"Greater Things Will You Do"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 27, 2007
Psalm 104:24-34; John 14:8-17, 25-27
Believers in the teachings of Jesus had gathered on their Jewish holiday. Strong winds began to blow and these winds filled their meeting place. Eventually they saw what looked like tongues of fire that touched every person present. Suddenly those gathered began to communicate in well-known languages that were not their own.
There were Jews living in Jerusalem that had come to the capital city from all over the geographic region. When a number of them heard the loud confused sounds coming from this meetinghouse, a large curious crowd gathered outside. Many of them were amazed because each heard their own native language being spoken by those attending the meeting. They said, “These people are Galileans. How is it that all of us hear them speaking about what God has done in our own languages?”
Luke, the author of Acts, listed 15 different languages being spoken by these Galileans. (Acts 2:1-12) Because of this mysterious event, the experience during Pentecost became attributed to a visitation by the Holy Spirit, thus our tradition was born.
What influences many of us today is that we tend to define God’s presence through the same lenses as those who viewed the Holy Spirit nearly 2000 years ago. The story of winds, tongues of fire and speaking in known languages, associated with Pentecost, may have been a form in which the Holy Spirit appeared. However, God’s guidance often does not come through such remarkable experiences. In fact, there is no record in the annals of church history to suggest that God made a routine practice of coming to believers in this manner.
An event occurred last week that appeared to be equally mysterious for me. This experience took place during a routine meeting of our Disaster Response Team. No one else attending that meeting experienced what I did.
I had been thinking about what I might say this morning regarding how God’s Spirit is experienced by us today. I was trying to remember a story that I had heard during my seminary days regarding a number of blind men who were trying to define an elephant based on their personal experiences after touching the animal. I remembered the broad theme of the story but I could not recall the many different definitions of an elephant that were provided through each man’s perception.
Before the meeting began, Chair Dan Blades distributed a number of handouts. Among them was the very story I was seeking. I could not believe it. I had no idea why he chose to bring it that night. He later explained that during a disaster, everyone brings their own interpretation of what is happening and what needs to be done, thus the need for intense coordination and communication between all the team captains.
This story is very ancient and attributed to traditions in India held by the Jains, Buddhists, Sufis and Hindus. An American poet, John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), captured the essence and moral of the story. No doubt many of you have heard this fable many times, but its message is very compelling and worth repeating.
The first man touched the side of the elephant and said, “This animal is like a large wall.” The second felt the elephant’s tusk and declared that the animal was like a spear. The third touched his trunk and pictured in his mind a large snake. The fourth touched one of the large legs and knew positively that the elephant was like a tree. The fifth touched his ear and was persuaded that the elephant was like a large fan. The sixth man touched the elephant’s tail and understood that he was experiencing an animal that was very much like a rope. Each was partly right but all of them were wrong.
The poet’s moral of the story was that in theological battles waged between people wedded to fixed systems of beliefs, they often remain in total ignorance of what others have experienced. The point of the story is that none of the blind men had experienced the totality of the elephant just as people do not experience God in the same way.
The moment we define the way God’s presence must be experienced by all individuals, that is when each of us is partly right, but all of us are wrong. Some of us walk with God everyday and the experience is extremely intimate. Some of us think about God on occasion, perhaps when a loved one is gravely ill, or when they enter St. Matthew’s on a Sunday morning. Some of us may wonder if there is a God, particularly when a child develops cancer or when viruses like AIDS sweep through the lives of countless people.
Our lesson this morning is not only helpful to our understanding of how God creates, its message is also powerful and filled with hope. Jesus said, “God will send a helper who will stay with you forever. He is the Spirit, who reveals the truth about God. The world’s people cannot receive him, because they cannot see him or know him. But you know him because he remains with you and is in you.” (John 14:16-17) Jesus also said, “I am telling you the truth: those who believe in what I have taught will do what I do, yes, they will do even greater things because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)
Most believers associate Jesus with religion, more specifically our own. But his message was far more universal than Judaism or Christianity. His message taught us how to conduct our lives so that we could remain faithful to the potential God designed us to experience. We have an opportunity to create from a spirit that desires to serve others.
Think about this. Most of us are constantly engaged in problem solving. Most industries in the free world are engaged in the same process. We are always trying to find ways to improve the lives of each other. Most of what we experience can be linked to Jesus’ teachings.
For example, today there are efficient investment vehicles that help people to secure for themselves financial independence. This goal was set forth in Jesus’ parable of the talents. Right now only 8 percent of Americans find themselves in this category when 62 percent of us could be.
So many people never got started on developing a systematic plan for investing a portion of their income during each year they worked. Many of them buried their treasure in the ground by buying everything they thought they could not live without. They arrive at retirement with little to show on the investment side of their life’s earnings because they spent it.
Another example is when self-interest glamorizes the world’s bright lights and entertainment opportunities. We want to have a good time. There are people who live “to party” as they say. There are consequences when we indulge our appetites for pleasure that are every bit as life changing and bitter as those experienced by the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable.
Even dead end streets, however, still offer guidance. We can change our attitudes and the direction of our lives the moment we make that decision. God’s spirit is visible everywhere for those who understand Jesus’ words, “Greater things than these will you do.”
We do not need winds, tongues of fire and speaking in strange languages to be the only sign that God’s Spirit is active and guiding humanity. Just think of humanity’s creations in every major field since we were born. Think about the areas of architecture, teaching, our methods of defense against predators, our methods of travel, our ways of communicating to people everywhere in the world and our global economy. These areas may not have anything to do with religion but that is precisely my point. We tend to put God in a religious box. It may be that God is not as religious as we sometimes believe. That is our focus when it may not be God’s.
When Jesus said, “Greater things than these will you do,” I think of Africa University that we United Methodists are building in Zimbabwe. I think of the wealth of Bill and Melinda Gates merging with that of Warren Buffet that is being funneled into ways for fighting disease and starvation much like John D. Rockefeller’s wealth did decades ago when he was the richest man in the world.
What is it that attracts particular people, compelling them to go into ministry, into medicine, into research and development, into agriculture that develops seeds that will grow in climates that were once off limits, into the development of safer, more fuel-efficient cars and into curing many of the ills of spaceship earth? The pull that comes from a mysterious, invisible source appears to guide us to leave our world a better place before we transition from this life.
Again, many of these activities have little to do with religion but it has everything to do with God’s presence in our midst, disguised in many different forms. God’s presence is disguised because of our historic understanding of God and where and how God is to be approached and experienced. These mindsets can blind us.
We have God’s will and word locked away in the Scriptures. We have God locked away in our particular religious traditions. Some of us have God locked away in the power of the priesthood, including the Pope who was given the power to speak for God by his supporters. We dare not put God in a box, and most particularly, we dare not make claims that we have experienced an aspect of God that makes our group’s understanding exclusive.
Memorial Day weekend is filled with remembrances of heroic acts of people who were trying to save the world from those who would snuff out the candle of freedom. A friend of mine whom I have not seen in 17 years was seriously dating a young man who would have become the love of her life. The two of them were one of those rare couples that connected on so many substantive levels. While in Viet Nam, he threw himself on a hand grenade that had been thrown into his group by the Viet Cong. In so doing he voluntarily gave up his tomorrows so that his comrades might have theirs.
There are so many stories where men and women have made the difference between the life and death of others during our violent struggles against destructive ideologies. Jesus once said, “No one can express a greater love than this -- to lay down one’s life for others.” From whence does this spontaneous response come? Again, we find the invisible source of love operating within us, around us and often in ways that defy visibility and explanation. God works through people who want to make a difference.
Let me suggest one of the ways God works that we will never be able to recognize. If I invited you to reflect on the year 1809 and told you that several things happened that year that changed history, I doubt any of you could think of a single thing.
That was the year William Gladstone was born, a very significant Prime Minister of England. Also born that year were a number of other creators: Alfred Lord Tennyson, one of the world’s excellent poets, Felix Mendelssohn, a wonderful composer, Charles Darwin, the biologist and evolutionist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a fine American jurist and Abraham Lincoln.
When Jesus was born and when Jesus died, who in the entire world knew of the seeds that were sown in the garden of humanity that would grow and bloom as a result of those two events? We can never see the seeds that change history because we do not have perspective of hindsight. However, the fingerprints of God are on everything in creation. We are the ones who are blind and that is why our journey here must be made by faith and trust that God is invisibly preparing the way for the greater things we are designed to do.
Remember this -- the creative spirit of God has many faces. Jesus said, “Greater things than these will you do because I go to the Father. He will send you a helper who will teach you everything and help you remember all that I have taught you.” Let this be the source of our faith, trust and hope.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, thank you for creating laws of spirit that we can discern and make visible. When we serve one another, our purpose becomes clearer. When we live with integrity, our character reveals who we are. When we forgive, we learn the ease with which our resentments depart. When we reach for the stars, we discover how far we can stretch. When we live with grateful thoughts, we no longer see the flaws in others. When we use our eyes to smile, they radiate who we have become. When our words and humor are kind, we communicate what heals. When we treasure all living creatures, we display our reverence for what you have made. Thank you for creating us in your likeness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
God of creation, we collectively thank you for these moments together. We have a lot upon which to reflect this morning. Some of our families have recently experienced sons and daughters graduating from one phase of life into another. Some within our church family are experiencing the joy of being in nature at Camp Harmison. Yet wherever we are, most Americans will pause some time during this weekend in respect and gratitude for the men and women of our armed forces who have fallen in battle defending what we too often take for granted – our freedom.
It is so challenging, O God, to live in a world where ideologies continue to clash violently. Even though we long for a day when weapons will no longer be needed to defend and protect ourselves, we know that day is still in the future. We cannot imagine how people engaging in terrorism could possibly understand that this behavior is your Divine will. How far some people have drifted from the stories of creation where everything you made was very good. The enemies of freedom have forgotten that we are all your creations. Today we ask for blessings on those families where loved ones have died in conflict to protect the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. May we be encouraged by the words of Jesus, “There is no greater love that this – that a person is willing to give up his life for others.”
Thank you for those of us who have said, “Here am I. Send me.” May we never grow tired of teaching others the attitudes of being that spring forth when we authentically love one another. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .