"I Will Follow You, But . . . "

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler - June 27, 2010

Psalm 77:12, 11-20; Luke 9:51-62

Reverend Stetler’s Last Sermon at St. Matthew’s

     When I was trying to decide what I might say to you during my final message, nothing came up on my radar screen.  I did what I do most Sundays -- I turned to the lectionary that furnishes four scripture lessons for each Sabbath.  I found that the Gospel lesson for today fit perfectly.           

     Keep in mind that the timing of the sequence of events that was read for you was so close to the end of Jesus’ ministry that the passage begins, “When it came close to the time when Jesus would transition into Heaven, he gathered up his courage for the journey to Jerusalem.”  While I hope I have a little more time left on earth, I totally relate as most pastors would to what happened next in this passage.           

     While on a speaking tour, Jesus sent two of his inner circle of disciples ahead to make arrangements for his stay in a Samaritan village.  When village leaders heard their request, they said, “We don’t want you spending the night with us.”  We know from history that there was a good amount of racial tension between Jews and the Samaritans, so some of that may have played a role in the response those leaders gave to James and John.  To put in mildly, the two disciples did not take too kindly to their lack of hospitality.

     After being with Jesus for three years and listening to his sermons for that length of time, they still came to him with words that reflected their intense anger.  Peterson’s translation really communicates their feelings well -- “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning to come down out of the sky and incinerate them?”  Their response was bordering just a tad on overkill, but once again it demonstrated to Jesus how much his preaching about “love one another” had fallen on deaf ears.  Jesus probably shot them a look, rolled his eyes and said, “No, there are other places where we can spend the night.”  Why is it that other people can become so controlling of our inner spirit?   

      Often when we hear a good sermon, some of us can come up with a dozen people to which those words would apply.  Are not all of us guilty of this from time to time?  We can skillfully detect the flaws in others while being totally blank on those we own.  This is why Jesus once taught, “First take the log out of your own eye, before you try to remove the speck in the eye of someone else.  (Matt. 7:3)  Jesus also used another metaphor in describing how discerning people can be.  He said, “You are blind guides!  You strain a fly out of your drink, and then you turn around and swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23:24) 

      I remember when Karen Cook was signing for our deaf community when I quoted that Scripture.  She turned around and looked at me as if to ask, “What did you say?”  It was a challenge to sign “swallow a camel” without knowing what such a saying was trying to communicate.

      Following a worship service, I cannot tell you the number of times people have greeted me at the back door and said, “Dick, today you delivered a remarkable sermon!  When can I get a copy of it?  I want to send it to my sister.”

     We have seldom had many rifts in the church family during the last 14 years, but there was this one incident that I look back on with fond memories. Rick Adams will recall this.  The teachers of our Early Education Center were coming in on Monday mornings only to find their tables sticky from juice and filled with crumbs that resulted from Sunday morning snack time. The Administrative Board voted to end snacks during Sunday school.

     The outrage from Sunday school staff reached the exaggerated levels of James and John.  Some teachers were threatening to resign.  Keep in mind this is over sticky tables and crumbs!   Someone said to me, “Dick, you have to do something about this!  Snack time is one of the most important things that we do.” I don’t know how those values even got into the same universe -- Sunday school lessons versus snacks?   Well, I made one of my rare executive decisions and the issue was resolved as quickly as it started.     

     The point of all this is that we can sit in church Sunday after Sunday and as soon as we return to the world, our attitudes and predisposition revert from the sublime to the ridiculous exactly as they did for James and John.   

      In fact, today you might be preparing to exit our parking lot onto Annapolis Road and witness drivers flying over the hill on the Bowie High School side at 50 mph.  As the veins begin to grow in your neck, you realize that you left your thoughts about following Jesus’ teachings on compassion, tolerance and patience back in the sanctuary.  One person actually said to me, “How come St. Pius got a traffic light?”  Our creativity at disguising the source of our anger knows no bounds.

     This is why I entitled my sermon the way I did.  Every one of us has a “But,” when it comes to justifying our attitudes and behavior.  When our world is not the way we want it, we feel justified and even honored to stand up for our rights and point fingers of blame for what caused our anger. 

      Do we really understand how easily we turn over the responsibility for who we are to someone we may not even know?  Knowing how to change instantly our response of anger into an opportunity to radiate patience takes a skill that many Christians do not have no matter what they claim.

      What follows in our Gospel lesson is a litany of those who made excuses for why following Jesus was not convenient.  One said, “I will follow you, but first let me take care of the funeral arrangements for my dad.”  Another said, “I will follow you, but first allow me to say good-bye to my family.”

     Certainly, these requests were reasonable.  Why did Jesus appear to be so rigid?  The issue was not literally following Jesus as did his immediate disciples; the issue was “to proclaim the presence of the Kingdom of God” right where they were.  We can do that while we are burying our parents.  We can do that without the need to say good-bye to our families.  Both individuals took from Jesus the wrong message. 

      Jesus was not interested in having hundreds of people following him all over the landscape.  What he wanted from people was for his teachings to show up in their lives.  When we are out of practice doing those things routinely, how can we demonstrate to others the value of having a spiritual consciousness that does not appear to be working in our own lives? 

     Following Jesus does not have anything to do with “following the guru.”  It has to do with blooming where you are planted.  It has to do with being a light in darkness.  Christians don’t like being in darkness.  Many Christians believe that doing the right thing and believing the correct theology insures our entrance into Heaven There is nothing further from the truth. 

      Jesus taught that Heaven is here right now. (Luke 17:20f)  He showed us what living in Heaven now looks like.  No truer words were said by the Master than these, “Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.”  Peterson translates it a little differently, “The place where your treasure is, is the place you most want to be, and it is the place where you will end up being.”

      One of the tools with which God equipped us at birth is our memory.  Remembering who we are and remembering how we were designed are the most essential elements for living a life of energized creativity. Jesus used bread and wine because they were two commodities that were used every day by his people.  He connected their daily use to his words, “Remember me.”  What do we have that connects God to our daily lives?

      I will conclude with one of my favorite illustrations that answers that question.  Two families were on vacation together and the fathers were playing a round of golf.  The one friend said to the other, “Why do you waste your time going to church every Sunday?  I used to go, but I never got anything out of it.  The sermons were boring. The services were dry.  I can’t remember anything that the minister said.   I was just putting in time because it was a family thing.  Now . . .  this is how I spend my Sundays.  I love to unwind on a beautiful golf course from all the chaos I have to deal with at the office”

      His friend responded with a unique comparison.  He said, “I’ve been married for 38 years.  During that time, I have consumed over 40,000 breakfast, lunch and dinners that my wife graciously prepared.  For the life of me, I can’t remember many of them.  She loves to cook and she prepares delicious food, but right now few of her most memorable meals come to mind.  But, I will tell you this -- had I not been nourished by those meals, I would have died a long time ago.”

     He continued, “Going to church helps me to remember a lot of things that I tend to forget during the course of the week.  None of us wants to become self-absorbed, but we can be when we forget our purpose for being here. Church reminds me that the universe and God are much bigger than I thought, and each Sunday I become enriched and nourished in countless ways that cannot be measured like a golf score. I never know when God will remind me through some aspect of a worship service how to make important course corrections to my life.”   

     Following Christ does not take a lot of hard work once we conquer the perceived needs of self.  Brad Davis, a young Eagle Scout who belonged to my earliest youth group said, “Stetler, you taught me how to be a Christian and still have a good time.”  I never forgot that.  He is absolutely right.   Those of you who know me well have realized that I am still a little boy at heart.  I never want to change those qualities.

     I will end with the words to a song all of you learned when you were children.  It is the greatest metaphysical song ever written when you think about the words that create beautiful images that are possible for all of us.  “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.  Merrilly, Merrily, Merrily, Life is but a dream.” 

     Lois and I thank you for everything!    Please welcome Ginger with open arms.  Let us pray. .


     Merciful and always present God, we thank you that you have taught us the healing energies that come from laughter and joy. You have shown us how appreciation and gratitude bring out the best in others. We have learned how listening without judgment creates confidence that allows others to be who they are. We have discovered the transforming quality of our values when we share them.  We have sensed the immediate freedom that comes when we let go of our hurts and losses.  Continue to allow your light to shine through our personalities and spirits.  Help us to remember that all of us are still students of life who will always have much to learn.  Such a thought reminds us that we are your children and nothing we do, believe or think has the power to separate us from your love.  Amen.


      Loving God, how grateful we are for that quality of life over which we have no control –constant change.  The changes of life happen so slowly that we scarcely remember when one step on the staircase phased into the next.  From grade school, to junior and senior high and beyond – most of us had no idea what life would bring.  Yet with each phase, each jump to the next level there was that dramatic pause of uncertainty before we took that leap of faith in fearful-trust that more adventures were yet to come.  

     What a joy it has been for Lois and I to be a part of such a diverse church family that is wealthy beyond measure in talents, abilities, creativity and the zeal to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.  We have learned together that churches that cannot afford to be in mission are experiencing a poverty level beyond measure.  We have also learned that when we yoke with such churches and take some of their members into a mission field, we have created a spark that will keep the fire burning.

     In all the journeys we take and all the adventures we experience may we never forget that the spirit of our doing is what preserves our peace.  Even when we are misunderstood, may we be conscious of the words St. Francis prayed, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.”  Grant us the wisdom to realize that the future is ours to create.  So, I ask that you bless all that happens within these hallowed walls so that there will continue to be laughter, joy, commitment and follow through that your will may be done from this place to change the world.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ who taught us to say when we pray . . .