"The Diamond Among Many Fakes"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 11, 2001

Psalm 27:1-6; Luke 13:31-35

     This has been a very emotional week for many of our country's teenagers. School administrators and families are wringing their hands in frustration over all the violence on school grounds. How many police and metal detectors do we think are needed to protect students from each other? Of course, there is no answer.

     The most recent Bowie Blade-News had the following headline, "Bowie High Beefs Up Security After Attack." That attack happened to one of St. Matthew's own young people. Metal detectors and police would not have protected him in this instance because the incident took place in the Bowie Library parking lot.

     With slight variations, this story repeated itself 30 times this past week throughout the country. How easily words and attitudes evoke violence. One student had low tolerance for teasing. Another student wanted to get even for uncomplimentary words that were said about his girlfriend. And still another student believed that she could avenge some hurt by shooting the girl whom she believed caused the pain.

     "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." As we will see this morning, there has always been a number of people throughout history who never learn the wisdom of that statement.

     One of the interesting qualities we possess is that truth can firmly be imbedded in our minds until the moment we become offended. Suddenly circumstances become very personal. We can feel shocked about events in our newspapers and shake our heads when we watch the evening news. We can even comment, "What in the world is happening to our society?" But who do we become when we are the target of gossip, or when some aggressive driver endangers the lives of everyone in our car? Are adults any more refined in their responses than their teenage counterparts? As we consider our second Lenten theme, we are going to look at what Jesus taught about this life-issue.

     Most of us have a zeal for justice. We want to correct those things in our immediate world that are wrong. But be not mistaken, frequently our sense of justice is nothing more than a disguised form of getting even. We enjoy seeing just consequences coming to those who have committed a crime. "After all," we say, "it is only fair that people pay for what they have done or for what they have said. That is the way our system works. We would have chaos without it." It becomes an easy step for us to mirror the values of our society. Is there not a higher standard?

     Is our form of justice the kind we will find when we leave our physical bodies? Many devout believers hope so. A good number of us could not live without the promise of Heaven and Hell. However, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us a much different response to consider. He taught, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you." (Matt. 5:38) Do we believe this? Is this how we are teaching our children to behave?

     Even though we tout forgiveness as absolutely essential to the expression of our faith, think about this. What happened to public opinion when President Clinton made his numerous eleventh hour pardons? Do you remember your feelings and thoughts when you first heard about them? His pardons forgave many people of their sins.

     Few people on either side of the political aisle were celebrating the President's benevolence. What the public applauded was that congressional investigations were launched immediately. Can we suppose that this was the reaction of many witnesses when Jesus forgave the sins of people?

     I am not trying to make any claims here, or to move us toward considering the right or wrong of President Clinton's pardons. Certainly there were many ethically challenging issues surrounding those pardons. I am only describing the process of justice that is well-ingrained in most of us.

     Jesus' truth can be in our minds but when our sense of justice is violated, we all too frequently lift high the banner of righteousness and go on the offensive. It has been this way in every generation. As we continue our walk in Lent, we are going to consider the diamond that sits among the many fakes.

     In our lesson today, some Pharisees told Jesus, "You must get out of here and go somewhere else because Herod wants to kill you." Jesus' response was so sad, so filled with longing, and so desirous for another day to dawn. He said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill your prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!"

     The diamond among the fakes that Jesus demonstrated was the invitation to become a being whose arms are always outstretched without exception, without qualification, and without someone first having to demonstrate their worthiness. This is the way life is in the Kingdom Jesus described. This is the attitude, the posture, and the way of perceiving others that more evolved beings possess. Jesus was extending the invitation for his listeners to become one of them.

     Many of us want God to behave this way. We want God to be there for us in spite of who we have become, in spite of our fits and bad spells, in spite of our past indiscretions, and in spite of words that we have spoken in haste. That is the kind of energy and spirit that we want God to direct toward us. Jesus was willing to love everyone in Jerusalem, not just some people. He tried to pass the torch of truth on to us.

     Jesus told his listeners to go out into the world and make disciples. According to Jesus' definition of discipleship that request meant, "Go out and teach others how to love one another as I have loved you." That is not what the early Christians did. Historically, discipleship belonged to those whose beliefs conformed to the teachings of the Church. Discipleship had little to do with the "love your neighbor" theme that Jesus taught. Just for a moment, let us review several events that outline how difficult it was for early believers to distinguish the diamond from among the fakes.

     In the year 311, Emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians and granted enormous favors to the Church. Yet he ruthlessly suppressed non-Christians, even murdering members of his own family. So that there would be no less than a thorough cleansing, he postponed baptism to the moment prior to their death.

     In the year 800, on Christmas morning, the Pope crowned Charlemagne "King of the Romans" and declared that the Holy Roman Empire was ordained by God. While trying to convert the "heathen" of northern Europe, Charlemagne beheaded 4,000 Saxons who would not submit to Christianity.

     Martin Luther is hailed as the author of the Reformation. He praised God for God's loving grace, but when the Peasants' War broke out in 1525, Luther penned a savage tract entitled, Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In it Luther advised "Everyone who can to smite, slay, and stab the rebels as they would a mad dog."

     On August 24, 1573, the Pope entered the Sistine Chapel and sang an exultant "Te Deum." The occasion for his celebration was the Massacre of St. Barthlomew's Day when Roman Catholics slaughtered 10,000 Protestants in the streets of Paris.

     We could go on and on. In our own day, Christians haggle over who has the "right" credentials and theology to teach at Southern Baptist Seminaries, or who can receive Holy Communion in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, or whose relationships are sanctified in the eyes of God and whose is not. A few who claim Jesus as their personal Savior even target physicians for harassment or assassination if they are found to be among the ranks of those who perform abortions.

     It is so easy to miss seeing the diamond when we are personally offended. "After all," we say, "evil will only triumph when good people stand by and do nothing." How many wars have been started by that logic; a logic many of us readily defend?

     There are so many fakes on the landscape, so many bogus icons that we honor, and so many cherished beliefs that we refuse to surrender because we are right and someone else has to be wrong. Today, with all that clamors for our response, it is refreshing to imagine Jesus sitting quietly on a hill overlooking his beloved city of Jerusalem and hearing his lament. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How many times I have wanted to love you but you would not let me."

     Several weeks ago we had a memorial service at St. Matthew's. There were probably 500 people in our sanctuary and narthex. They had gathered to remember Jamie Morsicato who had been killed earlier in the week by a high-speed train. He had been a sophomore at Bowie High School. James exhibited a magnetism that attracted so many young people who did not fit in with the mainstream of others.

     I visited his parents, Eric and Nancy. In spite of their loss, all they could talk about was the enormous number of young people who had "hung out" in their home over the past several years. Some wore skirts that were too short. Some had earrings in their eyebrows. Yet through it all, Eric and Nancy were there with their arms wide open. That image, attitude and posture communicated, "Here you are safe. Here you are loved just as you are." That meant so much to so many.

     Since that quality of energy is the most powerful force in the universe, it has become the language all of us understand. Among all the fakes, that kind of response is the one that touches each of us where we live. We all make mistakes but we want people to see the good in us. There are times when we do not use good judgment, but we want someone to hold us anyway. When we behave like the prodigal son, we all want our Dad to be like his. Every one of us is still in process and none of us is a finished product.

     Last week we talked about the many faces of temptation. Today, we are reviewing something else about ourselves. Do we extend our arms to everyone, or do we first insist that others reflect our standards, rules, comfort levels, and belief systems? It is so easy to forsake the substance for the shadow. We can miss seeing the diamond by focusing on and desiring all the imitations. Collectively, humanity has done this for thousands of years. Jesus committed his life to something else.

     Jesus was teaching that no one can guide others by becoming like them. Nor can anyone live in the Kingdom he described when they allow the words and attitudes of others to evoke in them the desire to get even, to play small, and to contort their faces with looks of intolerance and resentment. To lift others as Jesus did, we have to be standing on higher ground, even when that higher ground is sometimes a cross.

     As we know, sometimes evil does triumph when good people do nothing. But remember, had evil not triumphed on Good Friday, we would have never heard, "Father forgive them" from the one nailed to a cross. And we would not be celebrating Easter on April 15.

     When we trust God for the outcome of all things, we must also allow God to have the last word on everything. Our task is to open our arms. Such a response is easier to make when we remember, "Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you." If humanity had learned to live by the Golden Rule, there would have been no violence this past week. Perhaps last week was our wake up call for those people who can still hear. In spite of what comes into our path, let us open our arms so we can teach others by who we are becoming. For sanity to reign in our culture and, indeed, our world we must teach this.