"Jesus Taught Attitudes, Not Theology"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 27, 2009
Psalm 127; Mark 9:33-41
To this day I do not recall how I became the chosen one. But for two years I was on the playground everyday. I was the only adult and no one challenged that idea as being less than ideal. The first through third graders came out from 11:30 until noon and at noon until 12:30 p.m. the fourth through six graders came roaring out of the building. The older children were always filled with high energy because they had just come from lunch.
As I reflect on those days, I could have easily written a book entitled, Everything I Wanted to Know about Managing a Church, I Learned on the Playground. All the components were there from engaging in conflict resolution to teaching others the importance of cultivating wholesome attitudes. I can tell you unequivocally that the skills I developed from working with those children I could not have learned by taking courses at some university. We understand life’s productive and more creative attitudes better when we learn them from on-the-job-training.In the opening of our lesson for today, we find Jesus asking his disciples what they were discussing as they traveled from Capernaum. Peterson’s translation says, “After hearing the question, the silence from the disciples was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was the greatest.” Like gathering his children around him, Jesus had the twelve disciples sit down. He asked, “So, some of you want to be in first place? If that is your goal, you must take your place at the end of the line. You must learn how to be the servant of all.” After his words, he put a child in their midst and said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me, he also embraces God who sent me.”
Was Jesus really teaching about how to treat children? Remember, his lesson was addressing the argument the disciples were having about who was the greatest, who had the most prestige, who commanded the most respect from Jesus, or who really had the goods to please God. Using a child as a metaphor, Jesus was teaching a universal attitude that always produces the perfect response -- embrace them in spite of who they are at the moment. When grown-ups deal with children, they quickly learn how little power and control they have over how children sometime respond.
Recently, during a major league baseball game, a man sitting in the seats in right center field made a spectacular catch with his bare hands from a batter who just hit a home run. Being somewhat proud of himself, he handed the baseball to his little daughter who promptly threw the ball back on to the field. The shocked father could do nothing but smile and hold his daughter in his arms. It was such a remarkable, spontaneous moment between a Dad and his daughter that it captured the imaginations of both national news casts by Charles Gibson and Brian Williams. Most of you probably saw the clip. It was a nice way to end the evening news.
Children are likely to do anything they feel compelled to do because many of them have not been trained to say “please,” to take turns or to use their words instead of pushing and shoving when their world isn’t the way they want it. In fact, unless it has gone unnoticed by some of us, this is the way many adults behave in the world.
Jesus said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do, embraces me.” In other words, we have to forget our power, our status, our pedigree, our advanced degrees and our need to have our rights respected when we embrace others who have not learned to express the attitudes that build bridges. Sometimes it takes everything we have to swallow our pride in order to become the servant of everyone.
Jesus carried this same theme into the next episode of our lesson. The disciples believed that the relationship they had with Jesus was very special. Indeed, it was, but that relationship did not grant them privileges that others did not have. When the disciples found a stranger healing people in Jesus’ name, they stopped him because he was not a member of their group. Upon hearing this Jesus said, “Do not ever stop such a person. People who are doing what we do are not our enemies, they are our friends.”
Jesus was constantly teaching his followers how to be vehicles of change, not by their theology, not by their beliefs and not because they were his followers, but by how they presented themselves. If Jesus’ ministry was about telling his listeners what to believe theologically, he would have lost their attention. Perhaps this is why the Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes. They are attitudes of being.
The main challenge to the disciples was remaining focused on the needs of others. After all, the people they were called to serve are the ones who needed to discover their own spiritual identity and to develop their own relationship with God. That is something only others can do by their choices. Jesus was completely ineffective in giving to others what he had discovered. In fact, he never tried to do that. He only pointed to truth with his life and with his words.
For a number of years, Rev. Bill Zimmerman and I used to take off a week and go fishing in the streams and lakes of Maine. We stayed at a hunting lodge and enjoyed our own cabin. One day we put our boat into a gigantic lake. There were no houses around the shoreline. We were surrounded by majestic mountains and we could see an occasional moose drinking from the edge of the lake. There was only one other boat on the lake. Bill’s fish-finder found that a large school of white perch were swimming below. We anchored about 50 feet from this other boat. We started catching fish.
We greeted the other man with cordial, pleasant words, typical of the exchanges between fishermen. Folks from Maine are known for being people of few words so we were shocked when he returned our greeting with, “Because of people like you, there will be no fish in this lake for future generations.” That was it. After about forty minutes he raised his anchor and was gone.
When we arrived back in camp we inquired if anyone knew this man. All the natives knew him extremely well. For some unknown reason he had been a very angry and bitter man for most of his life. Our immediate neighbor told us that he was one of the most flagrant poachers of wild life in the area. Everyone knew about it but the new game warden. Our neighbor related story after story chronicling this grouchy man’s life. “Every word,” he said, “was venomous and filled with judgments and hostility.”
During our conversation, another neighbor stopped by our cabin bringing a large kettle of fish chowder. He said, “I saw you guys and knew you were up to no good. I didn’t want to eat alone so I brought dinner.” The entire evening was remarkable. We brought out some bread, fruit, cheese and crackers. We brewed a pot of coffee and sat around the table swapping stories.
Dick was a most engaging man, carrying himself with a tremendous sense of confidence. He fit right in. He was the kind of man you thought you knew your entire life. He also knew the bitter fisherman we had encountered. Dick said with a smile, “He treats everyone the same way so he is very consistent. You can count on him having yet another bad day.”
Dick left the three of us claiming that he was an early riser. He knew that the fish get hungry early and he told us that he is in the stream or on the lake just as soon as the fish are getting out of bed.
When Dick left, Bill and I commented about his unique ability to fit right in with two strangers. Our neighbor said, “I have never met anyone like him. A number of years ago, Dick’s wife divorced him and left him with six children to rear. Not only did he raise them alone but he successfully managed to see each of them graduate from college. All of them went into different fields and are doing very well.” Our neighbor went on to say, “What sets Dick apart from most people I know are his attitude and his outlook on life. He has been a neighbor to all of us. He has patched our roofs, repaired our decks and porches and never thought a thing about it.”
Regardless of what our faith and our theology teach us, wouldn’t the world be a far better place if everyone displayed the attitudes that Dick had cultivated. He did not have to tell us anything about his religious beliefs for us to understand his universe of thoughts and feelings. He understood the unpleasant disposition of the fisherman we encountered. He let go of the results from his wife’s early departure from their marriage. He appeared to have no regrets because life is what it is regardless of what we think about it. He seldom personalized anything that did not represent an opportunity for him to step up and be of service.
This is exactly what Jesus was teaching his disciples by placing a child in their midst and by instructing them to encourage everyone they see to become a servant to others in whatever form such service appears.
We do not realize how God communicates to others through people who know the way. John Wesley was inspired by a group of singing Moravians while on board a ship caught in a fierce storm. Later he experienced a spiritual awakening during a worship service when he felt his heart strangely warmed. Bill and I came away inspired just by one night with a man we had never met. Never once did Bill or I mention what we do for a living.
People who are so full of themselves and have a lot to offer quite often are not the people who help to keep our lives on course. When I was in seminary, I took a course called, “Systematic Theology.” What people in this world need to experience from each other is far less complicated and basic than theology that is often challenging to understand.
I saw this perfectly illustrated one day when I noticed that a little girl had fallen off a set of monkey bars on the playground. The girl fell face down on the ground and was not moving. An older girl went to her side quickly and got her up and was holding the sobbing child in her arms, patting her and saying, “It’s okay! It’s okay! You are going to be okay!” As I hurried to the area, I discovered that the older girl was one of the school’s main-streamed students who had Down’s syndrome. She was not very complicated but she sure knew what to do.
Keeping our focus on others allows us to be Good Samaritans, allows us to give and not count the cost, allows us be like the Prodigal Son’s father, allows us to let our light shine and allows us to disappear because we have become the leaven for the loaf. Everything wonderful in life has to do with our attitude toward it. Jesus taught attitudes, not theology. God designed us to grow by giving away who and what we are. It is a beautiful place to be when our attitudes about people and life enable us to navigate successfully in most of life’s circumstances. If finding this place within us were impossible to achieve, Jesus would have never taught that it is well within the grasp of each of us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for creating within us the desire to learn more about the art of living. All of us desire to grow beyond where we are and to put into practice what we have learned. Yet, too often we stand in our shadow. Sometimes we would rather listen to truth than to be faithful in living it. We would rather commit ourselves to being entertained than to grow our thoughts, refine our responses and deepen our spirits through study. We would rather withdraw from a potential conflict than to give others the benefit of our insights. Help us to change. Inspire us to make our faith visible beyond the walls of our church. As we continue the adventure of living, help us to do so trusting in your desire to channel your love through us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, we are always humbled by the surprises that come to us when we learn how to step away from our needs and desires and give to others without counting the cost. Instead of asking you for help during our personal prayers, how energized we are when we become your voice, hands and feet for someone else. We experience meaning when we give a senior a ride to church or take them to a doctor's appointment. We find our own purpose when we write words in a card to someone who lost a spouse, a parent or a dear friend. We feel of value when we listen to someone who is challenged by the meaning of some of life's events.
Thank you, God, for calling us and sensitizing us to be in mission every day. Help us to become more comfortable and confident in our role as angels in the flesh. May we not seek "to fix" people but learn to guide them through who we are becoming. Help us not to attempt to take responsibility for managing anyone’s journey but learn how to remain a friend that is compassionate yet who also knows the value of remaining detached. Teach us how to love without violating someone's boundaries. And as we learn these things, may our trust grow that you are more than capable of handling the details.
Bless us today with minds, hearts and spirits that remain centered on our relationship with you, however we define what that is for us. As we extend to others who we are, help us to create a world where men and women remain free to grow without guilt and fear as each fulfills his or her purpose for being here. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .