"Even God Works In Secret"
Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 17, 2010
Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:1-11
The quote I used last week was this one, “The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth and humankind cannot see it.” In both Matthew and Luke, we find Jesus answering the same question about when the Kingdom of God will come with these words, “No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ because the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)
I mention both of these sources because an understanding of the Kingdom consciousness was one of the points held in common by the different branches of Christianity from the earliest of times. In other words, the source of God’s loving energy was everywhere and in everyone. This was a teaching of Jesus that circulated everywhere.
One of the aspects of life during Jesus’ ministry that can easily slide by our understanding is that he was speaking to audiences that were diverse in age, gender and ethnicity. His listeners were not Christians. God’ creative energy is in all of us, whether it is recognized or not.
In our lesson today, Paul recognized this spirit-quality of people and declared that the gifts of spirit are as varied as there are individuals who express them. He wrote, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts. There are different ways of serving. There are different abilities to perform service. God’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.” Christians through the ages have appropriated this message as pertaining to them exclusively. If we were among those listening to Jesus, we would be very clear that this was not the case. Jesus’ message applied to all humanity.
For anyone interested in spiritual matters today there is no shortage of books available on the subject. Not long ago I went to Borders to find a book like the one I have to return to a member of our congregation. One of the floor associates took me to the Religion section, then to the Psychology section and finally to a section called Metaphysics. She was at a loss. We walked to the store’s inventory computer and she found it by the author’s name in the section entitled Spirituality. Imagine, four categories of books dedicated to matters of the spirit.
Has the quest for spiritual insight moved outside of the purview of Religious communities? It would seem so, but I doubt many people among the ranks of the faithful would admit that these authors are inspired by the same spirit that caused Moses to challenge Pharaoh and the Apostle Paul to write his letters.
When Bill Clinton was our President, he invited to Camp David a number of authors -- Marianne Williamson, Tony Robbins and Stephen Covey. I have read books written by all three of them. I could add the books by Scot Peck, Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra. There are literally hundreds of books available today that are not sanctioned or supported by The Church.
Fifty years ago, it was very common to hear people giving testimonies of what happened to them when Christ transformed their lives. They would say, “My life was a wreck. Nothing was working for me. I had become my own worst enemy. It was as if a light was turned on and the joy I discovered has never left me.” What was in them since birth that was turned on?
Today, we find people making the same claims of salvation because of a 12-step program. We find people espousing the same enthusiasm when faltering self-esteem was healed because of a transforming experience during a training program. People have found healing from their anger when they learned that blaming anyone for how they feel only feeds their smoldering resentment, an act that actually prevents them from finding peace and happiness.
What has often been considered by The Church as “pop-psychology,” “New Age” or “pseudo-religion” are Jesus’ teachings packaged in a non-theological context. Many of the people who have experienced a rebirth, a transformation of character are people who have never united with a community of faith. In fact, many of them claim that they would never feel at home in a church for reasons that are as numerous as there are people.
We can be skeptical of such people’s claims because their spiritual awakening is very different from our experience. Their life-style change is not packaged in a form that we would recognize. Why would any of us become cynical of someone who discovered a doorway that allowed them to escape their poverty of understanding and inspired them to embrace a passion for cultivating greater insights of spirit?
Every year Essence Magazine always selects outstanding women in our country for their “Torch Bearers of Change” award. One of the eight recipients some years ago was Bertha Gilky. For most of her life she had grown up with labels given to her by her loved ones that reflected that she was “stupid,” “ugly,” “unlovable,” and a person who was destined for failure. With that kind of judgmental mirror being held in front of her during her most impressionable years, she eventually found herself living in one of the public housing projects in St. Louis.
Her project had been taken over by gangs. Drug and alcohol abuse was rampant. Young girls were routinely being raped. One day the pain was so great she gathered all the mothers in the complex together and gave voice to her frustrations. In essence, this is what she exclaimed:
No one is going to help us! No one out there cares about us poor folks anymore! There are no more free rides and no more free lunches. I’m sick of it! If you don’t change, you are going to die and no one is going to care! We are not going to wait for someone to come in here and clean up this mess! We are going to do it ourselves! No more trash in our apartments. No more litter around our buildings. No more urinating in the elevators! We are going to start today!
Bertha took charge and demonstrated leadership by changing the rules and expectations by which everyone in her complex lived. She set out to establish new beliefs for the residents. She and other mothers educated others with threats that if they did not comply they would be thrown out to survive on the streets. In creating these changes, she found and used those gifts that the Apostle Paul wrote about in our lesson.
The City of St. Louis was so impressed by what Bertha had done that the city government retrofitted her project into condos that were later returned to the residents without cost. The story goes on. Bertha was responsible for establishing the Tenant Management Movement in the United States. Among her many awarded federal grants, she received one for 33 million dollars and managed the conversion of 16,000 public housing units in America.
The spirit inspires people of all educational, ethic and religious backgrounds to do many acts of love that have improved the quality of countless lives. Sometimes it is pain that causes us no longer to accept living conditions as they are. Sometimes it is pain that causes us to change the questions that we ask.
If our current faith no longer works for us, we need to change the expectations by which we live. We need to try new alternatives. We need to forget the idea that a savior will enter our lives and do our homework for us. That is not what Jesus preached. He taught his listeners what their lives would look like once their choices and attitudes reflected the Kingdom consciousness where love was explosively present.
Tomorrow we celebrate the life and memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. whose movement helped our culture to accelerate its evolution toward inclusiveness in the blink of an eye when compared to 10,000 years of human history. Think about the result of an irresistible force coming up against an immoveable object.
A movement based on passive-resistance eroded glass ceilings in government and industry, ended segregation and discrimination at all levels. Our culture has grown so sensitive about these issues that we have coined political correctness to describe the process used to sanitize the words and concepts we use while speaking in the public arena. Dr. King has given our society pause before anyone speaks so that we give ourselves time to consider what others may hear.
Has God been silently creating in our midst through an array of forms we may not recognize? When you looked at our bulletin cover this morning, the church featured there is filled with terms we often associate with the forms Paul was describing in our lesson. It is by no means an exhaustive list. There are as many gifts of the spirit as there are people.
When we watch the rescue efforts going on in Haiti, we learn about the common denominator all of us share. The spirit within us reminds us that we are brothers and sisters to the Haitian people. Their stories are agonizing, particularly of those whose voices can be heard and those listening knew they could not get to them in time. We are reminded of the words, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
When we pay attention to what others are doing, we will see God’s spirit outcropping in people. Many of them are not part of any religious group. Jesus once taught, “Anyone who gives you a drink of water because you are one of God’s children will be blessed as a result.” (Mark 9:41)
In closing, remember that God’s spirit may not come in a way that can easily be discerned. No one is going to say, “It is over here!” or “It is over there!” The potential to reveal God’s love is in everyone.
Many Christians did not march with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. In fact, the white clergy who walked with him were often treated by aloof attitudes when they returned to their congregations. What we often think are the eyes of faith are more often the eyes of our responses that have been conditioned and reinforced by many years of repetition.
If we know the story of Thomas Keneally’s bestselling book, Schindler’s List, we are aware that Roman Catholic, Oskar Schindler, saved the lives of one thousand Polish Jews during the Nazi regime. This happened when Christian authorities worldwide remained silent about the atrocities that were being committed by the Nazis.
Again, God often works in secret through the gifts of spirit that surface in the lives of those around us, gifts that we may not define as coming from God. When Jesus was killed, I dare say that no one who was part of that drama would have concluded that God would create healing from such a horrible miscarriage of justice. It happened anyway!
The response of the world community to the crisis in Haiti represents a sharp contrast to Al Qaeda’s strategies that focus on destruction. Compassion for helpless people always communicates. Isn’t it interesting that theology often creates barriers while natural disasters bring people together? Paul wrote, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts. There are different ways of serving. There are different abilities to perform service. God’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.” This should give us hope.
We are eternally grateful, O God, for your loving presence. You know that most of us are slaves to our daily routines as we greet each new day the same way we did the day before. We prefer routine to the inconvenience of change. We would prefer a smooth ride to the uncertainly that often accompanies our daily commute to work. We find patience, quietness of spirit and peace often lying beyond our grasp. We sometimes allow self-pity and frustration to cloud our vision. We confess that often we cannot see opportunities to serve that are in front of us because of how rushed we are to reach our destination. Lead us, O God, to rediscover the boundless source of energy that comes the moment we pause to speak to a child, to help an elderly person to climb stairs or to open the door for someone on crutches. Cause us to remember that we are growing in our thoughtfulness, just as you designed us to be. Amen.
Thank you, God, for these moments of quiet and reflection amid the aftermath of another world disaster. Sometimes our worship experience appears routine. There are times when we come to church out of habit, and yet we never know what opportunity might present itself, what insight might come to us, or what alternative might become clearer for a decision we have to make, all because we set aside all other matters this morning in order to feed our spirits.
When we have exhausted ourselves with worry and we have thought through every possible aspect of our circumstances, there is nothing more soothing for our spirits and more calming to our emotions than to come to you. How refreshing it is to hear Jesus saying, "Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest." Today, we place before you the fractured lives of our neighbors in Haiti. May the collective response of the world community also bring healing attitudes to the world’s vast diverse people.
We thank you for nurturing our spirits that are so frequently absorbed while we are here. How often have we surrendered to you our consuming preoccupations and found peace? How often have we experienced your presence because we paused long enough to listen? How often have we felt our cares melt away when we gain perspective on how small our problems are when we consider the magnitude of what others face? Thank you for meeting us where we live and for allowing us to discover that we never walk alone. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...