"Be Among Those Who See"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/8/1998
Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35
The answer may be that most of us have already made up our minds about what we want because we live it every day. Last Tuesday I was following a car with a bumper sticker that said, "If you cannot live what Jesus taught, you don't believe it." Some of us would readily take issue with that statement. We might say, " But I do believe what Jesus taught. I am just not able to put his truth into practice every day." Such excuses have been around for centuries.
A more accurate statement would be that we allow too many other priorities to get in our way. When we are clear on what we want, most of us generally have no trouble following a plan to get it. For example, once a girl has decided that she wants to become a high school cheerleader, she immediately focuses her energy. She memorizes the routines. She learns to be consistent with her jumps. She works on her gymnastic abilities. Why? Because being a cheerleader has become the priority. She knows she will not be chosen simply because she has a cute smile and is popular. She knows that she has to demonstrate her skills in front of judges who may be choosing only 3 from the 17 students trying out.
When people attend St. Matthew's for the first time, aware of it or not, most of them come knowing exactly what they want. They come with an established pattern of beliefs for which they are seeking a match. Most of us understand this about ourselves. Each of us must be very careful with such thinking. It was such a pattern, such a belief system, that prevented his listeners from making a match with the message Jesus brought.
Last week, I was attending a meeting where a Presbyterian minister was speaking about the diversity within his congregation. In some respects that congregation is like St. Matthew's, where everybody is welcomed. People attend his church from a variety of denominational backgrounds because it is one of the few churches in his rural community. He was discussing how denominational loyalty is no longer as significant for people as it was years ago. Yet, he went on to say that in the area of worship, adjusting to change has been difficult for many of his people.
He said, "People who attend come from backgrounds that are Pentecostals where they were accustomed to holding up their hands while speaking in tongues as well as those who were formally Episcopalians who prefer chanting and high liturgy. Then he said, "People want a worship experience and a sermon that reflects what they have already learned. The challenge is to blend them all into a cohesive faith community."
Most ministers can tell when someone in the congregation is not comfortable with the order of worship or the message. What creates the tension is that such people want a diet of the kind of faith that molded them. If we have ever attended a church where we simply did not resonate with what was happening there, we know the feeling. We are not at home there. We may decide to move on to a worship setting that matches our comfort level.
We choose what we want. But, does what we want inspire us to be accepting of others just as they are, trusting of God, and at ease with those who are not like us? Has our faith protected us from being pulled into webs spun by people who, in another day, would have easily angered us? In other words, what kind of consciousness are we seeking support for from our faith community? And what other priorities are we willing to set aside so that we will arrive at being more peaceful and more in control over the spirit we are bringing to life? During Lent, these are some threshold questions we need to ask ourselves.
In our lesson this morning, there are two interesting themes that surface. The first is that the Pharisees are the ones who warned Jesus of danger. "You must get out of here," they said, "and go somewhere else because Herod wants to kill you." Isn't it interesting that from within the rigid structure of their belief system, some Pharisees had developed a concern for Jesus and his message? Think about what those Pharisees had to first set aside.
The second theme comes from Jesus' understanding of how difficult it is for people to unlearn what we have been taught. We fight and defend our beliefs while often neglecting to look at what those beliefs have produced in us. People throughout history have been predisposed to act on their learned beliefs, beliefs that have often shielded them from the very lessons that would have helped them grow. Are we any different?
Listen again to how Jesus recognized and responded to this. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all of your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!"
With today being Girl Scout Sunday, we could easily hear this same kind of recognition and response coming from Scout leaders. Leaders can point to résumés of people like Eileen Collins, who will be the first woman in our nation's history to command a space shuttle craft. When girls see that Scouting was part of the foundation of such women, they quickly learn where their character, their self-starting abilities and their desire to set high standards had their beginnings. The lament comes when Scout leaders lift up such role models, as well as the enormous benefits of Scouting, to many young women who have other activities they would rather experience. Isn't this also true for many of us?
Many of us want to "fly" in most of our activities, but we don't take the time to learn first how to be a good pilot. We all want to succeed in our relationships without first understanding what it is we are bringing to them. We all want to grow, while resisting the work that climbing to higher ground always involves.
Is there anyone here this morning who does not want to be financially independent by the time you retire? Everyone hopes to reach this goal, but so many of us have not yet started to invest even a dollar a day in a mutual fund or a Savings Bond. Why? We have allowed our lives to be formed around other priorities while claiming with a sincere heart that we want something else.
Our human nature has not changed. The Jews were looking for the kind of Messiah they wanted, when in truth there would never be a Messiah coming in the form they expected. This is why when a prophet came among them with a message that did not conform to all that they had learned, the Jews attacked him. Jesus said, "You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent to you!" The Jews did so believing they were protecting their truth, protecting all that they had been taught.
Today, we are not as harsh in the United States. We don't kill people whose ideas about God are different from our own. We just ignore them. Most of us have our own ideas about truth. We know this because we live what we believe every day of our lives. And the more we practice those beliefs, the more entrenched those points of view and responses become. Soon we become so skilled at who we are and we are not as open to change as we were in a former day.
Imagine Jesus saying to us personally, "I want to teach you about God's unconditional love of you, but you insist on having your God of judgment. I want to teach you the freedom of never again allowing your spirit to be controlled by other people's behavior or attitudes, but you insist on being hurt. You insist on wanting to get even. You insist on brooding, pouting and withdrawing. I want to teach you about the peace that comes from not judging others, but you insist on investing your energy in trying to fix everyone and everything."
The truth in our Gospel lesson today is that even Jesus with all his power, with all his clarity of insight, and with all his ability to communicate what God is like, still had to say, "How many times I wanted to put my arms around you and love you, but you would not let me." God will not break down our doors in order to instill a vision of truth within us. God does not have to. Truth was, is, and will always be all around us. The task of opening the doors to truth is ours.
Today, Jesus stands like the parent of the Prodigal Son who wants more for us than we often want for ourselves. The son in that parable had thought that happiness would be found in the next relationship, in the next town, or in the next job. Wholeness and salvation were always just around the bend. However, the priorities of his search, i.e., all that he really wanted for himself, had blinded him to seeing that he had everything he needed long before he left the farm. We know this because it was to that same farm that he eventually returned.
If we are going to be among those who see, i.e., among those with vision and understanding, we may have to begin unlearning some of the rules we have been following without question for most of our lives. Our guide must always be the spirit of Jesus that asks, "Is what you now believe serving to enhance who you are? Are you more Christ-like now than you were a year ago? Are you at peace and can you be caring even when you must work with a person whom you have determined is not the sharpest knife in the drawer? If not, remember what I have taught you. Remember, that I prepared the way for you. If you follow me, I promise that you will have more control over the abundant spirit you radiate to others than at any other time you have ever known."
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, how grateful we are that you love us. We admit to our confusion over what is important in life. We are often drawn to areas that appear to add security to our physical comforts. We often determine the quality of our relationships by how others "should be" responding to us. We remain uncertain how our judgments create the experiences we have. We pray that during this Lenten season, each of us might examine our lives more honestly. Help us to look at those areas the existence of which we frequently deny. Encourage us to make decisions more thoughtfully, as we choose daily who it is we want to be. As we grow to become more peaceful in our lives, we do so with grateful hearts that you sent Jesus to be our guide and friend. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for surrounding us with the abundance of your truth. We watch as many song birds complete their migration to our part of the world. We watch as Spring bulbs send their green shoots toward the sun. We marvel at the peacefulness of spirit that comes to us when we place our trust in you for the outcome of all things.
During this period of Lent, we give thanks for St. Matthew's. Our community of faith provides that oasis of quiet for some, that bee hive of activity for others, and that place where we can feel safe for still others. We thank you for the trust and confidence that we have placed in so many people who have assumed responsibility among us. Truly they help create the environment where your spirit may be found and experienced. It is their work that extends the invitation for others to be your thoughtful hands and feet. Lent truly is a time for sharing the gratitude we often neglect giving to you.
Thank you for the babies we baptize today at both of our services. What a challenge it is for our congregation to be the support, the guide and the nurturing foundation for these two families. May we meet the challenge with an unwavering resolve to be the garden where young seeds grow up surrounded by love. We pray all of these things through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .