"Just Who Is A Follower?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 4/25/1999
Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-5
For example, in the hiring practices of industry, human resource people are not impressed by followers. They prefer to hire people whom they believe will be insightful and proactive. They want people who can spot challenges to their corporate goals long before such issues become crippling. They want leaders, contributors, and team players, not followers.
In our family life, we become uncertain when the guidance counselor refers to our teenager as "a follower". We want to know who is leading and where our son or daughter is being led. We prefer that our children develop their life goals around what excites and stimulates their creativity and not on opinions coming from the peanut gallery of personalities, many of whom will be changing as our sons or daughters mature.
If we were to place following Jesus into a meaningful context, it would be far removed from images created by people who follow a favorite football team, the stock market or the lives of people featured in People magazine. This kind of follower is not what we mean here. The meaning of this parable comes to life when we firmly associate "our following" with one activity -- the growth of our spirit along the patterns Jesus suggested.
Long before the Apostle Paul began to influence Christian thinking with this letter writing, the group that associated itself with Jesus was called, "People of the Way." This earliest group of believers organized themselves around a decision they made collectively, a decision that dramatically influenced how they viewed life and how they chose to live with others.
"The Way" represented a dramatic shift in thinking. The Ten Commandments and the Law were no longer the basis for the group's behavior. "The Way" became associated with loving your neighbor as you loved yourself. And "neighbor" had become defined as being anyone, including Roman soldiers, Samaritans, prostitutes, and Gentiles. Extending to others forgiveness, acceptance and peace became far more important to them than obedience to the Law.
In his masterful way Jesus used the insightful metaphor of the shepherd and sheep as a teaching device. All his listeners had experience with sheep. They knew that sheep will only follow the voice of their shepherd. Even if a person of equal skill entered the sheep pen our lesson says, "They will not follow someone else; instead, they will run away from such a person, because they do not know his voice."
Even today that voice and spirit are unmistakable as they manifest through others. For example, we know the difference between someone whose spirit is patient and someone who is always in a hurry. We can easily distinguish the voice of kindness from the voice of a person who is demanding and rude. We can sense the difference between a voice that is supportive and accepting and a voice that uses words that belittle and shame. The vast difference appears in the spirit of each person. The mission of all the people of "The Way" is to make love visible.
During the fragile moments this past week at Columbine High School, students were making this choice. In every emergency or crisis, there are people who become immobilized by fear and there are those who roll up their sleeves and become involved. Many of the pictures taken during that tragedy were powerful visual sermons based on our text this morning. In the midst of that drama, the shepherd was there and they were listening to his voice.
There was the picture of a young man holding the hand of a friend who was lying on the ground. There was a picture of a hospice nurse, who happened to be there, who was racing against time to stop the bleeding in as many students as she could. And perhaps a surveillance camera in the library captured students huddled around their teacher as they struggled against failing odds to keep him alive. Those pictures captured people at their best during a horrible nightmare that would later send shock waves toward every parent and teacher in America.
The biographies of the slain read like a composite of our world. Jesus taught that some people render assistance to injured people while others ignore them and walk by. He taught that a widow could put into the temple treasury everything she has while a businessman remains busy building bigger barns. He allowed a woman to wash his feet with her tears while a rich young man turned away sorrowful because he was a man of many possessions. This is our world.
When we listen to the shepherd, we must recognize that the voice sends us into that world to make love visible. It is a world where Peter, James and John lived along side Judas. It is a world where the Mother Teresas will live next to the Adolf Hitlers and Charles Mansons. It is a world where valedictorian hopefuls will live next to those whose fantasies soar about the possibility of making violence and destruction visible. Again, this is our world.
As we go into that world, we will never have certainty. We will not be able stop the world's insanity all at once. What we can do is demonstrate to that world all that we talk about in here. What we can do is become a church without walls. What we can do is trust that our current experience is where our particular shepherd has led us. Our mission field is right in front of us. That is where we must make our stand. We must keep our lights burning in a world where all "angels in the flesh" together are attempting to bring light and understanding.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever-faithful God, thank you for creating us with so many varied and unique qualities. Some of us have learned to heal others with our smiles and words. Some of us use our hands to repair machines, stock shelves, lay brick, stitch wounds, and create art. Some of us uphold the law, teach and nurture children, and care for the dying. How often, O God, that in our doing we forget whom we are being. Remind us that every task is one which serves others. Help us remember that every vocation offers others the opportunity to achieve their goals. Open our eyes to the vast mission field our society has become. As the world becomes a community where wars and rumors of wars cease to exist, may the spirit of the Lord guide us to love one another as you have loved us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever-creative God, thank you for this oasis of peace during moments that have many of us so preoccupied. Our minds have had etched into them images that few of us ever thought we would see. We have seen images of war. We have seen teenagers holding each other in efforts to ease the pain caused by a vacuum that fear says may never go away.
What is it that we need, O God, that will awaken more of us to give more than lip service to your son's pleading that we love one another as you have loved us. We talk about love a lot, yet even among the faithful, fear makes us cautious with one another. We teach our children not to talk to strangers. We tend not to associate with people whose values are different from our own. Rather than embrace one another, we tolerate those who do not mirror to us what we want to see.
Teach us the power of a smile. Teach us what our loving presence might communicate to another. Guide us to extend our light so that we might sense the silent wounds our neighbor may never acknowledge. Empower us to extend the gift of understanding, a gift that may become the turning point for someone who has missed seeing the signposts that would have guided them home to peace.
Today as we increase our numbers at St. Matthew's, bless us with the desire to become even more committed to saturating our families, our neighborhoods and our work environments with a renewed spirit to serve one another as your son came to serve us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .