"Images From Another World"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 26, 2000

2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37


     It may appear strange that in less than a month before we celebrate Jesus' birth, our Gospel lesson is describing a scene that is very close to his death. Our Liturgical calendar is not out of sync; it simply lists today as "Christ the King" Sunday. To focus on that theme, our Gospel lesson contains the conversation between Pilate and Jesus over his kingship. And this morning we are going to explore whether the concept of Jesus as a King has any relevance for our lives.

     We are tempted to say, "Well, of course it does!" Does it? Jesus as our king sounds right, and we sing hymns declaring that fact. But what does it mean? Just because we have a better understanding of Jesus today does not mean that we can translate that knowledge into what will enhance the quality of our lives.

     Truth is relative for most human beings. Our thoughts have the ability to turn life into whatever we want it to be. We can set someone else's truth aside whenever we feel like it. Therefore something is only true for us when we decide that it is. Into such a relative world, Jesus brought a much different standard. In Jesus' world thoughts do not divide people. Thoughts enable people to care for each other. Thus we have two worlds, his and ours.

     During their exchange Jesus said to Pilate, "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me." After hearing this Pilate asked, "What is truth?" There is no evidence Jesus answered Pilate. His statement already had the answer in it, "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me." What truth do you belong to? Is it serving you by helping you create healing attitudes? Is it helping you care for those who are least like you? On so many fronts, our world struggles with this very issue.

     There is no greater illustration of truth's relativity than what is currently taking place in Florida. I know that most of us are probably tired of hearing about the Presidential election being stalled there, but let us briefly consider what is happening.

     The attitudes and points of view of Democrats and Republicans are not extraordinary. We expect this from each other around election time. Each party's respective attorneys should not be condemned because of the skill they bring to defending their perspectives while challenging those of their opponent. In fact, they are doing what many of us would do if we were engaged in a legal battle over issues in which we had deeply-vested interests. People struggle for an interpretation of truth that favors their cause. This should come as no surprise.

     Pilate had every right to ask Jesus, "What is truth?" because human experience has demonstrated how relative it is. Pilate knew that frequently the truth depends on where you stand to view it and on who has the power to enforce it. In his case, Rome was the power.

     You watch. Regardless of who wins the White House, the losing party will say that our nation has just experienced the greatest travesty of justice in this nation's history. "The election was stolen." The winners will say, "Our legal system is the finest on the face of the earth. Our system of government is what makes the United States and the world safe for democracy." Which statement is true?

     The truth of law will always be relative. Laws simply cannot be written so that every point of view, contingency and possibility can be convincingly set forth so that there are no longer any questions about their interpretation. We are thinking men and women. With every decision we make, we bring our unique perspective, our prejudices, our background, and our provincial thinking. Jesus came with different truth.

     His truth cannot be stated by carefully written words. It must be lived. His truth admonishes us to think thoughts and engage in activities that keep protective boundaries around every soul God created. Without saying so, the majority of Americans have learned this. We have lived this way ever since our Civil War. There is a collective spirit that is quite insistent that such a war will never again be fought. We can disagree with each other, but we choose to stay together as one.

     Today the Washington Redskins will play the Philadelphia Eagles at 1:00 p.m.. During the game both teams will try to defeat each other with every offensive and defensive tactic they can deploy. Each team refers to the highly-skilled players of the other team as "weapons." Yet when the game is over, observers will see many of the players embracing each other. When they are off the playing field they are friends. America has learned that there is a gigantic difference between rivals and enemies.

     There was a day when societies who were thought to be "civilized" tore themselves apart when half the voting population did not get what it wanted. Americans do not do that. In fact, such a response is not even one of our alternatives. Our collective response after an election is one of the images from Jesus' world. We think and act from a belief that at all costs we will live together in peace. Everything our society enjoys depends on our remaining loyal to that belief.

     Pontius Pilate was trained to think of Caesars and Kings from a military vantage point. Imagine Pilate's thoughts when Jesus said, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom is not from this world." His world, however, is slowly coming as more and more people choose to live in it.

     Wednesday night our Thanksgiving Eve service was a step in the direction of manifesting the truth that there is only one world. One counter told me we had 312 people here. We had Jews, Roman Catholics and United Methodists. The congregation had representatives from three distinct belief systems. Yet to look at the behavior of those in attendance, there was only one congregation.

     Question: Were only some in that congregation "saved" because of their beliefs? Some people would say, "Absolutely, there should be no question about it. Some of us attending that service are saved while others of us are not."

     What is true is that we are all God's children, created in God's image. And on Wednesday night we all lifted our voices in song and in prayers of thanksgiving. If Rabbi Kopelman's message could be distilled into one subject, it would be this: "God created them male and female, and blessed them. God looked at everything he had made, and it was very good."

     There is no way these two beliefs can be reconciled. We must either embrace the one that suggests that some people are lost because of how they believe, or we must accept the belief that only God can make such a decision. Only one of these images comes from the world where Jesus is King.

     Just as in our political process, thoughts that bring us together create the Kingdom Jesus was showing us. Jesus is King of a world where people do not and cannot think thoughts that permanently divide and separate. Imagine all the possibilities this kind of thinking would bring to our lives. Such thinking puts protective boundaries around all of us.

     Some examples: One of the most remarkable comments I can remember came from a woman whose 15-year-old son was killed in an automobile accident. She said, "My husband and I have been so fortunate to have had our son for the 15 years that we did." Such thinking prevented them from developing attitudes that might have separated them from sensing God's love.

     A couple who separated and divorced had a viewpoint that produced the same result. They said, "We will always love each other very much even though the form of our relationship has now changed. We would have been better business partners than husband and wife." This way of thinking prevented them from the blame and ugliness that frequently accompanies so many relationships that change their form.

     A young mother dying of breast cancer once said, "I would love to stay with my children helping them to grow up and being around to see how they turn out. That is not going to happen now. Yet I honestly believe that I may be able to do more for them from the other side than if I were to remain here with them." Again, even though she was dying, she never doubted God's love or her usefulness.

     Can we hear what Jesus is saying with his statement, "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me?" These images from his world reflect a specific attitude, a predisposition that is not and cannot be destroyed when our lives experience massive changes, even when some of those changes are permanent.

     Jesus was terminal but his truth never wavered. His truth was not relative because he was living it. He was not thinking about it or searching for it; truth was visible in the spirit of his life. That is how he was able to make his Kingdom visible to the rest of us. Just talking about it would not have made it visible.

     What divides us, what makes us angry, and what causes us to search for someone to blame for our unhappiness are the thoughts we create. That is all. Nothing else contributes to our sadness or anger. Jesus' is King of a world where thoughts do not divide and do not judge. Such thoughts simply allow others to be whomever they are. Jesus is King of a universe that is so big that it can remain patient with anyone's thinking. We simply do not all grow at the same pace. Because of that, God's love puts a protective boundary around us.

     Carmen Mariano, a third grade school teacher, once described how she starts her classes each fall. She draws two circles on the blackboard. One circle represents boys and one circle represents girls. She intentionally overlaps the two circles. Then she points to where the circles overlap and says, "Now this is the part of both circles that is the same. It contains all the things that both boys and girls have in common. Tell me, what should we put in there?"

     The students started responding, "We all smile. We all cry. Sometimes we fight. We all play. We all like ice cream." They went on for some time listing all kinds of things. Then the teacher drew three circles and she labeled them" black," "white" and "yellow." And again, she had the circles intersect. She went through the same process of having them list everything they have in common. Finally one of the boys said, "The part where the circles come together is too small if we are to make room for all the things we have in common." That is true.

     Each of us is always on stage as the universe watches. How will we respond when the circle of Jesus' world intersects with the circle of our physical world? For example, is it better to be right or to be kind? Is it better to demand justice or to be forgiving? Is it better to desire approval or to support and encourage others who are learning? The way we think will determine whose kingdom we desire to live in.

     Truth is never relative to those who know the world where Jesus is King. Those of us who have learned this are angels from that world who are living here. I happen to believe that St. Matthew's is full of them. To your own thinking, are you one of them?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Merciful God, our lives always appear as an open book to you. You see the motives behind our deeds. You see the secrets of our hearts. You understand our fears and know the folly when we try to meet our unmet needs. You notice all the blind alleys we enter and hear the way we justify our decisions. We bend the truth to suit our purposes. We judge our past as if it were a mold that has already fashioned our tomorrows. Allow us, O God, to hear with fresh insight, "Follow me." May we cease being creatures of habit and become people willing to say "yes" to the path less traveled. Open our minds to possibilities. Inspire us to serve with joy in a world that is preoccupied and self-absorbed. May our lives lead others to find hope. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Loving and always present God, we cannot thank you enough for our experiences. The challenging times focus and develop our skills as little else can. The opportunities to refine how we think occur every day. We pray that the habits we form will be ones that remain helpful to those around us. All we ask is that you give each of us moments when we can help one another to find our way.

     We are so grateful that we live in a country where we can struggle with each other over who will occupy the highest office in our land and do so without violence. Who could have imagined that the desire of our country would be split in half, and that our two political parties will share equally in both houses of Congress? What a great moment in history, O God, for us to demonstrate to other nations what we have proclaimed for years. What an opportunity to walk the talk. When the White House is won, may we marvel with thanksgiving at the laws of conduct which have allowed conflict to be managed with integrity until the day of resolution. Then may we join hands and walk together into a tomorrow that will need all of us bringing our best to what awaits.

     Bless us today with your presence in a way that we can experience it. May our worship be more than just hymns, prayers and words. May each of us also be offering ourselves to you in service. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught to say when we pray . . . .