"Loving Is Being"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/9/1999
Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21
What Jesus was teaching with these words had little to do with either obedience or further disciplining ourselves with more commandments. There was already enough of that behavior in Pharisaic Judaism. If this is what Jesus intended, he would have merely been substituting his new laws about love for the existing laws that were handed down by Moses. His purpose for coming was not to replace one set of laws with another. The message of our lesson is this: "If you love me, what I have taught you will be made visible in your lives." He was teaching us how to be rather than giving us another listing of what we must accomplish.
Since today is Mother's Day, I thought we might spend some time together honoring her as we consider this passage. Most of us understand that how effective we are as people depends more on who we have become than on by what we say or do. Who we become can preach powerful sermons and influence countless others even though we may say very little.
Recently, I saw a cartoon created by Bill Keane in his The Family Circus series. The cartoon was very busy. Mom is driving the car with her four small children. Judging from the numerous overflowing bags they are driving home from the grocery store. Her face is drained and tired. Even today few Dads know what it is like to do a week's worth of grocery shopping while also keeping four energetic children in tow.
Bill Keane is an absolute master at creating images in cartoon form that most of us remember happening to us. The words coming from the four children in the back seat could have been spoken in any of our families. The word bubbles above the children contained such things as: "Mom, tell Billy to stop looking at me." "Daddy's good hat is back here and Dolly is sitting on it." "Which bag has the lollipops in it?" "Janie just dropped the bottle of ketchup on top of the prune juice and the bag is leaking." "Mom, Jimmy is opening the cookies."
We smile at such things, but at the moment, most Moms want to scream. Love teaches us, however, that we cannot control anyone's life but our own. Jesus could not bottle what he had and give it away even to his own disciples. All he could do was stand in their midst. We must thoroughly understand that we will never be successful at trying to control our environment or shape the lives of those under our care. Our environment and the lives of others around us do have the potential to be influenced when we give them something of substance to look at.
Think about this alternate translation, "If you love me, all that I have taught you will be made visible in your lives." There is no obedience necessary. There are no commandments that need to be part of our inner discipline. When we truly love God, our caring, our gratitude for all experiences and our acceptance of others will not need obedience or discipline before we make them visible. In fact, when we love God, we cannot help but become the beings that understanding created.
For example, if we return to the images created by motherhood, we can observe the enormous protective energy that pours forth from her being. For example, people who hike in the wilderness know that if they see a female bear with her cubs, they had better keep a safe distance. If she senses any threat to her cubs, that bear will attack and will fight to the death. Papa bears are seldom around when such struggles begin.
Is it merely instinct that mothers will struggle to the death to protect the young? Or, are we observing them extending the same loving energy that we have the potential to extend from ourselves? We may never have a definitive answer to that question. Yet interestingly enough, Jesus struggled to the death as he attempted to protect us from falling prey to the blindness that prevents us from seeing God's love in all things.
A number of years ago there were terrible fires in the Yellowstone National Park. The fires were so severe that they threatened the lodge near Old Faithful geyser, the centerpiece of the Park. A number of neighboring states sent fire fighters and after many days of struggle, the fires were finally knocked down and extinguished. National Geographic did a follow-up story that attempted to describe how quickly nature had recovered from the disaster. The article also featured another miracle.
Two officers from the National Park Service were inspecting the damage the day after the devastation and they came upon a bird who had made her last stand against the fire. Both rangers crouched down to look at a bird that was charred. Like a sentinel she sat frozen against the base of the tree with her wings still spread. They wondered why she had not flown away as the fire approached.
One of them picked up her charred remains. As he did, he discovered a hollow in the base of the tree. Out from that hollow scurried her three baby chicks. They surmised that there had not been time for the mother to move her babies to safety. The fire was large and had surrounded her too quickly. Rather than flee, she sacrificed herself so that her babies might have a chance at life. Was her deed merely instinct or were the rangers seeing the result of a mother being what mother's are? Such examples can be seen everywhere.
When I lived on Capitol Hill, the Exxon station across the street from our home had an oil recycling tank in the ground. Since I have always done the routine maintenance on our cars, I took the used oil across the street to dump it. After dumping my oil on this one occasion, I knelt down to put the lid back over the drain pipe. As I did, I saw a massive struggle for survival happening at my feet. In dumping the oil, I had not realized that a mother spider had made her nest near the mouth of that drain pipe.
I watched as the mother spider tried to save her young. There was nothing I could do to help. The damage had been done. Covered with oil herself she carefully lifted as many babies to safety as she could until she was too weak to do it anymore. Then all at once she became still.
A number of you may not like spiders and would think it ridiculous how I responded. I could not believe my sadness nor understand the terror that I unleashed on that unsuspecting family of creatures. Was that mother's reaction only instinctive or was there something else happening?
For that family of spiders, the experience had to be like the mile-wide tornado that recently swept across parts of Oklahoma City. We become emotionally involved when human beings are lost. Yet neither the size nor the kind of life form matters to the mind of God who loves everything with the same constancy of energy. To me, the activity of that mother spider provided yet another image of what it means to be a mother, an image that was as powerful as anything Bill Keane can create with his cartoons.
These examples of mothers protecting their young give us something to examine when we evaluate our own responses to life's challenges. There are hundreds of examples where people have placed kindness and caring above their own needs for approval, convenience, or survival. All such examples are understood as our witnessing to our discipleship.
We need to ask what happens to people who are unable to extend their loving energy toward others in any fashion? In his first letter John provided an answer to that question. He wrote: "If we say we love God, but do not love others, we are liars. For we cannot love God whom we have not seen, if we do not love others whom we have seen."
The Scriptures do not hedge at this point. People either have a grasp of this understanding and make use of it or they do not. There is no middle ground. This does not mean that some people's souls are permanently lost while others are not. All that such a distinction means is that all of us do not process life the same way. The awareness of these differences is obvious to us. We are not at the same place on life's path of spiritual growth.
Some years ago I told you a story that illustrates how two people can experience the identical circumstance and draw conclusions that are nearly opposite in value. Two friends owned different businesses in the same industry and both had traveled to northern California for their annual association meeting. During the event, the association gave their membership an afternoon to shop, tour or relax. The two had always wanted to experience walking among the Redwood trees so they visited one of the forests in the area.
They parked their cars and hiked along a marked trail that provided a two and a half mile loop. After they had entered the forest a deep silence fell over both of them. Finally, one of them said, "It is hard to believe that some of these trees were growing for hundreds of years before Jesus was born." The other man nodded in agreement and said, "I was trying to figure how much money these trees would be worth as cut timber. I wonder how many decks we could make from just one of these trees?"
People are always going to have their differences of opinion. Some people are going to see magnificent sunsets and others are going to see nothing but the sun's rays penetrating layers of pollution. The meaning and purpose we give to our world has to do with the spirit we use while viewing it. So when Jesus said, "If you love me, you will obey my commandments," he was saying, "If you love me, all that I have taught you will become visible."
Our task is to be that presence. That is all we can be. Maybe in our being, we will help someone else find their way. Maybe how we carry ourselves will give someone else courage. Maybe how we face adversity will enable others to find strength within themselves to carry on. That is what Jesus did. When we love him without reservation, this is what we become as well.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal, faithful and ever-present God, we confess that we know so little about how to love. We want to hold on while knowing we must let go. We wish to minimize the pain our loved ones experience while knowing that we will fail. We want to give to them from our storehouse of wisdom, while realizing they must cultivate their own. We want to teach them how to escape the hurdles, tears, and failures of life, while neglecting to remember what such struggles gave to us. Enable us, O God, to trust you with the destiny of our loved ones. May we find comfort in the truth that you hold the eternal security of us in your will. Inspire us to lead by example, teach by a consistency of spirit, and encourage others by accepting them as they are. We pray these thoughts in the spirit of wanting to enhance how we serve. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Always loving and ever-faithful God, this morning we come with a lot of thanksgiving in our hearts for your giving us such deep, rich and infinite spirits. You have given us the capacity to teach, to nurture, and to guide each other in ways that enhance the quality of our lives. Within each of us is also an incredible treasure trove of yet-to-be discovered talents and abilities that surface the moment we desire to use them.
This morning each of us expresses appreciation for the woman who carried us within her body until we experienced life in this world. Today we honor her as our entire society pauses to recognize our collective gratitude for all the songs she sang to us, for the nights she stood vigil until our fever broke, for the wisdom she impressed upon our maturing values, for the tears she shed when we were treated unfairly by other children, and for the times she corrected us. Somehow she understood that it is so challenging to recover character once it has been lost.
Lord God, may all of us learn to radiate the kind of love that does not count the cost, that does not think of itself as sacrificial, and that does not look for reward. May our love grow because of our awareness that this is who you created us to be. Thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ, who came among us to show us and to tell us this incredible truth. It is through his spirit that we now pray the words he taught us to say when we pray . . .