"Why The Starving Still Starve"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 24, 2003

Psalm 84; John 6:60-69

     The title of my message this morning could easily lend itself to what is taking place in many countries in the world that have experienced drought and a shortage of food.  In recent months, for example, we have seen episodes of 60-Minutes and other in-depth media coverage of conditions in North Korea. People not in the well-cared-for military are starving to death. 

     The starvation I want to address this morning, however, is of another kind even though it can be just as deadly.  It is the kind that motivated Jesus to say, 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem!  You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you!  How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!  (Matt. 23:37) 

     With his teaching, Jesus had to pierce centuries of cultural conditioning which had taught his people to remain obedient to the Laws of Moses. His new emphasis was not something they could readily accept. Obedience is a matter of discipline, a commitment the Jews were used to making.  What Jesus taught had to do with the spirit in which an attitude was being formed or a deed was being done.  Such lessons were well illustrated in his Sermon on the Mount. 

     What happens when something comes to us in a package we do not recognize? There was a moment several years ago when Glenn Swisher and I were painting the shelter we have in our building.  I am not a bad painter but I suspect on this one day, I looked as though I had more paint on me than I had put on the walls.  

     I had a can of paint thinner in my office and I went to retrieve it.  I took the path through our playground where lots of children were playing.  Immediately I was approached by one of our school's new, young staff members.  She said, "Can I help you with something?"  She was not about to let me walk by her or get anywhere near the children.  Actually, I was very pleased with her quick responsiveness to an approaching stranger. 

     Even after I introduced myself, her facial expression remained poker-faced. Her look communicated, "Why are you not convincing me?" I was not packaged the way a minister "ought to look."  Ministers in her past probably looked "professional." Her eyes continued to follow me with suspicion as I walked to the back door of the church where I produced a master key to the building.  Miss Carly is still here as a member of our staff. 

     In our lesson today, Jesus received a taste of what happens when people could not recognize his message because of the way it was packaged.  His message took this form, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me and I live in them." How would most of us react to such a teaching?  Remember, these words were used early in Jesus' ministry -- the 6th chapter of John.  The bread and wine did not become meaningful symbols until Jesus used them at "the last supper." 

     After many of his followers heard what he said, Jesus instantly lost credibility.  The first sentence of our lesson describes this scene, "Many of his followers heard this and said, 'This teaching is too hard.  Who can listen to it?'"  Once more Jesus tried to explain what he meant and again the message failed to communicate meaningfully.  

     We find Jesus possibly having a crisis of confidence at this point.  The passage of Scripture continues, "Because of this, many of Jesus' followers turned their back and would not follow him anymore.  So he asked the twelve disciples, 'And you -- would you also like to leave?'"  We cannot imagine how profoundly sad this moment was for him. Jesus was being rejected after trying so sincerely to connect. Obviously Jesus was not suggesting cannibalism, but his choice of metaphors was too foreign for some of his followers to grasp. What was he to do with those who lost interest? 

     So often we find people who are starving for spiritual nourishment and they will not become involved in the life of a church, synagogue or mosque.  Classic symptoms often outcrop in people's lives revealing that a key component is missing in their orientation toward life.  They have become weary from a world that is constantly changing. Their identity may be anchored outside themselves.  Many of them do not know where to go to silence their restlessness, the source of which remains a mystery to them. 

     Perhaps God was never real for them.  Perhaps the message of the Church appeared too primitive when it suggests that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, that God played favorites with the Jews and turned away while gentiles were destroyed, or that God arranged for the death of Jesus to show God's love for humankind.  Perhaps people turn to the golf course as their sanctuary, or they simply want their cup of coffee and  newspaper while wearing their shorts and tee-shirts on their day of rest. 

     People starve because they are not aware that a major element of life is being neglected.  To what or to whom do they turn when life becomes uncertain, when loved ones die, when people about whom they really care cease to communicate, when business conditions cause them to lose their jobs or when their identity becomes less clear during certain periods of their lives? 

     Such things have happened to people for thousands of years. Jesus wanted so badly for his followers to understand life as he did, but he could not instill in them what he had learned. There is this element in life called choice.  Not everyone is looking for what will enhance their spiritual growth. So many people do nothing but indulge themselves in whatever produces pleasure and they do not know why. We have grown too dependent on externals for our orientation toward life.  We do not think about our dependence on such things until they change or are taken away. 

     Stories abound concerning what happened when 50 million people lost electricity a short time ago. Many of the things that make life work suddenly were no longer available:  no Internet, no television,  no microwaves, no cellular telephone service, no public transportation, no banking, no gasoline and no water. You may not believe me when I tell you this, but once we leave our bodies, life is just like this!  Who will we be then? 

      Our unique culture has fueled our desire for instant gratification.  We have an allergy to spam appearing in our e-mail, long lines in the supermarkets, commuter traffic, and life patterns that make us wait in doctors’ offices or the Department of Motor Vehicles. We want our hip replacement tomorrow. We want our doctor to call in a prescription without first evaluating us. 

     No other culture on earth has created such demand for instant gratification as our own. We spend so much energy reacting to inconvenience and so little time practicing stillness.  The times and circumstances were vastly different in Jesus' day but he knew that his people were relying on what could not possibly serve them. 

     When do we reflect about our lives?  When do we read books that encourage us to plumb the depths of our spiritual identity?  Where can we share who we are and feel safe?  My hunch is that every human being has this hunger and thirst to be loved just as they are, free from people who say, "Have I got the answer for you!" Few of us resonate with such unsolicited analysis or with those who feel compelled to "fix us" with their recipes for salvation. It is a challenge for truth to gain a foothold in people's lives when their desires and needs are focused elsewhere. 

     Years ago, Lois and I traveled with some friends by ferry to Tangier Island.  On the way back we began talking to a couple from Canada who were bicycling through the eastern part of the United States.  When we learned that their next stop was Washington, D.C. we offered to take them home with us.  At the time we lived four blocks from the Capitol.  They were ecstatic. 

     While the four of us were getting acquainted over supper, they asked me what I did for a living.  My response started a very interesting discussion. They were amazed at how active we Americans are within our religious communities.  They were not.  When I inquired about how they meet their spiritual needs which I defined, they knew exactly what I meant. They said, "There is nothing in our lives that successfully addresses what you are talking about." 

      They understood that they were here on earth without a book of instructions that would apply to all people. One of them said, "I'm sure that your church has one message and another church will have another.  What we do is quite simple and it works for us.  We go toward what brings us enjoyment and we retreat from what brings us pain.  When we get frustrated with life, we ride our bicycles in order to see how everyone else is doing." 

     This young man and woman were wonderful and wholesome like so many others at their age. My point is, how many people are living without knowing how to creatively use each experience to enhance the quality of their lives?  The answer is millions upon millions.  The spiritual skills Jesus taught remain dormant when they are not accessed and used.  We cannot spend our time running away from pain nor can we always pursue what will bring us joy.  We have to learn how to thrive in the midst of both.  

     The audience today is every bit as difficult to address to as it was in Jesus' day. How do we convince someone that they are spiritually starving when basically that is none of our business?  How do we get beyond the past experiences people may have had while visiting churches that were less than hospitable or which delivered a message that was so fear based that they vowed never to attend any church again? 

     It is so hard for us to watch people tear themselves apart emotionally, as they are doing in Iraq or in the Middle East, because they lack the tools of spirit that would enable them to respond otherwise.  This was Jesus' dilemma and it is our challenge as well. 

     In our lesson Jesus tells his listeners how he coped with the rejection of people who refused to give his message a second opportunity to grow within them. He said, "This is the very reason I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father makes it possible for them to do so."  (v. 65) 

     Jesus made a very interesting observation.  When the consciousness of some people is totally wedded to the things of this world, they may have no interest in understanding or exploring other possibilities.  "Life has been good to us," they say. They may have a good education, an incredible job, a lovely home, a nice family, great cars and a nice retirement package.  What do they care about the claims of religious communities? Why would they be interested in reading books that might enhance their universe of ideas? A hundred quality teachers could come to them but such students are not ready to learn anything.  

     Likewise, when someone is authentically searching and reaching for a higher authority for life than the one presented by the material world, the teachers do come.  Jesus was absolutely on target with his words.  When he asked his disciples, "And you -- would you also like to leave?"  Peter said, "Master, to whom would we go?  You have the words that provide understanding about eternal life." 

     Jesus challenged his followers to help other people awaken from their slumber.  Frequently the greatest vehicle for helping others to move the mountains in front of them is with our friendship. Once our relationship is deemed safe by them, we can bring them into our fellowship, a fellowship that is filled with like travelers, who are working on moving many of those same mountains.  This Fall, why not invite someone to come with you into our community of faith.  God will do the rest.  Perhaps in some small way we will bring healing to someone’s life and to our part of the world. 


    We come to you this morning, O God, with thankful hearts that our lives have the ability to reflect your will.  We confess, however, that too often we are more creatures of habit than people who live by faith.  We confess how often our routines write the script for our responses to life.  So often our familiar patterns of living prevent us from seeing more creative solutions to the challenges we face.  We live according to what we have been trained to understand.  Awaken our spirits, O God, to all the wonderful alternatives that surround us.  Teach us to affirm the beauty in others, the role of your presence in our lives and the perceptions that your spirit enables us to achieve.  Amen.


    As we enter the sanctuary this morning, O God, we readily recognize how the paradoxes of life surround us. We find peace during our morning meditations only to have them challenged when we listen to the news.  We find clerics in various parts of the world mustering their legions with the voice of violence.  We find Arabs and Hebrews, who share Abraham as their father, seeking to destroy each other as if an ancient sibling rivalry never found resolution.  We often question our role during these unfolding moments in history. 

    Teach us, loving God, how to refine our message so that it resonates with more of your people.  Heal us of our timidity so that we may more easily say to a friend, "Why not try my church and you be the judge?"  Guide us to people who would find our friendship a welcomed recognition that they belong.  Encourage us to use smiles of acceptance.  Teach us how to lead without judging, to encourage without finding fault and to stimulate a search without hinting at all the discoveries that will be made.  May your spirit, O God, soften attitudes, elevate our thought patterns and inspire each of us to see more possibilities as we fellowship with you. 

    As the world continues to grow smaller, and diverse populations cross one another's national borders, may we learn to value and appreciate what each other brings to life.  May the day come when mutual respect will grow into peace and a true sense of community.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .