"Light From A Community That Works"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 30, 2008

Psalm 80:1-7; 17-19; I Corinthians 1:3-9


     This morning we are going to be discussing one of the extremely challenging issues facing all of humanity.  How do we unwind
our cultural education when it has been so thoroughly engrained in all of us nearly from the moment of our birth?   Every culture experiences its own variety.       

     What is cultural education?  Such education is made visible in India through the caste system.  In our country we have relegated Native Americans to reservations and even have a Bureau of Indian Affairs.  What is that about?  For years children learned that different values are given to people because of their ethnic heritage.  For years children learned that women had little room to rise in prominence and responsibility in most industries.  Today there are still wage differentials between men and women who have the same titles and decision making authority.          

     Jesus engaged those in power within his culture.  As we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, we are going to examine why his coming gave hope to humanity.  His small footprint along the shores of Galilee continued to grow until now such awareness has reached global proportions. 

     His slow inroads to unwinding the cultural education of his countrymen began when he lifted up the shallowness of those who were perpetuating their own religious heritage.  He called the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees “hypocrites.”  He called them “blind guides.”  He called them “snakes and children of snakes.”  Basically, his complaint was that for hundreds of years the religious minded were more loyal and faithful to their beliefs and practices than to issues of justice, mercy and honesty.  (Matthew 23) 

     Religious leaders were only being faithful to what and how their teachers had taught them.  Cultural education has a way of preventing entire populations from stretching and reaching beyond where they are.  In most societies, few people have the courage to rock the boat.            

     During our recent national elections what was unthinkable a decade ago has occurred.  A person was elected to the highest office of our land with little regard to his ethnic background.  None of us are completely clear what this event communicated to the world community.   

     Likewise, we have seen a remarkable shift in equality among men and women.  We have had Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and will have Hillary Clinton as our Secretaries of State.  Who knows what these personalities symbolize to cultures that still do not recognize the legitimacy of women to be in positions of national authority because of their cultural education.  How have Americans overcome some of our nation’s cultural education?           

     A number of years ago when I was at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, we were the host to forty teenagers from Northern Ireland that spent a week living at the church.  Half of them were Protestant and half were Roman Catholic.  Their coming was part of a cultural experiment but the coordinators also wanted the youth to experience living in our Nation’s Capital.  This event took place when bombings in Northern Ireland were still fairly common.           

     I came over to the church one morning to help serve breakfast and found that our fellowship hall had been the scene of a battleground the night before.  The weapons of choice were water balloons.  The major problem the group faced was their inability to find where the church housed its mops and buckets.  They could not clean up after themselves. They were fearful that the mess they created would be interpreted as a sign of disrespect to their hosts and they were highly embarrassed and most repentant.   

     I told the kids that the only thing for which they should be sorry, was that they had failed to invite me to their war.  What was even more interesting to me was that the lines of battle had been drawn by counting off 1,2,1,2, rather than by their respective religious heritage.  The miracle was that they had been intentional about that even when having fun.  Catholics and Protestants stood side by side as they faced their opponents.  The kids were blind to what still had many of their parents in emotional knots back home.   Perhaps through the young people, the unwinding process of cultural education has continued.  It certainly is taking place in our country.           

     Our society has been the host of other teenage groups of Jews and Palestinians, Serbians and Bosnians, etc.  Ancient hatreds die when divergent populations come together in community.   We cannot teach “love your neighbors” theoretically.  In spite of how right and how powerful this teaching is, it does not have the power to change what is within our minds and hearts.  Only we can make such a decision.           

     On Thanksgiving Eve, we had a full house at Temple Solel.  Rabbi Weisman was a most gracious host as were the members of his congregation.  I cannot tell you the number of times members of Steve’s congregation expressed their gratitude to all of you for allowing them to use our building without cost for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Our congregation has hosted our Jewish friends for ten years.            

     This is the first time in the Temple’s history that someone from the Islamic faith brought the message of the evening.  There were thirteen male and female clergy from the three major religions listed in the program.  Rabbi Weisman had to borrow Presbyterian offering plates and use United Methodist ushers to collect the evening offering, an offering that yielded $1,025 for Bowie’s Food Pantry. 

     Rabbi Weisman chanted passages from Jeremiah.  Khalil Shadeed chanted verses from the Holy Qur’an.  I offered a Jewish prayer that ended with, “Barukh Atah Adonai, she ‘ot ‘kha l’vad’kha b’yirah na ‘avod.”  In English this means, “Praised are you, Adonai, whom alone we serve with reverence and awe.”  There is hope for our world in spite of the cultural education that is still being taught to us on a daily basis.

     The text that I want to use for this theme of Hope is this:  “I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God that you have learned from Christ Jesus.  There is no end to what has happened in you – it is beyond speech, beyond knowledge.  The evidence of Christ’s spirit has been clearly made visible in your lives.”  (I Corinthians 1:4-6  Peterson) 

     What Jesus left humanity was not another religion, but a consciousness, a cluster of loving attitudes of how to be.   He left us a blueprint for how to build community among diverse peoples.  Paul spent the latter part of his life spreading this message among Greeks, Romans, Jews and anyone who would listen. 

     What we have been witnessing in India this week is the result of cultural education, a behavior that is incompatible with the Christ-mind.   What Al Qaeda spends its energy making visible is the result of their cultural education, not the spirit of Mohammed.  What the world’s people are experiencing in Darfur is the result of cultural education that is being perpetuated by ignorant thought patterns that have taught people to perceive others without love.   

     How easily we forget that Christ has called us to stand forth for justice, mercy and peace, for community, for respect of a person’s ability to be productive, creative while being rooted in whatever spiritual heritage they have been taught.  The form of someone’s belief is unimportant.  What is important is what those beliefs inspire believers to do and be in order to help this world to become a more wholesome and loving environment for men and women to rear their children.  Such simplicity, such common sense still escapes our collective understanding. 

     M.A.C. Warren had this vision in 1963 when he created a book entitled, The Primal Vision:  Christian Presence Amid African Religion.  He wrote:         

     We need to approach every religion with a deep humility, by which we remember that God has not left Himself without a witness in any nation at any time.  When we approach people of another faith, it should be in a spirit of expectancy.  We need to listen for how God has been speaking to them and what new understanding of God's grace and love we may discover from them. Our first task in approaching another culture or another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are standing is holy ground.  If we do not, we may find ourselves treading on people's dreams.  More serious still, we may neglect remembering that God was here before our arrival. 

     If we can only remember the hope that Jesus came here to teach us, we will awaken and reveal the angel that lies dormant in so many of us.  When we remember this, the moment we have to make a decision, that choice will always have a transformed quality from what our more natural instincts might evoke.           

     When our Volunteer-In-Missions team was recently in Gulf Port, Mississippi, I received an e-mail from one of the participants regarding the internal wrestling that took place within the writer on the first day the team arrived: 

     I was reminded of “giving without strings attached” the first time I saw the family.  I made many judgments!  The good thing was that I was well aware that I was making them and I tried as best I could to squelch my thoughts, but it took me the entire morning of the first day to do so.  The family had trash lying all over the yard, e.g., beer cans, McDonald’s leftovers, empty medication bottles and various paper products.  As poor as these people were, they still bought and used tobacco products.  The fiancé of one of the girls kept calling her by a very uncomplimentary name.  It was sad, but I also found myself judging away.  I did get past it.  Way past it.  The compassion and unconditional love that I knew was possible came through me.  I realize that this is not the same as just being that way to begin with, but I think its coming is better late than never. 

     Again, Paul wrote, “I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God that you have learned from Christ Jesus.  There is no end to what has happened in you – it is beyond speech, beyond knowledge.  The evidence of Christ’s spirit has been clearly made visible in your lives.”        
     The spirit of having compassion for others transcends all religious ideologies, theories and dogma.
  In his well known love chapter, Paul described what the Christ-mind looks like.  Peterson’s translation communicates the substance of this passage with a remarkable clarity.   

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self.  Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.   Love does not strut, does not have a swelled head, does not force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” does not fly off the handle, does not keep score of the sins of others, does not revel when others grovel.  Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps on going to the end.  Love never dies.  Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly and love extravagantly.  The best of the three is love.  (I Corinthians 13:4-7, 13)

     Part of our cultural education comes from our daily exposure to the media. When we watch the news almost every evening, the same formula unfolds before our eyes and ears.  A typical evening will feature that someone has been murdered, women were robbed of their purses on the parking lots of our shopping malls, a female jogger was dragged into the woods in a heavily populated area, a pedestrian was hit by a car and three banks were robbed that afternoon and a composite drawing of the suspect is displayed to the viewers.           

     Do we have some experience in which to engage each day that purifies our minds and emotions from exposure to this litany of thought patterns?  All of these events impact the lives of many viewers every bit as powerfully as do the violent video games on the market.  Some of us remember playing Pac Man.  Today what we see Americans being exposed to in some video games is an orgy of violence.  We are not asking ourselves why violence sells products, nor are we addressing our need to rehearse violent behavior while calling it entertainment and friendly competition.             

     Just remember, we were called to be a light in darkness.  We are at our brightest when it is the darkest.  That was the world into which Jesus came.  Today, it is our turn to live the hope we have been given, to make visible the hope that we know.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Eternal and always faithful God, there are moments when we feel as did the people of old.  We experience uncertainty because our future remains unclear.  Guidance from you is frequently mixed with other voices that cloud our perception.  Our values can remain invisible to those who hold different points of view.  The demands of our schedules pull us in many directions.  Yet we are more than ready to prepare ourselves for the coming of the renewal of our minds and spirits.  While our celebration appears the same each year, each of us can drift from Jesus’ guidance for remaining in community with each other.  Surround us with your spirit, O God, so that we might surrender the hurts of our personal lives for the sake of the larger responsibilities to which we have been called.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Loving God, we come into your presence this morning hoping to renew our lives as we experience the unfolding themes of Advent. All of us have moments that challenge our sense of security and control.  We experience events that create stress. We walk through valleys created by our losses and life reversals.  We have learned that permanent change can come in the blink of an eye. The miracle in the midst of change is that you created us with the potential to fill our minds, emotions and spirit with hope.  Just as change can evoke our fears, so it can also create new opportunities to radiate our faith and trust in you. 

     Thank you, loving God, for inspiring us to remember who we are, and how you equipped us to bring the vitality of your presence into each moment, each drama and each relationship. As we prepare ourselves to welcome again your son into our world, we do so remembering how he embodied hope.  He taught his listeners attitudes of being.  He pointed to a God-consciousness that becomes our pearl of great price. Thank you that through him we have learned that by loving others just as they are, we demonstrate our love for you who created them.

     Help us realize that our faithfulness to you becomes the source of our strength and the channel through which your spirit achieves form in our world. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .