"Everyone Needs Training”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – March 15, 2015

Centenary United Methodist Church

Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21


    Tuesday afternoon Lois and I received a call from a woman who was involved during my earliest days as a pastor. She just wanted to chat.  She is 93 and still has fond memories of when her teenagers were in my youth group.  She told us a cute story about Ruthie, her great-grand daughter, who is three years old. 

    Ruthie's grandparents belonged to a church that had recently moved into a new facility.  They were putting away the sound equipment when their granddaughter, Ruthie, began to explore the large auditorium by herself.  A man noticed that she was alone.  He approached her and said, "Honey, where are you parents?"  Without batting an eye, she looked at him quite confidently and said, "I did not bring them with me today."  The man burst into laughter as she introduced herself.  She explained that she was with her grandparents who were elsewhere in the building.

    There was a similar episode like this when a family had gone to dinner with some friends.  They took their two and a half year old daughter with them.  The staff put their daughter into a booster-seat at their table.  As the server was taking their drink order, she skipped over Mary Ellen.  As she prepared to walk away, Mary Ellen said, "Excuse me!  I would like to have a small Sprite, please."  The startled waitress stared at Mary Ellen, amazed by her adult response and apologized for missing her.

    Most of us have encountered children that we teasingly say, "I met a four-year-old the other day who thinks she is twenty-five."  What enabled a three year old to respond to a stranger's question with a sense of humor that was well beyond her years? Her timing was impeccable.  The man could not stop laughing at her response.  If he had been around her parents, he would have realized where she learned her poise and sense of humor.  She is quite a character.

    Mary Ellen did not come through the birth canal with DNA that gave her the ability to articulate and display the manners of an adult.  If we knew her parents, we would understand where she learned such polite people skills.

    When Lois was a teacher at the Early Education Center at our last church, a center that I mentioned in last week's message, she had a class of all boys.  For some reason, the person doing the placement of students began putting new male students into her class until it was full.  Lois gave the boys an outline of what she expected from them, and every day the boys remembered their training.

    When we look at what is happening in the lives of a number of people today, so many of them do not know how to be polite, warm and civil.  Our judgment of others is often instantaneous:

These people are the nasty! They are rude.  They have no conscience. They live and breathe hostility. I can't stand even being in the same room with them.

    What are we seeing when we encounter people that appear to be totally out of control with their attitudes and values?  Could it be that they lacked the training that Ruthie and Mary Ellen received from their parents?  Perhaps, but there is another message here that we all need to hear.   During these Lenten days, we must remind ourselves that all of us need to continue our training every day of our lives.    

    A number of us have committed to memory John 3:16-17.  A different translation of John's passage might make Jesus' message clearer to us.  He was teaching listeners his vision of the kind of relationship he wanted to have with them.

God loved the world so much, that he sent his son to serve people by guiding them through the maze of living.  Those who choose to follow his teachings will not die a spiritual death.  Rather they will enjoy an abundant life both now and forever.  God did not send his son to find fault with the behavior and attitudes of people, but rather to become their teacher, guide and friend.  (John 3:16-17)

    I remember an incident that took place in the life of a Lutheran pastor who had just been appointed to a new church.  He and his wife had arrived at their parsonage earlier in the day of their move.  Once they became somewhat settled, they were anxious to drive over to their new church and look around the entire facility.

    After a late supper, they drove over to the church.  As they were pulling into the parking lot, they decided to remain in their car.  They could not believe what they were seeing.  Men and women were entwined in each others arms kissing.  Others were laughing, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.  The group looked like a bunch of good-for-nothings lounging all over the steps of the church.  They immediately drove home and considered how to approach the Trustees about their troubling experience.

    On Sunday morning, the pastor processed down the aisle behind the choir.  Instantly, he recognized all of them as the group of good-for-nothings that were loitering outside of his church.  Their performance during the service was quite remarkable.  In fact, they were the best sounding choir he had encountered in his career.

    When he discreetly approached the choir master about what he experienced earlier in the week, the pastor had to reinterpret what he and his wife had seen on that fateful Thursday evening.  He learned that the men and women were waiting for the choir director to arrive so he could let them into the building for their rehearsal.

    The music director told him that his choir was a group of people whose lives had been totally out of control.  He told the pastor that his choir members came from the most unlikely places to find musicians.  However, he had taught them how to sing in four part harmony.  Many of them had never sung in their lives and never had any motivation to attend a church.

    The choir master happened to be a close personal friend with a judge who had sentenced most of them to serve time in his choir.  These men and women that had broken the law were shocked at their sentence. If there was a universal response that summarized what most of them felt, it was, "You want me to sing in a church choir?  You have got to be kidding me!  I have never been in a church in my life."  The gavel of the judge came down anyway as he said, "Well, it's time that you start."        

    What surfaced in that Lutheran church you could not make up. This was one of those God things. The choir had become a family and they produced beautiful anthems.  Not only that, but when their friends heard that they had been sentenced by the judge to serve in a church choir, they started attending the services to see the result of their sentencing.  They planned on teasing them later on. 

    Of course, initially, the rather formal congregation was not happy about this arrangement, but these uncomfortable Christians were soon transformed by what was happening in their midst.  The friends of the new choir members were quite pleased by the quality of music they were experiencing.   The pastor's sermons communicated to these newcomers and they continued to attend the church.   

    Could it be that people display poor judgment, tasteless manners, very controlling personalities and hostile responses because they have never been taught how to sing their personal anthems?   They may be living sinful, decadent lives because that is how others have chosen to interpret what they were seeing.  Obviously this was the conclusion made by a Lutheran pastor and his wife.  Jesus taught his disciples that living in the Kingdom is a learned response from a choice that each person makes.

    In light of this understanding, let us listen again to John 3:16-17:

God loved the world so much, that he sent his son to serve people by guiding them through the maze of living.  Those who choose to follow his teachings will not die a spiritual death.  Rather they will enjoy an abundant life both now and forever.  God did not send his son to find fault with the behavior and attitudes of people, but rather to become their teacher, guide and friend.  (John 3:16-17)

    There was a time when Jesus was responding to a question raised by the disciples, "How can anyone get into Heaven?"  He said, "It is extremely difficult for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God.  In fact, it is impossible for anyone to do so, but it is not impossible for God.  Everything is possible for God." (Mark 10:24-27) 

    In Thursday's Royal Gazette, there was a quote from Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin's professional football team.  He said, "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence."  Jesus was saying the same thing.  In our Ephesians passage this morning, Paul wrote, "We are saved from the influences of our material world by God's love for us and not by any effort of our own doing."  (Ephesians 2:8)

    We will not attain perfection but we can learn how to be angels-in-the-flesh prior to our entering the mysterious realm after this life. The gifts of spirit develop as a result of how our experiences in the material world have trained us to respond when love is our rudder.  Qualities like being humble, patient, confident, understanding, generous and peaceful are the results from such training. 

    Just like Ruthie and Mary Ellen learned from their parents, our spirits have to be open in order to absorb what our teachers are teaching.  This is also how a group of people that had been judged to be a group of good-for-nothing individuals by a pastor and his wife became transformed into an outstanding choir.  On this fourth Sunday in Lent, we need to remember that it is our training and God's love that allows us to become an angel before we leave our physical forms.