"The Source of Power That Transforms"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/14/2000
Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18
Once I experienced this while visiting a family. We were sitting in the family room talking about the arrival of their new baby. The couple's other two children were playing on the floor. We were completely engaged in conversation when Sharon simply got up and left the room. A few minutes later she returned and the needle fell back into the groove on the record of our conversation. A little later on, without any warning, she once again got up and left the room. I gave a look to her husband that communicated, "Is Sharon all right?" He said, "It's okay. She hears the baby."
She heard the baby? I heard absolutely nothing. The stereo was playing. The kids were making noise. And the three of us were engrossed in a conversation about her frustrations with her work environment. In spite of all those distractions she had ears that were sharp enough to hear noises being made by her baby.
Here is another typical example. A husband and wife can be sitting together in front of their television watching the evening news. The wife is talking to him about her day when the news about the weather shifts to sports. The husband can be looking at his wife and only appear to be listening to her. His ears are turned to the scores of the baseball games that had been played that afternoon.
The dead give away is when they show highlights of a particular game. The husband instinctively turns his head at just the right moment to watch the towering fly ball leave the stadium while the bases are loaded. His wife responds by snapping the newspaper she had been reading while muttering something like, "Why do I even bother?" In both of these instances we call such responses, "selective hearing."
While we might smile about how selective hearing is modeled in our lives, this skill is exactly what Jesus was talking about in our lesson today. In spite of the movies that play inside our heads, Jesus said that we can discern the voice of the Good Shepherd. This morning we are going to consider the transforming power that such selective hearing can bring us. This power is available to everyone, but we have to use it everyday for it to be useful. As we will see, staying tuned to that voice is not easy for us.
Jesus made several statements that bear repeating. He said, "I am the gate for the sheep. Those who come in by me will be safe; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life and experience life in all its fullness."
The image of sheep was well understood by Jesus' listeners. Sheep were known to be innocent creatures who were easily torn apart by wolves which Jesus described as thieves. Another quality of sheep is that they know the presence and voice of their shepherd. All a shepherd needs to do is call and the sheep will come.
Where Jesus' metaphor breaks down for us is in our personal experience. Sheep will only recognize and respond to one voice; we can hear and respond to many. And what is so fascinating about these other voices is their appeal to our vanity. They promise us the exact thing that we want. They meet us where we are hurting. They offer us imaginary goals that kindle our hope. They lure us into believing that something outside ourselves has the power to bring us happiness. And before we know it, we are in the grass that appeared greener on the other side of the fence.
Jesus was teaching people how to have the abundant life. His abundant life is quite different from the one we frequently desire. We equate the abundant life with gratifying our immediate needs, with believing that a winning lottery ticket holds the answer to all that we are missing, with speculation about who loves us and who does not, and with wondering how one job might be better than another. Put in the simplest form Jesus' message is, "When we get the inside of ourselves tuned into God, the outside movie will become transformed. Those who experience this will remain safe and abundant."
Not long ago I officiated at a memorial service for a woman whose major career had been a stay-at-home mom. She performed so many tasks that created fabulous memories for her children. I guess the most important role the family remembered was that she was in the home all the time and allowed very little to escape her attention. Prior to the memorial service the family gathered to tell me about her.
One of the daughters had a heart problem as a child. She was recounting the presence of her mother during every surgical procedure that was performed on her. And there were many of them. She said, "Mom was there in the prep-room until I was put to sleep, and she was the first face I saw in the recovery room. The protocols of the hospital did not allow for that, but somehow she was always there."
Once I asked, "Mom, do you ever worry about me? And she said, 'No, I don't. Worry never accomplishes anything. Each time we have had to face another of your operations, I have always thanked God that you are in our family. Then I loaned you to Him for awhile. During every surgery you have always been in God's hands.'"
With such a statement, that Mother was describing the enormous power she had during some of the more fragile moments of her child's life. Not only did she have the power to override a mother's more "natural" fears, but she also was able to communicate the message that described the source of her faith. Being confident of God's presence during every phase of our movie can take the sting out of some of its scenes.
It was remarkable that the little girl grew into a woman who would remember that conversation with her Mother. It was one of those snapshot events that we tend to store in our minds. She said, "I would like you to tell that story about Mom's faith. It has helped me with my own faith during some of the more difficult times."
Just how easy is it for us to recognize the voice that matters? Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep know my voice." Is it really that easy? Yes it is. It is as easy as Sharon hearing her baby's noises in the midst of countless other distractions. But we have to possess the gift of selective hearing. Part of us always knows the way to the safe conditions of the flock Jesus described. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to remind us of what is really important.
I used this story some time ago, but it perfectly illustrates this point. My Grandmother lived alone for years in her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, following the death of my Grandfather. One night a young man opened the back door leading into her kitchen. Finding my Grandmother there, he quickly drew a knife and held it to her throat. He demanded money. How often people believe that having more money will solve their problems!
Ethel Fisher was in her 80s at the time and was not intimidated by the man's knife. She was an inner-directed woman. She asked, "Young man, what would your mother say if she saw what you are doing? What would your Sunday School teacher say?" He did not know how to respond. Then she asked, "Would you like something to eat?" The knife came away from her throat and he began to cry.
What made him cry? Who knows? Something inside of him may have recognized some faint voice that said, "In spite of your holding a knife at my throat, I still care about you. Let me feed you." My Grandmother brought the voice of the Good Shepherd from another place and added it to her movie. That young man came back numerous times to visit her, but on all future occasions he knocked on the front door. With each visit, he would again thank her for her kindness in not calling the police and for giving him another chance.
We have all come into this sanctuary at one time or another and have found our lives touched by the Good Shepherd. This should not be a mystery to us. In fact, we should come to expect it. Maybe we were shamed into coming this morning by a spouse who said, "Let's go to church today. It's Mother's Day! Your golf course will always be there for another day." Maybe we have entered here lonely, confused, or hurting. Maybe we were not satisfied with a decision that we were about to make. Maybe we were looking for direction.
Equally, most of us are also quite familiar with those attractive "thieves" that are wolves dressed in sheep's clothing. They promise to make us whole. But there is also the voice from the Good Shepherd that asks, "Will you sacrifice your character by placing your trust in something other than God to make your life abundant, joyful, and whole?" When we develop that kind of selective hearing, the rest of our lives unfolds with a power that is beyond what we have known.
How many people in every profession have not found the abundant life simply because they were chasing some golden calf–some pretender that was making great promises that they believed? Every major religion on the earth warns people about such quick fixes. Such wolves in sheep's clothing promise instant repair to the unhappy, unfulfilled life. Jesus once taught, "What good will it do for someone to win the entire world if, during that process, he loses his soul?"
In 1996, the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship was one of the most dramatic sporting events that happened that year. Midway in the match, Steve Scott was well ahead of Tiger Woods. But in a style for which he would become famous, Tiger demanded of himself a tremendous concentration and soon he was only one stroke behind Steve.
Now both of them stood on the 18th green. Tiger had the momentum going for him. Each player had an opportunity. Because he was further from the cup, Steve was to putt first. Since Tiger's ball was in the way, he had to spot it. Steve missed his putt. Now it was Tiger's turn. If he sunk the putt, the Championship would be thrust into a sudden death play off.
Tiger circled the green while studying his stroke from every angle. At the peak of this drama something unprecedented happened. Tiger lined up to putt his ball when Steve walked over to him, sending the sports announcers into wild speculation about what was going on. Tiger broke his concentration to look at Steve. Steve said, "Tiger, you have spotted your ball in the wrong place." Tiger thanked him and made the correction.
Tiger sunk his putt to tie the score. Then he went on to win the sudden death play off and the championship, a victory that now placed him into the ranks of the professionals. That victory gave Tiger Woods 60 million dollars in guaranteed endorsement fees.
The point of this story is that Steve was listening to a voice far different from the one many other golfers would have listened to. Had he not told Tiger about his mistake, Tiger would have been penalized two strokes by the judges and lost the championship. Steve would have won automatically. Steve traded what he had worked hard to achieve for something called character. Steve had been listening to another voice.
What Jesus was teaching his listeners is important to hear. Who we are is far more important than the content of our movie. The abundant life does not come from what we own or even from what we do. It comes by listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd who leads us correctly. The question for all of us today is this, "Are we listening to his voice, or do we prefer to listen to the voice of a thief?"
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever present God, we thank you that we are unable to count the many forms in which love presents itself. We have been willed into creation by your love. We have been nurtured by our parent's love. We have been given valuable knowledge through our teachers' love. We have also been provided the means to grow even during moments of betrayal, deception, and ridicule. We are your sons and daughters. We have come to know that because of our identity, all the issues of life can be used to perfect our spirits and enhance our abilities. Teach us to remain patient with love's many forms, so that our trust in your leading will help us to move mountains and to transform all barriers into stepping stones. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for creating us with the ability not only to sense your presence but also to hear your voice. We have come to realize that when we are down on ourselves, it is you who goes on believing in us. It is you who provides us with one alternative after another even though we have made many mistakes. It is you who seeks us when we are sure we have lost our way. How can we ever thank you for keeping us in your mind and caring for us in spite of ourselves.
May we learn to follow your example. May we learn to give even when no one is asking. May we encourage people to learn their own lessons rather than providing the answers and remedies they honestly believe they need from us. How many times you have done that for us with something we call, "unanswered prayer." May we not take offense when others disagree with our point of view. And may we discover you at every turn, eagerly waiting to embrace us as you encourage us to crawl, walk, run and fly.
We thank you also that we have found many of these qualities in the women who gave us life. Today, as we celebrate Mother's Day, may each of us remember that most mothers do the best they can with what they know. And if to our understanding she has failed us, as many mothers can, thank you for creating us with the resilience to transform her struggles into a renewed desire to live creatively and lovingly. Lord God, teach us to trust your presence and listen to your voice to be our guide. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .