"Why Ignorance Is Not Bliss”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – November 30, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 80:1-7; Isaiah 64:1-9


    This morning our passage from Isaiah reads like it could have come from a recent religious publication by an author that was frustrated that church attendance is no longer a priority for countless people.   Isaiah appears to be asking God to do something.

    Why don't you tear open the sky and come down here?  The mountains would see you and quake with fear.  They would tremble like water boiling over a hot fire.  Come and shake us up.  Shake us to the core of our lives.  No one turns to you any more in prayer.  No one turns to you and asks for help.  You remain so hidden from most people's lives that they question whether or not you exist. Please, do something!  There was a time when you did terrifying things.  Do them again!  Wake us up!

    Years ago, in one of my early Spirituality classes, I asked each student to list one reason why people have strayed from attending church.  Many of their responses could have easily been anticipated.

1.  There is a lot of competition for Sunday morning.  Stores are open.   My kids' coaches use this time for soccer and hockey practice.


2.  I have to dress up for five days.  I don't feel like dressing up for a sixth day.  Sundays should be like casual Fridays.  Don't kid yourself -- people notice what we women are wearing.


3.  Church no longer connects me to God.  The hymns are old fashion, too repetitious, too loud or unknown to me.  I don't like the ritualistic prayers, particularly the one where we have to repeat, "Hear our prayer, O Lord" after each statement by the pastor.  Why does God need to be reminded to listen to us?


4.  In good weather, you will find me on the golf course as early as I can get a tee-time.  If God wants to punish me because I am not in church, God will just have to punish me.  I need the break that golf brings to my foursome.


5.  I am a spiritual person, one that is not hung up on whether or not I will get into Heaven.  Some things need to be taken on faith.  I confess to being a Christmas and Easter Christian.  

    We can have a lot of fun with these excuses and others like them.  The issue is really not church attendance.  The issue has its roots in something called complacency.  There are probably millions of people today that live their lives meandering all over the place from one bright spot to another, capturing these fleeting moments of happiness with their friends.  They enjoy living quiet, normal lives, minding their own business and are looking forward to the next football game with a great cheese dip along with plenty of time to relax. They want to get through life safely, meet all their obligations and responsibilities, and die in their sleep.

    When I tell people that life is an adventure and that people have to take risks of faith in order to grow, sometimes they look at me and say, "Why?  I am happy just the way I am. I don't need any more adventures.  Just getting through each day in reasonable shape is good enough for me."  THIS is complacency.

    We can see why Isaiah was asking God to tear open the sky and come down to shake up people.  Sometimes the only thing that awakens us from the stupor caused by our routines is an unanticipated event that requires skills we realize in the moment that we do not have.  

    I remember a time when I received a call from a father that said, "Reverend Stetler, I understand that you are a specialist in dealing with teenagers.   I could use some help with my daughter." We scheduled an appointment for the next evening.  When the knock came on my office door and I opened it, that father was carrying his daughter under his arm like you would carry a small rolled-up carpet.  He threw her into my office and barked, "Straighten out this snippy little witch!"—only the word was not witch.  As he was leaving, he barked again, "Pastor, you have one hour! I will be waiting in the car."

    This young woman's responses to life, as well as her father's, were years in the making. As much as I wished to wave a magic wand and repaired her spirit in an hour's time, I could not.  She did not say one word to me.  I pulled a chair alongside hers and spoke very gently to her during that allotted time.  When the hour was up, she left and I never heard from either of them again.

    People can go through life defining themselves by all kinds of labeling that comes from the external world.  They never took the time to learn life-skills or skills of spirit because only a few people are teaching them.  The Church has spent its time teaching people what to believe instead of how to use skills that will lie dormant in each of them until they access and use them.

    Think about this:   As a number of us were reading the front page of yesterday's Royal Gazette, what separated Fernance Perry from other people?  No one gave him anything.  He built everything from scratch and he never borrowed any money.  Where did this man find his business sense, his skills with people, his ability to see opportunity and his desire to build a future for himself?    

    He found this treasure trove of skills right where Jesus said it was.  All of those skills were inside the little boy when he arrived in Bermuda as a five-year old from the Azores.  He grew his spirit, his relationships and his wealth from inside out while countless people look at what is outside in the hopes of finding their identity by responding to what is there.  I am sure he had a darker side, as did Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.  We all do, but all our individual talents, skills, traits and quirks are inside ready to surface as we use them.

    It is this way with matters of the spirit.  Isaiah was looking for God to tear open the sky and come down to earth and fix things.  He was looking forward with hope that God would act.  Through hindsight, we know that God did act.  But God did not act in the way Isaiah had hoped.   God sent us a coach in the same form that we all use when we enter this life.  He came as a baby born in Bethlehem of Judea. 

    What is interesting is that the hope we celebrate this morning, by lighting the first candle on our Advent wreath is not based on anything God did to fix things.  God gave humanity another choice without violating our free will.  Each one of us can respond to the blue print Jesus left for people to follow: a blue print that outlined the joy, happiness and fulfillment that can be experienced when we access and use the tools of our inner world.

    Absolutely no one needs to pay attention to this blue print.  Why is God not worried about our complacency?  God never worries because God has complete knowledge of each one of us. God created consequences as one of the greatest teachers humanity has for learning what works and what does not work.  Nothing works in life until we learn that we are the captain of our own ship.  Just like Fernance Perry understood, our skies have no limits.  He kept reaching and reaching until he was 93 years old.     

    I know how sick and tired we are by news events that repeat day in and day out. However, think of how different Ferguson, Missouri would be today had Michael Brown been taught skills of spirit.  Think of how different that community would have been had the mourners been taught skills of spirit.  Twelve business buildings would still exist.  Consequences of misbehaving always produce fear, death and destruction. 

    If people believe that slaughtering three Rabbis in Jerusalem was a way to heal themselves or to make a point to the rest of the world, they were mistaken.  If people think that medication is a way of coping with life when they are no longer happy with their lives, they are not paying attention to what consequences are communicating.  

    God does not lament when people choose ignorance and complacency.  This does not mean that God does not love us.  God loves each of us, but God also does not live our lives for us.  The quality of our lives depends on the choices that we make.  The attitudes that we develop often determine the quality of those choices.  Jesus was a teacher, a coach, and a trainer of how to make choices that heal and produce wholesome, community-building responses.  It is how we exercise our free will that makes the difference in the quality of our experiences.

    When we have a relationship with God, the symbols that offer guidance for our lives become visible to us.  How come?  The eyes of faith perceive with clarity that is very different from the vantage points offered by our passions and emotions.   The caterpillar never knows the power of flight until the moment it becomes transformed.  It is the same with each of us. 

    Jesus brought us hope by giving his students the keys to the Kingdom.  However, each student has to use them.  By recognizing the power that comes from our spiritual energy and knowing that our energy is an extension of our Creator, we own the same pearl of great price that Jesus pointed to throughout his own life.

    Attending church is just one way of helping us to remember how to distinguish between our passions and our spirit.  Only the latter will guide us with love.  Classes on our spiritual identity are not offered on the golf course, they are not offered by watching Manchester United play football and they are not offered at a Sunday brunch at one of our popular restaurants.

    I received a letter this past Tuesday from Premier Dunkley, telling me what a pleasure it was for him and his wife Pamela to be with us on our 175th Anniversary and to meet Bishop Marcus Matthews.  His last paragraph discusses what church attendance symbolizes to him.

Your church and all churches throughout Bermuda have played a valuable role in our society.  That work must continue as we face challenges of anti-social behavior and gang violence.  As I mentioned in my remarks, it is important that we rebuild our family values and in this regard the church and faith play a critical role.  Thank you for your commitment to this role.  I wish you, your church and congregation all the best, Michael Dunkley.

    Some people credit John Wesley with saying, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."  Actually, John was quoting Proverbs 29:18.  In a newer translation, that King James passage reads, "A nation without God's guidance is a nation without order.  Happy are those who keep God's law!"  Jesus' coming presented us with a peaceful path through the maze of living.  Only the spiritually-aware understand this.  People that have not developed this awareness, experience the reality that ignorance is not bliss.