"Where Your Treasure Is...."
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 21, 2002
Psalm 23; John 10:1-10
For example, a number of us
have not yet perfected the skill of preserving our peace of mind
when someone is not only displaying intense emotional displeasure
with something we have done but when they are also blaming us for
the way they feel and for the way they are responding. Jesus'
teachings raised the bar on such behavior. We can apologize and
correct our mistake; we cannot give others the skills of patience,
kindness, and forgiveness.
In our lesson for today,
Jesus is very clear that there is one particular path that
encompasses all the qualities of spirit we admire. He said, "I am
the gate. My sheep know my voice. Those who come in by me will be
saved from the distractions of this world. They will come in, go
out and find pasture. All other voices are those of thieves and
robbers. I have come in order that you might have life -- life in
all its fullness." What does it mean for us to hear Jesus'
voice? What distinguishes his voice from all the others? What does
his urging cause us to become?
We know there are many voices calling us. There are lots of material possessions to be acquired. We know that there is the lure of looking good so we can attract others. There are many power positions in the workplace and elements of personal prestige that we want. Some of us enjoy credential-establishing letters after our name. There are lots of causes that want our time and financial resources. The list goes on and on. Which voice do we follow?
Countless authorities on
the art of living have the formula carefully mapped even for
teenagers whose lives are in front of them. They tell us: "Fix your
vision on the particular life-style you want, prioritize what you
feel is important and with all your energy go to work on the first
item on your list." There is no secret to successful living.
History has been made by such people. Yet not all successful
people have developed the spiritual dimension of their lives.
What is missing? What are such people not getting?
All of us have gone places,
invested money and entered relationships that promised results that
would ensure happiness and security. We become discouraged when
excuses consistently replace the safety net we want. Yet even when
this happens, we learn. There comes a time when people tire of
learning the same lesson over and over again -- "All that glitters
is not gold." The prize is never to be found in the world. It is
always inside us. This understanding can escape the grasp of
children and adults.
How many people have we known who
have said, "I am sick and tired of trying to find a mate. All the
people I date have something wrong with them." We could move to the
other end of the spectrum and find something very similar, "I am not
sure that I want to be married any more. Nothing works in our
relationship. It's boring. We've become roommates. I want more out of
life." When either one of these is our experience, what voice should we
Jesus was quite confident that
God set up creation with only two alternatives for people: We can
either grow and evolve spiritually or we can make choices that will
delay that process. There can be no failures among God's children
regardless of what some "authorities" have taught us. God's love is
infinite. God gives us the time we need until we learn what is truly
essential in life. It would not be loving or creative for God to be
Like children, some of us need a little more time before we make the kind of choices that allow us to grow up. Not everyone understands that life has a purpose. One thing is certain. If we want to attend graduate school in God's Kingdom, we must first learn to move out of second grade. Jesus knew that not everyone was ready to understand what he taught.
Jesus found cross currents even
among those who followed him. There are references in John's Gospel
where people simply could not accept what Jesus had to say. They left
and refused to follow him. (John 6:60, 66; John 7:43-44) Not
everyone knows how to grow the spiritual dimension of their lives.
Jesus said, "Where your treasure
is, there will your hearts be also." This has been true throughout
history long before Jesus was born. Some of us get it and others of us
do not. However, God's love is not exhausted by those who are slow
to learn. Many Christians whose faith limits God's infinite nature
still need to understand this.
When we look at life in the
Middle East, for example, thieves and robbers have approached the
sheep. Their voices speak of, "justice, revenge, our homeland,
martyrdom, pleasing God, self-defense, destroy or be destroyed." These
sound like great words that inspire nationalism and pride. When the
sheep follow such words, the result is guaranteed. There is delay among
the spirits who are caught up in bitterness and strife. You cannot
grow in the likeness of God with a sword in your hand. That is just the
way it is.
The people who are growing are those who have learned to hold themselves aloof from fear, hatred and violence. They speak words of peace not war. They are the children of light standing in the midst of darkness. Their voices are weak and seldom heard over the noise of bombs and the crying of mothers and fathers whose children have strapped bombs to themselves in order to end the lives of people they do not know.
The media shows the damage to
buildings, automobiles and homes, but its cameras cannot penetrate into
the souls of those who dream of a future where the sense of community
will flourish in harmony and peace. Those who hear that voice will one
day create such a community.
Jesus would want the people
living in the Middle East to look at what is happening within them. If
he could speak today no doubt he would say:
Many of you do these things to each other in the name of God, but your hearts are cold and your spirits perceive without love. You cannot reflect God's will when you do this. When you understand God, you will awaken from your dream of fear and destruction. You will join hands with your brothers and sisters and build a world like the one that exists when you leave your physical bodies.
Some years ago, I clipped an article from a magazine that is no longer in print. The article revealed an older gentlemen's work among two rival gangs in California, the Bloods and the Crypts. Members of each gang have lost very close friends and family during their frequent clashes. The lives of these young men were completely out of control by most standards. Their alternatives were much like those of the warriors struggling in the Middle East. Life's meaning had to do with territory, defeating the competition and pride in one's gang.
He took the risk of challenging
the gangs to a game of basketball. He had personally cleared a vacant
lot and mounted two basketball hoops in concrete. The neighbors were
horrified when they heard what he planned to do. "You bring those thugs
around here and we'll all pay for it," they said. He turned a deaf ear
to them as he continued with his plans for the vacant lot.
He promised the leadership of the two gangs that if they played with some degree of civility, that he would supply the hot dogs and sodas. "There will be no beer," he said. "I will furnish sodas." Zach was such a mellow, gentle spirit that the deal was done. They shook hands and set a date.
It took a lot of effort to get
these two neighborhood gangs to face each other, but Zach spelled out
the rules. "This is only a game," he said. "A game! Are you guys men
enough to play a game?" He challenged the leaders, "If you allow your
guys to get crazy out there, it will tell everyone how little control
you actually have. We are going to play a game." The referees were
chosen, one from each gang. Both had to work together to keep the game
safe and sane.
The two gangs stood at center court. They spit and looked at each other with stone-faced glares as they postured with their macho superiority. Zach had them sit down on the dirt. He told them about himself and what life had been like for him growing up in the neighborhood. It was a pep-talk about why he wanted them to play this game.
Then something happened that was not part of his plan. A very concerned neighbor had called the police. Just as the game was about to begin, a dozen police cars showed up. Zach had a tense moment on his hands. Both gangs felt they had been set up and betrayed. However, the officer in charge was able to see what was happening. He knew Zach.
The officer said, "Relax gentlemen. We had nothing else to do this afternoon. I think you know why that is. It is because you are all here." The boys in both gangs laughed, something none had done in years. "We thought we'd watch a quarter or two of the game to see if you are as good at basketball as you are with some of the other things you do." They laughed again. It was a nice touch from the police.
The afternoon went better than anyone had anticipated. Zach had spent several hundred dollars for the hot dogs, buns and sodas. The police dug in their pockets to reimbursed him. It was a nice evening. The men in uniform even found themselves grilling hot dogs at half-time. For one marvelous moment, a sense of community had been born.
The article ended with a quote. When asked what motivated him to take such a risk with the two gangs, Zach said:
I don't think I made much of a difference
that afternoon. But one never knows. We have to do something to give
kids like this another voice to listen to. If hate can lead people to
do outrageous things to each other, so can love. I grew up in these
streets and I know what it means to belong to something that makes you
feel that you matter. Gangs can do that! The basketball game showed
what was possible. Maybe we can build on that hope. I look at these
young men as my children. I don't want to lose any more of them.
Zach said, "We have to give kids
like this another voice to listen to." Each one of us has to ask
ourselves, "Is what I am doing right now with my life working for me?
Do I need to listen to another voice?"
Jesus understood that there are lots of voices. The reason such thieves fail 100 percent of the time is that they promise us what is always changing. Such voices steal the energy we could be using to develop our inner world, a world filled with qualities that do not change. The voice of Jesus calls us to be something in a world that always wants us to get something or to be somewhere else.
When we follow his voice, who we are grows. Notice what happens to the qualities in our spirit. Kindness does not change. We are either kind or we are not. Forgiveness does not change. We either love others as God loves us, or we do not. A nurturing spirit does not change.
When people are behaving poorly, learn to look at them as a 4-year old who is living in a 35-year or 55year-old body. This is not so that we look down on them, but to help us bring the same spirit to them that we do when we are nurturing little people. When people are behaving poorly, that is who they are. Our nurturing response is what they need.
We simply cannot get to graduate school in God's Kingdom without first getting out of the second grade. To get there, all we have to do is follow Jesus' voice. Sooner or later, everyone will. His teaching will lead us to become more loving and peaceful men and women. That's God plan for all of us, not just for those of us who call ourselves Christian.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Almighty God, entering our worship experience can be very humbling. We know that feeling safe in your presence is the result of our being loved by you. We recognize your call for love from among the other voices beckoning us to follow. Sometimes we find it challenging to let the spirit of love do the work. We want to repair people who appear to be despairing. We want to give people the ability to become responsible. We want people to redirect their lives. Instead, guide us to understand that the greatest teacher is example, not judgment. Help us to see ourselves as extensions of your ever-patient presence. When we meet those who are uninformed about the power of faith, let our light shine anyway. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Gracious and ever present God, we thank
you for the rest that we received during the night, for the goodness
inherent in each new day, for our health and strength and for our sense
of community this morning.
We are grateful for your presence in our
lives, for the simplicity of talking to you, for your spirit that
nurtures us, forever deepening us while quieting our fears and inspiring
our courage. Yet we are aware of how skilled we are at hiding our own
loneliness, how shy we are in inviting someone to come to church with
us, and how awkward we feel when telling someone of our faithfulness to
the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Enable us, O Lord, to renew our sense of responsibility to our church family, to the places we work, to our friends who may be as skilled in acting as we are. Help us during every unwanted occasion to display kindness and to give hope. Give us the grace to influence just one person so that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray these thoughts through Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .