"Are We Really Followers?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 13, 2008
Psalm 23; John 10:1-10
this morning’s lesson Jesus referred to himself as the gatekeeper for
the sheep pen. The sheep pen represents our earth and the sheep are the
billions of people who live on our planet. Jesus came to lead people
safely through the maze our world represents. (10:5)
Most of us learned the hymn, “This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees, the skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.” What’s the matter with our world? Why would Jesus feel compelled to lead people safely through such a world?
The answer should be obvious. God’s creation is even more magnificent than we imagine. It is we who must learn not only to take care of it, but also to get along with each other as we struggle to conquer our appetites for acquiring skills that have clearly been defined by standards established by our perceived needs.
For example, in feeding our appetites for wealth, beauty and power, we may fail to develop a spirit that is kind, loving and patient. We can command vast armies, create weapons of mass destruction and seek to destabilize foreign governments that are hostile to world peace and not feel the same enthusiasm for becoming generous, compassionate and peaceful. We can enjoy the fruits of both worlds, but our culture goes to great lengths to educate us on what really matters if we are to become a success in our world.
If we are a student of history, we know that wealth, beauty, power, and military might have been valued by most civilizations since the dawn of recorded history. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, writes that during the time of Jesus there were ten thousand disorders in Judea, struggles that were caused by Zealots who did not mind dying themselves and who did not mind slaughtering their own loved ones if their hopes of victory and conquest could be achieved.
The awareness and consciousness of people have not changed very much during the thousands of years we have existed as a species. People have always believed that if they changed their forms of government, their forms of education and their forms of what constitutes a nuclear family that everything would eventually work out for the good of everyone.
A favorite metaphor for this kind of thinking is that of rearranging the furniture on the decks of the Titanic. We diffuse our energies in useless pursuits when we invest ourselves in redecorating our classroom. We are here to learn while experiencing life in our limited, physical forms.
Jesus’ point was that his listeners could not change the forms of anything and expect that they would last indefinitely. What we must change is the way we think, the way we feel and the way we respond to each other. Not all of us are willing to follow such a teaching. As in other times in human history, we think we know a better way. That is why Jesus warned that many others would come and proclaim a better way, when there is no better way than the one he taught.
Jesus said, “When the shepherd leads the sheep, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow someone else. In fact, they will run away from such a person because they do not recognize his voice.” (10:4-5)
Many people believe in God. They have memorized Scriptures and have an iron clad faith all because they believe they know something. They feel extremely confident. They have their economic needs well in hand, they have their faith and they are in church most Sundays. They celebrate their spiritual security and the fact that they are saved. Such confidence, however, often shields people from wanting exposure to new ideas and new spiritual dimensions. They may be communicating an unwillingness to be pruned so that new growth may begin.
One year a group from our church experienced a retreat at a lovely facility that was in the middle of nowhere. The setting was perfect for discussions and personal reflection concerning where each of us was in life and whether or not we had arrived at a place we wanted to stay.
During our extended lunch period many in the group played badminton and volleyball. There was an inviting forest behind the property and that is where I went. The large majestic trees were signs that this was an ancient forest. The canopy of the trees was high and there was no underbrush of any kind. A wanderer could see for one hundred yards in any direction.
I had walked for about 40 minutes and had not been paying attention to any particular landmarks. There were not any large outcroppings of rocks, no white hash marks on trees like those found along the Appalachian Trail and no brooks that I had crossed. I had been enjoying the walk while thinking about the spiritual dimensions of life we had been discussing that morning. I glanced at my watch and realized I had better get back to the group. With a jolt of recognition, I realized that I did not know how to get back.
I had made many little turns to look at various kinds of moss. I recall watching a large Hawk flying from one tree to another searching for prey. Following her took me in various directions. I stood still and looked around. I began to realize that I had no idea in what direction to walk.
All kinds of thoughts flooded my mind. How could a seasoned backpacker, one who had lead countless excursions of young people and adults, be lost in the woods? I had not planned on becoming lost. I could see the sun, but I had no idea which direction it was traveling. Confidence in my skill level was flagging. Obviously, I was not as seasoned as my beliefs led me to believe.
I walked to the highest place I could find and sat down. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest. Faintly I began to hear the sounds of those still playing volleyball. I walked in the direction of the voices until I immerged from the woods. I don’t know what I would have done had everyone gone indoors.
Part of following the voice that leads us out of the forest of the cares and the cross currents that surround us is a need and a desire to be standing on higher ground. Wealth can blind us. Being extremely attractive can be a curse. Having power can create arrogance. We need to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Anyone can withstand adversity. If you want to test a person’s character, give them power.”
Are we really followers? Perhaps many of us believe we are until we find ourselves in a forest having lost our direction. We may be among those who think of ourselves as take-charge people, used to being independent, making our own decisions and listening to our inner voice. We believe that we know more than we do.
Is what we know working for us? Is where we are, where we want to be? We may answer, “yes,” but are we humble enough to realize that there is always more to learn. Learning more may require that we move beyond where we are. Columbus did not discover the new world by remaining on the secure shores of Spain. He had to set sail.
Only a couple of times in the Gospels did Jesus tell his listeners specifically why he came into our material world. Once he said, “I have come into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.” (18:37c)
On another occasion he said, “I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness and abundance.” (10:10b). It is interesting to observe all the theology and Christian beliefs that are not included in Jesus’ personal mission statements. How can we feel so secure with our faith and yet still become lost?
Once there was a woman in a large United Methodist church that had been married several times. When her husbands died, their mutual investments and insurance had made her fairly wealthy. She was also very generous with her money, but such wealth also made her a controlling personality in the congregation.
Whatever Miss Eleanor wanted, she got. She was telling the Trustees how she wanted the bathrooms to be decorated. She was placing her preferred artwork in the hallways. The carpet in the sanctuary had been replaced a number of times. Of course, she always paid for these additions and renovations.
As often happens in United Methodist churches, there was a change in pastors. The minister who came did not know her. He began to make changes with which she disapproved. After a number of heated exchanges, she stopped attending. She wrote a fairly curt letter to the pastor and explained why she would no longer be supporting the church financially. He responded with a note that, in essence, said, “I’m sorry you feel the way you do. We all have choices to make. We will miss you.” His words only fueled the fire that raged within her. The church had been her life.
A year had passed when word came that Miss Eleanor had been hospitalized. The pastor was well aware of this woman’s allergy toward him, so he asked the newly appointed associate minister to visit her.
He entered a very dark room at 8:00 in the evening. He had partially closed the door when he entered, allowing in only a narrow shaft of light. He approached her bed and introduced himself. In doing so, he bumped against the side railing and it slammed down jolting the bed. Miss Eleanor remained silent. He apologized and tried to make small talk but had become so self-conscious that his words were not making sense.
He decided to take her hand and close with a prayer and his hand touched something else. Horrified, he drew has hand back quickly. His elbow knocked over the water pitcher on her tray sending water everywhere. He did not know what to do, so he decided to end with prayer and leave. None of the hesitant words of his prayer connected to any meaningful thought pattern. He said “Amen” and walked away feeling defeated and embarrassed.
The next day Miss Eleanor called the church and asked to speak to the young man. She said, “Please come back. I must apologize to you. I couldn’t speak because I was biting my tongue and I partially had the pillow over my face. I was laughing too hard at all that you were trying to do for me. Honey, I haven’t laughed for such a long time. Please come back.”
He went immediately. The window blinds were up, she was sitting up and they had a wonderful visit. She told him her story revealing why she had been staying away from the church. Her thinking changed when she began to have such compassion for him that she stopped thinking only about herself. She told him how she had been lost in the forest of her own self-righteousness.
Jesus came that we might have life in all its fullness and abundance. We can only experience that abundance, that happiness and joy when we allow the infinite angel living within us to become visible to everyone else. That is what Jesus was teaching his listeners how to do. Only by learning how to radiate such qualities can we enter the presence of our elder brother, Jesus, and our Creator.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, how grateful we are that love’s light found a form that pierced the illusions of our material world. So many defining markers have aligned our identities with labels attaching us to a social group, an educational level, or our age, ethnicity and gender. In the midst of such shepherds that separate and divide us, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. He said, “I have come that you might enjoy life in all its fullness.” Help us to remember that in the midst of all the labels that seek to define us, there is only one that matters – we are your children. Help us to remember that disciples radiate qualities that nurture and promote healing of body, mind and spirit. Thank you, God, for our Shepherd. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, thank you for the oasis of peace in the midst of so much that stimulates our senses about the cross currents of our world. As we enter our house of worship, it seems as though we constantly need to be reminded who we are. It is comforting to remember we are your children, when life’s reversals pull us into the valley of uncertainty. It is comforting to sense your presence when we fear our beliefs and faith have been betrayed. Secretly most of us feel that rewards come to those who are faithful. Yet, the cross reminds us that life is not always fair.
Give us guidance, O God, to carry our energy with peace, to shoulder our perceived burdens with confidence and to enter moments of uncertainty with unwavering trust. Thank you for your support when we enter fragile moments. Correct our thinking when we energize the notion that we have a right to hold on to painful memories and hurt feelings. Help us to release to you those things we fear we can no longer handle.
As we move into our tomorrows, may we keep a discerning eye on where and how to be helpful to others. Inspire us to forget labels, judgments and differences. Teach us how to extend ourselves so that the angel within us becomes visible. Through us, O God, inspire our world’s people to learn that we are all citizens of one world and loved equally by you. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .