"We Can Always Open Our Eyes"
Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 14, 2010
Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3; 11-23
So often we can read the Scriptures and believe they have absolutely no applicability or relevance to what we are thinking, our attitudes or how we are behaving. Ask yourselves the question, “What is the underlying motivation for most of the things that we do?” Generally, the answer is, “We want to. We want to experience what we believe will make lives more fulfilling and satisfying.”
Many times people in every age bracket have a moment when they ponder a decision they are about to make. They wonder if their choice represents an opportunity for growth and success or if their choice represents a response to their unhappiness.
This morning I believe we are hearing about a restless young man who was not happy with his life. His perception was that the grass was greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. No one forced him to go to his father and make the request that he did. We could call his choice an act of youthful indiscretion. Young people have made this type of decision in every generation. We could label such a choice made by forty and fifty-year-old people as a result of experiencing a mid-life crisis. People often make decisions because they are not happy where they are, they are not happy with their marriages, their jobs, and their accomplishments to date. They desire something better.
Teachers in every major religion lift up desire as being one of the most mischievous demons that approach us during moments of unhappiness. While the temptation comes in different forms, the illusion is always the same – “Go after what you want and happiness will follow.” Well . . . maybe it will and maybe it won’t.
I am not a fan of the television program American Idol. Yet, one can hardly miss all the hype that leads to the final group of candidates that is poised to compete with each other for the top choice--not only of the panel of judges but also of the television audience.
When the search for candidates begins, there are thousands of hopefuls that line up for auditions all over the United States. All over the country, young people want to reach for the stars. Their heads are filled with happy thoughts as each imagines what fame and fortune would bring to them if they won. Such dreams put their imaginations on the fast track. This experience is no different from what was pulling at the emotions of the young farmer’s son. He wanted to be out there in the world living life to the fullest. He did not want to be stuck on the farm for the rest of his life. All this sounds very reasonable. Instant success, however, is a two-edged sword.
It is very difficult to pluck people from relative obscurity and place them in a position where they become a household name among the screaming enthusiastic group of kids our society has labeled, the tweens, without that winner experiencing enormous life-challenges. Most of us can handle just fine the fact that we are not recognized by everyone when we enter a restaurant. If the truth were known, famous people envy us. Well known movie actors often go nowhere without being in disguise. How sad that must be for them.
While driving to an appointment last week, I was taken back to a much earlier time in my life by listening to Elvis Presley sing one of my old favorites. Elvis has one of the most remarkable stories of how a young man from Memphis became a teen idol overnight. Almost anything he sang went high on the charts of the top forty hits. Later he made a number of movies where critics praised him as having emerged as a serious actor. He had it all and became known as the King of his musical genre. What happened to him?
His loneliness, his fears, his depression, and his increased addiction to prescription drugs began to define him. Even his biographers found it difficult to uncover the intricate workings of the inner man. He had everything that a person could ever want, but he could not experience his wholeness from any of it. Jesus once said, “What good does it do for anyone to inherit the entire world, if in the process he loses his spiritual identity.”
Our lesson features a young man who had vivid dreams of what it would be like to enter the world with lots of money to spend. He would have friends. He would be able to buy some of the finer things of life. His popularity would place him at the best seats at all important gatherings. He believed that having wealth was far more important than being a farmer.
The young man was a victim of a belief that he could find happiness. There is a greater truth that escapes so many people today. No one can find happiness. King Solomon taught readers this lesson for thousands of years. We believe we know better. The happiness that people find is the kind that is fleeting. It is here today and gone tomorrow. Such happiness has no legs, it has no staying power and it teaches that we can never have enough of what feeds our feel good emotions.
Countless people seek happiness in the world believing that they can find it in a job, choosing the right mate, achieving the right academic credentials, writing The Book that soars to the top of the best seller list and stays there for months. We cannot ever find happiness. It was never lost in the first place.
Happiness grows and evolves from within ourselves by our being grateful for every moment when we are influencing the lives of others, every moment we are producing something of value and every moment when we find ourselves being useful. Through the flow of such thought and emotional patterns, we find purpose, contentment and peace.
The story of the farm boy plays over and over again in each generation. What do people become when their moment of fame disappears? When people align their identity to an exterior audience, who are they when the audience dramatically shifts its enthusiasm to another personality or cause? We will think about this theme on Palm Sunday. The difference between what happened to Jesus and this young man was that Jesus’ treasure was internal. Jesus was not seduced by the cheering crowds who came out to greet him.
What happened to our farm boy was that he had to lose everything to which his identity was aligned before he opened his eyes. Our lesson says, “At last, he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will leave this place, go to my father and become one of his hired servants.’” He rose from the dead and went home.
We have this remarkable passage in our lesson today -- “He was still a long way from home when his father saw him. His father’s heart was filled with joy as he ran to meet him. He threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Notice – no judgments. No “I told you so” comments. No criticism that suggested, “You made your bed, now you lie in it.” We read, “He threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
One day I received a call from a woman who told me that her mother was in the hospital and probably would not live through the week. During my visit, her mother confided that she knew she was dying and she was afraid. I pulled my chair closer to the bed, took hold of her hand and asked, “What is going on with you?” She said, “Dick, I haven’t always been a good girl. I don’t think I’m going to make it into Heaven.”
I said, “You don’t have to worry about that. Heaven is there because God loves you. Going there has nothing to do with whether or not you have been ‘a good girl.’ Besides, if you are not there when I leave this life, I will find you.” She smiled at that thought. Then I added, “If my love for you accepts you just as you are, how much greater would be God’s love for you?”
I uncovered her feet and with that hospital skin-care lotion, I gave her a foot massage. As I was doing so, she drifted off to sleep. She did leave us that week and we celebrated her life shortly thereafter. She needed to hear what she had heard most of her life. She needed the assurance that love would be waiting for her on the other side. That piece of information was understood by the farm boy, even if going home meant that he had to become a hired hand. He knew love would be waiting.
Think about all the decadent activities and moments of self-indulgence that the young man experienced while he was spending his newly acquired wealth on everything and everyone. None of it mattered to that father when he saw his son coming down the lane. The Scripture says, “His father’s heart was filled with joy as he ran to meet him.” This happened because the son had opened his eyes while eating with the pigs. His good times had faded. He had learned a valuable lesson that was timeless.
Why would God’s love be so open, available and welcoming to everyone? If God could not love “the least of these,” Jesus would not have taught his listeners that they should. God knows what we do not – inside of us is an angel whose identity many of us have forgotten. In fact, countless people do not believe that such an inner spirit-being exists. Belief, however, is not necessary for this to be true. For many people the spirit remains dormant until the moment of its awakening.
During the 18th century, the Ospedale Della Pieta hospital in Venice, Italy became a tourist attraction. The hospital had an all-girl orchestra and chorus that had gained a remarkable reputation throughout Europe. In fact, in 1714, the famous composer Vivaldi was the director of that orchestra and chorus.
In 1743, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau visited the hospital and was swept away by the performance he experienced. The problem was that there were large wooden screens separating the orchestra and choir from the audience. No one could see the girls.
Rousseau requested to meet the girls. After much hesitation, Vivaldi granted the request. The French philosopher had a meal with the girls. A highly shocked Rousseau wrote, “Nearly all the girls were physically disfigured -- many of them quite profoundly. This magnificent music, which had been attracting audiences from all over Europe, was being performed without anyone’s knowledge by girls who, because of their disfigurement, had been abandoned by their parents. The girls had been gathered by Christians who treated the girls as though they were a little lower than angels. In response, the girls played and sang like angels.”
There is a spirit-being inside of all of us that needs to be kept awake. Sometimes it needs to be awakened. This angel is beautiful, talented and filled with light. All we have to do is let it show. That father knew his son had to get something out of his system before he could find himself. It was among the pigs that his eyes were opened. During this Lenten season, are our eyes opened to what is inside of us? If so, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Merciful God, we thank you for all the moments in our lives that have the power to open our eyes to perceiving new directions. When we try to fashion our own destinies, we are often blind to the opportunities in front of us. When we pursue the symbols of prosperity and success, we may miss the happiness of realizing that enough is plenty. When our desires cause us to long for what we fear we lack, often we cannot appreciate what we have. Enable us to realize, O God, that our critical judgments so easily shroud the light of our openness. Our perceived hurts can reduce the levels of our happiness and peace. Increase our trust in what you can do through us to change our world. Lead us to remember that you are the Creator who can move mountains through the roles in life that we often consider too humble to matter. Amen.
Always present God, whose word was as faithful yesterday as it is right now, we thank you for the times when we struggle with alternatives, when we doubt and when we face moments of uncertainty. Without such times, we would know nothing of what it means to experience faith. If every outcome from our experiences was known to us, you would not be the potter and we would not be the clay.
We thank you for creating us with such adaptability and durability. During moments of scarcity, we can be generous. When judgmental words are said about us, we can respond with kindness. When our values appear violated, we can remain patient. When life presents us with challenging news, we can display our trust in you. When we experience the results from someone's lack of good judgment, we realize that each person has many more talents and gifts inside of them. Loving God, guide us to remember who you called us to be so that we can find peaceful solutions to our conflicts rather than searching for places to assign blame.
This morning we are grateful for the foundations of our faith that have provided us with so many ways to perceive with love, foundations that were provided by those who have gone before us. Help us never to forget the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us to remind us who we can become. We remain grateful, O God, for the variety of ways you communicate to us, sometimes with the results from our mistakes, other times with miracles. Thank you for loving us just as we are. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .