"Mastering A Lost Art"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – April 3, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-16


     On this fourth Sunday of Lent, we are going to consider the lost art of looking at the meaning of our experiences with less certainty than we do. Before you ask, “What did he just say?” let me illustrate my point.

     Before his retirement, a friend of ours was the owner of Easy Method Driving School. While Dick was participating in a trade association meeting in California, he and another friend decided that they would forego some of the afternoon seminars and hike through Sequoia National Park. 

     As they walked through the giant redwood trees, Dick broke their silence and said, “Can you imagine that these trees were only twenty feet tall during the time when Jesus was roaming through Galilee?”  His friend responded, “I’ve been trying to imagine how much money we could make by using the wood of just one of these trees to build decks on people’s houses.”

     Dick was shocked by his friend’s response.  He said, “That guy shattered my moments of tranquility and reflection.  I literally had been carried away by my sense of wonder and awe and he was thinking of profit margins.  How can two people experience the same thing and come away with such different reactions?”

     I told him that we slowly develop our responses by experiencing life through the lenses of what we value.  Each of us is an individual.  We do not see things as they are.  We personalize each experience because of who we are.  Dick had a difficult time letting go of his colleague’s comment.

     Here is another example.  A neighbor of ours experienced the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack.  She was inconsolable with grief.  In these instances, all anyone can do is listen to her pain and give them the gift of your silent presence.  She said, “How can God allow this to happen?  We were so happy.”  She told me all the things they had planned to do once he retired from his dental practice.  She kept asking me, “What am I going to do?  What am I going to do?”  Such questions are best greeted with silence.

     Such episodes in life happen to all of us sooner or later.  There is no way to plan for them with some prearranged response.  Life is not like that, but we can allow such moments to become stepping stones rather than the end of a journey.  As it turned out, Olga met a widower while vacationing in Florida and the two of them experienced an instant attraction.   They later married.

     She wrote, “Dick, you are not going to believe this, but I met a man while walking along the beach one evening.  His wife had died four years ago and we have fallen hopelessly in love just like a couple of teenagers.  I could never have imagined that anyone could fill the void in my life after George died.  I am so happy to be with someone who loves me as much as I love him.  He is a perfect gentleman and it doesn’t hurt that he is also rich.”   

     Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once offered the following guidance, “The great thing in this world is not so much where you are or what you are experiencing, but in what direction you are moving.”   The 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, “If you are irritated and become unsettled by every rub, how will you ever become polished?” 

     There are hundreds of familiar statements that help us to see the value of looking at every experience as one that can move us toward an opportunity to grow.  When we find ourselves confused, we should change the lenses of our glasses. What is happening to us has no value until we assign one.  How do we really know what an experience means or where it will lead us? 

     Both of our scripture lessons featured individuals who missed the mark because they assigned meaning to their encounter.   Both were viewing events through the windows of their values and beliefs even though both of them thought they had God as the captain of their ships. 

     The story of Samuel anointing David to become the next king of Israel is like the Cinderella fairy tale.  God told Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons was going to be Israel’s next king.  When Samuel encountered Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab he thought, “This man standing here in the Lord’s presence is surely the one God has chosen.”  God said, “Pay no attention to him.  I do not make decisions the way people do.  They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.” 

     When Jesse’s seven sons had come before Samuel, none of them was God’s choice. Samuel asked, “Do you have any other sons?”  Jesse responded, “There is the youngest, but he’s out taking care of the sheep.”  Samuel said, “Send for him.”  When David was brought before Samuel, the glass slipper fit his foot, i.e., he met with God’s approval -- and Samuel anointed him to become the one who would follow King Saul.

     In our Gospel lesson, the same mistake was made.  A number of Pharisees allowed their own beliefs, values and faith to interpret the testimony of others in their community.   Jesus had healed a man who had been blind since birth but he had performed this deed on the Sabbath, a time when by law the Jews must rest from their labors.  

     People who knew the healed man actually doubted that he was the same man who used to sit and beg for alms.  Once his identity was established, the Pharisees became divided.  Some said, “The man who did this cannot be from God.  He did not obey the Sabbath Law.”  Other Pharisees said, “How could a man who is a sinner perform such miracles as these?”

     It is very common for us to interpret our experiences through our beliefs, values and faith. We bring to every event who we are and what we think we know.  We are seldom prepared to look upon some one-of-a-kind experience or some unexpected life-reversal as guidance for our journey.  We may not understand anything the moment something is happening. This is why we need to learn the lost art of trusting God even when our thoughts cause us to imagine all manner of challenging possibilities. 

     For example, Moses turned aside to see a bush that was on fire and it was not consumed.  He was urged by God to confront the ruler of Egypt to grant the Jews their freedom.  Jesus went to the cross still clinging to his trust in God and to his conviction to remain compassionate toward those who despised him.   Saul of Tarsus was blinded by a divine encounter while on the way to persecute and prosecute Christians in Damascus.  After being healed by Ananias, Saul became the Apostle Paul, whose passion drove him to travel 3,200 miles to spread the Gospel.  Each of them had to trust that God was active even though their senses told them otherwise.

     More than likely Samuel went home following his anointing of David as king hoping that he had not misunderstood God’s guidance.   Much later in our Gospel lesson, the Pharisees brought back the man that had been blind and cross-examined him again.  They asked, “How did he cure you of your blindness?”  He responded, “I have already told you.  Why do you want to hear it again?” 

     They said, “We follow Moses.   As for this Jesus, we do not know where he came from.” The healed man countered, “What a strange thing.  You do not know where he comes from?  He cured me of my blindness!  Since the beginning of the world, no one has ever heard of anyone giving sight to a person born blind.  Unless this man came from God, he would not be able to do a thing.”  The Pharisees fired back, “You were brought up in sin and you are trying to teach us?” They threw him out of the synagogue.  (John 9:26f)

     How many of us have given voice to our frustrations because of some drama in which we have found ourselves?  Like Samuel and the Pharisees, we can not see God’s handiwork during a moment when we did not know what was happening or why.  It is only when we look back on some event that we can see but one set of foot prints in the sand.  That was when God was carrying us.  It is very challenging for us to understand guidance at the moment it is happening.

     A number of us know the hymn:  “Have thine own way, Lord.  Have thine own way. Thou art the potter; I am the clay.  Mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.” 

     Our problem is that we do not take the time to be “waiting, yielded and still.”  We are out there clamoring for justice.  We want our day in court.  We want to cry out that life is not fair.  Think of the possibilities that may happen because God is the potter and we are the clay! 

     Many years ago there was a young woman in Mexico who was American-Mexican heritage.  Her husband left their marriage, leaving behind two small children who were still in their diapers.  She did not have a penny to her name.  She made no judgment about what happened and she never grew bitter.  She realized that such emotions would not change her circumstances. All she had was the faith that she was on a journey that would lead somewhere wonderful if she brought her best to every step along the way.  She had mastered the art of following where her circumstances were leading her.

     She worked long hours until she had gathered enough money to buy three bus tickets to Los Angeles, California where she planned to start life all over again.  She was hired to work from midnight to 6:00 a.m. making taco meat and shells.  She saved 10 percent on every dollar she earned.  As the years passed the dimes began to add up.  Once she had saved enough money she visited her bank to see if it could secure a loan to purchase her own taco stand.  The bank manager was so impressed with her saving discipline, her attitude and abilities that he granted her the loan.

     At the age of 25, she bought a little taco stand.  Her small business expanded and grew until 20 years later she became the owner of the largest wholesale business of Mexican products in the United States.  Her story did not end there.  Because of her rapid rise from rags to riches in such a short period of time, a number of people noticed her.  One of those people was President Richard Nixon.  In 1971, he appointed Ramona Banuelos to become the next Treasurer of the United States. 

     During our walk through the Lenten season, it would serve us well to consider this lost art of remembering that we are clay and it is God who is The Potter.   Reflecting on this lost art would help us pause to consider that more may be happening to us then what we first imagine.

     When Lois and I accepted an assignment to Bermuda it truly was an “off-the-wall” show stopper.  We had planned to drive to Arizona during February and March.  Then we were going to continue our journey through California celebrating Easter along the way.  Bermuda represented one of those moments when we knew we would be flying completely blind into an unknown culture.  Some of our friends thought we were crazy.  However, we have not been disappointed. 

     Helen Steiner Rice wrote a poem that frames with her words a creative way to view our earthly experiences.

Maybe I’m kind of old fashioned – Maybe I’m trailing the rest, but somehow I cling to the theory that whatever happens is best.  Best, if we know how to use it, if we know just what lesson to take. . . best if we know what each happening means, and out of it just what to make.

In looking back down the trail of the years, I can now very clearly see, that so many things were not for the best which I had wanted heart breakingly; and too, I can see where the “bitter pills” with which some phases were filled, were the very cornerstones on which I eventually found I could build.

Friends that you thought you would die without, you found in the hard, long run, were not the ones you needed at all, but belonged to the days of fun.  Think back now and see if the hardest days were not richer than all the rest – when you’ve conquered your fears and learned through your tears that whatever is, is best.