"Balancing Dependence With Independence"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 25, 2009

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12


     This morning we will be discussing a theme that surfaces in Psalm 62.  This writer is extremely confident of his clarity about the human struggle of balancing our grasp of spiritual matters with our living fully in the material world.  No human being can escape this daily tension.        

     Put in terms that were used during Jesus’ day, the Master tried to convince his followers to live in the Kingdom of God while they were alive or to remain attached to the vine.  To live spiritually meant that a person had to develop such a radical re-orientation toward life that it was like being born again.           

     Put in language that Paul once wrote, 

So here is what I want you to do.  Take your every day, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do.  Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead, fix your attention on God.   You will be changed from the inside out.  Readily recognize what he wants from you and quickly respond to it.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings out the best from you and develops well-formed maturity in you.  (Romans 12:1-2 Peterson

     During my days at Wesley Seminary, one of my favorite teachers was Dr. Lowell Hazzard who was the professor of Old Testament Studies.  He described what can happen to faithful believers as they increase their exposure to and participation in the material world.           

     Lowell was using metaphors of his day, but we could easily upgrade them to match our experience.  He said, “Once you bought a new car or a home with air-conditioning, you always had to have it.  Once you had the money to purchase nice shoes and clothes you would never go back to Kinney shoes or Robert Hall clothing stores.” 

     Today he would say, “Once you learn how easy it is to stay connected to your friends and family with your cell phone, you will never be without one.  Once you have a large flat screen high definition television, you will wonder how you ever put up with a tiny 36 inch screen you once enjoyed.”  Hazzard called this process, the slow world stain.           

     Listen to how Peterson captured the meaning of Psalm 62 as the author of the Psalm described how important it is to maintain our God-consciousness. 

God, the one and only – I will wait as long as he says.  Everything I hope for comes from him, so why not? He is the solid rock under my feet, breathing room for my soul, an impregnable castle:  I’m set for life.  My help and glory are in God – granite-strength and safe-harbor-God – so trust him absolutely, people; lay your lives on the line for him.  God is a safe place to be.  (Psalm 62:5-8) 

     Can we hold this understanding in our thoughts, emotions and spirit while energizing our lives around this orientation toward life?  From my limited exposure to this mindset, the answer is no.  Even Jesus was pulled into responding to the fraudulent buying and selling of products on the Temple grounds.  James and John wanted to call down fire on a village that did not want Jesus to come there. Peter not only showed up with a sword in the garden where they had gone to pray, he drew that sword and used it.  Expressing love, forgiving 70 times 7 for all four of these men appeared to be set aside during a moment of high drama that evoked their anger.    

     Those who are trying to live perfect lives may be duplicating what the Pharisees were doing – attempting to please God by conforming outwardly to their perception of what God required of them.  What is perfection anyway but a judgment we make about someone’s spiritual maturity level?

     When we lived on Capitol Hill, our parsonage was directly across the street from Washington City Church of the Brethren, the former church family of John and Mary Jennings.  The church sponsored a top quality soup kitchen. I worked there most Thursdays on the line serving soups and sandwiches.  Beside me was a perfect woman.  In many ways, she really was until she met me.           

     Almost everyday day, we received the day old cookies from Mrs. Field’s store that was close by.  I always had a small pile of them in front of me because they are, without question, the most delicious cookies on the market.  She constantly berated me for eating what should be given to the poor.  She said, “I am so glad that I am not a Methodist.  And you are a pastor!  You must set a fine example for your flock!”  She was a Scripture quoting Baptist who always made me smile when she found fault with my behavior.  Her words of judgment were always correct.  It was the spirit in which she spoke them that made our friendly bantering a bonding experience.           

     One day, I had enough of her rebukes and I took her face in my one hand and inserted a cookie into her mouth with the other.  After being startled she said, “Oh my!  They are delicious.”  She had never had a Mrs. Field’s cookie and soon there was a small pile of them in front of her.  When I saw her putting a napkin full of cookies into her purse, I teased her about that. She exclaimed, “You are the one who corrupted me!  Now I am addicted.”  I said, “Sometimes it feels good to know that you are a sinner and to realize that God still loves you.”           

     Are we on earth to please God or to grow spiritually and to evolve as beings of light?  We cannot fake that.  We all make mistakes, we miss the mark, we disappoint our friends and family, and sometimes we make really big mistakes that may cost us our marriages, our homes or our jobs.  Today the newspapers are filled with stories of high-profile people who remind us that most of us have that potential. 

     What we do not know is how many of those people have turned their mistakes into lessons they would not have learned by any other means.  Our lessons can become stepping stones.  Sometimes we repeat the same mistakes over and over again until we achieve understanding and we learn how to separate things of this world from the spirit-world of our origin. 

     When we become judgmental about fellow sinners, how short our memories are of the prodigal son returning home after many errors of judgment.  How short our memories are of how remarkable that father’s love was in receiving his son when he came home. 

     We are rather fragile and prone to falling prey to Dr. Lowell Hazzard’s slow world stain.  The Psalmist knew this about our nature.  He knew that our physical form is simply a very crude, temporary vehicle in which our spirits dwell in order to gather information and respond to it.  The more we access what is within us, the more we understand the importance of holding on to the world from whence we came.  Listen again to the Palmist’s analysis of our human form: 

Man, as such, is smoke.  Woman, as such, is a mirage.  Put them together and they represent nothing; two times nothing is nothing!  And if a financial windfall comes to us – do not make too much of it. God said this once and for all; how many times have I heard it repeated?  “Authentic, true strength comes only from God.”  Everything else is temporary. (Psalm 62:9-11 Peterson) 

     I believe the quality of life each of us enjoys partially comes from our awareness that we do come from God, as vague and undefined as that may appear to some of us.  We are angels in the flesh encapsulated in very primitive, temporary forms.  Because of that awareness, we can receive wakeup calls or discover course corrections that others might not recognize without having our unique orientation toward life.   

     Several years ago John Canuso received news no father wants to hear.  His nine year old daughter, who had been tired and listless for weeks, was diagnosed with Leukemia.  All at once his daughter and his God-consciousness became the focus of his life.  He went on walks alone in order to talk to God.  He sat by his daughter’s bed and read to her and he prayed with her.  He became her cheerleader.  As so often happens with childhood leukemia, his daughter went into remission permanently.            

     Something happened to John.  His priorities suddenly came into focus.  He realized that he had the skills to make something happen that would benefit others.  John was a builder by trade.  He turned the management of his construction company over to one of his top foreman claiming that he needed some well-deserved downtime.    

     John purchased a rundown house in Philadelphia and personally renovated it.  That home became the first Ronald McDonald House in the country, a place where parents can stay while their youngsters were being treated in nearby Children’s Hospital.  John solicited the help of the McDonald Corporation and the rest is history.  In addition, John and his friends established a foundation that has raised millions of dollars for leukemia research.           

     Sometimes these wakeup calls, these course corrections help us to reverse our energy flow from “me” to “we.”  We realize that in spite of our lack of consistency in making our faith visible, we can make a difference in our world in spite of our mistakes.           

     When Will Willimon was chaplain at Duke University, he wrote a book entitled, What’s Right With the Church.  In that book he described an incident in his life when he was a parish minister.  At the center of this drama was a young woman named Anne who had enrolled in pharmacy school.  There were times when she would come home from school and attended Will’s services.           

     Will received a phone call from Anne’s dad.  He told Will that Anne had just informed their family that she is dropping out of pharmacy school.  He said, “Anne really respects your judgment.  Please call her and see if you can persuade her to hang in there.”  Will made that call and reminded her of her hard work and achievements and how she should think very carefully before setting all that aside.  Then he asked, “How did you come to your decision?”  To Will’s chagrin she said, “You helped me decide as I have with what you said in your sermon yesterday.”  She quoted from her notes of that sermon: 

You said, “God has something important for each of us to do in our own way.”  I thought to myself, “I am not training to be a pharmacist because I want to serve God.  I am here to get a job, to make money and to look out for myself.  I am going to graduate from my training and get into the same meaningless rat race as everyone else.” Then I remembered the good summer I spent working with the church literacy program among the migrant worker’s kids.  I really think I was serving God then.  I decided after hearing your sermon to go back there and give my life to helping those kids have a better chance at life by teaching them how to read.   

     It is difficult to balance our lives by living fully in both the spiritual and material world.  We often do not get it right and it might be okay if we don’t.  At Martha Ann Talbott’s memorial service on Friday I read a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet.  Gibran captured the essence of both Psalm 139 and portions of Paul’s famous chapter 13 in his first letter to the Corinthians.  I will close with the words of Almustafa just before his departure from Orphalese to the isle of his birth. 

This would I have you remember in remembering me:  That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined.  Is it not your breath that has erected and hardened the structure of your bones?  And is it not a dream which none of you remember having dreamt, that built your city and fashioned all there is in it.  Could you but see the tides of that breath you would cease to see all else.  And if you could hear the whispering of the dream you would hear no other sound.  But you do not see, nor do you hear, and it is well.  The veil that clouds your eyes shall be lifted by the hands that wove it, and the clay that fills your ears shall be pierced by those fingers that kneaded it.  And you shall see and you shall hear.  Yet you shall not deplore having known blindness, or regret having been deaf.  For in that day you shall know the hidden purposes in all things, and you shall bless darkness as you would bless light. 

     One of the marvelous qualities of God is that we do not have to earn God’s love.  All we can do is the best we can with what we know and understand.  As the psalmist was telling his readers -- God will take care of the rest.  We have to trust this quality of God’s nature every moment we live. 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving and ever patient God, so often we believe that we must forsake the ways of this world in order to experience a wholeness of spirit.  Help us to understand that Jesus never ask anyone to do that.  Instead, he invited us to bring the fruits of our spirits into every setting in which we live.  Rather than asking us to sacrifice, Jesus taught us to rise above pettiness and to bring the spirit of reconciliation to those caught in the passions of conflict.  We thank you for giving us the power to bring comfort, acceptance and kindness into our relationships.  Inspire us to begin each new day with our renewed commitment to make choices that reveal to everyone what living in your kingdom looks like.  Lead us to understand that teaching by example is a sermon most people can understand.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Always present God, we find ourselves this week facing accelerated change that has segmented our emotions.  Many of us have witnessed the change of our nation’s leadership and we are filled with great pride.  At the same time, we have seen many familiar companies close their doors for the final time in bankruptcy, causing many workers to face the reality that they will no longer be able to meet their financial responsibilities.

     In spite of the winter of economic pressures settling on so many lives, we are comforted with the thought that “this too shall pass.”  When we consider many aspects of our lives, we have much to celebrate.  Many of us can renew our hope for tomorrow because of our knowledge of the past.  The fact that nothing stays as it is, signals that opportunities abound.  For every death of a family member, there are new arrivals coming.  For every disease, there are countless people working on finding a cure. 

     As each of us strives to make your presence visible, help us to recall the words of Paul that remind us that “Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, humility and self- control.” When all appears dark, inspire us to light the match of enthusiasm for the presence of such qualities in our lives.  In spite of our outward circumstances, we have so much for which to be grateful.  Guide our thoughts, inspire us to hold fast to our values and grant us the courage to walk toward tomorrow with great hope.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .