"What Really Divides Us”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – July 20, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Romans 8:12-17, Matthew 13:24-30


    Our lesson today is an extension of what we discussed last week.  Once again, Jesus was using agricultural imagery to illustrate the differences between people.  He was teaching that not everything in life is as it appears.  Jesus constantly amazes us with how timeless his illustrations were.  They clearly make visible the same choices we face in the 21st Century. 

    A farmer planted a crop of wheat, and someone, who wanted to sabotage his efforts, sowed the same field with seeds of a weed.  When the wheat and weeds sprouted, they looked identical.  The farm workers came to the owner of the field and reported their discovery.  The farmer instructed them to allow the wheat and the weeds to grow together until the harvest.

    When we look at what is presently happening all over the world, most of us understand what Jesus was teaching.  One of the key points Jesus was making is that the world is filled with constructive and destructive people that must live together.  Sometimes people are not what they appear to be.

    A major Christian denomination has its headquarters in Washington D.C. a few miles from where we used to live.  Shortly before we came to Bermuda, there was an article about the Chief Financial Officer of the National Church of this denomination.  He had a very engaging personality.  He joined the choir and taught Sunday school.   

    One day law enforcement officers came to his office and arrested him.  Over the years of his tenure as the CFO, he had systematically embezzled over three hundred thousand dollars from the church’s reserve fund.  When these revelations were made public, the members of the congregation were absolutely devastated.  No one could believe it!  

    To become the pastor of this same church was an honor and privilege.  Word began to spread that certain members of the congregation had copies of his sermon prior to its delivery on Sunday morning.  Those with manuscripts could sit in their pews and follow every word that he spoke.  The issue that surfaced in a Washington Post article was that the sermons had been plagiarized.  The name of another pastor, that had actually written the sermon, was at the top under the sermon’s title.  The church’s pastor always distributed the sermons the following week and they bore his name.  This was yet another scandal to rock the church.  

    We are like the farmhands -- we recognize that there are differences between the values of people, but we do not know enough about them to evaluate their lives.  Making judgments about others is often a mistake. People can learn a lot from their mistakes and what they learn can cause them to make different choices as they move toward their futures.

     Most of us can remember the story that was read to us when we were children about the little boy who called “wolf, wolf!”   Everyone came running to his aid until they learned that he simply wanted attention.  When a wolf did come and he cried out, no one bothered to help him.

    This story came to mind several times during the World Cup competition.  A player would get tangled up with an opponent, fall to the ground and begin writhing in what appeared to be excruciating pain.  A medical team was immediately dispatched to his side and we watched as a miraculous healing took place within seconds. Soon, the player jumped to his feet and rushed off to resume his position on the playing field.  If there was any remaining pain on his face, it had more to do with the failure of a referee to penalize his opponent with a yellow card. 

    Can we really tell what is bogus and what is authentic?  The answer is, “No.” We have great respect for the wisdom of the farmer that had his farmhands wait until the harvest to separate the two plants.  While the growing plants looked identical, only one would produce kernels of wheat.  At the harvest, there would be no doubt which plant had value.  

    Jesus taught that it is easy to distinguish between the people of light and the people of darkness.  He said, “You will know them by what their lives produce.”  (Matthew 7:16f)  Still, we have to wait until the end of their lives to tell the difference.

    Try to imagine what might take place as various spirit-beings are discussing what they accomplished during their lives on earth.  I made a lot of money in human trafficking.”  I shot down the Malaysian airline that was filled with 298 passengers.”  I walked into a marketplace wired with explosives and martyred myself for Allah by killing 68 men, women and their children.”  I made a fortune by borrowing other people’s identities.” 

    The larger lesson in Jesus’ parable came from teaching his listeners that they will grow up in a world filled with every conceivable opportunity to follow their desires.  What Jesus did during his ministry was to provide a road map, a strategy, or a game plan for making life on earth a wonderful, creative adventure.  (John 18:37)

    A major challenge that comes with living on earth is that all of us must respond to what comes up for us in our individual circumstances.  There is never a level playing field for any of us.  We come from different environments, different social groups, and different economic levels.  

    For example, in all of our churches, Lois and I have always greeted people at the front door following our worship services. During our first Sunday in a church to which I had just been appointed, we were greeting people in this manner.  A mother introduced her two daughters to us by saying, “This one is our straight-A student.  This one is the dumb one in our family.”  We watched as the older daughter emotionally wilted from hearing a label that she had probably heard repeated many times.  I put my arms around her and whispered that she would always be just fine in my book. 

    This episode is a small example of what can happen to people when they start out in life in a home environment that imprints them with definitions of themselves that are completely false.  Children have not been trained to look inside themselves where their treasure lies.  Adults are there to guide them and many parents do not understand this as their responsibility.  The truth is that we all need guidance during every phase of our lives.

    When our world came into being, our Creator gave people free will to choose how they want to spend their limited time while living in their physical forms.  There is so much in the material world that attracts us.  That is the point.  That is the purpose for our being in the material world.  If we are here to see how we do with our creative powers, we need a wide range of choices. When millions of people believe that this life is all there is, they tend to desire what produces wealth, glamour and fame.

    There is nothing wrong with such a motivation.  We remember the merchant in Jesus’ parable that gave his servants enormous wealth to care for while he went to another country.  In his absence, two of them doubled their assets while the third did nothing with his share.  He buried it in the ground.  Jesus’ point was that the spirit in how we manage what we have is what divides people. 

    Many wealthy people have grown businesses that have given people jobs.  Leland and Jane Stanford built a university in California that has educated thousands of students.  The Rockefeller Foundation has given humanity its first antibiotics, the centrifuge and the electron microscope.  It has funded research for early computers and has created global solutions to the world’s food production. 

    Jesus knew how easily people can get stuck in life from either wealth or poverty.  This is why he said, “The gate to understanding life is narrow and the way that leads to it is difficult to locate and there are very few people who ever find it.”  (Matthew 7:14)  This kind of teaching can cause us to ask, “What is the point of all the human drama that we encounter?  Why do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer even while on their spiritual journeys?” 

    The answer is that all of us – the weeds and the wheat -- are creators.  We can create lots of fruit that benefits others because of our desire to leave our world a better place for men and women to live.  We can also create what will enhance only the quality of our personal lives. 

    Jesus always stressed that it is the spirit in which we live that distinguishes the wheat from the weeds.   He taught that when we love others in the same way that we love ourselves, we are creating what brings happiness and peace.  “For people who have prospered in this manner,” Jesus said, “even more will come to them and they will have more than enough.  However, the people who have not prospered with what they have, even the little they have will be taken away from them.”  (Matthew 25:29) 

    For example, we all have an imagination.  Some of us use it and others do not.  We all have the ability to let go of words that hurt us.  Some of us do that immediately and others choose to hold on to what was said and begin nursing a grudge that can last for decades.  We all have the ability to invest our money beginning with our first paycheck. Some of us do that and others spend what they earn as though the flow of their financial resources will never end.   The aspect of life that divides us comes from the choices that we make.         

    Several years before we came to Bermuda, we replaced the pavers on the front porch of our home in Bowie.  I was appalled by what these expert craftsmen were doing.  They jack hammered the existing surface and were cutting the pavers, a process that created clouds of dust so thick that one could hardly see the workers.  I called the owner of the company whom I knew and said, “Please give your men respirators. They are breathing stone dust and it has the potential to destroy their lungs.”  He said,

Dick, I can assure you that state-of-the-art respirators are in their trucks.  I have lectured and lectured these men until I am blue in the face.  They will not wear them.  There is a pride thing going on with these guys that is attached to their manhood. I cannot convince them to protect their lungs even though I have made wearing them mandatory.

    This is life!  We make choices and those decisions have consequences. Jesus came to guide us through the maze of alternatives that are available to us so that we might have life in abundance.  By keeping our desires focused on others, we are producing fruit that will provide us with peace and happiness. Wheat produces an array of products that can keep people from starving. 

    Whether or not we follow Jesus’ guidance is yet another choice that each of us must continue to make.  Those who do make that choice are immediately faced with countless unintended consequences that they could not have foreseen or anticipated.  It is though blessings have magically appeared in our lives.  The truth is that magic had nothing to do with it.  The blessings materialized because of our choices to create from a spirit that desires to be helpful, one that desires to make the world a better place to live.