"Love Is Not Complicated”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – October 23, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-40


    Today we are going to consider the challenges we face every day to being a faithful follower of Jesus’ teachings.  What happens to us when we feel as though we are the only ingredient in a massive tossed salad filled with countless other seasonings and herbs?  Some of the other ingredients are the unproductive attitudes and values that others display, the unexpected changes that prevent us from reaching our goals and the issues that surround us that have the ability to ruin our day.  Many of these, of course, are ones over which we have no control. Nevertheless, they can produce the right chemistry to arouse strong emotions.

    Since we were children, we learned Jesus’ Great Commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your spirit.”  Jesus added a second important attitude, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  Jesus told his listeners that these two attitudes are the foundation upon which all biblical truth is built.  (Matthew 22:40)

    The master pattern for living does not get much clearer than this. What is so disheartening to realize is that we are so well-equipped by God, so bar-coded to be angels in the flesh and billions of us never realize it.  We only see flashes of our own brilliance from time to time. It is not egotistical to say this; it is the truth.  Our spiritual teachers have known this about our human potential from the beginning of recorded history. 

    For example, the Apostle Paul wrote in his famous love chapter, “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror.  A time is coming when we will see ourselves as we really are. At that time we will know ourselves as completely as God knows us.”  (I Corinthians 13:12) 

    Jesus once said, “First seek to live the attitudes-of-being as citizens of the Kingdom of God and everything else that you need will be yours as well.”  (Matthew 6:33)  What more enticements could anyone possibly need or want, particularly when expressing ourselves through loving energy patterns is not that complicated.

    What makes life so complicated is our attitudes over being inconvenienced, or having our points of view ignored or feeling disrespected.  We insist on standing in our own shadow.  We insist on experiencing life on our terms.  We are the ones that choose to respond with attitudes that express resentment and displeasure. No one forces us to drive smiles from our faces.

    During our formal education, most of us were never trained how to use our spiritual energy wisely.  Time and again we create mental states that make us miserable, that cause us to hold on to a smoldering resentment or that produces tunnel vision that blinds us to all our blessings.  We were not wired to create such misery for ourselves. 

    People begin to perceive themselves differently when wrinkles appear in their faces. The medical community knows that it takes four muscle groups in our face to smile and sixty-four to frown.  Think of all the stress, tension and anxiety that we create when our world is not the way we want it.  Such emotions cannot change events.  They produce adrenaline and cortisol.  When such responses are sustained, doctors tell us that this is like throwing acid on our internal organs.

    Lois and I were preparing to return to Bermuda last week.  We got up shortly after 5:00 a.m. and were picked up by a friend at 6:00 a.m.  We arrived at the airport in plenty of time. Even with my two artificial hips, we got through TSA and arrived at our gate with forty minutes before our scheduled boarding time.

    When our lift off was imminent, the captain told us that we had a flat tire.  Further, he told us that to jack up the aircraft and make the repairs would be about two hours.  Upon hearing this news, people in our immediate area made a number of verbal responses.  Passengers hastened to use their cell phones to make other arrangements for connecting flights.  What made matters more interesting was listening to twenty Chinese talk to each other once the captain’s words had been translated.  

    When these things happen to us, life becomes much easier for us by rehearsing the mantra we learned when we were children, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream merrily.” Those words remind us to keep our candle burning in spite of the wind.   

    After booking a flight to Miami on another carrier, Lois and I went to breakfast.  The cashier told us that we would be getting their last breakfasts. Wendy’s had run out of eggs and biscuits and had already put up their luncheon menu at 9:45 a.m.   People behind us in line had to settle for chicken tenders, fries and cheese burgers.  

    Another bonus was that we had time to sit and watch people use their various coping mechanisms, some with more skill than others.  Watching people is a great sport.  We saw a young woman whose hair was dyed in five colors. We watched a mother with remarkable skills manage three energy filled children.  We listened as anxious golfers discussed the possibility of missing the first day of the PGA golf tournament taking place on the island.

    Upon landing in Bermuda, we learned that our luggage was still in Baltimore and we emerged from Customs at 8:45 p.m. into the welcoming presence of ever patient Valerie Pethen.  Our luggage arrived at our home by taxi by 9:30 the next evening and our once neatly packed belongings looked as though they had survived a category five tornado.

    For those of you who fly frequently, such experiences happen all the time.  It was now our turn.  The point of this story is that we are the ones who choose the quality of our experiences, even when life takes us on a detour.  Further, we have the ability to look at every irritating inconvenience as another opportunity to practice our skill at being patient, being gentle with ourselves and using those four muscle groups in our face to ease our inner stress and tension.    

    Since all of us are students of life, does it make any sense to blame our unhappiness on the perfect world God designed for our spiritual growth?   It would be like blaming our Geography teacher for making us memorize the scientific names for Bermuda’s evolutionary stages of becoming a land mass that supports life from a once active volcano one hundred million years ago.  It would be like blaming the exercise equipment in the gym we attend for creating so much pain in our bodies that are in the process of becoming more physically fit.

    In order to achieve the fulfillment in life that is promised by these two most important attitudes-of-being in our Gospel lesson today, we have to radically change how we process our experiences.  We must teach ourselves to understand that every new day is another opportunity to refine who we are.  We must teach ourselves to awaken every morning looking for people and circumstances capable of ruining our day because such moments give us time to practice all the virtues many of us claim to have.

    Stephen Covey once wrote a book entitled, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  In that book, he told a story about an experience that awakened another of life’s lessons.  Stephen had gotten onto a train in New York City’s subway system.  After he was seated, he began to read a book.   Several stops later, a man and his three children boarded his car and the man sat down next to him.   As Covey continued reading, the man’s children appeared to be completely out of control.  

    The kids were running up and down the aisle, knocking items out of the hands and from the laps of other passengers.  The atmosphere in the car became tense and strained for everyone.  The father did nothing to curb their behavior.  He simply sat there oblivious to the disturbance his children were causing.

    As the drama continued, Covey became increasingly irritated. The situation had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer remain silent. He closed his book and asked the man, “Are these your children?”  The man responded that they were. “Why don’t you control their behavior?” Covey asked. “They are disrupting everyone in our car.” 

    The man responded, “I suppose I should.”  He took a deep breath and said, “We have just come from the hospital where my wife died.  Our family had breakfast this morning and while driving to work my wife’s car was hit broadside on the driver’s side by someone who ran a red light.  She died on the way to the hospital.   I don’t know what we are going to do.” 

    Covey wrote, “Instantly my resentment dissolved and it was replaced by empathy and compassion.  I helped him gather and settle his children.”  Stephen’s point was that we are always in charge of who we want to be during every moment of our lives.   We do not have to wait until our circumstances make sense before we direct our spirit toward others in a compassionate, helpful manner.

    We have to remember that God only gave us the potential for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control.  God did not equip us with highly refined and creative virtues, values and attitudes already in place.  Followers of Jesus who understand life in this fashion have found the narrow gate that leads to life that Jesus described. He also taught his listeners that only a few people ever find it.  (Mathew 7:14)  Jesus could do many things but he could not place what he knew and his orientation toward life into the hearts, minds and spirits of his followers.  

    We look everywhere for what will make our world the way we want it, but it simply cannot be found. Were Jesus still living in his physical form, he might say to us, “Many people will tell us that you need to try this new, improved product, you need to live in this neighborhood, you need to ask you doctor if this wonder drug is right for you, you need to read this self-help book, you need a second opinion on your health condition, but I tell you this – the perfect world of our Creator will not be found in any of those places.  The perfect world you seek is inside of you.”  (Luke 17:21)

    After lunch on Thursday, I was washing the dishes and listening to the radio.  I heard a children’s choir singing a beautiful song.  The words that were repeated the most were these, “If we could see the world through the eyes of a child, what a wonderful world we would see.” Why do many of us resonate with those words?   Children process life differently.

    Children see blue birds on the fence.  They are filled with wonder at the beauty of a butterfly. Children are taught to use their imaginations when they are taken into captivating worlds by others reading to them. Children are filled with the need to explore and taste everything.  Children love to be loved.  We all need to be loved.

    Perhaps this is why Jesus’ image is depicted in the stained glass window behind me on your right.  He loved children. We know how easy it is to love the little people who one day will inherit the world we give them.  When we clear our minds of all our judgments, worries, hurt feelings and hostile responses, we realize that loving others and ourselves is not complicated when we get our shadow-selves out of the way and let love show up all the time, every day.