"Coming With Nothing And Getting Everything"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 6/14/1998
Luke tells us the story of a woman named Mary who came with nothing and left with everything. How did she experience such a transformation? Many of us are not prepared to leave what we know. In fact most of us find such a dramatic change one of the most difficult experiences to achieve. Why is that?
There is an ancient Chinese parable that may illustrate for some of us why change is so difficult to accomplish. One day a man went hunting. While he was away, robbers descended on his village plundering and looting every household. The unsuspecting residents were slaughtered. To disguise their deeds, the thieves set fire to everything. During the attack, however, the hunter's son had managed to escape.
When the hunter returned to what remained of his village, his emotional devastation was beyond description. All his neighbors and friends had been killed. He found the charred remains of a boy lying near where his hut had stood. Positive that this body was that of his son, the hunter burned the remains and scattered the ashes to the winds.
Time passed and the hunter rebuilt his hut. One day his son returned and when he tried to enter his home he found the door was barred. He said, "Let me in, Papa. I have returned." The father was so convinced that his son was dead that he did not bother to open the door. He sent "the stranger" away and told him never to come back. With great sadness the boy left assuming that all his father's losses had caused him to go insane. He never returned.
This happens to us every time we are convinced that we have the truth. We can shut our minds preventing new ideas from growing. We can shut our minds from hearing about other possibilities. We can bar the door to our consciousness and thus deny ourselves discovering other interpretations to what we experience. In so doing, we stay with what we understand. There can be no evolution of thought and thus we seal our fate on our ability to change.
Luke wrote, "In that town was a woman who lived a sinful life." Imagine what would have happened to her if that label, that interpretation, that image had remained the only picture of herself that she understood. Suppose the public's opinion of her had prevailed as truth and Mary remained convinced to stay in a prison constructed only by the thoughts of others. This can easily happen to us and through our judgments we often create such images for each other all the time.
Luke's story continued, "She heard that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee's house, so she brought an alabaster jar full of perfume and stood behind Jesus, by his feet, crying and wetting his feet with her tears. She dried his feet with her hair, kissed them and poured the perfume on them."
Something had already happened to Mary. Had she remained convinced that she was a sinful and unworthy woman, she would not have come to Jesus. Again, many of us resist change because we cannot see other possibilities. This blindness can occur in every area of our lives, not just the spiritual.
We find ourselves saying, "I guess I am not very good at communicating. You will never find me speaking in front of a crowd. Dick, I don't see how you do it each week!" "I have a quick temper. I've had it all my life. My father had one too! Trying to grow beyond it has remained impossible." "I worry about everything. That is who I am and that is what I do. I cannot change that." Or how about, "You will never convince me that I need to learn how to use the computer. After all, I am retired now."
Something happened to Mary. In spite of who she was, Mary learned that she could do something else. She could give and not seek anything in return. This is something all of us can do. She must have heard Jesus as he taught the people in her community. She must have understood that God loved her just as she was. She came to the Pharisee's garden party so filled with gratitude that she did not stop ministering to Jesus. Just imagine how that scene must have looked to observers.
Mary's reputation was well known by everyone. Public opinion had frozen her identity. This Pharisee was thinking to himself, "If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she lives!" Can we see how the judgments we make actually put bars across everybody's door? No one is free to change. Fortunately, Jesus did not take his cues for his identity from what other people thought of him.
Yet once again Jesus was a master of surprise. Many people familiar with this story have concluded that Jesus forgave her sins. Not only did that not happen but as we will see, it was not necessary. Listen closely to what Jesus said to the Pharisee, "I tell you, the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven."
The proof that her sins were forgiven was in her great love and not in anything that Jesus did. Jesus only told Mary what he was observing. He said, "Your sins are forgiven." Even the crowd had been mistaken. They, too, felt that Jesus had forgiven her sins. He had not. Mary's love had made such forgiveness by Jesus unnecessary. When we learn how to give without expectation, we can no longer remain who we have been.
An ancient parable from India illustrates this point. There was a hunter who traveled to Africa every other year and he would return with great trophies. One year he happened upon an habitat where thousands of magnificent parrots lived. There were parrots of every kind and color living in harmony. He had never seen anything like it. What was even more fascinating was that the parrots spoke in a language that the hunter could understand. He had to have one as a pet so he stretched his net, caught one of these talking parrots and took it back to India.
He kept the bird in a cage he built and the two developed a relationship. As the time came for the hunter to return to Africa again, he said, "I intend to see your friends. Is there anything that you would like me to tell them?" The parrot thought for a minute and said, "Yes, tell them that I am quite contented and happy living in the cage you have built for me."
When the hunter entered this marvelous enclave where the parrots lived, he told them about their friend. The hunter said, "Your friend sends this message to you. She wants you to know that she is contented and happy living in the cage that I have built for her." Almost as soon as the hunter finished speaking, one of the parrots appeared to die causing it to fall out of a tree. The hunter could not believe that his words may have caused the parrot's death, so he departed believing that the incident had been only a coincidence.
When the hunter returned to India, he told his pet what had happened. He said, "I told your friends exactly what you said but something strange occurred. Upon hearing your words, one of your friends suddenly died and fell out of the tree." No sooner had the hunter finished his story when his parrot fell off her perch and lay on the bottom of the cage. The hunter could not believe it. With great sadness and confusion he removed the parrot from its cage and threw it out on the wood pile. Before the parrot landed, she suddenly returned to life and flew into a tree.
The hunter said, "You tricked me!" The parrot said, "That is correct. When the other parrot fell out of the tree, he was sending me a message. That message was that to be free from the cage you have built for me, I must first die to the life I had grown content to live." After sharing her wisdom, the parrot took off for her long flight home.
Was this not the message that Jesus was giving us through his resurrection? Only when we die to the life to which we have adjusted will we be transformed. Many of us are too much like the parrot, "Yes, tell them that I am quite contented and happy living in the cage you have built for me." Mary was not. Mary wanted more. To have everything, Mary had to die to the life she had grown contented to live.
What removed the bar from the door of Mary's cage was her willingness to take action in a new area of life. Jesus said, ". . . the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven." Jesus had raised the bar on Mary's own expectations of herself. The moment she took a step in the direction of her real identity healing was instantaneous. Not only did she experience freedom from her confining cage, but according to historical sources, Mary played a significant role in the evolution of the early faith community.
The bars on our cages can appear quite confining. We may think that we cannot grow beyond where we have remained for years. We feel stuck, frozen. The truth is that this condition is one of our own creation and it is carefully maintained by our lack of imagination. As I mentioned last week, the most difficult thing we have to do is to convince others that they can become someone they have never been. This understanding is equally challenging when we apply it to ourselves.
There was once a little girl who was born to a 13-year-old mother. This was just another story of babies having babies. The father immediately faded from visibility. There was no financial support. To make this little girl's life more complicated, various men abused her emotionally and sexually. By the age of 13 she, too, conceived and had a baby. The baby, however, did not live. Then by age 14, this girl was behaving so badly that she was sent repeatedly to juvenile detention.
If her own beliefs about herself and the beliefs of those around her had frozen her with that identity, she could conceivably have remained hopelessly lost in a prison built by her own self deception and the opinions of others. Yet once she started giving of herself expecting nothing in return, she began growing to become the Ophra Winfrey all of us know.
Jesus said, ". . . the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven." Once we learn that we can fly, the ground will no longer confine us. This thought of Jesus may appear to be something new. It is not. This is exactly what the power of love does for each of us. When we love, the desire no longer comes to use words, to dwell on thoughts, or to engage in activities that keep us in our cage. We will no longer sabotage our own growth.
This is not to say that we will no longer make mistakes. We will. We will make them all the time. But when love has captured our heart and our spirit, we will understand how we can come into life with nothing and wind up receiving everything. This is the will of God for us. Can anything God wills not happen?
Since God is love, we cannot help but bloom. One of the wonderful fruits of such a life is that we enable other people to bloom as well. Loving is the easiest thing in the world to do as was evidenced by Mary. During the entire episode Luke described, Mary said nothing. She did not utter one word. Her spirit communicated everything. What she was doing proved that healing had already come into her life. No matter what kind of challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves, loving without expectations is enough to bring healing to us as well. Love is that powerful.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Ever loving and faithful God, how conscious we are of our need to be reminded of who you created us to be. It is so good to experience worship, a time when our spirits can become more finely tuned to resonate more easily with your own.
As you bathe us in your love, help us more easily to recognize the part of us that is always trying to tell us who we are. It is that part of us that makes us believe that we are bound by events that happened in our past. It is that part of us that makes us believe that we are victims of something we cannot escape. It is that part that tries to convince us that there can be a heartbreak that cannot be healed. It is that part of us that is unforgiving of ourselves and of others. It is that part of our personality that is not the most gracious and loving. It makes us feel inadequate and weak. It tries to convince us, for whatever reason, to feel that we do not belong here and that we are beyond hope.
Help us, O God, to allow all such thoughts and attitudes to fall down around us like a suit of clothes we no longer wish to wear. And as this body of death is surrendered, enable us to step up and into a new body of light, one that tirelessly radiates warmth, acceptance and kindness. Enable us to wear the body Jesus said was awaiting our acceptance when he taught,"You are the light of the world." Lead us to everlasting life that begins right now. For it is through his spirit we now pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to say. . .