"Behind Our Masks, Are We Just Children?"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – July 3, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30



    There was a time when Jesus was relaxing with his disciples and he asked them, “To what can I compare to the people living today?”  He compared his neighbors to children playing in the marketplace.  Like many children, they all had different ideas about what they wanted to do.  One group tried to engage in various activities and the others didn’t feel like participating. They said, “We played music at a wedding and none of you wanted to dance.”  They made another claim.  “We sang funeral songs at your gathering and you did not feel like grieving.” 


    Jesus was saying that children’s values, goals and pursuits are as numerous as there are children.  No matter what was suggested, there were always others around that were looking for or wanting something different.  If they were unhappy, they spent their time looking for the faults in others. He gave his listeners one more illustration that focused his analogies on responses to the ministry of John the Baptist and his own.   


    Jesus pointed out that when John preached along the Jordan River, his listeners thought John had a demon in him because he fasted and drank no wine.   Jesus continued, “When people listen to me teaching in the marketplace, they cannot hear my message because they are too preoccupied by the company I keep.  They criticize me because I eat and drink with those whom they consider outcasts.”  A number of us might wonder if humanity has changed at all during the last 2,000 years. 


    Years ago, I came across an interesting description of a diplomat – “A diplomat is a person who has the skill to cut a pie in such a way that each person believes he or she is getting the largest piece.”  Very few people have that skill.  Even Jesus did not possess that ability. Wherever Jesus traveled, among his listeners were curiosity-seekers and religious authorities that were listening with the purpose of gathering evidence to use against him.  There were also those described as outcasts.  Among this latter group were the tax collectors, beggars, the poor and prostitutes that were looking for words that might give them hope.


    We preachers like to fantasize that people can hardly wait to come to church each Sunday morning so they can hear what we have to say.   Actually, we recognize what Jesus noticed two thousand years ago.  People’s minds wander all over the landscape of human life even when they attend church for a specific purpose.  Like children, many of us lack the skill of giving someone our undivided attention even when we really want to hear their thoughts.  There are too many distractions.


    Pastors have the greatest place in the world to see what is going on in the pews.  We are no stranger to asking ourselves the question, “Does anyone really care what I have to say this morning?”  Sometimes we can hear heavy breathing, a frequent sign that someone has gone to sleep.  We watch as women reach over and squeeze their husband’s leg to awaken them.  There are times when cell phones go off during a service.  While preaching, I once watched a woman dig through an endless inventory of articles in her purse before she got to that mute button.


    In my former church, we had scribble cards in the pews for children.  There were times when teenagers and adults used them to write notes to each other.  From time to time, one of our faithful ushers would bring me several of these notes that were priceless.


    Here are some examples that Dottie gave me, “When we finally get out of here, is your Mom taking us to McDonalds?”  Here is another one, “Stop texting.  People will see you. Remember we are in church!”  A third one said, “I can’t remember if I turned off the iron when we came to church.  Do you know?”  The answer: “Yes, you unplugged it.”  One final one, “Seven women have brought bottled water into the sanctuary. What’s with you women and water?”


    During another worship service, one of our women sketched plans for wrought iron hand-railings that people could hold on to while negotiating the steps into the chancel.  She also designed a hand-railing that various lay readers could use when they came into the pulpit to read the Scripture lessons each Sunday.  I turned her sketches over to the Trustees and her designs were used for the installation of those hand-railings.  Who knows, she may be a wiz at multi-tasking.


    This past week a number of us were watching the streets in front of the Parliament building in Athens, Greece.  All the family-players were there.  The police representing the parents were trying to maintain boundaries of safety while also attempting to modify the behavior of the angry children.


    Because they were not getting their way, these children were throwing a temper tantrum by breaking windows, shattering sidewalks, chipping granite off buildings and throwing stones. They were rebelling against being weaned from the breast of former parliamentary decisions that had granted them access to the pipeline of low interest rates and unlimited borrowing power.  Now it was time to repay and austerity measures were becoming the law.  Jesus had it right.  When we study the behavior of each other, we really are like children. 


    Occasionally, we come across parents who are absolutely worn out by trying to corral their children.  We watch as many of their efforts produce little change in their off-spring’s behavior, and we tell them, “Just wait, in time, they do grow up.” Well, at least we hope so.


    While he was talking, Jesus provided his listeners with words that should give us children hope.  He said, “God’s wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.”  What happens to children as they are growing up is that sooner or later they learn that what separates the levels of success between people is the results produced by their decisions.   


    This also accurately describes the process of what happens to us when we pursue the development of our skills of spirit.  This is what Jesus called “God’s Wisdom.”  What happens way too frequently is that millions upon millions of people go through life in total ignorance of what God offers people who ask, seek and knock. 


    Today, people have far more control over their lives and have neglected their partnership with God.  They become like people who move into a house for the first time, having come from a third world country.  They do not know anyone but they now have a roof over their heads and they feel secure. 


    They begin their lives with kerosene lamps; they warm themselves in the winter by a wood-burning stove and they cool themselves in the summer by opening their windows.  They lived this way for years because they were completely unaware, when they moved in, that their home came equipped with electricity, a furnace and a central air-conditioner.   


     A lot of people confuse their spiritual development with life as defined by institutional religion.  Jesus was talking about the results from God’s Wisdom. What is God’s Wisdom?  Jesus said, “Above all else, learn about the Kingdom of God and the results that such knowledge will create.  God will provide for you with everything you need. (Matt. 6:33) Jesus said, “Everything you need is available to everyone but the way to discover it is narrow and very few people find it.”  (Matt. 7:33)  All that is available to people is not hidden. People are so distracted that they are unaware of its presence.


    Remember, God provides every thing for the birds but God does not throw birdseed into their nests. They have to educate themselves and learn the skills of survival in this world.  What happens to people who have only a minimal understanding of God’s existence?

    This past week The Royal Gazette featured an editorial by a woman that almost drowned at Horseshoe Bay.  She was swimming with her grandson when she noticed a young boy struggling to stay afloat 12 feet away.  She wrote, “The undercurrent was fierce.” She ordered her grandson to swim to the shore immediately while she swam out to help the youngster.  


    She continued describing her drama, “I reached the young boy but at the age of 56 and also a heavy smoker, I was in trouble after two minutes of struggling.  I could not signal to those on shore because the police were distracted by troublemakers.  I realized that we did not have a chance but suddenly, ‘like a miracle,’ the sea grew calm for a period.  Instead of waves crashing over us and carrying us further away from shore, a calm swell pushed us toward the shore and thank God we got out alive.”


    She ended her editorial, “I have never been a religious sort of person, but the following day, I went to church and thanked God for saving us.”  Maybe this incident was the beginning of a relationship with God with whom she had no prior experience.  God uses every opportunity to communicate to us, but if we remain as distracted children, we may not perceive the guidance, the cues and the opening doors. 


    A very good friend of mine called me last week from the States to tell me of a recent experience.  Each day he drives to an area where he exercises by spending time walking around a lake.  After his allotted time was ended, he found that his car key had fallen out of his pocket somewhere along the way. He alerted others that were exercising on the same path to look out for his car key as he began searching. 


    His anxieties were rising and then he asked for help from the divine energy that surrounds all of us.  Some of us call this loving, supportive energy God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Others call out to certain saints, spirit guides or guardian angels.   He made one more loop and found his key lying in a patch of crab grass well off the trail he was on.  It was a small miracle that his eyes saw it.  It was like finding a needle in a haystack.  I asked, “Did you thank your angels for their assistance?”  He hesitated and said, “Yes, when I got into my car, I shared my gratitude with all listeners on the other side.”


    At the end of our lesson Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who are tired and carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke and put it on you.  You will learn from me because I am humble and gentle in spirit.  The yoke I will give you is easy to wear and the load I will put on you is actually lighter than anything you can imagine.”


    Could it be that scores of people are alone in their dealing with life’s most pressing issues and problems until they ask?   Many of us children are like the family that moved into the house and knew nothing about electricity.  As long as children decide to stay as children in their spiritual development, the results of their lives will remain on that level.  Ignorance always produces immobility and limits the size of our universe.  When we want to control our destiny by ourselves often we cannot see the numerous possibilities that exist.


    Jesus, said, “Ask and you shall receive.  Seek and you shall find.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9f)  When people stay connected to the Vine, they have been able to move mountains and cast them into the sea. When we ask for help or move toward a seemingly impossible task in our love and compassion for other people, an entirely different energy pattern opens up in our minds.  We become empowered to face whatever is in front of us.    


    By asking, we open ourselves to another dimension of reality that was there all the time. Jesus understood that we are all merely children playing in God’s marketplace. Sooner or later we will learn that nothing else works to enhance our spiritual growth but God’s Wisdom. Why wait for a crisis when we can use that power right now and everyday in all of our tomorrows?  Just ask and remain open to whatever happens.