"Those Who Know Must Teach"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 26, 2002

Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20


     The theme of Memorial Day always gives us pause.  Sometimes we tend to ignore it because we are more interested in hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill as family and good friends gather for fellowship.  Or the day may only be symbolic that we have a three-day weekend to enjoy. Yet for others of us the weekend represents a time when we can remember members of our family who did not return from some military conflict.  Maybe that person was a college roommate.

     There is something very powerful in words once used by Jesus.  He said, "My commandment is this: love one another just as I have loved you.  The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them.."  (John 15:12-13).  The impact of his words can evoke strong emotions when we remember someone who did just that.

     Mike Vlk and his wife Rachel were both members at St. Matthew's before they were transferred to their new assignment -- an Air Force base in Florida.  When we learned that Mike was in Afghanistan craving  homemade cookies, many of us got to work in our kitchens.  We sent him sixteen large boxes of every variety of cookie imaginable. When Mike and his buddies received those cookies, many of his friends were surprised to learn that his "former" church family had done such a kind thing.   

     It was Mike's company who handled one of the first casualties of the conflict in Afghanistan. He wrote to me about how personal the war had suddenly become for him and his men.  He mentioned the strong emotions that filled each of them as they carried his flag draped remains to one of their aircraft. 

     He said, "Life is very different now as we face an enemy we frequently cannot see.  Conflict is strange.  I guess it has been this way in every war. They do not know who we are and we do not know them and yet we fight because we each believe that the other wants to destroy our way of life." How should we think about our role as Christians in a world like ours?

     Our Scripture lesson for this morning features what has been called, "The Great Commission."  In this passage, Jesus is telling his listeners to go into the world and teach all people how to become self-disciplined enough to integrate what he taught into their lives. 

     How we obey Jesus' request always creates a tension.  On one side of the equation we must defend freedom, democracy, and civilization itself. On the other side, we must teach people how to love one another. Even the greatest spinmisters, regardless of what "pulpit" they use, have had much difficulty integrating these two themes.

     One of the major issues facing Americans is that we appear to be absolutely sure who the enemy is. They speak a different language and they dress differently.  They want to destroy apartment buildings, bridges, shopping malls and our rail and bus systems.

     We have called them cowards because they fight from the shadows.  They refuse to engage our military because their target is our economy.  They believe that if they attack us spiritually by inspiring our greatest fears, Americans will quickly lose their confidence in everything.  If they strike repeatedly, they believe that the resulting fall of the economic dominos will bringing our country to its knees. Most of us have gotten this message.

     We are very good at targeting exactly who the enemy is. But are we correct? Think about this. Who was it that brought about the collapse of Enron, destroying the pension benefits of thousands of people?  What was happening at Arthur Andersen that caused this multinational corporation to self-destruct over night, disenfranchising thousands of employees?  Just what kind of deceptive and manipulative practices were being used by several analysts at Merrill Lynch which caused this major brokerage firm to be fined one hundred million dollars?  Are we sure we know who the enemy is? 

     It appears that the enemy wears many masks and some of them are the ones we wear.  When we stop to think about it, just what are the values that our men and women in the military are giving their lives to save? We proudly speak words like "freedom" and "democracy" as though we know what they mean. Such words are worthless if they do not also communicate responsibility, accountability, and character.                 

     Even the Church is losing a grip on its core message.  Many of us have experienced pain recently for our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, we have our opinions and have proposed our solutions but any nail driven into the Body of Christ becomes a wound suffered by all of us.

     These current moments in history are not ones where we can sit back and claim that we know the identity of our enemy.  Likewise, if we can claim that "we have Christ" while the rest of the world suffers and remains in chaos, we are part of the problem. 

     Everyone of us is part of the world community but the followers of Jesus Christ have a highly specific role to play. Are we prepared to own that calling and act on it or do we prefer to circle our wagons, sit around and praise Jesus?  If our faith celebrates our personal salvation who else benefits?  This is nothing more than selfishness hiding underneath the lofty praise language of a shallow faith.  This is as ugly as Christianity gets.

     A number of years ago David Roever wrote a book which described his experiences during a fragile moment in his life.  He emerged from the Viet Nam war with a terribly disfigured face.  This part of his body was damaged when a phosphorus hand-grenade exploded just six inches from his right ear.

     David described his reunion with his physically attractive wife, Brenda, when he returned to the United States.   He said that when Brenda first looked at him she was not sure that the person lying there was her husband.  She checked his wristband and then the chart at the end of his bed. Then without the slightest trace of horror on her face, Brenda bent over and kissed him on what was left of his face.  Then she looked at him on the side of his good eye, smiled and said, "Welcome home, Davey.  I love you."

     He looked at her and said, "I want you to know how sorry I am."  She said, "Why are you sorry?"  He said, "Because I can no longer look good for you again."  She thought for a minute, grinned and said, "Oh Davey, your ego is way too big.  You were never that good looking even when we started dating."

     After reporting this exchange with his wife, David wrote these words, "That was the beginning of the deep psychological and spiritual healing which eventually quenched the fire of my ordeal so that I could face the world again.  I was able to let go of my wound, knowing that my spirit had not been damaged by the blast from that hand-grenade."

     When we understand that someone loves us in spite of our ugliness, in spite of all the things that they know about us; when we learn that we do not have to be beautiful in their eyes to merit their caring, we have hold of something extremely vital.  This is what God's love is like.

     In order for us to teach what we know, we must first accept that God loves us warts and all.  We cannot and should not target our enemies as being people we must destroy.  When people live in pain, we are the ones called to listen and respond to that pain. Those of us who have this commitment will become the channels through which the power of our Creator can flow. 

     Our incredible military is sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States of America.  Our troops are prepared to lay down their lives so that generations not yet born might enjoy what many of us experience today.  But we must not rely on its message as being the only one that America sends. We may be going after "the bad guys" by using smart bombs, deadly accurate rifles that we call "JARS," and with troops outfitted with the latest equipment.  Is this America's only message? 

     The military has their job to do.  We must let them do it. Their mission statement is fairly similar to that of the white blood cells in our bodies.  They swirl through our vascular system attacking everything that threatens the survival of the body.  Always there are deadly bacteria awaiting some break in our immune system so they can attack and destroy us. We would not survive without their presence.

     The spirit within the body also has a job to do.  When we become disciples of Jesus Christ, it means that we are sworn to teaching everything that he gave us to teach.  Remember the chorus of the song,  "They know we are Christians, by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love."  How is such love revealed? God works through loving spirits.  We must trust this process even when the history of humankind seems to be in one of its darkest hours. Benjamin Franklin once said, "When you assemble a number of people to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those people all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish points of view, but we must gather with them anyway in order for progress to continue."

     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said it better than anyone else.  He wrote, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can as long as ever you can."  This is our role and there has never been a day more pressing than this one for us to carry the message of Christ into the world.

     If India and Pakistan go to war and they use what is in their respective nuclear arsenals, 150 million people could die in a matter of minutes.  This is insanity and everyone knows it.  Equally, it makes no sense to communicate through suicide bombers.  But this is where we are at the moment.          

     When pre-school teachers see children hitting each other during their play time, they frequently say, "Nathan, please use your words. Tell Sally why you are unhappy with her."  It would be such a blessing if the world's leaders could remember what they learned when they were children.

     We are going to have plenty to do in the coming months and years.  For the body of humanity to survive, we must teach Christ's message at every level, trusting that God will give us the means and the opportunities to do so.  When those doors open, please do not hesitate to walk through them.  When you do, you will not be alone.  We have to trust that.


     Loving God, we are experiencing such incredible events as our years unfold.  We live in a world of striking contrasts.  We enjoy freedom while remaining guarded against those who would take it away.  We nourish our faith in the midst of cultures whose values often clash.  New ways to fight diseases are side by side with the results of suicide bombers.  We find people talking and not communicating.  Help us understand that it was into such a world that Jesus called us to be bearers of light.  Spare us from expecting a crop where we have sown no seed.  Inspire us to defend and protect freedom by making it available to everyone both now and always.  Amen.


    Thank you, God, for being the same yesterday, today and forever.  As our lives experience so many changes, we welcome the good news that your surrounding, loving, consistent presence is with us always and in all ways.  

    As we have come for worship, guide us to enter the temple within ourselves where your spirit also dwells.  Teach us how to turn down the volume of the noise outside, so that peacefully we can replenish ourselves from the nurturing, quiet springs that flow within.

    We pray that our lives might represent a signal buoy for others who experience being lost in the sea of their activity, a weigh station for those who need to know they are valued, and as a listening post for those who believe their words are not important. 

    On this day, we ask that you would bless the role that Americans play in a world seemingly plagued with so many events that appear to stand against the way you created us.  As we revisit in our minds the many conflicts and wars and those who died in them,  we pray that a day will soon dawn when mothers and fathers will no longer have to remember their children on a Memorial Day.  Please help all of us strive for peace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .