"Trust Helps Us Let Go"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 29, 2009

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-26

    This is the fifth Sunday of our walk through Lent and our lesson illustrates one of Jesus’ most consistent themes during his ministry – our need to grow beyond where we are today.  Listen again to how Eugene Peterson translates our text this morning from John’s Gospel: 

Listen carefully:  Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.  But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life.  But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you will have it forever, real and eternal. 

    These words of Jesus are timeless.  We can choose to stay the way we are or we can bury our old selves by a decision to change.  When we do that, we sprout new life by traveling in very different directions. 

     For example, Francis Kim and his wife own an athletic store in the Pearl Harbor Shopping Center in Honolulu.  One day a tall young man entered their store and wanted to try on a pair of Nike Top-Flight basketball shoes.  The shoes fit perfectly.  He told Mr. Kim that he would prefer the same shoe in blue.  When Kim went into the back of his store to retrieve the right color from his inventory, the young man grabbed his old shoes and darted out of the store.           

     When he heard his wife screaming, he knew exactly what had happened. He told his wife to call the police immediately as he left the store in pursuit.   After crossing four lanes of traffic, Mr. Kim tackled the much larger man and the two were wrestling on the ground when police arrived.           

     Later that afternoon, Mr. Kim had to go to the police station to press charges.  When he arrived he received permission to talk to the young man.  Mr. Kim put his hands on his hips and paced back and forth before he spoke.  He asked in very matter of fact tones, “Do you want to mess up your life for a lousy pair of basketball shoes?”  The young man was silent and hung his head.  After hesitating for a moment Kim said, “This is very important to me.  I have the power to have you released or to keep you here.  I need to know your honest answer . . . Do you really want to mess up your entire life because you put everything you are on the line by stealing a pair of shoes?”  The young man eventually shook his head, “no.”           

     Kim did not press charges.  Instead, he took him back to his store and said, “I need a young man that I can trust to help in this store.  I am going to do three things for you.  First, I want you to work for me and I will pay you twice a month.  Second, I am going to give you these shoes since you must really want them.  Third, I am going to give you a pair a socks to wear with those shoes.  Is it a deal?”  The young man smiled in disbelief.  The two men shook hands and that was the first day of the rest of that young man’s life.  Today, he manages that store while Mr. Kim has opened up other stores on the Island.  He may still be there.           

     Potential is an interesting quality.  Jesus understood that most of us have far more inside of us than we could possibly use.  When he observed people living very marginal lives because they had tapped into only a tiny part of their potential, Jesus used the metaphor of a grain of wheat to teach them that an unrecognized universe of talent and ability was available to them.  A seed will stay a seed until it is planted and begins to grow.           

     Some time ago, Japanese workmen discovered a Neolithic canoe that was buried beneath 18 feet of earth in a peat bog not far from Tokyo.  The workers notified archaeologists.  During their inspection, the scientists found a 2,000 year old seed.  They turned the seed over to Dr. Ichiro Ohga, Japan’s lotus expert who placed the seed into a tank of water.  After a year of germination and growth, the seed developed a beautiful pink flower.  At the time, it was the oldest seed ever to have bloomed.  The flower had not lost any of its internal instructions.  It opened each morning by 9:00 a.m. and closed at 3:00 p.m.  It bloomed for four days before losing its petals.           

     Trying new directions can be threatening to us because we have not yet experienced what moving in a different direction might produce.  Because a store owner believed in the potential within a younger man, Mr. Kim encouraged a common thief to bloom into becoming a store manager.  The young man could learn to give by helping customers and developing management skills instead of merely taking from the world. 

     Jesus said, “In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life.  But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you will have it forever, real and eternal.”  What do we suppose Peterson meant with his translation of being “reckless in our love?”  The word reckless is such a curious adjective.           

     Most of us are very intentional about those with whom we associate -- those we call our friends.  We self-select what projects we want to work on in the life of the church.  All of this is standard protocol for most people. 

     Being “reckless in our love,” however, means saying, “Yes” to nearly everything, feeling exhausted at the end of the day.  Yet we find our energies have been replenished by morning and we are eager to go again.  We do not take ourselves too seriously.  We laugh and exude joy in spite of our circumstances.   We decide to show kindness to rude people, we offer guidance to those not asking, we engage in random acts of kindness and we love those who appear unlovable.   “Reckless love” is almost inexhaustible in the number of definitions we could supply.  All of us have this ability but it is our choice whether or not we wish to express it. 

     A story I keep repeating was told by Stephen Covey about himself.  This episode took place on a New York subway some years ago.  He was seated comfortably reading a book when several stops later, a man with his three children boarded his car and the man sat down next to Covey.  His sitting there was fine, but the children were misbehaving to such a degree that the atmosphere in the car became tense and strained for everyone.  The kids were running up and down the aisle, knocking items out of the hands of other passengers.  The father did nothing to curb their behavior.  He simply sat there apparently oblivious that anything out of the ordinary was taking place. 

     This went on for some time and Covey became increasingly irritated, so much so that he could no longer concentrate on what he was reading.  He closed his book and turned to the man and inquired, “Are these your children?”  The man responded that they were.   Covey became more direct with his questions.  “Don’t you think you ought to control them a little better?  They are disturbing everyone in our car.”  The man responded, “I suppose I should.”  After taking a deep breath, the man said, “We have just come from the hospital where my wife and their mother died.  It was totally unexpected.  I guess I am absorbed in my own world right now.  I don’t know what I am going to do.” 

     Here is the point.  Covey said that instantly, his impatience, intolerance and disgust were transformed into what he had the capability of radiating from the very beginning of this experience.  He became empathetic, caring and understanding and helped the man gather his children around him.  Think of it – just one piece of clarifying information changed the complexion of Covey’s experience.  We have the capability of being that way without any additional information. 

     All of us have a reason for behaving and thinking the way we do.  Coming back to Jesus’ agricultural metaphor of a grain of wheat, we have to bury the part of us that wants to hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door knob of our routine lives.  Jesus said, 

Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.  But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life.  But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you will have it forever, real and eternal. 

    If what we have inside was just ours, we might be a bit self-conscious about the possibility of being rejected when we give it away.  I do not think that Jesus would have used that metaphor if only a few people had “the pearl of great price” inside of them.   We all have it.  Just as a 2,000 year old seed still held the instructions that allowed the lotus to grow a pink bloom, there are millions of other varieties of seed.  Each of them has the potential to create something our world needs to keep our ecosystem in balance.  Humans are no different. We have to give away what we have been given or we die by remaining a seed that did not bear its fruit.           

     A friend, who works in Nashville, has created a number of CDs during his musical career.  The one cut on the CD reminded me of the responses that Jesus’ found of value in the beatitudes, the preface to the Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  Here are the words of one of the verses: 

Well, a dusty old coyote was busy drinking from a cool rolling river and when he’d had enough he said, “I thank you river.  I swear I was so dry, if it were not for you I do believe I would have died.”  But the river whispered softly as it leaned against the bank, “I’m glad that I could help, but I’m not the one to thank.  You see, I’m only a river.  I’m not the one to praise.  I’m only a channel of the good and gentle rains.  And I can only carry what I have received, the heaven’s living water -- anyone can drink for free. 

    Jesus was reminding his listeners of their identity.   In this musical metaphor, the river knew exactly what it was as well as its role in life.  In reality, God has supplied us with more than we can use.  It is we who have to decide to use it.            

     Think about these next few questions and what implications they have for your life.  How hurt are you when someone does not meet your expectations?  How hurt are you when a driver in your line of traffic is in a much bigger hurry than you are?  How hurt are you when someone does not love you in the amount equal to the level of your imagined need?   To grow we need to let go of such hurts. 

     There are times during our lives when we live from the thought pattern of scarcity, particularly with all the worries and fear that we hear about during these challenging economic times.  The feelings of doom and gloom appear to be generated from one brief period in our lives.   This is like cursing the traffic light when it is blinking red instead of being grateful when it worked perfectly for years. 

          In reality our river stretches in every direction for as far as anyone’s eyes can see.   As the song says, “I can only carry what I have received, the heaven’s living water -- anyone can drink for free.”  Trust helps us to let go of what we are and where we are at the moment, so we can grow in new directions. Jesus took his understanding to the cross and he was not disappointed.  He knew what most of us hope for -- an Easter morning for all of us.  In two weeks we will celebrate that reality because it applies to all of us. 


     Eternal God, we long to possess the correct road map that would remove all detours from our travels.  We want you to heal the painful areas of our lives.  We want you to inspire our courage to face the challenges to our faith.  Yet many of us have prayed, “Here am I.  Send me.”  We have learned that we cannot be a light in darkness unless we are surrounded by darkness.  We cannot be a candle in the wind when there is no wind.  We cannot exhibit the fruits of having faith when life is secure and safe.  As followers of Jesus, encourage us to remember that we can give to others your healing presence, become your listening ears and help others to understand that they are never alone.  With each challenge that comes to us, help us to recall how Jesus faced the realities of our world with the skills of spirit he possessed by living in his world.  Amen.


     Loving and always present God, we marvel at the way you created us.  How we wish we could cling only to the attributes of spirit that Jesus taught his listeners. We enjoy living with a spirit that knows laughter and joy, has refined forgiveness and acceptance and has learned to be grateful for our countless blessings even during times of uncertainty.

     Yet we also know that part of us remembers specifics about others when they have not used good judgment, when their hurtful words were spoken in haste and when they have broken our trust. How quickly we allow such memories to take up residence in our minds.   Help us to remember that we live in a highly diverse world and we do not know how each life contributes to the purposes of your will most of which lies beyond our grasp.  

     As we walk through our final days of Lent, help us to identify personally with the times Jesus' teachings were challenged and rejected, the times his disciples demonstrated their poverty of understanding, the time when he was betrayed by one of his chosen, the time when his best friends abandoned him and the times when he faced injustice.  Through all of these experiences, he managed to walk to the drumbeat of a different drummer.  From Jesus’ life we learn that he was tested in more ways than are we, and yet nothing in his experience was powerful enough to cause his life to cease being the light on our path centuries later.   Bless us with such a remembrance of our leader who taught us to say when we pray . . .