"Living Our Common Vision"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 10, 2005
Two of Jesus’ followers were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus when Jesus joined them. They did not recognize him. As they walked together, caught up in their sense of personal loss, they shared their experiences with Jesus about recent events that had taken place in Jerusalem. They invited Jesus to stay with them since the hour was late, and during their meal the Gospel writer reveals, “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight.”
What happened next is what I want us to explore today. Our lesson tells us, “They got up at once and went back to Jerusalem” where they told the eleven disciples about their experience. What gave them such a sense of urgency?
Seeing a dead man walking around is not something that most of us would share, even with friends who know us well. Even though people who have had out-of-the-body experiences find them life changing, often a number of them are extremely reluctant to discuss such an event with anyone. We do not want to feed anyone’s perception that we may be hallucinating or having a reaction to some medication. Yet our lesson tells us, “They got up immediately and went back to Jerusalem.”
Remember it was evening. It was because of the lateness of the hour that the two had encouraged Jesus to stay with them. Yet their experience had been so intense that they felt compelled to share it with others as soon as possible. The ingredient that made this experience so emotionally charged is one with which most of us can identify. They knew they were going to be with friends who shared a common vision. We have all learned that such a group of friends is a treasure that is well beyond value.
Perhaps at one time or another we have found ourselves shopping for a church. Today the denominational label of a church family no longer is the only essential aspect that guides our search. Yes, their style of worship is often of interest to us but more importantly we want to know about the culture of the church. What is their mission statement, what is their common vision? Are they just about “praising God” or do they actually do something to make this world a more wholesome place to live?
We may not want to hear a preacher thundering with fire and brimstone every Sunday. We may not appreciate a church family that subscribes to the idea that we humans will never be good enough and will never measure up to standards of character and integrity generally associated with being a disciple of Jesus. Quite honestly, had Jesus felt that way, he would never have called the twelve to spread the good news of what can happen to people once they learn the depth of God’s love for them.
People who need to feel guilty, or who are led to experience themselves as sinners who are rotten to the core and who are incapable of anything decent and good will gravitate to a community of faith that shares that common vision. People who have little patience with such an experience will seek fellowship elsewhere. In fact, we know immediately when we are with people who definitely do not resonate with our common vision or core values.
Many years ago a friend of ours attended a convention in California. He and a colleague found a few extra hours between sessions and decided to drive to the Sequoia National Forest. The two hiked for a period of time in complete silence among the majestic trees. Dick broke the silence and said, “Can you imagine that these trees were just seedlings when Jesus walked the earth.” His friend said, “Yes, I can. They are magnificent, aren’t they? I was thinking how many decks we could build if we cut them down.” We know immediately when we are with people who are living from a different set of values.
In February our family vacationed in Arizona. We drove up to the Grand Canyon and discovered that we had this unique landmark almost to ourselves. I was standing at a distant point on the South Rim when I heard someone say, “This place is nothing more than a gigantic drainage ditch.” There are always a few people who perceive very differently from us.
Thirty years ago when we were there, I heard a tourist say to a friend, “Are you telling me that we drove all the way out here to see this hole in the ground?” I remembered hearing that conversation very clearly because the fellow had been irritated when he discovered that the Grand Canyon was an additional 80 miles above Flagstaff.
This idea of sharing a common vision is essential to our sense of fulfillment, security and peace. People seeking mates, for example, often become attracted initially to their form. They find the right body type, hair and eyes, and then their dreams and fantasies take them into a universe of their own creation. They imagine that have found the perfect mate. If their dating pattern extends over many months, however, they often make certain discoveries that help to remove some of the glitter.
For example, he discovers that she has five credit cards maxed out and she is paying only the minimum interest. She has declaring bankruptcy down to a science because she has done it twice. Or she learns that each pay period he spends fifty dollars on lottery tickets. Also, he appears addicted to purchasing every new electronic gadget that comes to the marketplace. Or when they are together, every female that walks into the restaurant easily distracts him. Having a common vision is critical in a relationship. It is wonderful when someone makes us feel as though we are the only pebble on his or her beach.
What makes having a common vision so powerful for our lives is that it inspires us to keep growing and evolving. The message from the resurrection experiences was that God continued to beckon them to come. The authorities had killed Jesus and yet God’s love did not cease. The call to live in community by loving our neighbors survived because of the common vision Jesus established. The message survived that, “greater things than these will you do.”
We have built hospitals, universities, libraries and hospice units. I just learned this week that Dr. Mohammad Akhter, is leaving as the Associate Dean of Howard University School of Medicine at the end of the month to become the President of Interaction, the parent group for over 160 organizations of which the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service are members. Such things Jesus would have found impossible to accomplish, but not for his disciples that followed.
His vision has not been defined in such a way that everyone resonates with it. We know this by just observing what happens in our world. In addition, there will always be people who express that vision very differently. Yet they have joined with others to make this a more wholesome world in which men and women can live.
There is a spiritual law called, “The Law of Magnetic Attraction.” People from various walks of life and faith come together, just as the disciples did who were a collection of unlikely candidates from fishermen to tax collectors.
A common vision may find expression in something as simple as working one day a week in a “free” medical clinic, going to Juarez, Mexico, to construct an addition to a dental clinic, as people from our church will do in June, being part of a youth group who works to repair houses in Appalachia, or joining one of our three teams that will be deployed during Christmas in April. The task of making love visible is the common vision in spite of our differences.
Many years ago I was paired with a very strict Southern Baptist woman when I worked in a soup kitchen on Capitol Hill. It became increasingly obvious to me that I irritated her. The problem was that I kept eating food that had been prepared for the clients coming through the line. We had a great cook who made delicious meals. I always went to work over there hungry.
On numerous occasions I would eat Mrs. Field’s cookies donated from the store on Pennsylvania Avenue. Nancy was full of righteous indignation. Once she said, “It is people like you that make me proud that I am a Baptist. And you are a minister!” It was all said in jest, of course, but there was a note of concern in her voice. I asked her if she had ever tasted Mrs. Field’s cookies. She said she had not because she could not afford to buy them. Every Thursday we had this kind of fun together.
One day when she was berating me for my conspicuous consumption, I had had enough of her words. I grabbed her face and shoved a cookie into her mouth. After her initial surprise she said, “Oh my! Oh my! I had no idea a cookie could be this delicious.” Soon a small pile of cookies began to grow in front of her. There was no winning with this woman because now she accused me of corrupting her. She told me that I had a talent for doing that.
It is this kind of fellowship that happens because of the attraction to a common vision. In this case it was our feeding the poor. Nancy could have been a Muslim or a Jew. It would not have mattered to me. The same vision was inspiring and motivating us.
We cannot take our cues for living from those who perceive differently. We cannot become seduced by the darkness of news events or the stories of cruelty that make us shake our heads in disbelief. There is a compelling vision that should cause us “to get up at once” and be with the others whose eyes are fixed on the same visions are ours.
When we are involved with a community that shares our vision, one that keeps us stretching, searching, wanting more insight than what we have, we grow. We become better people because we associate with those who share our vision. Billy Haddock once told me something that has remained with me to this day. He said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” We try to do that at St. Matthew’s.
Our culture has never been about celebrating United Methodism. In fact, many of my colleagues would take me to task for my theology but we are one of the busiest churches in the area for enabling others to walk through life with more support because we are with them. This has happened at Walter Reed, the Fisher House, children, seniors, the food pantry, our theater troupe, our ministry to the deaf community, even down to keeping Bowie beautiful because of the way we prune our trees and maintain our gardens.
The two disciples got up immediately, even though the hour was late, and returned to Jerusalem to share with those who held a common vision. “Jesus is alive,” they said, “for we have seen him!” Indeed, he is and his spirit continues to lead us because he gave us our common vision. We are better people because we stay in our community of faith where it is more difficult to stray. We have learned how to keep the main thing, the main thing – to love, care and encourage one another. When we do that, God will do the rest.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful and everlasting God, as we find ourselves with the truth of our infinite nature, grant us the desire to give our understanding feet and hands. It is easy for us to recognize truth. It remains a challenge to make it visible. It is easy to claim our discipleship. It is difficult to let it show when we are challenged. It remains easy to recite Jesus’ teachings. Yet our differing attitudes and opinions are what really define us. Help each of us to radiate your unmistakable presence, so that our lives may always serve to be a light to someone’s perceived darkness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, as our lives flow from one day into the next, how easy it is to neglect remembering the thrilling truth of Easter morning, a truth we celebrated just two weeks ago. With all our creativity and inventiveness, many of us have become slaves to shorter attention spans. We are a generation of sound bites and sensory overload, of cash flow needs and long morning and afternoon commutes. We are a generation with children who have demands on them that are every bit as challenging to master as our own.
Our experience is as though we awakened briefly from our slumber, celebrated the truth of our eternal nature and then fell asleep again within our routines and thought patterns. How difficult it is to see when we are on treadmills that only appear to ratchet up the speed with which we live.
Jesus gave us a beautiful blueprint for transforming our lives. Help each of us to learn how to carry ourselves with a spirit that becomes the leaven for the loaf. Jesus came among us as one who serves and he invited us to follow. Inspire each of us to remind the others in our midst that this is our common vision. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .