"Was Jesus Being Insensitive?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 1, 2007
Psalm 77:1-2; 11-20; Luke 9:51-62
One person approached Jesus and told him that he would follow him anywhere. Jesus reminded him that becoming a disciple would mean wandering without a stable home environment. The other two men mentioned in our passage had activities that needed their attention, the burial of a deceased father and saying “good bye” to family members. In essence Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God has no use for people like you.” What kind of response is this?
In Matthew there is another controversial passage that appears worse. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. I came to bring a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers and daughters against their mothers. Those who love anyone more than me, are not fit to be my disciples.” (Matt. 10:34f) What kind of message was Jesus delivering to his listeners? Is this the same Jesus that we have come to respect and love? What point was Jesus making?
All of us find ourselves in a world very similar to the one Jesus entered. The physical world defines us almost from the moment we are born. We are taught that we are cute when we are toddlers, that we look great when we wear a particular color, that we should go into teaching because we are good in math and science, that we should play basketball because we tower in height over other students, that scoring a perfect 1600 on the SATs might pave the way for that $85,000 starting salary as an engineer when we graduate from college. Besides, Mom and Dad sure would be proud of us.
Jesus was trying to teach his listeners about something else that was far more important than such definitions. No doubt the disciples James and John were being groomed to take over the fishing fleet by their father, Zebedee. But they chose instead to follow their cousin over the desire of their father. They were destined to become fishermen of another kind. No doubt Matthew and Zacchaeus had defined themselves as tax collectors with all the amenities that came with that profession.
The Gospel writer of Matthew used the literary device of a sword to illustrate that Jesus brought a separation between the physical world and the invisible world of spirit, one that could easily divide people over the manner in which each chose to perceive life’s events. Only by harnessing the power of spirit can we become masters of our physical world. It does not work the other way around. In Matthew, Jesus defended his use of the sword with these words, “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”
Jesus knew that our bodies die while also knowing that our lives continue. Jesus knew that the Romans were an occupying army, but never once talked about their presence during his ministry. He knew that the quality of attitudes and thoughts would improve when people learned to understand their identity from a world they could not see. To make his point more poignantly, Jesus used material symbols such as concentrating on earthly concerns like the burial of our loved ones and saying our “good-byes” to family members. He was not suggesting that people should ignore their responsibilities.
If we think we have problems understanding that there literally are two worlds that influence our choices, think what Jesus went through trying to teach this to people who probably never had an abstract thought in their lives. Today we have new respect for the world that remains invisible. Medical schools are teaching courses on prayer. Psychology offers instruction concerning the impact our attitudes and thoughts have on the quality of our lives.
For example, when we carry a grudge for years, we are the ones who lose our joy and happiness. The person we perceive as having caused our hurt, he or she may be long since gone from our lives. Yet our own hostile emotions have kept the fires of resentment burning from our choice to do so. Bar by bar we build our prisons.
Jesus did not have other supportive disciplines in his society from which to draw as we do. He taught forgiveness, which meant letting go of hurts that his listeners could not go back in time and repair. The rule of the day was “an eye for an eye.” If a physician made a mistake the authorities cut off his hands.
Jesus’ message to his listeners was that there would always be something more pressing in their human experience that had the power to sabotage their spiritual growth. If we are going to be a light in darkness we cannot take on the properties of the darkness. When we struggle against anything, we run the risk of becoming like that very thing we are seeking to defeat. Imagine what Jesus’ witness would have been had a legion of angels rescued him from the cross! This was not Jesus’ message.
The things of this world only make sense when our inner world is strong enough to help us creatively frame what we are experiencing. Preachers can stand in front of us as Jesus did and spout platitudes and wisdom. We might even applaud and say what people said of Jesus, “Isn’t he incredible? And what about his miracles? Where did he get this wisdom? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t Mary his mother, and aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? Aren’t all his sisters living here?” (Matt. 13:14f) While they heard his wisdom, they did not have the ability to incorporate his ideas into their attitude and thought patterns.
This may be our problem as well. We still think of ourselves in terms of our material experiences. We call our forgetfulness as our having a senior moment. When Maya Angelou was appearing on Oprah, she delighted her audience with her colorful humor. When asked about the aging process she said, “Yes, my breasts are in a race to see which one could get to my waist first.” Then she reminded everyone that inside she was as alive and vibrant as she was as a young girl. Maya well understands that she is not her body.
Do we understand that the world we worry about, the world that demands so much from us is not really what is in charge in the universe? Such fretfulness is our creation. The world only has authority over us when we bow down and give it that power. Everything in our world will absolutely fall into place when we mature in spirit within ourselves. Why? Because that is where God is.
As Kendrick reminded us last Sunday when he quoted I Corinthians 3:16, “Surely you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you!” If we are looking for God in the external world, a world that is constantly changing, we will clearly understand Jesus’ words, “Anyone who starts to plow and then keeps looking around in the world is of no use for the Kingdom of God.” When our identity is clear, our responses to life reflect that understanding.
Jesus’ responses were not insensitive, he was only teaching his listeners the way life is. We either see life’s events through the eyes of our eternal spirit, or we interpret them as experiences that are never right, never satisfying and often times very threatening because they are constantly changing. What is changeless and timeless, however, is God’s love that is constantly seeking expression through us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and patient God, remind us everyday that our lives always provide to others a portrait of who we are. Our attitudes and behavior reveal more about our spiritual depth than the sum of all our spoken beliefs. Enable us to respond with a peaceful spirit when we are in the presence of those whose values lack kindness and compassion. When opportunities arise to teach others what we know, inspire us to reveal our faith in a manner that provides an ease of understanding. Spare us from sharing our insights from a neediness to be right. Not everyone will resonate with our perceptions. Not everyone will be willing to move beyond what they have been taught. Grant us the ability to develop our patience with others, allowing the unfolding of your will in their lives to be in your time and not our own. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
O God, we remain humbled by the blessings that we have experienced from being born in our country. We are grateful that we have inherited a wonderful environment from those who have gone before us. We know that vision is a wonderful gift, but we are also aware that much of our inspiration has come from the commitment of those before us who wanted to build foundations that would benefit an infinite number of generations not yet born.
Lord, we know how easy it is to be unwise stewards of what we did not build, of that which we did not earn and of a quality of life that came to us as an inheritance. Spare us from enjoying only the harvest. Enable us to plant the seeds that will benefit those that will live in our houses and be attending our church in a future we will not be around to see. Allow us to experience the peace and harmony that happens when we express your presence within us.
As we go forth into our world, may each of us take very seriously the human experiment our personal freedom represents. Guide us to cherish what we experience so that we become willing to guide and educate others that communities can only exist in peace when everyone contributes and learns to live within the boundaries established by our common consent. Help us to remain an example for the people of the world as to how living in diverse communities in peace is what you have designed. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .