"Learning To Stand On Higher Ground"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 23, 2009

Psalm 84; Hebrews 12: 1-2, 12-17

     One of the more interesting, unplanned theological transformations that has taken place in recent years within many denominations is that the word sin is no longer used in preaching to the extent that it was years ago. I know that I seldom use the term.  It is one of those words that we assume is defined the same way by everyone.  It is not.

     This admission has raised some eyebrows among members of the conservative side of Christianity, further reinforcing their criticism that countless ministers are telling people only what they want to hear.  Such Christians tell us that this practice is like the blind leading the blind -- something Jesus once accused the Pharisees of doing.

     Yet, when we study ourselves with an open mind, we can easily see that this has not been the case.  Simply because the word sin is not used as the catch-all judgmental label, does not mean that humankind has ceased its recognition of our flawed nature. Even those of us who spend a lot of our time and energy serving the good of humanity recognize that our feet are made of clay and that we can stumble in our behavior and attitudes just as easily as anyone who has no religious orientation. 

     One of the driving forces behind the creation of many sermons by this new breed of clergy has been the recognition that the church has to maintain its relevance during a period of accelerated change.  The church’s message has to be in tune with how people reason and perceive today without losing the core value Jesus taught without ceasing – to love one another.

     One of the many reasons there is so much chaos in our society is that the church has been preaching a message that was loved by our grandparents. People hold on to that message with clenched fists. When the old time religion no longer communicates to the masses, people’s second-handed faith from parents and Church school teachers becomes irrelevant to them.  People believe that they have found more creative uses of their time than to remain connected to the traditional Sunday morning church service. 

     Countless people do not realize what incrementally happens to them when they stop exposing themselves to spiritual education.  They sin, plain and simple.  By definition, millions of people miss the mark on what it means to be fully human.  Of course, many will deny this, but the results of their lives tell a much different story. 

     There are two major themes playing in more recent times that may suggest why many pastors have moved away from using the word sin.  First, clearly the expression of our faith has evolved from the clergy’s preoccupation with humanity as having fallen, always coming up short and always being unworthy to pick up the crumbs under the table, to being creatures of worth.  People are valued and loved by God regardless of where they are in their spiritual evolution. 

     For years preachers have tried to prevent their listeners from straying from their commitment to following Jesus through what we remember as fire and brimstone preaching.  That was spiritual terrorism in my book!  Once the church discovered the importance of healthy self-esteem to our sense of wholeness, pastors began to encourage people, lift up themes of hope, goodness and the power of loving energy patterns rather than by repressive sermons that constantly reminded people how miserable they were. 

     And secondly, we are in the information age, an age which has made pastors far more aware of what they communicate.  Preachers and the church can no longer deliver a fear-ridden message by using words, concepts and symbols of punishment that do not resonate to the newer generations being born.  People learn very quickly how to separate their spiritual lives from their need to find comfort and nourishment in a church family.

     The relevant church is no longer like a gasoline station for bodies.  A person does not come to church to be filled up with ideas that may help them reconnect with God.  Today’s church helps people to evaluate the quality of their spirits when people are in the world giving themselves away to their family, work environment and community. Who are we when we are in the world?

     One of the transformations that occurred within me when I came to St. Matthew’s was the suggestion that it would be helpful to print my sermons.  I speak so rapidly and deliver thoughts in such fast succession that people wanted to read what I said.  That made me nervous.

     Then Pete Saderholm asked me if I had seen the home page of the Mt. Oak Church.  I said, “What is a home page?  I knew nothing about the Internet when I arrived here thirteen years ago. Well, it wasn’t long before St. Matthew’s had a web site.  You have no idea what that did to me.  I learned that the possibility was there that people anywhere in the world could read what I wrote.  Today, I suspect that my posted sermons resemble a blog, whatever that term means.

     In former times ministers could get away with murder in their preaching because they realized that most of their people could only retain 5 to 7 percent of what they heard. Not only that but pastors could use sermons written by others and copy their worship materials from books.  Pastors give up a lot when they constantly borrow what others have created. 

     What made me extremely nervous was that I know how far I stray from traditional Christian theology.  I write my own forms of worship, prayers and sermons because I have a passion for changing the message of the Church.  We are all God’s creations and it is high time we begin to reveal attitudes and behavior that reflect that understanding.  When we do not do that, we are missing the mark.

     One of the greatest compliments to me when Kendrick Weaver was with us was this, “Dick, I have never heard anyone interpret the Scriptures the way you do!” That could have been taken as a criticism, but I received his words as a validation because that is my hope each time I deliver a message.  I do not want to deliver the same old, same old, which was the title of one of Kendrick’s early sermons when he was with us.

     Change is clearly happening. The best books and the most brilliant authors are the ones that reflect how we think.  The fact that more people enjoy reading and studying, A Course In Miracles, Conversations with God, or books like The Shack is testimony to the shift in what people are being drawn to today as sources of inspiration.

     With all of this said, I want to tell you this morning how sinfulness can carry more clout with us when its meaning is more accurately defined.  Sin has always been equated with evil, with behavior that separates us from God, and with all that is wrong with us.  Sin, however, becomes a more useful tool for our guidance when we understand that certain behaviors and attitudes can prevent us from growing spiritually.

     The Book of Hebrews from which our lesson comes today is rich in insights about the nature of our spiritual lives.  Listen to these words:

Try to be at peace with everyone. Try to live a life that communicates what love looks like because no one will understand the nature of God without being able to see it.  Guard against turning away from God’s love of you.  Let no one become like a bitter plant that grows up and causes many troubles with its poison.

     Last week, for example, I mentioned a number of hostile responses from dog lovers when they learned that Michael Vick was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles football team.   When we personalize the sins of others, our judgments about their behavior can take up residence in our minds.  What a terrible place for such thoughts to be!  Such judgments put us in violation of the Scriptural guidance I just read.

     The other evening, I was listening to several people on the evening news that were off-the-charts in their bitterness toward Scotland’s Ministry of Justice when the convicted Libyan was freed on the grounds of compassion.  He allegedly is dying of cancer and has three months to live. He was the one who was found guilty of the blast that brought down PanAm 103 killing 259 that were on the aircraft and eleven who were on the ground.  Clearly the families of those killed have become divided over their responses to his release.  

     Many family members of those deceased said that his release reopened their wounds, decades after the explosion.  Senator John Kerry said, “The bombing of PanAm 103 was unforgivable!”  A resident of Pennsylvania said, “How can a person be shown compassion when he showed no compassion for the 270 people he killed?”   

     Were there not two convicted felons on the crosses next to Jesus?  He said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”   We really have to think about the words from Hebrews and decide whether or not they apply to us or do they only apply to other people.         

     There were other family members whose attitudes could be summarized by the thoughts of one who lost family on that airplane.  This is what he said, 

We must decide to be one of two people.  We have a choice in life.  We can either be bitter and let it turn us inside out . . . turn us into a bitter human being . . . or we can let it go.  We don’t have to become a vindictive human being so that it sends out poison to other people.  Maybe this is a Christian thing.

     It is interesting that this particular sin was mentioned in our lesson, “Let no one become like a bitter plant that grows up and causes many troubles with its poison.”  There is a loud voice within us that declares that we are entitled to have these feelings and responses.  We are entitled to hold on to old wounds so that years later they can be reopened because we have held on to them.  We are entitled to stand firm on our resolve that our form of justice will prevail or we will remain relentless in our pursuit of it.  

     It would be as if Jesus said from the cross, “You people mock me now but just you wait.  All of you are going to pay dearly for what you are doing to me.  When I return to my Father in Heaven, I am going to see that each one of you will rot in Hell for all eternity.  We’ll see who has the last laugh! We’ll see who really holds the keys to justice!”  I doubt we would be here this morning had Jesus said those words.  Why would we?  We need his values not ours.  We need him to lift us because he stands on higher ground.   

     We can look at the incident where police officers smashed down the door of the home of the Mayor of Berwyn Heights, shot his two dogs and bound with rope the Mayor’s mother-in-law.  After further investigation, authorities said, “Oops!  We made a mistake.  We did not have correct information.  We acted in haste and jumped to an erroneous conclusion.”  The Mayor and his family had a decision to make.  Listen to that quote again, “We have a choice in life. We can either be bitter and let it turn us inside out . . . turn us into a bitter human being . . . or we can let it go.”           

     The truth is that we can only lift people to another level of awareness when we are standing on higher ground.   Jesus clearly understood what often times we cannot because we are too embroiled in one of our passionate responses.  We commit a sin which is an archery term meaning to miss the mark. We are not growing spiritually when we set aside what Jesus taught each time our world is not the way we want it.           

     Let us make no mistake in our thinking.  Our purpose for being on earth is to grow spiritually, to struggle with our own nature in order to become more loving, more understanding and more capable of holding the hand of another who is terrified by most of life’s visible options.  When we can do that, we are standing on higher ground. 

     Yes, we have clay feet and we have all fallen short of the glory of God, but we can stretch until the angel within us becomes visible to others.  It remains up to us to do the stretching for that higher ground.  Clearly this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Follow me.”


     We come to you this morning, O God, with thankful hearts and minds that you have given us the ability to reflect your will.  Just as every life form on earth produces its unique fruit, so can we.  We confess, however, that too often we are more creatures of habit than people who grow by our trust in you.  We confess how often our routines write the script for our responses to life.  There are times that our values and emotional patterns prevent us from seeing more creative solutions to the temptations we face.  Most of us tend to live according to what we have been trained to understand.  Awaken our spirits, loving God, to all the wonderful alternatives that surround us.  Teach us the importance of not judging those in whose shoes we have never walked.  Thank you for Jesus who taught us how to perceive with love.  Amen. 


     Loving and ever-present God, long ago a Psalmist wrote, "And what of humankind that Thou, O God, should be mindful of them?" And the same writer answered, "You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and made them rulers over all things." (Psalm 8:4-6)

     How is it, O God, that often we come to you with many requests for the very issues you have given us the power to solve? We want peace in the world, yet we frequently hold ill-thoughts about our neighbors. We need to experience forgiveness, yet it remains a challenge to give away the very thing we want from you. We come to you for help with one of life's dramas, as though we have forgotten how to take risks and be creative when life presents us with the unexpected.

     Help us to rediscover that the adventure here offers us countless opportunities to expand who we are. Help us once again to affirm our faith that you have never left our side, nor would you allow us to experience what we do not have the potential to manage beautifully. Help us to remember that uncertainty, discomfort and a lack of peace are offering us guidance to change how we think.

     While we cannot know the outcome of anything we experience, enable us to grow in trust and confidence that our drama is unfolding for a purpose that may not be understood. As we live with that awareness, may each of us become a disciple who represents your presence in all occasions, all circumstances and to all people. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. .