"The Fabulous Gift Of Discernment"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 11, 2003

Psalm 23; John 10:11-18

     The combination of our Lectionary lessons is a perfect match.  Both Psalm 23 and our Gospel lesson in John 10 feature the image of a shepherd. There can be no greater affirmation for believers than the words, "The Lord is my Shepherd."  Those of us who elect to perceive life through this orientation toward God quite literally experience the result, "I shall not want."  Jesus personally assumed the image of a shepherd as a platform for sharing the depths of his understanding of love. 

     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 of commitment. 

     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 invisible.            

     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 might ask. 

     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 step.

     "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.


    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.


    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 . . .