"Piloted By A Grateful Heart"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/31/1999
Psalm 23; Luke 17:11-19
During his travels, Jesus experienced a living illustration that accurately described the way many of us live our lives. Ten lepers approached Jesus and asked for pity. Jesus said, "Go and let the priests examine you." While traveling to see those priests, the ten were healed. When the Samaritan in the group saw what had happened, he returned to thank God. While all of them were healed, only one had his life transformed.
Try to imagine what had just taken place in the lives of the ten. Go there yourself. You are an outcast. You must remain with other diseased people who have no hope for a cure. You can never again feel the touch of someone whole. Every time you come near to anyone, they scatter. You must live the rest of your life in an isolated, dry riverbed surrounded by towering walls of sandstone. Thoughtful people from a community like St. Matthew's would lower baskets of dried fish and bread so that you would not starve.
In a sense, we are like those lepers. We all carry and display rough edges caused by our prejudices, our self-interest, our attitudes, our fears of not being listened to, our preoccupation over our losses, and our displeasure with the behavior of others. The central theme of this Gospel story is that all of us are loved, but only one in ten has a life transformed by it. Such odds should make us think.
Gratitude offers us a complete reversal of our thought patterns. For example, all of us are surrounded by gasoline stations, grocery stores, pharmacies, and department stores. Our interstate highway system connects us with everything. We are currently leading the world not only in technology but in its application. Such incredible services have influenced everyone living within a 25-mile radius of St. Matthew's. How strange that many of us still blame, find fault, and complain.
Shortly after the Columbine High School incident, I was with a group of clergy who were giving their opinions about what was going on in several parts of our country. One of them said, "I can tell you this: The basic problem with our nation is that we are morally bankrupt!" Upon hearing that, another member of the group asked, "Would you want to live anywhere else?"
Why judge the quality of our country by the recklessness of a few? Ministers must encourage their congregations to celebrate what they have. If a member of your family dies, celebrate the years you had with that person. If you find yourself in stand-still traffic, give thanks for the moments of peace when no one can get to you. Turn off those cellular phones! If someone has offended you, be appreciative of the countless days when no one happened upon one of your sensitivities. The life piloted by a grateful heart sees life differently.
Recently, I was tossing away some old Guide Post magazines and I ran across a story written by an Air Force Colonel named John Franklin. His words informed readers how the power of gratitude destroyed the demons that threatened the stability of his family's faith.
His family was living in San Francisco during the earthquake a number of years ago. Many of us remember that moment because it took place on national television prior to one of the games in the World Series. The Franklin home was destroyed. They salvaged only a few of their possessions.
Next the Colonel received orders sending the Franklins to the Philippines. They considered themselves fortunate to get off-base housing. Their beautiful home had a commanding view of the mountains. One of those mountains, however, was named Pinatubo. When Pinatubo erupted, the Colonel's wife was at work and their three daughters were at school. There were moments when the five of them experienced enormous uncertainty.
The air had become superheated by the heavy rain of ash. Reports were coming in that many of their neighbors and friends had died. The Air Force base was destroyed. Their home burned and was buried. Miraculously the members of the family found each other and escaped.
What happened next is beyond belief. The Colonel's orders sent their family to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. For a third time, their lovely home and all their possessions were obliterated by Hurricane Andrew. The Colonel was writing his article for Guide Post from their new home at Langley. He closed with these words:
"No one can possibly imagine what our family experienced during recent years. For a while, it seemed as though the entire world had turned against us.
Our experiences awakened us to values we had been taking for granted. We have learned to value every moment together. Even when nature seemed to have singled out our family on which to visit her wrath, we remained grateful to God that we had each other, and that we had remained healthy and unharmed. God may never have intended for us to find a purpose in such disasters, but we have.
The fact that our family survived, and that I am now writing these words are events worth celebrating. Sometimes life has to be turned upside down for us to discover who we are and how incredibly resilient God created us. Sometimes when life overwhelms us, that is the moment we discover how much God continues to be an infinite source of inspiration and hope."
Here is a family that went through potentially life-shattering experiences and the Colonel was writing from a heart that was still being guided by gratitude. We should think about this family each time we complain, each time we feel offended, each time we experience a loss, and each time we feel abandoned and alone.
When we feel overwhelmed by anything, it is because we have lost perspective. We have lost the confidence that comes from the abundance surrounding us. The sad thing is that we are the ones who create the very reasons that support our misery. We have the ability to take one incident and give it the power to overshadow everything else.
When we learn of the five people in the Colonel's family who had every reason to complain and they did not, that should give us pause. How well Jesus understood people. "Were not ten surrounded by the effects of love? Where are the other nine?" Lives guided by grateful hearts are ones who have become transformed. Every day we can awaken to celebrate another day to live. Every day is like the gift of a diamond that we can polish.
Just as we live in a world surrounded by what we can so easily take for granted, the same attitude can prevail in our church family. The miracle present at St. Matthew's is that few of us ever take for granted what we experience here. St. Matthew's is a unique church family. Every year, we have voted not only with our presence and enthusiasm but also with our check books and what we pull out of our wallets. Our giving patterns demonstrate that we give to those things in which we believe. Your faith is made visible.
I will never forget the incident that occurred shortly after Lois and I arrived at St. Matthew's. We did not know many of you at the time. This incident has become a model for me of our community of faith. I re-tell this story from time to time so that those of you who were not here might know the kind of people who sit around you.
The Boy Scouts in our District wanted to use St. Matthew's for the depository for their drive for canned goods. Both the military vehicles and storage facility used in former years by the Scouts were not available. Without thinking about the potential consequences, I said "Yes." Little did I know what was involved. The Scouts brought more canned and dried goods than I could have possibly anticipated. It became our job to sort and distribute the food, a variable I had not anticipated.
I stood before you and simply explained the circumstances through which I had accepted responsibility, and invited people to come with boxes, vans, and trucks. Your response brought tears. A large number of people arrived at the appointed hour and the group quickly molded itself into a human machine that got the job done. By noon Fellowship Hall was empty. At the end, Clyde Draughn captured the spirit of our church family. He asked, "Mr. Dick, now that you have many of us here, is there anything else you need to have done?" I smiled and with a hand shake I said, "Thank you. Not right now."
It has been said that where there is no vision the people perish. Where there is vision, people from all walks of life have the opportunity to blend their talents, their abilities and their financial resources. As they do, they produce a substantial magnet that attracts others to become part of a process that Jesus said would save the world.
Here we do not coast and rely on what others have done before us. This is our watch. We have an addition to build. We have more mission projects to support. Just like we did with the canned goods, together we can move a mountain that some of us affectionately call "Our Y2K Spending Plan." Lois and I have decided to increase our giving to St. Matthew's by fifteen per cent. Will you join us?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever-present God, were we to count the number of opportunities that have come to us since birth, there would be time for little else. We have grown wiser. We have become more trusting of your presence. We have finally learned that as we sow, we reap. We have learned not to define ourselves by the symbols of this world. You have taught us that beauty, prosperity, and station mean nothing if admiration is what we seek. You have taught us how easily the world misrepresents your Kingdom. Heal the desires that magnify our insecurities. Inspire us to welcome your invitation to change the quality of our thoughts. Help us to take seriously the work that we do as a community of faith. Urge us to understand that what we value shows in how we live. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We come before you today, O God, knowing how many times our faith has transformed moments of pain into lessons of triumph. Our reversals have taught us patience. Hindsight has helped us define the "why" of life's many unexpected changes. Loneliness has taught us our need to give more of ourselves to others. Boredom has provided us with the motivation to make more plans and set higher goals. How can we ever thank you for creating us the way you have?
Each time we achieve anything, it is because we have discovered how to use what you have given us. We have discovered, also, that the moments in life that have truly mattered have been those when our trust in your love sustained us while our own abilities were weak, frail and undeveloped. May we always cherish the understanding that with you there is no mountain we cannot climb, no darkness that can permanently surround us, and no misadventure from which we cannot escape. You are there every step of our journey as we learn how to be more skilled at being the angels in the flesh Jesus called, "My disciples."
Today we ask for blessings on those who unite in membership with our church family. Often silently and unnoticed, each one will use their talents among us, making us all richer as a result. Continue to help us, O God, to create the atmosphere and environment at St. Matthew's where people feel safe, secure, and loved just as they are. We pray these thoughts through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .