"Saving Without Judging"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/28/1997
Mark 9:38-47; James 5:13-22
During my tenure in Martinsburg, West Virginia, I was called upon to do a funeral service for a young man who many believed had never found himself. The call came from Brown's Funeral Home because the family had no church affiliation.
The young man lived a rather rebellious and self-destructive life. And yet in dealing with several of his motorcycle buddies and members of the family, I found a number of qualities that were worth celebrating. But, the looming question "Where is he now?" was on the minds of those who knew him. Isn't it interesting how issues of faith and hope surfaced at his death even though they held no obvious position of importance while he lived?
While walking to my car I noticed a young woman who looked as if she wanted to speak to me. She was visibly upset. I walked over to her and said, "Is there something that you would like to say?" And she said, "Yes. Could you tell me if Michael went to heaven?"
I said, "Were you his girl friend?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Tell me about Michael." She told me the familiar story of parental neglect, of finding his identity with a group of people that was as angry as he, of dropping out of high school, and of his moving from job to job. She stopped and said, "He never had a chance at anything else." I asked, "Did you love him?" She said, "Oh yes, very much. I was the only one he would listen to. I was the only one who understood him." I said, "No, there was another." She looked puzzled and said, "Who?" I said, "God." And I went on to tell her that she needed to trust God now, knowing God also loves Michael very much.
But, the question still looms within each of us, "What are we to do with people who have not awakened to the power of their own spiritual nature?" Even people who do not consider themselves particularly religious deal with this issue. Every one of us know people in our immediate environment whose lives are not working. Their attitudes are sabotaging their efforts. Their habits alienate people. They seldom finish anything they begin. They haven't learned how to focus their energy.
We may have a sense of urgency that we need to do something to help other people discover what they are missing. And if we love them, the desire to unlock this potential becomes even more focused. When Jesus said, "Go into all the world and make disciples," wasn't he giving us this role?
In the letter of James we find these words, "My friends, if any of you wander away from the truth and another one brings you back again, remember this: whoever turns a sinner back from the wrong way will save that sinner's soul from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins." If this is our commission, how are we to do it?
When we give careful attention to the teachings of Jesus, they point in only one direction. Jesus directed his words toward what we are to do with ourselves. In fact, there are no instructions on how we should decide and act on what appears to be happening in someone else's life. Jesus only taught us how to be consistent in our response to everyone.
For example, the parables concerning the Kingdom focus only on what we are to do. "Buy the field where the hidden treasure was found. Buy the pearl of great price. Enter by the narrow gate. Love one another. Do not be afraid of other people. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body.... When you hear these words of mine and obey them, you are like the wise man who built his house on a rock."
When Jesus said, "Do not judge others," he put an end to any thought that he was sending us forth to "save anyone." How can we save someone unless we have already made the decision that they are lost? The confusion over how to respond remains.
Are we simply to ignore the behavior of others? Are we to pretend or deny what we are seeing? Are we not to become involved? These are good questions. Yet, how can any of us be sure what it is we are seeing? Suppose what we were seeing is a life in progress? Some lives may have to experience enormous amounts of what we might call doubt, frailty and weakness before they uncover or discover their abilities and strengths.
Many biographies regularly provide this very theme. Think about the Surgeon General who was once his community's most celebrated spoiled brat. How about two rebellious teenagers who translated and channeled that rebellion into companies named McCall Cellular or Virgin Airlines. Or how about a very disobedient son becoming Pope John? Did these people change into their service-oriented professions because others told them about God, or led them back into church?
Once Jesus said, "The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the whole batch of dough rises." By polishing the stone of who we are, God polishes all the stones around us. Sometimes all it takes is one person to light up and inspire an entire group of people.
Back in the days when I was a trainer for the Bladensburg High School football team, I remember one particular player very well. He played the position of half back, but he scarcely weighed 90 pounds. David Callahan's father and Mary Louise's Callahan's husband was the head coach of our football team. Our families had connections long before St. Matthew's was in our lives. The strange thing about Gary was that he never played. He never ran one set of downs that I can remember.
One afternoon just prior to practice Bob Callahan was relaxing with a cup of his Eight O'clock coffee. I asked why he kept Gary on the team. Bob looked at me and said, "Mr. Stetler, during the next game you keep your eye on Gary. See if you can figure out why we keep him on the team."
Gary was the funniest guy I have ever known. One-liners were constant. Gary was always beside every injured player that was brought off the field. He was up and down the sideline cheering, screaming, and encouraging. His energy had no boundaries. When a player would drop a pass, Gary would spray his hands with a product that was like liquid adhesive tape. Once when we were down so far in the fourth quarter, he yelled out, "Come on guys, what's thirty-six points?" Even some of the exhausted linemen found the energy to smile and shake their heads when they heard that. He had a way of helping everyone remember that football was only a game. He was the marvelous leaven for the loaf.
Seeing how this works on a football team may be a good distance from bringing people to an awareness of what Jesus Christ is teaching us about life. How can we "save" people if we were directed by Jesus not to judge them as being "lost"? Jesus himself was the greatest model in how to answer that question. He did it by choosing to be with others as a teacher, by allowing them to see the results of his own life and by giving total trust to the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
In our urgency to do something about someone else's life, we forget that God is always at work in everyone's life. Many of the inspiring stories about major changes in people have come not as a result of others wanting it but because they wanted it. God knows the exact timing of when to knock on the door of someone who hasn't been paying attention.
All you and I can do is to be signposts along another person's path. No one can make another person understand. No one can point to something beautiful when others are fascinated by something they think is more appealing. People can experience a worship service and think, "Oh, that hat! It is so unflattering." "Doesn't he have any other ties?" "Dear me, look at that hemline. She must think she's still 16." "Why doesn't the choir ever sing something that I know?" "Why are Dick's sermons so long and boring?" We all have such thoughts from time to time.
However, when something happens in a worship experience that appears to be tapping into what we are experiencing right now, we will listen. People who have drifted away in their concentration suddenly find themselves coming back. The Holy Spirit works like that. All of us are like little lights and signposts who contribute to the moment when the sun finally rises in the life of someone else.
Jesus kept saying, "Polish your stone! Polish your stone!" This is what he meant when he said, "Let your light so shine...." That is all we are to do. Jesus never asked us to take the inventory of someone else's life. He never requested for us to search for those who are lost. If we remember that passage correctly, it was the Good Shepherd who searched for the lamb until it was found.
At Capitol Hill we had several resident atheists who attended worship on a fairly regular basis. They were always funny in their excuses for why they attended. I used to chide them for being hypocritical to their belief that there was no God. They would say, "Life in this congregation is not oppressive toward those of us who believe otherwise." I would say, "Thank you! We'll see you next Sunday."
Who knows what God is doing in those lives? We were grateful that they chose to be with us. When the circumstances are right, their moment of truth will come. Perhaps the only thing the congregation could do at the time was to supply the environment where they felt welcomed.
The letter of James carefully outlined the life that was experienced in the early church. James wrote about praying, about healing, about confessing, and about helping others to find their way back to the truth. When a group of people have a loving, contagious spirit, it cuts through all the stereotypes and prejudices that people often have about Christians.
In fact, newcomers are finding churches attractive where people have put away their cookie-cutter patterns for what Christians need to look like. Healing isn't found in plans for salvation nor in formulas for the disciplined life. Healing comes when congregations allow the Holy Spirit to guide the experiences of others. And that really happens when all of us give up our control over who we want someone else to be. This is the most exciting attitude a congregation can have. With God all things are possible!
Remember Zaccheaus, the tax collector, who climbed the tree out of curiosity? He wanted to see the man everyone had been talking about. Jesus came to the tree and looked up and said, "Zaccheaus, hurry down, because I must stay in your house today." (I want you to know that when I invite myself to your house for dinner, this is where I learned it.)
Notice that there was no judgment from Jesus about Zaccheaus. The judgment came from those who had been listening to Jesus. (Luke 19:1f) "All the people started grumbling, 'This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner.'" The passage ends with Jesus saying, "Salvation has come to this house today." That is how salvation occurs. We accept others as we find them, create the environment where love is present, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for creating within us the desire to learn more about the art of living. We know that there are many hours that we commit to entertainment, and we call it "a needed break" following our day's work. Many of us would rather see a movie than read a book. We would rather listen to truth than discipline ourselves to live it. We would rather withdraw from conflict than give others the benefit of our views and insights. We find it easier to live when no one is requesting a greater accountability to a higher standard. How often, O God, we become our own worst enemy? We want you to guide us, yet we are the ones who stand in the way of such a path becoming visible. Inspire us to make room in our thinking for miracles and for your presence in the unexpected. As we continue the adventure of living, may we learn to anticipate your presence at life's every turn. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Ever faithful God, our lives have been made much richer because we have refused to be realistic about our experiences. Your Son has taught us to think in terms of possibilities, of creative alternatives, of problem solving, and of looking for ways we might expand the loving spirit by which we live.
When your Son taught us to follow him, it was an invitation to learn how to care a little more, to share a little more, to give a little more and to help a little more. He was telling us how our brightened lives would become like a lighthouse set on a hill, providing a radiance for as far as the eye could see.
As each of us seeks a closer unity with your will, may our success be reflected in the choices we make, in the way we spend our time, and in the words we choose to use. In our openness to others, may we learn to treat each person in the same spirit as we would treat your Son.
Cause us to remember every day that we are only students here; students who have been presented with a marvelous classroom we call the earth. Help us develop the insight to understand the many teachers who surround us -- each capable of holding a mirror in front of our responses and asking, "Is this who you want to be?"
As our lives grow with the changes that come, may each of us reflect the same loving spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...