"Faith Is Not A Spectator Sport"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/13/1997

Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14

     Because of my unique vantage point with numerous Conference responsibilities, I occasionally find myself in the position where I can listen to lay people and clergy when they talk about each other. Sometimes I wish I could take all of you along with me so that you could hear what is said. Not only would you learn something, but you might also sense how Christianity could easily appear to be like a spectator sport.

     What do I mean by this? Typically when lay people evaluate their experience on Sunday morning, they list among their priorities lively music, thoughtful prayers, a challenging sermon, a good educational program for adults and children and meaningful interaction with each other.

     When they leave, they want to be able to say to themselves, "It felt good to be in church today. I am glad that I went! Somebody actually remembered my name! The minister sounded as if she had been reading my diary. It was uncanny, sort of spooky. She spoke directly to what I am experiencing right now in my life. I have finally found a church where people actually address matters of substance instead of always talking about needing more money."

     All of these statements reflect how a spectator might feel who is seeking to be entertained or wanting to receive something. Please notice that there were no assumed personal responsibilities implied in any of these comments. Now suppose we heard something quite the opposite: "I felt useful being in the nursery this morning so that parents could feel unencumbered by children as they attended the worship service. Today I learned the names of four new residents in our area who happened to be at our service for the first time. I enjoy counting the offering, being a reader, being a greeter, or being an usher. This week I sent notes to everyone on our prayer list even though I know that I am a stranger to them."

     Now consider the experience of the minister for a moment. Often they get caught in the web of trying to please everyone or seeking approval ratings. The choir members at Capitol Hill used to tease me about my preaching. They always threatened to hold up signs following my message much like the judges do when they evaluate the performance of ice skaters. We all recognize that monotone voice of the chief judge who reads the scores, "8.9, 9.1, 9.2, 8.9."

     Ministers can drive themselves with a sense of responsibility to deliver the "goods" on Sunday morning, i.e., to connect the Word of God with what everyone is experiencing. How can what Paul wrote to the Ephesians connect with the man who struggles each week to stay awake, or the older woman who only tunes in when a good story is being told, or the teenager who is distracted by the young lady sitting in the pew in front of him, or connect with the couple who argued fiercely with each other over some issue in their relationship during their drive to church?

     Now, of course, we are only isolating the experience of worship that we all hold in common. If we went beyond the worship service, we could apply these same measuring devices to how we are in our families, our primary relationships, our church softball team, our car pool, or our environment where we work.

     In all of these settings the same temptation comes to sit back and do our spectator evaluations, i.e., "Do I like this? Is this fulfilling to me?" And if we are really good at this, most of us could easily sit down with a pad and pencil and write at least ten changes that "others might do" to make our experience even better. Again -- a spectator sport!

     People leave churches, jobs, spouses and families because they are not getting from them what they believe they need. Is that what a life in Christ means? That kind of thinking is not in any of the Gospels that I have read. And yet, such a thought-process is alive and well as it plays itself out in our lives. We frequently come to church to get filled, inspired or motivated. And if we don't get it, we shop around until we find the right combination that provides it. This response is not to anything Jesus asked of us. What it appears to be is one more element of our consumer-oriented Western culture. We are quite capable of confusing the two as we become what many theologians have labeled "cultural Christians."

     Words that have helped people to remember the small prophetic book of Micah are these:

     What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to God? Will the Lord be pleased if I bring thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? Shall I offer God my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the Lord has told us what is good. What God requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show love constantly, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.

     Isn't this interesting? And these words come from one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament. What is important is the Spirit of doing that we bring into a situation and not how comfortable the world around us makes us feel. The world will never be capable of making us feel anything beyond what we choose to experience. If our environment were capable of giving us such joy and happiness, Christ would have never needed to come to show us a better way.

     Whenever we are tempted to engage in fault finding and complaining, we need to remember that we are actually asking others to come and fix our world so that we are happy again. We have our task backwards. We are the people Christ sends to bring the Good News to others. When we are complaining and struggling, we could easily imagine Jesus standing in front of us saying, "O Ye of little faith." He would have every right to say so because you and I cannot give to others what we ourselves do not have.

     Listen to what Paul writes to the Ephesians. "Let us give thanks to God. For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world." He is telling us that God has already given us the qualities of angels. Paul's words do not say, "Someday God will give or when we are finally worthy God will give." Paul knows that God has already given us every spiritual gift that we could possibly need.

     Paul goes on to say, "This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head." Keep in mind as you read these words, who is in charge. The words are, "God will complete" not "we will complete". Every time well-intentioned people have tried to help God establish the Kingdom on earth, they have found ourselves moving in a direction that has ultimately failed.

     When we enter any of life's circumstances all we can do is to hold two thoughts. One is that we are sent into every kind of possible environment to bring something quite specific. And the second is that God will bring all things together when the time is right. What more do we need to know?

     Our lesson ends by telling us that God has given us complete freedom to enjoy every facet of life. Yet, we can only enjoy life when we are participants and not merely spectators looking for satisfaction to come to us. We cannot expect the world to heal us when Jesus called us to bring healing to the world.

     Many people are masters of excuse-making. All the time we hear people say, "I could never do that because my self-esteem is too low. I don't want to be involved because people are so hard to please. I will not get involved because of 'church politics.' I cannot give any more time because parenting leaves me exhausted, or I'm retired now. It's time for the younger people to do some of these tasks."

     Who are we? Sometimes we act as if we have few tools, too few skills, that the world is a hostile place or that God has not and will not act in our lives. Again, who are we? If we want to be more than spectators, we must remember that we have very distinctive qualities to take with us. We are kind, generous, and forgiving. We shoulder our responsibilities with confidence and hope. We are there for others who have become frightened by life-changing events. In short, we are participants.

     We have qualities we need to give away. We are the leaven for the loaf. We make things happen because of who we have chosen to be. This is what discipleship looks like. Mere consumers of "spiritual experiences" will find it impossible to do what Jesus asked. Such people are too busy searching for what Paul understood God had already provided.

     Many of us have found fulfillment by being a part of the St. Matthew's church family. I am always tooting your horn wherever I go. There are so many examples that I can easily site. Right now there is a woman in the Bowie community who will soon need a lot of donated blood for her husband who has just had his leg removed. The surgery was the result of cancer and a very resistant bacteria. A number of our women have surrounded her with attention and love. And, no, they are not members here. They are a family trying to move forward with confidence and hope while some of us are being the church to them.

     We have a little girl who is having her hand rebuilt by a specialist. Very soon Megan and her mother will be living in the shelter we have in our church building. We are just part of a larger network that is helping to make something wonderful happen for one of God's little ones.

     Whether it is feeding the men twice a month in the county's shelter program, or sending people to an Appalachian Service Project, or Juarez, Mexico, or teaching in Bible School, or volunteering to set up the coffee after each service, or working with others so that our parking lot can be repaved -- we become healed when we elect to become participants.

     There will be times when we will not know what to do, or what to say or what is best, or how to proceed. The truth is that we do not have to know. Love is easy when we stop trying to mold the world to conform to our understanding. Love is easy when we show up in all of life's circumstances with only the awareness that God is the one who will bring everything together when it is time. Love is easy when our faith reminds us of Paul's words, "Let us give thanks to God. For in our union with Christ, God has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world."

     When we are participants, we simply cannot receive anything more than what we already have. If any further action is required from us, it is to ask God's help in surrendering the fears that prevent love from coming.