"Is Loving The Teacher Enough?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 10, 2003

Psalm 130; John 6:35, 41-51

     Several years ago, Lois and I were invited to attend an evening worship experience in one of our neighborhood churches.  The service featured a musical group of young people who warmed up the congregation by a full hour of singing.  The words were projected on the wall and the amazing thing was that the congregation was willing to stand for the entire time.  A lot of people were swaying to the beat of the music with their arms and hands extended toward the ceiling.    

     After a while, I began to concentrate on the lyrics of the music.  Most of the songs were focusing on the name of Jesus.  The words frequently described Jesus by using references to royalty, e.g., He is "the King;" "The Lord's name is powerful and mighty;" He is the "ruler of the universe;"  Jesus is filled with "glory and majesty."  The words proclaimed everyone's love for Jesus. 

     As we experienced the service, I engaged in some mind fantasy.  "How would Jesus respond to what we were experiencing? What would he think about being the object of people's worship? Might he wonder if the energy of people was being displaced from what he came here to give humanity?  Coming among us as one who serves and who had no place to lay his head, would Jesus want such adoring admiration?"  

     Of course, such questions could never be answered in a manner that would satisfy those of us who wish to express our faith in this fashion. I was not finding fault or being critical of such expressive faith; I was merely adding another dimension of inquiry to what we were experiencing. 

     The Christian Church has always placed Jesus at the center of its life, and rightfully so.  The Church also has focused many of its faith statements on the cross and what happened there- a submission by Jesus which has shaped Christian theology for thousands of years. What may have gotten misplaced in our concentration on Jesus and the way he died is his message.   

     What was curiously missing from the praise music we listened to that evening were references to the contents of the Sermon on the Mount. Most lyrics were written to adore Jesus.  Nothing was said about our accountability for honoring God with our lives.  No references were made to our responsibility to our neighbors.   

     No one will enter the Kingdom of God, for example, simply by praising the name of Jesus.  The Master once said, "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord' and yet do not do what I have taught you?  Anyone who comes to me, listens to my words and obeys them is like a builder who constructed his house on a rock." (Luke 6:46f)  

     This morning we are going to be talking about one of the "I am" passages written in the Gospel of John.  Jesus said, "I am the bread of life.  Those who come to me will never be hungry and those who believe in me will never be thirsty." Was Jesus' intention to encourage his listeners to focus on him, or was he communicating something else?  In this particular reference, Jesus obviously was not talking about food and water.  What was he teaching to those who had gathered? 

     The same words that are intriguing to us inspired confusion among many of his listeners.  Jesus said, "I am the bread that came down from Heaven." This caused some of them to say, "This man is Jesus, son of Joseph, isn't he?  Why is he now saying that he came down from Heaven?" 

      Most of them did not understand the meaning of his words.  Perhaps the same thing occurs today.  There may be millions of us who are strangers to what it means to respond to his message.  We have absolutely no problem responding to him.  We may know the story well, and may even refer to the Gospels as "the Good News," but we also may not know how to apply Jesus' teachings so that the hunger and thirst which grows from our neediness will stop controlling our attitudes and decision making. 

     Let us consider a number of examples.  First, the number one cause for failed marriages today is financial mismanagement.  Many people do not know how to be in relationship to their money. They cannot save it.  They do not know the first thing about investing it. At the end of the year, they look at the amount of money they earned and simply have no idea how they spent it.    

     Recently we have been reading about the spent wealth of Mike Tyson. We wonder how in the world any man could spend over three hundred million dollars, which is $43,000 a day, and be broke.  In fact, he is more than broke; he still owes millions to various vendors who extended credit to him. 

     To better understand this, all we need to do is consult the reports coming from banks and credit card companies to discover that a majority of us spend anywhere from 8 to 15 percent more than we earn each year.  The more we earn, the less careful we are in how we spend it.   

     Jesus talked more about wealth than any other topic in the Gospels.  Are people taking time to look at their spending habits in light of, "Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also."?  Just how driven are we to spend money because of our imagined needs or our "required" conveniences? 

     A second example can be found in the number of men and women who carry attitudes and opinions that are absolutely poisonous to their bodies, families and colleagues.  No one has ever died of a snake bite.  What kills people is the venom that slowly travels through the blood stream.   

     Many people both inside and outside of the Church are held prisoner by self-destructive, venomous attitudes. They may know the story of Jesus without thinking about their need to apply what he taught.  His prime directive was that we must learn to love ourselves before we can authentically love anyone else.  We are not caring for ourselves when we allow hostile and frustrated emotions to continue boiling in our lives. 

     A third example comes from  the complaints that men and women have about each other.  They are nearly identical. Neither gender has an inside track on taking the high road.  Each wants the other to change so that the promised happiness will automatically rise like the sun. 

     When couples come to my office for counseling, the litany is the same. "He doesn't remember birthdays or anniversaries.  She doesn't know how to cook.  He is insensitive to the members of my family.  She's too possessive of my time.  When we go out to dinner, he doesn't talk to me.  When it comes to intimacy, she's too tired.  His timing is always about him and his needs.  She does not possess good parenting skills. When he is in front of the television set, the rest of us become invisible."   

     How many of us have heard such endearing descriptions directed toward us? Every relationship needs tweaking, which is a slang term meaning growth.  We need to learn how to be more careful of what messages we are sending to each other through our attitudes and behavior. Jesus' teachings direct us toward more caring and wholesome responses.         

     A woman in one of our churches came to me for some advice.  She was always emotionally drained.  A poor relationship at her office was weakening her attitudes and energy levels.  I sat with her for an hour and found that she was experiencing constant rejection from another employee. I gave her an assignment. I told her that engaging in it would be fun!  She shot me a look that communicated, "FUN!!?  I can't stand being around this woman!"  

     I directed her to find something attractive about this troublesome person and compliment her for having it.  On a second occasion, she was to invite her to lunch and seek her advice or opinion about some issue our parishioner was facing.  During a third episode, she was to take her some homemade cookies as a thank you for listening to her.  Using a fourth moment, she was to tell her a funny story that would make her laugh.   

     In other words, I was directing her to give this "horrible person" the simple gift of "friendship."  I told her to experiment with her.  Make this experience a game.  The fun in the experience would come as she used various techniques to get the "frozen" spirit and personality of her colleague to melt.  

     The most exciting things will happen to us when we put into practice what Jesus taught.  This is the bread which Jesus brought from heaven! The bread is the attitudes of being, with which Jesus prefaced his Sermon on the Mount.  The bread is not the messenger.  When we eat the bread of life, we quite literally take into ourselves Jesus' teachings so that we live in his Kingdom.  As we do this, the hunger and thirst created by our neediness fades.  Power comes when we prove in our personal experience the reality of what Jesus taught.   

     Within a week, her colleague started to change. Our parishioner thought it was nothing short of a miracle.  Within a month this "horrible person" came to her with two tickets to the Kennedy Center and invited her to a show. The ice had melted.  Who would have ever guessed?             

     Hindsight told her that she could have used her spiritual bread a year and a half earlier when the relationship started to decay.  This was her life issue, not her colleague’s. She thought she was a disciple of Jesus yet she failed to practice the insights for living that Jesus taught.              

     Jesus would be the first person to say, "While I appreciate your love, loyalty and devotion, why don't you invest your energy into living the way I taught?" Jesus himself said, "I am not looking for human praise." (John 5:41)   

     It should not come as a surprise to us when people display an angry temperament or constantly respond to us with sarcasm, that they are communicating from a fear that no one likes them.  In fact, their behavior is a call for love.  Step in there and dissolve that fear with some solid one-on-one tender, loving care.  What does anyone have to lose? Such a response costs  us nothing.  

     We cannot expect people to be anything other than who they are, but Jesus taught us how to prevent other people's behavior from poisoning us.  We have to stop personalizing everything that other people say and do.  When we enter their lives with our attitudes changed, watch how quickly a window opens to let in the fresh air.  This is what we were sent forth to do. 

     This kind of attitude adjustment on our part may not work all the time.  Our motivation for following Jesus' teachings is not to encourage others to like us, but to refine who we are becoming.  All the possible responses people can make will remain a constant in our world.  We can only govern how we respond. This is why our hunger and our thirst is what goes away.  This is what eating the bread from heaven will do for us.   

     Remember, Jesus' light shined exceedingly bright, but even he did not succeed in inspiring the minds of those who were threatened by him.  He himself, however, was fine.  This is what light does.  It shines confidently in darkness because it knows what it is and what it can do to darkness.  We must be that light as he directed. 

     Perhaps one of the more hidden issues that the Christian Church needs to address is its effectiveness. Clergy  and musicians can become very skilled in putting together meaningful worship services.  Today's choral anthems are some of the most beautiful of any generation.  The Internet provides ministers with more resources than anyone could possibly use.  Perhaps all we are doing is nourishing the faithful.  We need to consider, "How much nourishment actually spills over into a world that desperately needs to be embraced?" 

     The Church knows how to create inspirational experiences, but too often people feel untrained, uninformed and ill-prepared to deal with life in the trenches where they live.   Anyone can quote Scripture and praise the name of Jesus, but not everyone has the power to deal compassionately with someone who is self-absorbed and irritating.   We change our world by deciding to change how we think about it.  Putting into practice this understanding will address every life-issue we face. 

     We do love Jesus, but we cannot forget that everyone needs what he came here to teach us.  When love encourages us to try new and creative ways of being within our various relationships, we will learn what it means NOT to be hungry and thirsty anymore.  As we experience spiritual freedom from the tyranny of little things, others will become free as well. By being faithful to what Jesus taught, mountains will be removed and cast into the sea.  This week try something new and watch for results that you may not expect.


    We are so thankful, O God, that you sent Jesus to become the greatest reference point we have for understanding your will.  As we search the riches found in Jesus' message, how often we desire to worship the messenger and miss what he brought.  We find great meaning in the cross while listening faintly to the invitation to make his Kingdom visible.  Open our eyes that we might see, glimpses of truth that you meant for everyone.  Guide us, O God, to be more faithful stewards of the mission Jesus gave to us.  May we so live that our doubts and fears melt into the sands of your love for us.  As we continue to experience the truth of your faithfulness, may we grow in confidence and trust as our destinies unfold.  Amen     


     Merciful God, we always find worship a peaceful respite from the other activities of our lives.  How grateful we are that you created us with the ability to allow our faith to be a living and growing quality of spirit.  We count ourselves among the blessed because of our awareness that we need to nourish our faith within a fellowship of other travelers on earth. 

     We do not all perceive life the same way.  We do not come from the same backgrounds.  We do not have the same desires.  Yet our lives are unique and our faith provides us with the confidence that you can take our mistakes in judgment and teach us a better way to choose.  Faith allows us to take the criticism of others and find in it the seeds that will help us grow in a more meaningful direction.  Faith allows us to bloom where we find ourselves planted.  Faith frees us from regrets of what we might have done, what we could have said or who we might have been.  Faith gives us peace when we remember that you attend to the details of creation which we cannot. 

     This morning we pray for the world's people.  We long for a day when violence will no longer be used as a form of communication.  We await a day when love will direct foreign policy, when free trade will replace the manipulation of markets and when the safety and well being of all people will be the goal for which we strive collectively.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .