"The Fabulous Gift Of Discernment"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 11, 2003
Psalm 23; John 10:11-18
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus
says, "I am the good shepherd who is willing to die for the
sheep." Such words may help us to look at our own levels of
commitment. Would we be willing to die for others? We may like to
think so. Maybe we ought to ask a number of people serving in our
military, in our police departments, or the colleagues of those who
rushed into the World Trade Towers on September 11. There is
something about such commitment that suggests a recognition that
all life has sacred worth.
Several years ago, I did
something in ignorance that resulted in the death of a mother and a
number of her children. The drama that unfolded before me was akin
to Armageddon for this family. This event has been permanently
etched in my mind. A brief explanation of events is needed here.
Ever since I bought my first
car, I have always changed the oil. Part of my responsibility of
doing so was to see that the old oil was recycled. Near our home on
Capitol Hill was an Exxon station. I would take my old oil there,
remove the cap in the concrete pavement, and dump it into an
underground holding tank.
On one occasion, as I was
dumping the last quart, I noticed something I had missed. Living
under that cap was a family of spiders. The mother spider was
struggling with everything she had to save her babies from the oil.
I watched helplessly as she used her legs to lift to safety as many
of them as she could. Then she positioned herself as a bridge so
that when she died, more babies could crawl over her body to safety.
If what I was seeing was merely survival instinct, then heroism and
commitment are part of a mother spider's DNA. I will never forget
her gallantry nor my sadness over what I had caused.
There has to be an incredible
depth of caring for anyone who is willing to die so that others
might live. Jesus pointed out that a mere hired person tending the
same sheep would run at the first sign of danger. He knew that
stand-in shepherds would not have the same commitment as the owner.
Jesus repeated his thought, "I am willing to die for them."
There are very curious words
that follow this verse. Jesus said, "There are other sheep which
belong to me that are not in this sheep pen. I must bring them,
too; they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock
with one shepherd."
The theologians who have
commented on these words of Jesus have suggested a number of
interpretations. Trying to determine who Jesus might have been referring
to, however, is not the important issue. Such people could be anyone
living anywhere. These "other sheep" are those who resonate enough with
Jesus' point of view to make his teachings visible in their lives.
Jesus said, "They will listen to my voice." Many people hear, but not
everyone listening develops the desire to follow directions.
Have you ever noticed in your
profession that among your co-workers there are different levels of
commitment for the jobs they do? There are those who do all they can to
reach their highest potential while others work with a very different
attitude. They look at the clock, stretch their lunch breaks, and wait
with great anticipation for the weekends. Their mantra on Friday is,
"I'm outta here! If you're lucky, you'll see me on Monday."
Some read every book in their
field while others gather in the coffee nook and discuss last night's
sitcoms, the results on American Idol, or the events on one of
these "reality" shows. Some teachers research new ways to make their
subject material more relevant to students while others use the same
dog-eared lesson plans they have for years. The world is big enough to
accommodate everyone's level of motivation and desire. "As we sow so
shall we reap" is a rule that governs everyone regardless of their level
Another example of such differing
levels will be experienced today. Many mothers will get flowers.
Flowers have a very limited vocabulary. At best, flowers communicate,
"I care." They may also say, "I remembered." Any other feelings and
thoughts that we have need to go in the card.
There will be other children who
take Mom to dinner. On a different rung of the ladder, there will be
others whose relationship with Mom is constant. They call, write and
communicate their gratitude all the time. They do not need a particular
day to say, "I love you. You are the best Mom anyone could possibly
have." Who these children have become speaks for them every week
throughout the year.
Not everyone can hear the
Shepherd's voice with the same clarity. There is a lot of static
confusing their Neuro-pathways. They want to know if Jimmy is going to
call this weekend. They hope beyond hope that the university will
accept their application for admission. They are anxious to learn if
their company won the contract. They become preoccupied with whether or
not the publisher has accepted their manuscript. Not all of us can
hear the voice of the Shepherd over the shouts of all the things we
want. We forget, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." It
is hard not to want.
There are Christians everywhere
in the world. Even in the Church the same choices are being made. Some
people are very faithful in attending their churches on Sunday morning.
Today, mega-churches have thousands coming to hear the orchestra, the
hundred-plus member choir and the highly polished sermons. Such people
leave their services feeling proud of their church, its magnificent
programs and the splendidly choreographed hour of praise. Most of them
have no problem believing that they love their neighbors.
Within that same church, there
are others who work with the mission programs. They work in the soup
kitchens, pack lunches for indigent workers and line up with their tools
for the next Christmas in April project. They can always be
counted on when volunteers are needed for one project or another. This,
too, is fine. The world has need of them.
Still others grasp a little more
because of their commitment to all the sheep. They have built their
attitudes and life-styles around all the teachings of Jesus, not
just those that generate the sense of right living. Examples of these
more challenging teachings can be found in one place. "Love your
enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and
pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you." (Matthew
5:44) Even in the church, not everyone's commitment is the same.
It is a marvelous horizon toward
which Jesus wanted us to walk. We are all on the road to getting
there. Because there are so many detours, we need to keep before us a
very clear vision of what that horizon looks like. God equipped us
with a fabulous gift of discernment. This one gift helps us
discriminate in our decision making regarding the various voices that
beckon. Because of the Good Shepherd, we have that clear vision.
Jesus' personal mission statement
was a most humble one. He said, "I have come among you as one who
serves." This is what shepherds do. He never abandoned that mission.
Even from the cross, Jesus served a thief and his mother. He asked God
to forgive his murderers because of their ignorance. He asked us to
follow. Being such a shepherd ourselves can come in many forms, but the
spirit by which we live is unmistakably clear to observers.
Some of us enjoy trivia. These
are interesting pieces of information that are seldom included in our
examination of large and small events. Yet there is something about
knowing the trivia that makes our experiences richer and fuller. If it
were not for a lot of lesser known people doing the best they can, a
number of today's well known personalities would have remained
For example, everyone has heard
of Sir Isaac Newton. We know that a falling apple started Newton
thinking about gravity. His theories catapulted astronomy light years
ahead of other disciplines. A piece of trivia connected Newton to
stardom in the scientific community. A lesser known person who made
possible Newton's recognition was Edmund Halley. "Who is that?" we
Halley was the one who challenged Newton to think through his theories more critically. He corrected the errors in Newton's mathematical formulations. Halley pushed a very reticent Newton to write his work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Halley edited the book, supervised its publication and even financed its printing even though Newton had far more financial resources. When Newton's work hit the scientific world like a bombshell, he was instantly heralded as a genius, a harbinger of many more useful ideas to come for the scientific community.
While tinkering one day with some of Newton's calculations, Edmund Halley managed to plot the orbit of a certain comet that later bore his name, a comet that makes its pilgrimage past the earth every 76 years. Halley's goal was not one of recognition or reward. He merely wanted to advance one of the many pursuits of humankind and he did so by shepherding Sir Isaac Newton toward that end.
There are people in every
discipline who have the same commitment to serving as did Jesus.
When we walk the shepherd's path by making it our own, we might become
a piece of trivia that eventually represents a major hinge upon which
the pages of history turn.
One of the great mysteries of
life comes in the area of who we influence. Our true successes are
hidden from us most of the time. For example, a mother's love for her
children might inspire them to become great contributors. A physician,
working hard to save a child's life, might give back to the world one of
its future leaders. Parents who adopt a child might give humankind
someone like James A. Michener, the author who, as an infant, was
wrapped in a blanket, placed in a basket and abandoned on someone's door
"What is in this for me?" is not
the best question that we can ask ourselves. When we discern our
tasks through a spirit that authentically desires to serve, we become
like a shepherd. When this happens, we can accept all tasks that come
to us without saying, "Why me?" Having this spirit prevents so many
of our common mistakes in judgment. Why? Because when the Lord is our
Shepherd, we will not want something else.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for being the
sustaining source of strength when our frailties overpower us. Your
loving energy surrounds us even when we feel unworthy. When we lose our
ability to cope, a friend comes. When we feel challenged by the
realities of our world, you pierce our defenses with a shaft of light.
When our pride and the illusions of strength blind us, you allow us to
stumble. When our fears tell us we are failing in life, we find
inspiration from the sense of your presence. Enable us to perceive our
experiences with eyes that trust you for all outcomes. Because of this,
may we know that all is well with our soul. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Infinite and always loving God, we live in a day of contrasts. Here in Bowie we are experiencing one of the most magnificent Spring seasons we have had in years. Yet in parts of the America's heartland, there is flooding and tornado devastation. There are moments when we celebrate our material blessings and times when we lose everything, making our current obligations suddenly very complicated. We celebrate medical breakthroughs, while SARS terrorizes parts of the world. While we like to think that we are unique, such "hot and cold" events have been part of every generation.
Today may we remember the many themes of
Mother's Day, and how near the "ideal mother" reflects what Jesus
invited all of us to become. She served us when we were vulnerable.
She nurtured us when we were hurt. She taught us when we were reaching
and asking. She made us aware of how our family worked, of laws and
their consequences, and of chores and responsibilities. She waited for
us when we were late, asked for explanations and knew how to exact a
greater accountability. Even though we could not understand at the
time, she was preparing us for a world which might not be as kind,
generous and supportive as she.
May each of us, O God, learn the joy of following Jesus' personal mission statement, "I have come among you as one who serves." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .