"Understanding Is Everything"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 16, 2007

Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10

     Luke’s Gospel provides two stories for our lesson today. These stories create images that have etched themselves into our minds since we were children. The first story evokes the image of Jesus carrying a lost lamb on his shoulders as he brings it back to the 99 other sheep in the fold. Actually, that image is solely the fantasy of an illustrator of children’s Bible stories.

     Jesus told these stories as illustrations because he heard grumbling among the religious-minded when they gathered with others with whom they would never have chosen to associate. Jesus was befriending and teaching those labeled as sinners and outcasts.

     Within this context Jesus said, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one. What would you do?” In other words, Jesus was instructing the Pharisees and teachers of the Law what was possible when they found people who have no consciousness of God, who grew up on the other side of the tracks or who never had the opportunity to be taught or to develop any skills of spirit. There are many people in our environment who have this orientation toward life.

     Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught forgiveness. He reached out to those who knew only the symbols found in this world. He was eager to teach others about skills of spirit that had their origins in a place they could not see. We claim that we are the leaven for the loaf of our entire society. However, look at many of our tendencies. Have we made that great an impact?

     For example, when doctors make mistakes, how quickly malpractice lawsuits follow. When superstar baseball player Barry Bonds was accused of taking steroids, every home run he hit was tainted, not by evidence but by rumor and the unproven testimony from others. People still “boo” when he comes to the plate because of a cloud that hangs over his career, a cloud that may never go away.

     Consider what has happened to Michael Vick, the superstar quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. Because of what he has confessed to doing with dogs, everyone who endorsed him, who coached him, who applauded his skills on the football field – where are they today? Are there some crimes that are so unforgivable, so heinous that most people feel compelled to respond with abandonment? The answer apparently is “yes.”

     Throughout his ministry, Jesus ate with tax collectors, allowed prostitutes to touch him and healed people whose infirmities left them no choice but to beg for alms outside of their synagogues. He spoke about coming only to those who were sick, i.e., people who needed him. When Jesus had unkind words to say, consistently those words were directed toward the religious-minded and those whose righteousness had actually prevented them from perceiving with love.

     When Jesus was in the company of sinners, he went to them out of compassion not because he had judged them. Remember the Greek word for sinners is literally translated “those who miss the mark.” It is an archery term. The word originally did not have all the judgmental implications that have stuck to it through thousands of years of rehearsing the definition that today we know well.

     Many years ago I discovered that a group of young boys, a number who were in my youth group, was breaking into houses and stealing. They were missing the mark with their lives while evoking fear in countless families in our town. We went on a hike that took us near the railroad tracks. During our time together I confronted them with what I knew and told them what we were going to do to correct the mess they were making of their lives.

     As luck would have it, a very slow moving freight train came rolling by and the boys jumped on it. Not wanting to be left behind and always secretly wanting to do that myself, I jumped on the train as well. We were walking on top of the freight cars and walking on the couplings that connected the cars. Looking back on this event still brings nightmares when I imagine all the things that could have happened. Yes, I was a minister at the time. This definitely is not a practice I would recommend to anyone nor would I do it again.

     However, this adventure had a bonding effect on the boys. I rounded them up and took them to see Judge Vincent Femia in Upper Marlboro. He made arrangements to give the boys a little tour of the jail, the place they might end up if they did not mend their ways. Nothing happened to them other than being scared straight. Most of the stolen articles were returned anonymously with letters of apology.

     My reputation, however, soared to an all time high among the teenagers in town. The word spread like a wild fire of how Stetler had jumped a freight train with them. I began attracting kids to our youth program that I had never seen before. Numerous parents, however, had very different opinions. One of them reminded me that I had committed a felony by jumping on a freight train. Others said that I did not use good judgment and that I set a terrible example for teenagers. All their comments were true and I had no defense because I was not going to tell the parents why I did it. Only Judge Femia and the boys knew about the bust.

     Today one of those boys is a chief financial officer of a company in our county, another one is a chief printer at the Government Printing Office, another is an attorney who practices law in Upper Marlboro and on Monday two weeks ago I performed a memorial service for one of them who died of lung cancer. There were others but I have lost track of where they are.

     Jesus’ illustrations were about redemption because someone repented of his or her sin. Repent is another word that the religious-minded have interpreted along some narrow definitions for thousands of years. The word literally means, “to change ones mind.” Jesus said, “I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine respectable people who do not need to repent.”

     The message is that people who are sabotaging their lives do not need abandonment by those who have knowledge of a different way. Thieves only create fear and enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. At the end of their lives justice is swift. One cannot thrive in an environment where the skills of deception, manipulation, theft and betrayal have no use. Frequently people do not understand this life principle because no one ever taught it to them.

     This is the reason Jesus told the parable of a rich man and the poor man, Lazarus. The rich man died and found himself in a very painful environment. He called out, “Father Abraham! Take pity on me. Please send Lazarus to dip his finger in some water to cool my tongue. I am in great pain in this fire.” Abraham told him that a great gulf existed that prevents travel to and from where he is. (Luke 16:19f) Would love permit such a place? Yes! But such an environment has nothing to do with punishment. Its existence has to do with consequences.

     That gulf has to do with skills of spirit. As highly skilled as Jesus was, he could only teach. He could not put others in possession of what he knew or how he used what he knew. That gulf was in place between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. That gulf was in place between Jesus and Peter when he said, “Before the rooster crows, you will say three times that you do not know me.” (John 13:38) That gulf exists between skilled welders, carpenters, electricians and those who know little or nothing about how these craftsmen perform their tasks.

     There is nothing anyone can do to put others in possession of skills they either did not learn or were never taught. It does not matter how much God loves us -- we are who we are. Understanding how life works is up to us. We will only change the direction of our lives when we make choices that create that change. This is why understanding how life works is everything.

     I once had a couple invite me to perform their marriage ceremony. He was among the most handsome men I have ever seen. He was an electrical contractor who had 16 crews working for him. He was a sound business manager and had grown quite wealthy. His story was fascinating because he had been intimate with over 400 women. What was most intriguing was his need to keep a numerical record of each relationship.

     When it was her turn to talk, she told me that she was a bartender. Because she was very attractive, men were always flirting with her. She had learned how to speak to them reassuringly convincing most of them to go back home to their wives, children and their responsibilities. Then she said, “Michael was at the point of committing suicide when we met. He was starving to death and had no idea what he needed for nourishment. No relationships had worked for him.”

     While he had mastered many of the techniques of physical intimacy, he knew nothing about love. She taught him the skills of spirit, about life being a matter of giving not getting. Susan said, “When Michael came into our business to lose himself in alcohol, he would not have recognized love had he tripped over it. In those days he was into bodies. He never took the time to learn anything about who lived in them.” She helped him achieve understanding.

     In his illustration of the woman who found her lost coin Jesus concluded, “I tell you, the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents.” Translated that means, “All the beings in heaven sing for joy when someone who has consistently been missing the mark with his choices suddenly gets it and changes his mind.”

     The entire thrust of the illustrations Jesus used has to do with recognizing when someone is stumbling in life. This is the teachable moment. This is not the time for abandonment, something our society and the Church have not yet collectively learned. We do not shoot our wounded soldiers.

     For example, Jesus communicated the recognition of Peter’s failure with a compassionate glance. (Luke 22:61) There was no need for condemnation. He knew that Peter could not live up to his promise when he swore, “I am ready to die for you!” (John 13:37) Jesus’ compassion communicated his love for Peter anyway. This is who we are. We are creatures who cannot always live up to the best that we know. It gives us hope to understand that God’s love never goes away.

     Remember the opening words for today’s lesson, “One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, ‘This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!’” Perhaps now we understand why Jesus did this. Abandonment never healed, encouraged or offered understanding to anyone.

     Only the compassionate descend into Hell in order to be with those who have forsaken the substance of life for the shadow. Unfortunately, this skill of spirit is only acquired when we are ready to learn it. Some righteous people tend to stay to themselves, thinking that heaven is like a place they will enter to receive their reward, rather than a quality of consciousness. When we think about life and what happens to us at death, it is then that we recognize that understanding is everything.


     We thank you God, that your love of us is eternal and changeless. We thank you for making yourself known to us even when our lives reflect crosscurrents in the way we express our gratitude. Our wanting to know more truth about your will does not always give us the courage to live it. We know how easy it is to be careless with our opinions. We know the numerous times we greet conflict with silence and avoidance. In spite of these qualities, you have called us to represent your presence in the world. We welcome the challenge to be your hands and feet, to make visible your will, to pass on to others the torch of understanding, and to be the spirit guides that quietly help others to understand that you have never left any of us alone. Amen.


     Loving God, once again our world has been rocked by natural disasters. Northern India has had a large number of villages vanish forever in flooding while Indonesia has experienced the same destruction from an earthquake and the numerous after shocks. No matter how prepared we are for disasters, few of us expect so many lives to be snuffed out in the blink of an eye. People are left bewildered, pondering, “What do we do now?” in light of such life changing circumstances.

     All of us live in very challenging times, O God. Some of our challenges have come through the misguided attitudes of people while others have entered life’s stage simply from our being alive in a dynamic, energetic changing world. In addition, many of us shoulder our own personal dramas from illness, difficulties in our primary relationships, to wondering why we have to negotiate so many changes. Every day there appears a new wrinkle that must be added to the fabric of our destiny. Sometimes when we look to you for answers, we find that few come. That is why we live by trust in your love, even when life sometimes makes no sense.

     Help us to understand the temptation to become self-absorbed when changes come. Enable us to keep our energy always flowing away from us so that the person we are becoming might add to the light of your presence where we find ourselves. Guide us into how better to serve, to interpret life, to use wisely the time we have left in our current form. Help us to become humble in recognizing that we are mere bristles in the paintbrush with which you create the portrait of Creation.

     We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .