"Can Everyone Hear The Truth?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/23/1997
2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37
During the days when I was minister of youth and young adults in Cheverly, I received a call from a distraught father. He was concerned about his daughter's relationship with a young man. I did not know either the father or his daughter. Yet, his description of the young man was an all too familiar image for me during the early 1970s.
The boy in question was older than his daughter. He had dropped out of high school and would frequently pick up her for a date naked from the waist up. I recall the father's comments. He said, "My daughter is attractive and could have a date with almost any boy. Why is she settling for a rebellious jerk who has nothing going for him? I can't get through to her. Would you mind if I brought her by to see you?" Of course, I agreed.
To my utter chagrin, he brought his very resistant daughter to my office carrying her under his arm like a small rolled up carpet. He dumped her on my office floor and sternly remarked, "You talk to him! Maybe he can talk some sense into you!" Well, that entrance certainly set me up for a substantive, eager and enthusiastic conversation!
For an hour I spoke to her in soft tones about everything I could think of that might help rachet down her emotional level. I failed. She sat there, stared straight ahead and never said a word. When she left, I never heard from either of them again. How can we cause other people to understand, at the moment, what they have no desire to learn?
There have been numerous occasions when I have been asked to help couples resolve conflicts in their marriages. When both are wedded to their perception of the problem and they are not open to other possibilities, even prayer is useless. They will address symptoms and attempt to change them without ever addressing the cause. And what is the cause? The cause is always the same. Only the symptoms are different.
In most circumstances the conflict arises by how each is responding to hurt feelings, feelings that each is accusing the other of creating. It is so easy to assign the quality of our spirit to someone else, forgetting that we are the creator of every response that we make in life. Most people will not believe this because they cannot hear the truth.
"If she will only change," he says, "then I will be happy again." The pattern of such thinking can become as wide as we want it to be. If only my daughter would understand that I am trying to look out for her best interest. If only my supervisor would be more sensitive to the needs of those who are around her. If only I lived in a safer neighborhood. When do we ever take responsibility for who we want to be? Must we always look to others and our surroundings to give us what is impossible for them to provide?
In our lesson this morning, we have an answer to this constant area of tension in life. The story we are examining today is the classic stand off between Pilate and Jesus, a drama that we normally visit during the Lenten season. This is Christ the King Sunday and it is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving. While the themes seem miles apart, they are not. We cannot experience Christ in our lives, nor can we have a spirit filled with thanksgiving when we are preoccupied with our neediness for the world to be something other than what it is.
During this exchange Pilate is not clear about the charges that had been lodged against Jesus. Jesus responded, "My Kingdom does not belong to this world." Pilate asked, "Are you a king, then?" Jesus said, "I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth." Then Jesus concluded with some very important words for everyone. He said, "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me."
Is everyone capable of listening and hearing what Jesus taught? The answer is yes! All of us are capable of hearing it. If this is true, why don't we take his teachings as our rule for living and make them a part of our daily lives? The answer is so simple that it escapes most of us.
If we revisit that frustrated father whom I mentioned earlier, we can see that his definition of effective parenting was to manage his daughter's life until she was old enough to be on her own. He was so busy figuring out what was best for her that he removed from her the tool she would need later on -- her ability to make her own decisions and live with the consequences.
We have all known people who have said, "I am right and you have no say in the matter. When you are my age and have my experience, then I'll listen to you!" It should be no surprise to us that day never arrives. If we say that, we mean well. Our sense of responsibility demands that we talk that way. Yet, frequently we leave frustrated, angry and broken lives in our wake. And we say with a sense of innocence, "I don't understand. I tried to set her on the straight and narrow path by doing everything I knew how to do."
Jesus said, "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me." Do we see the personal nature of this teaching? "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me." We first have to belong to the truth before anything else of substance can happen. Jesus' teachings have to be the cornerstone of our lives first. We have to trust the outcome of all things to God first. Once such a decision has been made, everything about us, every relationship, every conversation radiates from that choice.
What many of us face is that we try to teach what we ourselves have not learned. We try to give away what we ourselves do not have. Where was that father coming from when he took such extreme measures with his daughter? He was fearful. He decided to take responsibility for his daughter's choices. He wanted her to be everything he wanted her to be.
Even though in his mind he wanted only the best for her, he did not have the slightest understanding of how God works. His trust in God's faithful presence in his daughter's life was not there. He tried to do what no parent can ever do, determine the quality of his daughter's destiny. If God loved us with such a protective posture, temptation would never have been placed in our midst. As babies, we first learn by tasting and feeling. Later on we learn through our successes and failures. Both are very effective teachers. However, when others around us live the truth, something even more powerful stands in our midst.
When I was in the fifth grade, a friend of mine and I went into the woods where we each smoked a half pack of cigarettes. This was my first experience with cigarettes. We were sitting there pretending that we were cool and grown up. When I went home I found my mother ironing in the kitchen. I told her what I had just done. She said, "Did you like smoking?" I said, "No, they made me choke at first and they gave me bad breath." Nothing more was ever said to me by either parent.
I wonder what my parents' discussion was like after I went to bed. Fears must have come about the quality of my friends and how best to respond. My parents, however, belonged to the truth and that made a significant difference in their response to me. They were trusting me to find my own way, and I treasure that trust more than any gift they ever gave me. That trust opened the doors for even more in-depth sharing with them later on. They taught me that I never had to hide anything from them.
Here is my point -- my parents allowed me to grow up in an environment that mirrored all that they wanted me to be. It was their behavior, their attitudes, their spirit that directed me more forcefully than anything they could have said. My Dad and Mom walked the talk. If you listen carefully to the questions parents answer during the baptism of their children, one of them is: "Do you promise to live before your children a life that reflects the Gospel?"
It is as if Jesus said, "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me, not to fear, not to possible consequences, and not to the images and forms we may want life to assume. What a difference that decision makes in how we greet life! When what Jesus gave us is at the center of our lives, we welcome the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We celebrate all that appears challenging. We become grateful that we have the opportunity to radiate the meaning of our relationship to God.
Do we understand the radical difference this makes? This orientation to life is much different, for example, than having a positive attitude about everything. People frequently confuse a Christ-centered life with one that tries to maintain a positive mental attitude. They are not the same by any stretch of the imagination. There is no way that Jesus could have engaged in enough mental gymnastics to have developed a positive attitude about his crucifixion. "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" says it all.
Jesus took his cue for living from one place -- the outcome of all things is up to God. He lived and died radiating the qualities that came from that understanding. Jesus' world was always changing. He was everyone's favorite on Palm Sunday and was totally abandoned a week later. The relationships he formed were always changing. He lived in a world of relativity. So do we. To assume that our peace and joy will come from any part of this world is to hope for what can never come. Such a changing world cannot be depended on to give us anything on a consistent basis. It simply cannot by its very nature. Jesus said, "My Kingdom does not belong to this world." When we belong to the truth, we readily understand the meaning of his words.
God calls us to stand in the midst of this world and radiate the light that comes from a Kingdom -- an understanding -- that is not of this world. Such an understanding helps each of us to create an environment around us where everyone has the opportunity to find healing. Why? We bring no judgment. We only reflect our acceptance. When others may not be able to hear the truth, few of them will fail to recognize their acceptance by us. And such acceptance will carry more authority than anything our words might say.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Ever present and faithful God, how grateful we are to recognize our blessings as a source of joy. What price would we put on the freedoms we experience? What price might we place on our standard of living or on the relationships that affirm us? And yet, O God, how often we feel life's tug-of-war. We want peace, yet we struggle. We want character while our emotions distract us. We want truth while finding safety in compromise. How can we trust that where we are is where you would have us be? Is it because all experiences have the ability to lead us to faith? Use all our moments, O God, to make your will known to us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Gracious, loving and ever faithful God, we find ourselves approaching the time of year when many Americans throw an anchor into their swift-moving currents and slow their lives to a stop. Together we have declared a day when we consider a time in our nation's history that none of us experienced. We recall the brave people who left every symbol of security they knew, sailed an ocean and set up camp in an unknown world. We remember the crude meal that found colonists sitting around a table with Native Americans during that first Thanksgiving. We can only imagine their faith and their trust in you, O God, that allowed them to push against all of the known horizons until eventually America was born.
We thank you for all that calls us to be more than we believe ourselves to be. We thank you for the skills that surface within us when our lives have need of them. We thank you for the ability we have of sharing, giving, helping and producing so that future generations may stand on our shoulders, much as we have stood on the shoulders of whose who have gone before us.
Lord God, help us never to take a single aspect of life for granted. May we be on our knees every day thanking you for your presence, your guidance and your grand adventurous gift to us of life itself. We pray all of these things through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .