"God’s Infinite Safety Net"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 20, 2008

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; John 14:1-14

    Twelve years ago the Staff Parish Relations Committee at St. Matthew’s had a meeting with me and Lois, a meeting arranged by Bob Rodeffer, our District Superintendent in those days.  The Bishop had appointed me to become your new pastor and this meeting was the official introduction of us to the church. 

     Bob Paulen had been here for eight years and had recently become engaged to his fiancée, Sandy.  The Bishop and the Cabinet felt that this would be an ideal time for Bob to move to Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Waldorf and for me to transition from our church on Capitol Hill to Bowie.            

     As the weeks grew closer for our move, there was anxiety in us and in the St. Matthew’s church family.  This is a time when both church and pastors experience uncertainty because no one really knows if the appointment is going to be an ideal match.   

     I was painting the walls of my future office one day in preparation for building the bookshelves when Aubrey King appeared in the doorway.  At the time he was chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, an office he currently holds today.  He said, “The members of the committee have decided to ask you to take off next week and do whatever you want to do.  Emotionally we are having trouble saying good-bye to Bob as we celebrate his wedding and the next day becoming enthusiastic in welcoming you and Lois.”  The congregation needs some time to adjust.             

     If all of us this morning could pause and reflect on the occasion evoking this kind of tension, stress and anxiety, we might identify somewhat with what was taking place with Jesus and his disciples in our Scripture lesson today.  Jesus knew that this Passover meal might be the last meal they ate together.  From what transpired during their last supper, we might surmise that Jesus was asking himself, “What can I do to make one more lasting impression on my small congregation?” 

     We might think that this was the perfect moment for Jesus to take the loaf of bread and a carafe of wine to impress them with symbols of his body and blood.  John’s personal recollection of the events of their last meal together, however, did not include what has become a standard sacrament in the Christian church.  John remembered a very different and impressionable sequence of events.   

     He remembered Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.  He remembered Peter’s resistance, “Never at any time will you wash my feet.”   Jesus looked at him compassionately and responded, “If you refuse to allow me to wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciple.” (13:8)  After sustained eye contact with each other, Peter thought about Jesus’ words and then relented. 

     By washing their feet Jesus helped the disciples to cast aside every elevated adjective that they had to describe him.  Jesus knew he was powerless to instill his understanding of reality directly into their minds and emotions.  No matter how badly he wanted to give them what he knew, he was aware that he had a different level of consciousness.    

     When he finished he said, “Do you understand what I have just done for you?  You call me, “Teacher.”  You call me, “Lord.”  You are correct for that is what I am, and yet I have washed your feet.  I have set an example for you so that you will do for others what I have done for you.” (13:15)  “You will be blessed with happiness and peace when, in humility, you sincerely serve others.”  (13:17)            

     Following this experience and to make his visual illustration even clearer to his disciples he said, “I now give you a new commandment:  love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. (13:34-35)   This is a very clear statement of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.           

     His beloved disciples were still at the bottom of the mountain of understanding.  They were much like inquiring children who still have many answers.  Thomas said, “Lord we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” (14:5) Phillip, still being a visual learner, said, “Lord, just show us God and we will be satisfied.” (14:8) 

     Jesus had demonstrated to them why it is extremely important to serve in total humilitySecondly, he told them how to love unconditionally, and finally he set before them the crown jewel of truth that was in the lesson that was read for us this morning.  He removed the last vestige of what would make them concerned about their eternal destiny.  He revealed God’s plan for all humanity by saying, 

     I don’t want you to be worried and upset by what life will bring to you.  Always remember to trust God with all your experiences and believe what I have taught you.  There are many dwelling places in my Father’s Kingdom.  Soon I will go there in order to prepare a place for you.  I would not tell you this if it were not so.  (14:1-2)      

     This was Jesus’ understanding of God’s infinite safety net.  If Jesus were addressing an audience today, he would teach, “In the place where my Father dwells there are many levels of awareness, many levels of consciousness, many levels of creativity or many levels of understanding.  I would not tell you this if it were not so.” 

     Jesus taught his listeners to forgive seventy times seven.  Would not God do the same?  Think of the lengths we go to save a life.  For example, Delaney Hyland, for whom we have been praying for weeks, lived in a very guarded environment at Arundel Hospital because she was born prematurely.  She came home recently and is thriving. Ken and Shannon send pictures constantly.  Delaney is doing well.  

     Some years ago, a gray whale was swimming up the Pataluma River in California.  Marine biologists spared no expense to turn the whale around because it was swimming in the wrong direction.   

     There was a time when I found a large worm preparing to make its way across an asphalt parking lot when the temperature was in the 90s.  It would have died had I not provided a course correction.   I picked it up and moved it to an area covered with grass near a sprinkler system.  The worm had no idea what saved its life.  Would God’s love be anything less?   

     How many times do we find ourselves headed in the wrong direction?  Jesus was teaching his disciples not to worry about God’s love for them.  “Where my Father dwells are many levels of consciousness.  I would not tell you this if it were not so.”  With that concern gone from their thinking, they would be free to take risks to fulfill what Jesus said, “Greater things than these will you do.” (14:12)

     Myrtle Hockensack was 78 when she learned that her son had been in a car accident in California.  She lived in New Jersey.  She had to go to his bedside but there was a problem.  She had an overwhelming, all consuming fear of flying.   She tearfully learned that she had no choice.  She had to fly. 

     Tears and prayers had her preoccupied just prior to lift off.  She refused medication because that was not her way.  She shook uncontrollably as wave after wave of panic and anxiety swept over and through her body.  Myrtle was determined to overcome the power of fear.  Her son might need her and this invisible bogeyman she had created would not stand in her way.  Matters grew worse when the aircraft vibrated as it was gathering speed for its lift off. 

      Almost as soon as the aircraft was airborne, her pulse returned to normal and her breathing patterns stabilized.  She refused to eat anything during the flight.  She only requested an iced tea.  She was learning to trust something she did not understand so that she could be by her son’s bedside. 

     The story does not end with her triumph over her fear.  Myrtle was only gathering more courage to face even greater unknowns.  Not only did Myrtle eventually become fond of flying, she graduated to higher and greater activities.  On her 86th birthday, Myrtle Hockensack of New Jersey made her 27th jump from an aircraft.  She loved to parachute so long as she was strapped to an expert who jumped with her. 

     Myrtle had been living on one level of awareness, an awareness governed by fear, limiting beliefs and very little trust in what she did not understand.  Then she graduated to another level by learning that there was nothing of which she ever needed to be afraid.  Think of the courage we could develop when we learn to understand God as our most enthusiastic cheerleader and our most intimate friend.  God loves us so much that we have been given the freedom to break out of our cocoons of safety and to fly in total trust on the wind that delights in lifting us above all obstacles.    

     What an ultimate safety net for all souls.  Our faith and our beliefs cannot influence any aspect of the quality and nature of what God has created. We are God’s children, even during the moments when, like that gray whale, we choose to swim up a river when our home is the ocean.  This was Jesus’ message to his disciples – in humility serve others, love one another and remember that God will always take care of all God’s children. 


     Merciful God, how often we have defined you by what the Scriptures tell us, by what our teachers have instilled, by what pastors have proclaimed and by what our experiences have confirmed during life’s fragile moments.  In spite of what we have learned, O God, we recognize that we have not scratched the surface on defining your nature.  Our finite minds cannot grasp what is infinite.  Because of our understanding of salvation, we tend to place limits on your love.  Because of our faithfulness, we wonder about the fate of those who could not bring themselves to believe. We forget that your love surrounds the just and the unjust alike.  Help us to rise above our need to judge others so that we might be more refined instruments of your peace.  Amen.


     God of mercy and love, we often come to church out of habit.  As we do so, we are never sure what we might personally experience. Our lives are often shaped by events, circumstances and relationships but we never know when a message from you finds its mark and penetrates our mind and heart. Being in a worship experience exposes us to moments we might never have in any other place. 

     Thank you, God, for creating us as you have. You have equipped us to be resilient in our losses and flexible during painful transitions.  We have all experienced the miracle of healing from the inside out.  Coach us in how to lay our greatest worries at Jesus’ feet.  When we do so, the freedom your love provides floods our spirits and heals that part of us that creates worry.  You created us to change when we practice what we have learned.  As we mature in our discipleship, we delight in letting our light shine regardless of what we are experiencing. 

     Enable us to cease judging life when our experiences are not what we would prefer.  This morning we celebrate the enormous powers you have given us to be humble servants and lovers of all people.  May others take their cues for living by what they see us do.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his listeners to say when they prayed . . .