"What Has Value May Have None"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 9, 2007
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:P25-33
When we take these words and put them along side other words Jesus spoke, we might wonder why we should even try. Where is life’s grand adventure if we have to give up everything? Jesus taught, “Go through the narrow gate, because the gate to hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy. There are many who travel it. But the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
How can we creatively interpret such an understanding of discipleship so that it translates into ideas that we can use for living? What was Jesus’ intent in making it sound so difficult to be a disciple? He said, “None of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.”
We could say that Jesus was wrong or that he was exaggerating to make a point. The evidence we could point to is the worldwide Christian Church that has followers by the millions in every country of the world. We believers often insist that Jesus has made a decisive difference in history. Has he really? Or, are we merely a very large group of people that celebrates his name, his power and his teachings?
If Jesus were to discuss his conclusion with us, he could point to the first Christian emperor of Rome who stopped the persecutions in 311 AD and granted enormous favors to the Church. Yet Emperor Constantine ruthlessly suppressed non-Christians, even murdering members of his own family. He postponed their baptism until just before the hour of their death.
Jesus could point to Christmas Day in 800 AD when Charlemagne marched off to convert the heathen tribes of northern Europe. While his priests conducted mass baptisms, he cut off the heads of 4,000 Saxons who refused to submit to Christianity.
Jesus might reference St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in the 12th century. He wrote of divine love and sang of the sweetness of Jesus while blessing the Crusades as Christians marched against the Turks and rejoicing at the Norman stranglehold on England.
Jesus might remind us of the activities of Cardinal Ximenes, the great reformer of Spain, who sent the Spanish military to convert the Indians of the New World while Torquemada, another faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, turned the terrors of the Inquisition against heretics and Jews.
Martin Luther praised God for His amazing grace. When the Peasants War broke out in 1525, Jesus might remind us that Luther wrote a savage tract entitled, Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. In his manuscript he advised, “Everyone who can should smite, slay and stab the rebels as he would a mad dog.”
August 24, 1573, the Pope entered the Sistine Chapel and sang an exultant Te Deum. The occasion for his celebration was the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day when fanatical Roman Catholics slaughtered 10,000 Protestants in the streets of Paris. Jesus might cry out in anguish as to why his message had become so distorted by people who strayed from the simplicity of loving their neighbors as well as their enemies.
Jesus might direct our attention to the age of John Wesley, our founder. Evangelical revivals brought spiritual awakening to three continents while good Christian men grew rich on the slave trade. One ship was actually named Jesus, a horrible mockery to the miserable human cargo that lay starving to death beneath its decks.
To show how blind personal theology can become, John Newton immortalized himself by writing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” It does not help the cause of discipleship to recognize that John was a captain of yet another slave ship.
In 1917, a Presbyterian president sent one million men against a Lutheran Kaiser to fight in the same fields and forests where Constantine’s legions subdued Gaul and Charlemagne’s priests had Christianized the Saxons. The bloody plot varies little: only the actors are different. Even the scenery remains the same.
It is no wonder that Jesus wanted his disciples to give up everything so that divine love could be a light in the world that would shine through those who did. Our track record as Christians of bringing peace on earth and good will to humankind has been somewhat less than sterling.
Never let it be said that Islamic fundamentalist factions are the sinners here with their misguided and uninformed theology. All we have to do is examine the history of those who claimed they were being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ to see that our species is still clinging to the things of this world. Somehow we manage to blend God, politics and power into something the religious minded call faithful discipleship. Maybe we now understand why “the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it.”
The problems of life always originate with us. It is and remains our neediness to help God in saving the world that takes us to the brink of disaster. This misdirected energy is what drives Christianity and Islam to their extremes. When we assume we have the right to force the lives of others into becoming what we think they ought to be, that is when we have lost our way. Our will is the one being served, not God’s. Our energy is flowing in the wrong direction.
Many years ago a young man wanted to amass a million dollar fortune. He did so by the age of 23. His next goal was to amass one billion dollars and he accomplished this feat by the age of 53. Since this was a long time ago, he became the richest man in the world. What would be his next goal? He struggled like king Solomon, the probable author of Ecclesiastes. What does one do when one has everything?
He fell terribly ill. He lost the hair on his head, as well as his eyebrows and eyelashes. He could afford the best doctors in the world but no one could heal him. He could only digest milk and crackers. An associate said, “John could not sleep, would not smile and nothing in life meant anything to him.” Doctors predicted that he would be dead within a year.
As he lay dying, his thoughts turned inward. His consciousness began to awaken. His life’s ambition was to have everything -- wealth, power and prestige. His skills won him everything he desired but he possessed nothing of essential value. He finally learned the greatest lesson, “Unless you give up everything that you have, you are of no use to yourself or anyone.”
In a terribly weakened state, John assembled his accountants and announced he was giving everything away. That day the Rockefeller Foundation was formed. John David Rockefeller channeled his fortune into hospitals, research and mission work. His foundation eventually led to the discovery of penicillin as well as cures for malaria, tuberculosis and diphtheria. The moment his energy pattern shifted its polarity from getting to giving his health returned. Because his energy was now flowing away from him, John lived until he was 98 years old.
There are moments in life when we have to be shaken to our core before we learn that some of the things we value the most have no value at all. We cannot make the world into what we want. We have to remain as a light that guides others when and if they choose to follow.
As many of you know, Mother Teresa has been in the news lately because of a book that was recently published. The book describes her many dark nights of the soul. She often wondered where God was in the midst of the human misery she was witnessing. She often felt she had misplaced her faith. She even wondered if there was a God.
What some of you may not know is that for over twenty years Teresa was a school teacher to the wealthiest children in Calcutta. She saw the terribly impoverished people all around her but realized as Jesus once said, “You will always have the poor with you.” She was a gifted teacher, adored by parents and students alike. It appeared as though the seeds of her life had fallen on ideal soil and were sprouting the promised fruits.
One night Teresa was awakened by the screams from a woman who was in serious physical condition. She rushed her to the hospital. The wait seemed endless. It was as though no one understood the seriousness of this woman’s condition. She took her to another hospital and was greeted with the same lack of concern. All it once it dawned on Teresa that no one was ever going to treat this woman. She belonged to the wrong social caste. Teresa took her home and did what she could. It was not enough. The woman died during the early hours of the morning.
Somewhere during that long night’s journey of trying to help a stranger, Teresa decided to give up everything, as did John D. Rockefeller. She left the stage of prosperity. She made a vow to God that as long as she had energy, she would never allow another person to die in that fashion if she could help it.
Had she remained the skilled teacher for many of India’s wealthy families, there is no doubt that she would have made an impact. All gifted teachers make an impact in the lives of their students. When she gave up everything she had, Mother Teresa became a household name throughout the world.
What Jesus was teaching had to do with helping his listeners to examine what they truly valued as opposed to those ideas to which they paid only lip service. All but one of Jesus’ disciples was in the latter category. Jesus had taught them, “Those who do not carry their own cross and come after me cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:27)
When it came time for Jesus’ inner circle of intimate disciples to stand up and be everything they claimed to represent, they ran and hid in fear for their own lives. They were not prepared to follow their leader and they had not learned how to give up everything they valued. What they did should give us hope. We have lived long enough to recognize that all of us have clay feet.
Recently, I received a letter from Denise Casey, my niece, who is currently living in Katmandu, Nepal. Close to the end of her letter she said, “I want to ask you some questions. How do you approach the many social ills in the United States, e.g., immigration, the over consumption of everything, the neglect of the poor, health care and the self-destructive mindset of human beings?” She intimated that such discussions represent “light banter following supper time.”
In the book, The Prophet, written by Kahlil Gibran we find these words,
You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deeds is like trying to understand the power of the ocean by examining the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is like casting blame upon the seasons for their lack of consistency.
We tend to look upon our world through eyes that see only our failures, our struggles, our wars and our inhumanity to each other. Yet this is only half of the human story as Gibran suggests. When we send our young people to ASP experiences, build houses for the poor in Juarez, Mexico, construct hospitals, libraries and universities, develop more precise surgical techniques, develop hybrid seeds that will produce crops in areas of the world that were never fertile, there is hope.
We humans are still very primitive in our emotions, but the spirit of God continues to shine through us in spite of the walls and barriers we construct under the banner of righteousness. There is something inside of us that recognizes truth. This is why the life and teachings of the spiritual heroes have been preserved.
Perhaps the best answer to the cost of discipleship is for each of us to stand forth in our faith as best we know how and allow the destiny of our species to remain in the hands of our Creator.
I can promise you this: when each of us transitions from our current form we will immediately understand what it means when we say, “All the material things that we valued here will cease having the same meaning when we transition to the other side of the curtain.”
Such values were only tools that we used while we were experiencing the urge to evolve into being even more skilled creators of what and how we perceive. Our task is to bring the values of the next world into this one just as Jesus did. We cannot do that as long as we are clinging to what we cannot take with us. Herein lies the truth of Jesus’ words as he defined discipleship, “None of you can be my disciples unless you give up everything that you have.”
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
During these reflective moments, O God, we often bring a new perspective to what we experience. We learn to recognize the tug to hold onto what appears safe and secure. Our minds recognize the Scripture that guides us – “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see.” Yet, we confess that we frequently base our faith in what has form and substance. How appealing and compelling our world appears. We are eager to build our lives around our relationships, our vocations, our responsibilities and our wealth. Help us to remember that compassion, hope, enthusiasm and happiness are created by us from a place no one can see or understand. Inspire us, O God, to remember that there is more treasure within us than we can possibly imagine. To discover our natural inheritance, all we have to do is share what we have found. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever present God, in the quiet and hush of these moments, we ask that you still our spirits with feelings of reverence and peace. How grateful we are that regardless of whom we have become, or what rules we have broken, or what unloving thoughts we have held, you accept us just as we are. You know what we seldom consider – we are in the process of growing and maturing in spirit and we tend to judge ourselves harshly by where we see ourselves at the moment.
Guide and teach us, O God, to hold each other with the same spirit that you hold us. Make known to our minds the profound words we say each time we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have broken their trust with us, who have done hurtful deeds, or who hold values that always appear to clash with our own.”
Cause our minds to remember that you considered us worthy enough to send your son to be our guide and friend. Help us to remember our discipleship when a moment of passion wants to rob us of our capacity for patience, for understanding and for stillness. Help us to remember our discipleship when circumstances push us to compromise our values, to choose expedience or who walk away from issues that take courage and faith to confront.
Thank you for your guidance, support and confidence. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .