"Determining What Has Authority"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 1, 2008

Psalm 46; Matthew 7:21-29

    When I was in seminary, a book written by Joseph Fletcher called, Situation Ethics, had an enormous impact on the Christian theology of students in my Ethics class The book’s focus was on how relative our highest values can become when life places us between the proverbial rock and a hard place

     Many religious-minded people generally hold on to their high moral values until something happens that causes them to debate whether or not to push beyond the boundaries that their cherished values and religious beliefs helped them to establish.

;   The book brought considerable debate among the students in our class.  For example, if our value is never to engage in violent behavior, what is our responsibility when we encounter someone who is attempting to abduct a child?  What is our response while attempting to protect our families when predators are breaking into our home? 

     Should values direct our path or can people of faith receive guidance while experiencing the apparent requirements of highly unusual circumstances?  The illustrations in Fletcher’s book took away the illusion of easily making wise decisions because we are united to Christ.

     Fletcher pressed his thesis further by describing the dilemma faced by a Roman Catholic family. An attractive woman while visiting friends in Germany was swept up in a mass arrest of Jews by the Nazis. Once situated in a concentration camp, her beauty attracted the attention of the superintendent of the facility.  Soon after her arrival, he approached her with a proposition.  If she consented to spend the night with him, he would see that she was reunited with her family who lived in Italy.  If she refused, he would understand and honor her decision.  She took note of his apparent sincerity.   

     She corresponded with her husband and both agreed that spending the night with the superintendent was inconsequential compared to the family going on without a wife and mother.  Rumors had reached Italy of what the Nazis were doing with the people being sent to such camps, so if there was an opportunity for her to secure her release, she should proceed.  She did so by setting aside one value for the sake of one considered to be more valuable.

               The morning following the event, the superintendent followed through on his word.  He gave her the appropriate papers she needed and personally saw to it that she boarded a train that was leaving Germany.  Her destination was Milano, Italy, a destiny where she was greeted by the outstretched arms of her husband and three children.     

     Fletcher skillfully drew his reasoning from the Gospels as he illustrated that even though Jesus had the values of self-control, compassion and patience, there are countless instances where circumstances caused him to set those responses aside.  

     The best-known example is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple featured in all four Gospels (John: 2:15-16).  Another example was when Jesus’ lost his patience with his listeners, “How long must I stay with you?  How long must I put up with you?” (Matthew: 17:17)  Still, another example was captured in Matthew’s entire 23rd chapter, a chapter that described Jesus’ scathing judgments of the learned and skilled religious leaders.           

     Our Gospel lesson ends today with these two verses:  “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowd was amazed at the way he taught.  He wasn’t like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority.” (28-29)            

     When we are making our choices, how do we determine, how do we discern what has authority for guiding our lives?  Fletcher made readers of his book think.  It is one thing to make visible our values when most conditions in life are routine and quite another when we are faced with a series of life’s cross-currents when other variables shatter those routines.           

     In our lesson, Jesus used the illustration of a wise man that built his house on rock and the foolish man that built his house on a foundation of sand.  When extreme weather conditions settled in on both houses, one stood and the other collapsed.           

     Our lesson helps us determine why Jesus’ teachings have authority over our lives. His words came at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout chapters 5, 6, and 7, Jesus described the results that come to those people who choose to follow his instruction.            

     Frequently Jesus set aside the Jewish law when he said, “You have heard it said, but now I tell you a greater truth.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth must give way to being at peace when someone offends you.” (7:39) “Love your friends and hate your enemies must give way to loving your enemies.” (7:43-44)  “When you give something to a needy person, do not make a show of it.” (6:2)  “Your heart will always be where your treasures are.” (6:21)  “God will judge you in the same manner you judge others.” (7:2)  “Do for others what you want them to do for you:  this is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets.” (7:12)           

     When our lives are built on the creative flow of our loving energy that was described by Jesus, what kind of circumstances could there be that would prevent our discipleship from showing?  Think about it.  There aren’t manyThe spirit of our doing is the high road.   

     There are times when we will make mistakes.  There will be times when we do not use good judgment.  There will be moments when our choice of words will cause others to judge us unfairly.  There will be times when the perceptions of others will misinterpret our deeds.    

     Remember, such things were the storms of which Jesus spoke.  He was battered, bruised and killed by people who thought they knew a greater truth.  He survived to continue his guidance when most of the others involved in his death have long since been forgotten.  He invited his followers to join him.  When we do, our lives rest on a rock solid foundation, poised to be instruments available for God’s use.  


     Loving God, we thank you for your constant faithfulness to us.  Our lives are filled with drama that distracts us in ways that we cannot imagine.  You have offered us a rock upon which to build our lives, and often we build them on sand.  We turn to you for guidance and yet we choose our direction from what our limited senses offer.  Even though few of our choices reflect the potential you gave us, your support for our growth never wavers.  There are moments when we feel lost, and yet we have learned that such times are nothing more than your invitation to keep searching.  In our seeking you, help us to remember that the path we seek is found through extending ourselves in compassion, understanding, generosity and forgiveness.   Finding you is more easily accomplished when we make your spirit visible through us.  Amen.


     Loving God, it is such a refreshing experience to enter this place of worship and have alternatives placed before us that are often different from ones we might choose in our haste to respond.  So much is required of us every day and it feels good to be still and reflect on guidance that has the power to change how we perceive. 

     So often moments we did not anticipate have forced us onto the stage where we are faced with circumstances that were not part of the storyline we would have preferred.  We confess to our struggles with faith.  Sometimes we do not know when to control and when to let go.  We do not know which fears point to reasonable caution and which ones point to our lack of trust.  We frequently do not know how to decide when faced with choices that represent change but appear to have equal value.

     Lead us, O God, to learn the value of being faithful to making visible our understanding of love.  Encourage us not to judge the worth of any experience until we have the opportunity to surface the talents you gave us in our dealing with it.  As we come to the Table this morning, lead us to become aware of how often we can become instruments of your peace, the embodiment of your generosity and bearers of your compassion.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .