"Experiencing Love Can Be Tricky"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 12, 2005
Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-38
Most of us, however, are aware that giving and receiving love can become complicated. Sometimes people attach assumptions and expectations to those moments when they overwhelm us by their extreme generosity. Some expressions of love may have their origins in guilt and fear.
If we put our lives under the microscope, we might recall that there have been moments when we have behaved a certain way in order to receive recognition, to get back into someone’s good graces or to receive a promotion. In other words, self-interest can easily be lurking around the corner of some of our grandest acts of thoughtfulness.
There are several places in the Gospels where Jesus was frustrated by the response of others to his efforts. Once Jesus was in a reflective mood while observing the people of Jerusalem. He said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets; you 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.”
Another occasion appears in our lesson today. The author wrote, “As he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
How was he to become the shepherd when most of his fellow countrymen were unaware that they were wandering aimlessly? They were merely living in the tribal patterns set by those who lived before them. Even when Jesus tried to love people, the results were mixed. Consider those Jesus healed or those who sat in the audience as he preached. Most people took from Jesus and went on their way satisfied because they received what they wanted.
Last week we heard the story of a woman who thought to herself, “If only I can touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed.” We heard, “Please come to my house and lay your hands on my deceased daughter.” We remember the ten lepers who were healed. Nine of them took from Jesus and never looked back.
Even Mary and Martha on separate occasions said to Jesus, “Had you only been here our brother would not have died!” Jesus was a personality that attracted people who wanted something from him. As in the case of Mary and Martha when the two of them did not get what they felt entitled to, they confronted Jesus with scolding attitudes.
Everywhere Jesus went people flocked to him. Being highly visible and well known can make celebrities very lonely and sad. Many people seek and enjoy fame, but those who have it tell a much different story. Jesus may have found it difficult to love because people wanted something very specific from him.
I used to clip paragraphs from magazine articles that quoted highly visible people as they describe the complications resulting from their notoriety. Most of the quotes are a sad commentary on how we treat people who have achieved a national visibility. As you listen to some of these, think about the experience of Jesus.
“All my life I wanted to be someone famous. Now that I have a face many recognize, I would give anything to have back my childhood anonymity. I cannot imagine what it would be like today to go anywhere I wanted and have people ignore me. That would be heaven. Believe me that would be heaven! Today, I have to wear disguises everywhere I go. Seeing someone with a camera makes me paranoid. People are fixated on an image they have of me. They have forgotten that once I was very much like them.”
Note the sadness in this one. “By social standards, I was a 10 even in high school. Boys were a constant in my life. During my teen years I thoroughly enjoyed the attention. Soon, however, turning the heads of men got old, very old. I wanted people to know who lived inside this body. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy being me. I am very sad, however, at how few people ever get beyond the package.”
One more: “I cannot tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep after reading what strangers have written about me. We know that we should never read the tabloids, but sometimes it is hard not to. People ask me questions publicly about experiences I have never had. An innocent lunch with a friend, for example, in print becomes a twisted, distorted, torrid affair that gullible readers will believe. It puts people like me in an invisible prison where we remain very vulnerable.”
We may find these quotes not applicable to the life of Jesus but think again. Remember the time observers asked the disciples, “Tell us, why does your master eat with the sinners and the outcasts?” Remember when a Pharisee said, “If this man is a prophet, surely he must know the kind of woman this is who is touching him.” Loving has its complications.
One of the very few episodes describing someone returning Jesus’ love happened when a woman wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. On another occasion a woman anointed his head with very expensive perfume that filled the room with its fragrance.
Why is it so hard to feel love coming from someone like Jesus? The answer is obvious when we think about it. We have to want to be coached. We have to want to grow beyond where we are. We have to welcome change within ourselves. We have to want the ability to trust during moments of uncertainty.
Jesus knew that loving others was complicated because not everyone was ready to receive what he came here to give us. They wanted the freebies like a healing that required no inner work. They wanted to sit anonymously in an audience and hear a good sermon where nothing was expected of them. The moment he told them about the changes they had to make, people were not as eager to interpret his behavior as loving. They would claim, “He does not understand all that I have been through.”
Perhaps his listeners knew nothing about Jesus’ invisible world of spirit. Perhaps they had taught themselves to perceive life issues through the prism of their neediness. Perhaps they were feeling sorry for themselves. Perhaps they were not taking responsibility for their choices. Perhaps they were champions at the blame game, i.e., life was miserable because of the Romans, because of their social status or because God had abandoned them.
Jesus’ love was all about guidance, coaching, teaching people how to give without counting the cost. He wanted us to learn why and how love is a one-way street. Most of us want stimulation, inspiration and gratification. It feels good to praise the Lord! Even today we want God to be a divine vending machine. We say our prayers in the name of Jesus and wait for God’s blessing to come pouring forth.
When we study Jesus’ message, his words taught his listeners about growing up, taking responsibility, laying down their burdens, stopping their judgments about what others need to do with their lives, staying optimistic, polishing their own stone and trusting God for everything. The challenge was to love people in such a way that they would choose this orientation toward life. Few knew how to receive then and making this choice may be our challenge today.
Jesus said, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” He said, “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” He said, “You know the law regarding adultery, but I tell you if you look at someone lustfully, you are equally guilty.”
Coaches are not appreciated until the moment when students choose to leave behind their conditioned, well-rehearsed responses to life and try using those of the coach. Coaches give choices different from those currently driving the student’s processes for decision-making. The coach wants to bring out our best.
We are the ones who have a great stake in staying as we are. We are the ones who have been hurt. Our tendency is to ignore or even become angered by someone else’s point of view. We know what we perceive and there is no one who can convince us that we are only revealing ourselves! That was precisely Jesus’ point each time he confronted the Pharisees. Receiving love is very tricky.
What had made Jesus sad on a number of occasions was that he could do nothing with his power. All his wisdom was worthless. Some of his greatest moments of communicating his love came from the cross. People did not hear it, nor do many hear that message today. Christians everywhere reverence, even worship his sacrifice on that cross instead of hearing his message, “When the world throws its worst at you, you, too, can love from your crosses.” Today, who is teaching this?
The first response by believers to Jesus on the cross is passive, requiring only acceptance of the belief in what Jesus did for us. The other requires something massive from us. In fact, it requires that we trust everything about ourselves to God even during moments when our faith is in crisis, when we trust no one but our interpretation of life’s experiences. While the form will be different, sooner or later life will put us on crosses too. Who will we be then?
Receiving this kind of love can be a tricky thing. At first, love may not appear as love at all. No United States Marine loves his Drill Instructor while in boot camp on Parris Island until he or she understands that the D.I. was trying to give each of them skills that one day might save their lives. Jesus’ teachings come at us in much the same way.
Dr. Leo Buscalgia once wrote, “Just because a message is never received does not mean that it was not worthy of being sent.” We may not recognize the form of his love, but look again. What is the real nature of what is confronting us? What skill is being required from us?
The world is not on trial here, we are! The passing parade of faces, circumstances and opportunities come at us to help us see who and where we are. We can pout, remain angry, feel threatened by the injustice of life and demand that the others conform to our needs, but what are we communicating when we do? The personalities and the circumstances in our external world are nothing more than lesson plans for our individualized curriculum.
Experiencing love will always be tricky. The only way to develop such skills is to trust those dreaded moments of uncertainty that demand that we uncover those skills and use them. We cannot inherit the wings of an archangel if we refuse to test our skills within the toughest weather conditions. We need to think of ourselves as angels in training. This way, we remain optimistic in each circumstance that attempts to try our souls. Once we learn how to do this, we will have learned how to receive this unique form of God’s love and accelerate our growth.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
What a comfort it is, O God, to know that you are always searching for us. We cannot fathom the depths of your love. You have given us our wonderful world and we complain when the rains ruin our golf outing. Jesus taught us forgiveness and we still justify “an eye for an eye” as justice made visible. We defend our need to ventilate our anger. We want everyone to perceive your will as we do. We want to reserve the right to defend our values with great passion. We are humbled as we realize that Jesus saved the world without defending anything. He loved and did not count the cost. Teach us how to be healers, reconcilers and bridge builders who carry ourselves with peace and joy. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for these moments when we can set aside our cares, draw together in worship and collectively remember that everything in our lives is unfolding as it is in order to strengthen our faith, increase our growth and enhance the skills of spirit with which you equipped us.
Help us remain reflective during our faith journeys. What seeds have we sown? How much time have we spent nurturing and teaching children about you? Whose hands have we held when they felt that they were too old, too poor, too unaccomplished, too uneducated, too much of a nobody for anyone else to care about them? How much time did we spend, O God, being the angels you created us to be. Lead us away from considering our forms so that we may nurture what is essential in each other.
Thank you for the opportunities you have given us to be healers, to dissolve the misdeeds of others on the sands of our forgiveness and to help others find their misplaced remembrance that you created them whole from their first breath of life. Teach us to give away the only treasure we keep – our love of others. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .