"We Cannot Fake Faithfulness"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 2/7/1999
Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58:1-9a
Consider the people in Isaiah's day. In our lesson God is telling Isaiah to shout as loud as he can about Israel's sins. Why was he to shout? God wanted the Israelites to know that their faithfulness was counterfeit. God says, "They worship me every day. They claim to be eager to know my ways. They want to obey my laws. They want me to give them just laws and they take pleasure in worshiping me." What could possibly be wrong with such a response?
The dialogue continues with the people's responses, "Why should we fast if the Lord never notices? Why should we go without food if God pays no attention?" Suddenly, their faithfulness becomes suspect. They need God's attention. They need God's approval. The failure of their faithfulness comes at the point of their needing a response from God. Many of us find ourselves with that same need. We, too, want a response from God. Neediness, however, always creates a sense of emptiness that does not easily go away.
Whenever we need something, our desire originates from a belief that we do not have it. That makes sense to us. Yet as strange as it appears, the result of needing anything, i.e., wanting something to come to us, is the very thought pattern that pushes what we want away.
This understanding may sound very strange and counter to much that we have been taught, but it is not strange at all. It is fact. This is the way life works. For example, when we try to please God, we are telling ourselves that God is not pleased unless we perform well, unless we believe a certain way or think certain thoughts. From that assumption, we begin searching for the right formula that will help God look upon us more favorably.
By thinking that way we fail to understand a major truth -- there has never been a moment when God has not loved each of us completely and without reservation. If this is true, why do so many people feel empty? The answer is that neediness prevents us from experiencing anything we want.
Think how neediness can manipulate our lives in an arena where many of us have had some experience. A number of single people, for example, are in search of a setting where they can meet other people. Today such people may do the bar scene. Many of them have designed their own personal ads, have logged on to the Internet, or have sought to become involved with various singles groups.
The mistake people make is to believe that they need someone to feel complete. This belief can cause them to postpone a lot of living. This belief may invite desperate thoughts to enter their minds, e.g., "I don't want to spend the rest of my life alone!" Such a fear may cause some people to form relationships that only further complicate their lives.
When anyone walks around with an empty cup saying, "I need someone to fill it" they are communicating and advertising their neediness. This can be the same with our relationship with God. Frequently the church has been labeled as having turned a deaf ear to the needs of single people, young married couples, or the elderly. However, laying the responsibility on the doorstep of the church for supplying answers to these groups is as unfair as scolding God. People often pray, "Why don't you send me someone? What must I do to please you? Give me something to do that will fill my emptiness." The problem, of course, is that God already has.
Over two thousand years ago God provided an answer to such longings in the book of Isaiah. God told Isaiah to preach that people must become the very thing they seek. For example, if we need love, we must give love. If we need to experience kindness, we need to give kindness. If we need friendship, we must give friendship. If we want to be more peaceful, we must give peacefulness. To walk around with an empty cup saying, "I need, I need" is to remain like that empty cup. If we experience frustration and desperation, that is the message we have been sending through the spirit by which we live. What we attract is more frustration and desperation.
The Scripture says, "The kind of worship I want is this: Share your food with the hungry. Open your homes to the homeless. Give clothes to those who have nothing." In essence God was saying, "Become to others what you want me to become to you and you will receive." From our lesson, listen to what God says will happen when we do. "Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond."
Is this an example of God suddenly having a change of mind when we jump through what appears to be a new set of hoops? Extending ourselves is not a new set of hoops. The fact is they are not hoops, or requirements or even acts of obedience. We do not need to win God's approval. This is a truth we have difficulty understanding. God has already given us approval. When we choose to extend ourselves, that is the moment we begin using all that God has already given us.
For example, rather than crying that we need more friends, we volunteer our services among those whose circumstances prevent them from having friends. Again, we do this not to please God but to honor God who gave us the ability to do it. Our need is met by extending ourselves. Jesus taught that having faith the size of a grain of mustard seed will enable us to cast the mountains in front of us into the sea. Jesus taught that the ones who enhance their lives are those who double their talents. We have to do something with what we have in order to receive anything.
It is sad that people walk around with an empty cup and become frustrated and despondent when no one will fill it. The truth is that life is boring only to boring people. Life is stagnant and depressing only to stagnant and depressed people.
We can say to them, "Hey, how would you like to build houses in Juarez, Mexico with some folks from the church? Have you read this exciting book? Would you like to go to a Smithsonian lecture? Would you like to learn about the Internet? Have you discovered all the night courses currently being offered by the University of Maryland?" And they say, "I know you are trying to be helpful. I'll be okay."
What are we to do with people who turn a deaf ear to the voice of adventure, to the voice telling them to get up and walk? How many people did Jesus heal because they moved when he told them to get up and walk? Think of the woman who wanted healing so badly that she took action just so she could touch the hem of his garment? God comes to us in a hundred different ways. Have we learned what all those ways look like?
People who need and yearn to be in a relationship have yet to learn how to be exciting and attractive when no one else is around. Should they not take care of that first before they try to place the responsibility for filling their cup on to someone else? This is the same expectation many people have of God. And that attitude is what makes their faithfulness counterfeit. With great sincerity they perform for God so that they might receive. Life does not work like that.
As we extend ourselves by polishing our skills and abilities, by discovering all the qualities with which God has equipped us, our neediness for something or someone to make us whole leaves us. We no longer find ourselves praying for an "A" when we are the ones who have repeatedly refused to do our homework. God loves us and would not have created us without everything we need to live a fruitful life. Every life form experiences this, why should we believe that we are somehow different?
Listen again to what Isaiah has God say, "Extend yourselves, then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you; my presence will protect you on every side." To experience this we must give away the very thing we believe we need. Amen.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for offering us so many opportunities each week to develop the skills of being angels in the flesh. Help us, O God, to purify our thoughts so that we may remain clear on our mission. Challenge us to remain gracious when we feel we have been ignored. Invite us to extend our love when we are tempted to want others to meet our needs. Inspire us to bring peace into our relationships when we want others to be of comfort to us. Empower us to give without counting the cost, to be a friend who expects nothing in return and to remain faithful in our trust of you when our outcomes are far from certain. May each of us live with such confidence that all doubts and fears will cease to exist. Enable us to walk into tomorrow knowing that your will is being done. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
With humble and grateful hearts, O God, we have come into this space to celebrate life and the vast number of possibilities you have given to us to reach for the stars. And we have learned that we can do that with a paint brush and canvass, with our telephones, our e-mails, our smiles, our choices and through our willingness to take risks.
Thank you for our confidence to step into the rapids of life, knowing that we no longer need to fear the sounds and the pull of the currents. Thank you for teaching us how to release to you the outcome of our next surgical procedure, our business decision, or our choice of life's next adventure.
Help us to move beyond the right and wrong of the law so we can think in terms of how best to serve, how best to make a positive difference, how best to redefine our discipleship so that our lives represent your presence in all that we do.
Inspire us to play big, to wear more smiles, to bring more laughter, and to spread more joy, while we seek those who know only their own shadows.
Thank you, God, for enabling us to sing our song, for together St. Matthew's produces harmony that invites others to sing too. We pray these thoughts of thanksgiving in the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .