"Good Questions Are Only The Beginning"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 15, 2001
Amos 7:10-17; Luke 10:25-37
I once attended a retreat with other students from Wesley Seminary. The theme of the event was "The Christian Response to the Vietnam War." The resource person was on the defensive almost the entire weekend. Every possible ethical position was examined. To the delight of the students, the teacher was not adequately prepared for many of their hair-splitting questions.
We examined the Biblical teachings concerning attitudes, anger, and killing. Then the questions started. How should we respond to a neighbor who is trying to kill us? What should our response be to those who dodged the draft and escaped to Canada? What is our responsibility when we are dealing with people who appear committed to destroying our way of life? It was a challenging weekend.
Every question was on the ethical cutting-edge of positions held by the hawks and the doves. Every point was enthusiastically challenged by an equally logical counterpoint. A number of people remarked how the setting reminded them of what the early Church Councils must have experienced. The Church's theology became crystallized from the heated tensions of debate.
We had a minister present who was adamant with his opposition to the war, but he confessed he was reluctant to preach his convictions from the pulpit. Perhaps he was remembering the teaching of Jesus, "I am sending you out just like sheep to a pack of wolves. You must be as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves." (Matt. 10:16)
He broke the tension of our group by telling us why he never preached on the subject. His congregation was located near the Naval Academy and several members of the Admiralty were in the pews. Everyone burst into laughter. I guess he kept his passions to himself because he wanted their checks to continue coming into the offering plates. Or perhaps he knew, "This too shall pass." And as with all sharply debated issues, eventually it did.
My point is this: For all that verbal struggle over whose well-articulated position was more correct, did the art of intellectual debate do anything to help those attending that retreat to live with a greater resolve to bring peace on earth? Sometimes our ability to ask insightful questions does little more than provide us with additional information. If this is our goal, fine!
In our church school classes, we have exchanged different points of view. You have probably squirmed in your seats while I was preaching because of some of my interpretations of the Scriptures. You may have wanted to say, "Dick you are wrong! Jesus really meant this or that!" Maybe some of us do have excellent questions or comments that reveal our understanding of Biblical themes. Good!
It is amazing how our knowledge can become an island of comfort and security. Perhaps for years we have cultivated our skill of debate and we sit on a perch awaiting the next prey. We know we are correct with our information, and we search for those who can successfully challenge our position. If a worthy competitor never comes, we busy ourselves with examining everything in our experience for its possible flaws.
In our lesson, Jesus did not appear to be impressed with this Teacher of the Law and his superior grasp of his specialty. Regarding eternal life, the Teacher knew what the Scriptures taught. He said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself." Notice Jesus' response, "Do this and you will live."
The parable of the Good Samaritan is found in another part of our lesson. We can easily become so focused on the many themes of Jesus' parable that we neglect remembering the reason he told the story. The story was in response to the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?"
Jesus used that parable to challenge his lifestyle and values. After telling him the various responses given by the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan to the one beaten and left for dead, Jesus asked, "In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man attacked by the robbers?" The Teacher said, "The one who was kind to him." Jesus said, "You go and do the same."
What good is knowledge if it never translates into a visible form? If people know how to read and they have not read a book in years, what good is that skill? If people know about good health and they are extremely informed about the proper balance between nutrition and exercise, yet they remain "couch potatoes," how have they benefited from this information?
There was a time when Jesus and several of his disciples were sitting across from the Temple. During that occasion, Jesus verbally captured an image that has become well known. A widow put into the Temple treasury two copper coins representing everything she had.
How does brilliance and knowing how to ask insightful questions compare to someone who has the power to give away everything she has? We have to pay attention to Jesus' responses to that Teacher of the Law. He said, "Do this, and you will live." And in response to what a good neighbor looks like Jesus said, "You go and do the same." Jesus seemed to know that the world did not need more brilliant "talking heads."
Jesus' point was that when you love yourself, you are capable of loving God, capable of loving your neighbor, and capable of responding to strangers with kindness. When we love ourselves, responding to others with kindness and compassion is as natural as breathing. In fact, very secure people cannot be anything else. The greatest gift we can give to another person is to let them know that their life matters. This was the thrust of Jesus' message to that lawyer.
Last week actor Harrison Ford received word that a young man had become lost in the mountains near his home. This actor, who played Indiana Jones in the movies, rescued the young man with his personal helicopter. The boy was asked if he got Mr. Ford's autograph. He said, "No, I didn't. He gave me a hug and asked me if I was all right. That meant more to me than any autograph."
Some of you, who have lived a little longer than others of us, will remember Sam Rayburn, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Toward the end of his tenure in Congress he became very ill. Sam decided to leave politics and move back to Bonham, Texas, where he grew up.
One day a friend came to visit Sam who had been hospitalized. He said, "Sam, you could have gone to Walter Reed, the National Institutes of Health, or Sloan-Kettering. Why did you return to Bonham, Texas?" Sam's reply was priceless. "Because," he said, "in Bonham, Texas, people know when you are sick and they care when you die."
The comments from the rescued boy and Sam Rayburn capture our greater need. We all want to feel that we matter. Jesus tried to help that Teacher of the Law find a new ability. That lawyer had all the concepts correct. He could articulate them well, but that lawyer might not have known how to help another person to feel that their life matters.
Many years ago, I volunteered to work the lunch hour recess at the playground of my Alma Mater, Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary School. I was the only adult on duty during recess and that experience ranks among the most powerful ones I have ever known. Constantly I found myself surrounded by children who kept requesting that I intervene in their life-dramas. Much of the time I was drying tears and cleaning sand from the hair of little girls when the boys played too rough.
Recess duty was exceedingly exhausting during those two years because moment by moment, I had to think and respond in ways that I could not anticipate. Constantly, I tried to help the children learn to make decisions for themselves. I wanted them to understand that in life there are no teachers waiting in the wings to solve every issue that they may find difficult.
One day I had to deal with a young man who simply would not let this girl alone. Day after day he tormented her until I had to take a walk with him. It was interesting to listen to his many reasons for teasing and harassing her. I kept urging him to express his feelings, not his logic. Finally, I stooped to his eye level and asked, "Wayne, just what is it that you want from her?" After a long pause and a deep breath he said, "Mr. Dick, I want her to pay attention to me. She won't talk to me." He so much wanted to matter to her and he did not know how to communicate that need.
It escapes so many of us that in spite of all our lofty concepts, our grand ideas, our expertise, our marvelous insightful questions, and our magnificent strategies for how others should accomplish their tasks, underneath all of it is the deep desire to be cared for and to have it communicated to us that who we are really matters.
"Correct theology" will not do this for us. Having the "best" Scriptures memorized may only establish in the minds of others how informed we are about the Bible. Without knowing it, we might find ourselves engaged in "spiritual materialism" that suggests "we are saved" while others are not. Having our little island of security represented by such self-knowledge may only serve to isolate us more than we already are.
We do not know whether the Samaritan in Jesus' story could read or write. We do not know what his business was that caused him to travel on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Scriptures provide no insight as to whether he was a devoted husband or a father. We do not know whether he had a Ph.D., a Bachelor's, or high school diploma. We know nothing about his theology.
What we do know is that he stopped and bandaged the wounds of an injured man. He took his patient to an inn where he paid the innkeeper to take care of him. Before he continued on his journey, the Samaritan asked in innkeeper to provide for the injured man's every need. On his return trip, he would pay the innkeeper for the additional expenses.
That deed spoke volumes about who that Samaritan was. The visibility of his spirit has remained on the stage of humanity's consciousness so that future generations might be led to deepen their own.
The Teacher of the Law, for all his insights into Hebrew theology, demonstrated his brilliance. For a number of people, brilliance is a wonderful place to begin. However, it is not a very attractive place to stay. The world does not need more people who know how to advertise what they know.
The people who have shaped our understanding and our faith have been a widow who willingly gave away all the money she had, a Samaritan who was kind, a thief on the cross who asked to be remembered, and a prodigal son who found his way back home. As with Jesus, we understand who these people were by what they did. On the scale of talking and doing, where are we?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
How grateful we are, O God, that by your design we are able to perceive your presence. You have not left us alone. You have created us with the capacity to seek, to discover what is not yet known, and to learn new ways of understanding what you have made. We marvel at the breakthroughs that occur in our knowledge, the victories we achieve over our resistance to change, and the joys that result. Help us to learn that our delays are the result of our seeking wholeness from those things that cannot give it. We long for the moment when doubts will fade, when our blindness no longer holds us captive, and when our fears cease creating the barriers to our ability to reflect your nature. May we stand forth in the knowledge that the opportunities to evolve into your likeness are everywhere. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We cannot thank you enough, O God, for your being constantly available to each of us. We come to you with our plans and you listen. Then life happens to us and we are mystified. We come to you asking that you solve our problems and yet we know how that would handicap our children if we constantly solved theirs.
Thank you for creating a world filled with so many teachable moments. We learn that our mistakes are often the tools for learning. By not knowing what tomorrow will bring, enhances our trust and faith in you. By seeing how our most precious possessions decay and change, we have learned not to form our identities around them. Thank you for showing us that we are spirit beings having a physical experience.
As we continue our growth, lead us to move beyond concepts, theology and Scriptures so that our discipleship might become visible. Lead us to do more walking and less talking. May others come to know who we are through our kindness, our generosity, and our peaceful nature. May we learn these skills by remaining faithful followers of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .