressed and anxious.  Remember what Jesus said, “Satan, take a hike!”  After that, Jesus entered his ministry.  All of us have benefited because he did.


     Merciful God, we cannot experience the Lenten season without reflecting on the number of times we take for granted what comes to us without our asking.  When we are eager to learn, understanding comes.  When we extend ourselves in love, we are never without receiving it in return.  Yet, gratitude is often one of the responses we use the least.  We tend to blame others when life is not the way we want it.  When we fail to communicate well, we often do not look at ourselves as the reason why.  Rekindle in us, O God, our desire to stretch in the areas of our weaknesses.  Help us to learn that our finest moments are those that guide us away from the barriers that prevent us from perceiving with love.  Amen.


     Loving God, Jesus came into our midst so that we might learn how to become more loving, patient and peaceful men and women.  Such a state of mind would give us entrance into the kingdom Jesus said was here.  In spite of all the truth he taught, it was you, O God, who chose to grant us autonomy.  Even though our thoughts and actions frequently do not serve us, you gave us free will to become what reflects the desires of our hearts. 

     In the drama life represents, you have allowed distractions to intrude on the teachings of your son.  As many tantalizing alternatives parade in front of us, it is we who must choose between the pearl of great price and the idol. It is we who must select between what will enhance our spiritual skills and what is only an imitation that pretends to offer us what we fear we lack.  

     Thank you, God, for being so confident in us.  We are frail.  We make mistakes.  We frequently forsake the substance for the shadow.  Yet, O God, we understand that this is how you created us. You want us to come to you unencumbered.  You want us to learn that all that glitters is not gold. You want us to choose wisely, once we have learned that all other alternatives are only reflections of what could never enhance your Kingdom on earth.  What a joy it is for us to know that your love is so big that it surrounds us and protects us even when we are yet blind.  With grateful hearts we pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .