"When Our Cloud Is Lifted"
Message Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 25, 2010
John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9-17
He said, “I have repeatedly told you the answer to your question but you would not believe me. The deeds that I do by my Father’s authority speak on my behalf but you will not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
His listeners knew exactly what he was talking about. They knew very well the habits of sheep. Sheep trust only one person – their shepherd. The voice of anyone else would scatter them. The shepherd of a flock can call them and they will all come. If he walks toward a greener pasture or to a nearby well, the sheep will follow him. Not one of them will stray.
If Jesus were speaking to our generation, he would not refer to himself as a shepherd. He would use another metaphor. He might say, “I am a teacher who instructs students about the spiritual meaning and purpose of life. I know many of you are too busy pursuing other things in this world to pay attention to my words. The students, who do listen to what I teach, learn from me because they resonate with what I say.”
I was on the receiving end of this lesson when I was in Junior High School. I had a teacher named Mr. Spruel who taught a course that was the bane of my existence. The course was called Drafting. We had to sit at slanted desks with T-squares. I knew at the time that I was not going to be designing any buildings in the near future. The problem was that I was in there with young men who were truly interested in drafting. They could design many things while I was still drawing people as stick figures. One day, Mr. Spruel said, “Clearly what I teach is not one of your areas of interest, Dick. Your only problem is that I have to give you a grade.”
Just like in every age since the dawn of human history, some people find the pearl of great price and stretch to levels of consciousness and responsiveness they never felt humanly possible. Others are ready to embrace whatever the world offers, hoping to find what will sustain their sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Chris Shaw, a 29-year old single father of three, made the news last week. He works in a convenience store earning minimum wage. He has $28 dollars in his checking account. He is behind in his rent. He has teeth missing in the front and he needs a lot of dental care. Last week, he turned in the winning numbers on his Powerball lottery ticket and came into a windfall before taxes of 258 million dollars. All he wants to do is pay his back rent, fix his teeth and pay back the $1,000 he owes a friend who sold him a used pick-up truck. He is not even sure he wants to quit working. In time, Chris will learn that he needs something other than instant wealth to help him connect the dots for a meaningful life. He appears to be naïve about all that will happen to him because of his winnings.
There was a time when Jesus went to Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Wealth was a very controlling and defining aspect of his life, like it could become for Chris Shaw. Jesus said, “Climb down from that tree Zacchaeus; I want to stay at your home today.” After a couple of hours with Jesus, Zacchaeus became a man healed of his demon that had been defining his identity by wealth. He vowed to give half his wealth to those who needed it more than he did and if he found he had calculated improperly for some people, he would repay four times as much as he took. Something happened that caused his preoccupation with having wealth to change. He became a provider rather than a gatherer. Clearly a cloud had lifted. (Luke 19:1-10)
There was a time when Jesus and his disciples were traveling through a number of villages teaching and healing. An interesting difference about this particular sojourn was the number of women who accompanied them. Mary Magdalene had been delivered from seven demons. There was Joanna, Susanna and many other women who were using their money to fund Jesus’ ministry. These women would not have followed Jesus if they had not resonated with his message. (Luke 8:1-3)
What is interesting about the word “demon” is that it did not represent an evil presence or a disembodied spirit that was lurking inside someone’s mind and body. In fact, the word is only mentioned twice in the Old Testament. The word demon was a catch-all metaphor that symbolized someone’s consuming predisposition. The condition could be mental, physical or represent spiritual blindness.
Most of us can recognize the presence of demons in our lives. They can manifest as chronic insecurities, anger that needs constant management and our ability to hold on to everything from past hurts to our constant need to be right in most all disagreements.
For Mary Magdalene -- her demons might have been her trading on her physical appearance, using her wealth to enhance her status in her community, being selfish and self-absorbed or holding on to her hatred toward the Romans whose military presence was an every day experience. Jesus pointed to something greater than what her demons could offer her and a cloud lifted from Mary’s life.
For John the Baptist, his demon was symbolized by his bitterness toward sinners – Herod in particular. Jesus once told a group of listeners, “I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived. But the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John.” (Matthew 11:11) People cannot harbor hostility in their spirits and radiate what the world needs. We cannot serve two masters. We will either serve love or fear.
Attitude and our predisposition toward others is a critical element to resonating with the Master. He taught his listeners how to let go of hostile judgments, how to release others to be exactly who they are, how to hold no ill-feelings toward anyone and how to be at peace trusting that God will take care of all the details -- an act that would free them from worry and anxiety.
Several years ago, the small group responsible for our annual Christmas stocking project was invited to attend an awards banquet at Reed Temple for St. Matthew’s involvement in prison ministry. We received a plaque that hangs on the wall that Mike and Kay League created and maintain for us in the breezeway that separates the old building from the Wesley Wing.
Sitting next to me at the dinner table was a very attractive woman who was most engaging. Her eye contact and body language communicated a deep-seated confidence in herself. Everyone sitting at our table was equally taken by this woman’s presence.
During the program, we discovered that she was one of the featured speakers that had been invited to give her testimony. What she said stunned most of us. In fact, it was shocking. The room became filled with apprehension as she self-disclosed more information than most of us needed to hear.
For a number of years she had been a highly paid prostitute. She disclosed that her fee from a highly select group of clients was $1,500. She told us about the clothes, the cars and the condo in Ocean City that she could easily afford. She had access to some of the most prestigious circles of businessmen in the metropolitan area.
She thought, “I have everything that life can offer.” She knew that she was beautiful, she had a very self-assured personality and she was fluent in the art of business-speak. She was brilliant and well-informed about puts and calls, derivatives and swaps, acquisitions and mergers and the business strategies inspired by greed.
Her voice paused and then she shifted gears to the relief of many in the audience. She began to tell us how her life changed dramatically one night when she came into contact with the spirit, presence and teachings of Jesus. She told us that her experience was like a great cloud lifting. For the first time in her life, she experienced how much God loved her just as she was. She said, “I was healed that night. I became eager to do something more with my life than earn a living through relationships built on the foundation of sexual expression.” Her story went on to describe how her life had evolved spiritually from that one moment in time that changed everything about her orientation toward life.
When she returned to her seat I said, “It took a lot of courage for you to disclose the earlier chapters of your life.” She said, “Thank you. When I first started telling my story, it was most difficult. But now, every time I tell it, I grow stronger in my faith. Where I have come from has helped me to learn not to judge anyone for being where they are in life. I have come to understand my past as a necessary stepping-stone to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. I now understand what motivated the Apostle Paul to write, ‘I am the chief among sinners’ because I had been that myself. (I Timothy 1:15b-16) Hearing my story may help someone else who is trapped in a lifestyle that lacks substance.”
On the bottom of the business card she gave me were two scriptures: Luke 6:37-39 and 7:40-50. I will let you look up those passages. Both of them have great meaning for her. She resonated with Jesus’ message, a message that guided her to living the rest of her life directing her love away from receiving wealth from needy men to inspiring a new group of clients – her students. Having earned two doctoral degrees she has been serving as a faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Clearly her cloud had lifted. Like Zacchaeus, her life changed from a gatherer to a provider.
We have to remember that not everyone is ready to listen to the Master’s voice. Some people who believe they possess great faith may not know Jesus at all. (Matthew 7:21) Jesus did not judge those who were not ready; he simply told them objectively, “You are not my sheep.”
Most of our preoccupations that cause us to perceive others without love attach our spirits to the things of this world. Jesus was clearly calling us to be citizens of another world in order to make a difference in the material world. Are we making that difference or are we only eager listeners to Jesus’ inspiring lessons for living the abundant life?
Thank you, God, for being the sustaining source of strength when our frailties invite us to make judgments that defeat us. Your love encourages us even when we know that our wills do not reflect who you created us to be. When we lose our ability to cope, a friend comes. When we feel challenged by the realities of our world, you pierce our fears with a shaft of light. That light renews our hope. When we are blinded by the pride from our accomplishments, you allow us to stumble. Through our pain, we often rediscover the value of humility. How grateful we are that we can learn how to change from so many sources that offer guidance, comfort and peace. Thank you for surrounding us with your protective presence. Radiating love from our lives has enabled us to follow Jesus and thus, overcome the world just as he taught us. Amen.
Merciful God, many of us are hungry to learn more creative ways to tap into the unseen world that governs the quality of our lives. As we enter our worship experience, we try to be open to the quality of life that you taught us was possible. We want to be sensitive enough to hear your voice. Many times we are blessed by being here. Elements of our service remind us how to tune into a new horizon toward which to walk, a refreshing attitude we want to develop, or a more creative way to respond to familiar irritations. We leave here knowing who we want to become.
Yet, when we reenter the world, frequently we come into contact with others who do not share our insights and values. When we experience offensive attitudes our minds and spirits so easily forget all that we know as our emotions pull us toward reacting with the very responses we dislike the most. Guide us to understand that we will never have the skills of a seasoned sea captain until we have been successfully tested by every conceivable weather pattern.
Help us, Lord, to learn that love is a contact sport, not just an attitude we carry in our mind. When your light shines through us, darkness flees. When your mercy shines through us, we respond with acceptance. When your compassion shines through us, we find that hostility, resentment and anger are demons that have left us. Help us to live so that our spirits become signposts that point the way for others. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .