"Results Always Come From Skills"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/17/1999

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

     Yesterday at 2:00 p.m. friends, colleagues, and members of the family gathered in our sanctuary to celebrate Pam Brophy's life. Pam died of breast cancer on Wednesday at the age of 40. She was a very quiet, reflective woman, who discovered an outlet for her deep love of music by singing with our choir. She seldom missed a practice or a Sunday service. Since most of you did not know her, I want to tell you about some of her gifts. Pam surprised me every time I visited her. She was not as quiet as I first believed. In fact, she was most articulate with thoughts about her spiritual life. For example, she knew she did not have cancer, her body did. She had no fear about leaving her body. Dying, to Pam, was one more adventure to be experienced, and she did not want to miss any of it. Sometimes she even played with it, knowing how seriously most of us take the process of dying.

     When I learned of her love for vanilla ice cream, I made her a quart each time I visited. Once I neglected to do so, and she said, "I can't believe you didn't bring it. Here I lie. I am blind. I can't walk. I am dying. And you neglected to bring my ice cream! What more does a person have to do?" I responded, "Gosh, Pam. I feel about two inches high." She said, "And well you should! Now let's get that ice cream over here." Then her stern look melted into that warm smile that reached out and pulled you into her heart. She was so much fun to visit.

     During the period of her illness, Pam was always in control. Her confidence, her sharpness of wit, and her determination to live were remarkable. She had a well-defined understanding about life and about her relationship with God long before cancer began to make its presence known. She brought into her life many skills that she had been acquiring and deepening all of her life. She was well immersed in her faith. She knew she was not her body nor the sum total of all earthly experiences. Much about her was not of this world, and it showed.

     My point is this: Where did she develop the skills to live this way? What enabled her to remain so incredibly confident and peaceful during the period when her life force was growing weaker as the weeks and months passed?

     This morning we are going to examine the text, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." What does it mean to "Render unto God the things that are God's"? What Pam Brophy had developed is what people search for most of their lives. She had peace and trust, plus that sense of wonder and adventure even during the process of leaving her physical form. Where do such skills begin their growth? Then, how do these skills become reinforced in our lives?

     Our first acquaintance and orientation to such abilities begins in the home. But there is a problem in most homes. New parents obviously have never been parents before. Often times they have read the books, but do they know enough about who they are to make those valuable imprints during the first six years of their child's life? Young parents are so innocent. Being a little off in their own life skills, however, may seem harmless. It is not!

     If NASA were trying to land a science package on Mars and the trajectory was off by one degree at launch, it would miss the planet by thousands of miles. But if that Mars probe is fed accurate data and if it is able to make various course corrections along the way, the journey will be successful. Several weeks ago we saw the result when our Mars probe was not given the correct information. It crashed on the planet's surface.

     There is no question that this generation of parents struggles with decisions many of us never had to make. For example, what information is being taught when children are playing soccer on Sunday morning? What information is being taught when Mom and Dad sleep in on those long weekends at the seashore? Quite often the kids are aware of the little church on the corner. They may be hoping Mom and Dad did not see it. Children learn to duplicate what their parents value, rather than what their parents say they value.

     Today, it is too easy to put God on a shelf with other wonderful ideas. Nearly everyone in America believes in God, but not everyone is used to having God in their consciousness on a daily basis. Daily devotions, prayers, open discussions are often neglected in families. People have such busy schedules that many families do not eat meals together. During the process of growing up, children can easily miss being taught the faith of Mom and Dad.

     For example, God may have nothing to do with how they behave during cheerleader practice. God may not be a consideration when couples are tempted to be intimate during a time when Mom and Dad are not home. God may not be real when compromise appears to be the price of entrance into a new group of friends. How should they think if they have not been taught? Do our children know they are in charge of their lives, or have they learned that it is more important to please and find acceptance from the peanut gallery of changing faces?

     It is so easy to be molded by the command performances seemingly required by the world's many voices. Those same voices are often not around to heal us when the consequences of our poor judgment take their toll. We call many of these episodes in life "rites of passage," but if faith is not among them, where do we learn what it is we are to render unto God?

     Course deviations occur so slowly that we do not recognize them. Add to this the fact that most of us have an element or two of self-sabotage lurking within us and the stage is set for the unexpected spiral of what we value. People do not deliberately set out to destroy their families, their livelihoods, or their destinies. However, we have this amazing ability to justify our decisions based on a neediness that says, "Go ahead. You deserve this. You need this."

     For example, newlyweds who just promised their faithfulness to each other are not thinking about the possibility of one day having an affair with someone in the office. They are not lonely and feeling needy then.

     Young fathers and mothers are not aware of how easily their skills at substantive communication slip away. They were taking walks together then, while pushing strollers. They were totally lost in enthusiastic conversation during those early years. Why is it that much later, so many couples have become strangers? How did that happen?

     People working hard for promotions are not interested in hearing about their needs at retirement. Today they enjoy spending money and reveling in their success. How many of us are really ready for tomorrow? Where does that wake-up call come from during the days of abundance?

     The same slow process of erosion can happen to our faith. Course deviations can be corrected when we keep a vigilant eye on who it is we want to be. Remaining active in the church is a way of staying grounded and centered in our faith. The church has recognized what the rest of society has missed--the quality of our spiritual life governs everything else.

     What is interesting is that church is often the last place people think about when the skies are blue and the sun shines brightly. We love it when nothing is on the horizon to challenge our confidence. When something suddenly appears, however, will we be as prepared as was Pam Brophy?

     It is easy to make those early tee times on Sunday morning. It is easy to pull those covers up around our necks for one more day of relaxation before the grind starts again on Monday morning. It is easy in our haste to let our prayer life fade. It is easy to believe that we know enough about our relationship with God to assume we no longer need to attend Sunday School. When such practices are put end to end, a small, unrecognizable deviation in our course begins to widen.

     The truth is that if we do not develop the skills to manage our lives, our lives will manage us. This process is part of creation. We were given a teaching tool, one that encourages us to sharpen our skills, while teaching us what it is we are to render unto God. Actually, we cannot thrive in this life without doing so. The rule is, "As you sow, so shall you reap." Our church family can remind us of this.

     Each time we come up against a situation in life for which we are not prepared, that circumstance is preaching to us. Why are we not prepared? Who held us back? Who prevented us from discovering and developing the skills of spirit? Should we blame Mom and Dad for not guiding us more appropriately? We could, but that would be as accurate as blaming the golf course for being there.

     Remember, every day is an opportunity for us to make a course correction. Rendering unto God the things that are God's is nothing more than living with and expressing all the gifts God gave us at birth. When we do, our lives soar. There is so much we can give back in a spirit of thanksgiving. Life becomes bountiful when we render unto God the things that are God's. That is how creation was designed.

     Once there was a young Korean boy who made his way to the United States during a challenging time in his country's history. A church group had made it possible for him to board a ship bound for New York. A new American family would be awaiting his arrival. He had longed to see the Statue of Liberty and yet he was so afraid for his life.

     He smuggled two large loaves of bread on to the ship. He ate small portions late at night carefully rationing the bread and trusting he would have enough to survive the trip across the Atlantic. He arrived with a little crust to spare.

     As he was preparing to disembark, he confided to one of his friends what he had done. His friend said, "Do you mean that you did not know about the food on this ship?" The Korean boy said, "No, what about the food?" His friend responded, "It was all free. You could have eaten anything you wanted and as much as you wanted. Food was included in the price of your ticket." He simply did not know. No one had told him. Had he only decided to share what he had, he would have learned of the greater truth that he was surrounded with abundance.

     When we render unto God the things that are God's, we place ourselves in harmony with God's Spirit. Everything was included in the cost of our ticket when we came to the earth. As we give away our gifts, they increase. Kindness only grows. Generosity only grows. Forgiveness only grows. Patience and peace deepen who we are. We become teachers without having to speak. Our confidence and trust that God is in charge radiates from us.

     Everything about God's creation pushes us, urges us, points for us so that we might grow. It is all here and it is all free. All we have to do is give away what we have. Render unto God the things that are God's. Only by doing so will we know that we have even more to give.


     As we gather for worship, O God, we come from a world surrounded by contrasts. We experience both well-loved and lonely people. We live with both whole and needy people. We observe people open to possibilities, as well as those who constantly worry. We live in a world where people exhibit confidence or insecurity, generosity or greed, authenticity or their ability to act. We know what we desire for ourselves, while realizing that our world sends so many mixed signals. Thank you, God, for using contrasts to guide our lives. Thank you for providing us with the warning signs of loneliness, neediness, and worry. Lead us to shed the cocoons that keep us small and entombed. Inspire us to choose the flight of spirit that produces what we were destined to be. As we follow Jesus Christ, may we do so with enthusiasm and joy. Amen.


     Eternal God, in the quiet of these moments, help us achieve a stillness of spirit so that we can sense the reverence and peace that we desire. How grateful we are that your love is like a sponge that absorbs our past misdeeds, the words we have said in haste, and the times we knowingly broke our promise of remaining faithful to you. Your son taught us how to forgive 70 times 7, and sometimes the knowledge of our own clay feet causes us to forget that the lesson of unconditional forgiveness came from you.

     What would we do if we did not have others to remind us of all that you created us to be? This morning we come to thank you for our church family. How often we take St. Matthew's for granted. And yet we all want what our church family helps us to become.

     Sometimes we are given permission to laugh a little more. Sometimes we volunteer to become a part of all that happens here in mission. Sometimes we stumble in our lives and it takes the guidance and understanding of others to help us find our way again. There are times when our spirits are nourished, and there are occasions when others are nourished by who we are.

     May we realize that life is far richer and productive because love has been the key that unlocked the doors to so many lives whose presence may have gone unrecognized. Show us, O God, what happens to life when generosity converts our loving thoughts into action, action that tell the others who we are. We are the disciples of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .