"Faith, Our Greatest Tool"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/9/2000
II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Mark 6:1-6
First they were amazed. Next came their questions. "Where did he get all this? What wisdom is this that has been given him? How does he perform miracles? Isn't he the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren't his sisters living here?" And so they rejected him."
We may find those last five words a very strange conclusion. How could they hear everything they heard and see everything they saw and still reject the messenger? From our vantage point, such a conclusion does not fit their questions. But go back in time and sit where they were sitting. Listen to what they were listening to while pretending you had their background and training. You will discover that being open and willing to change your mind about the basis for your faith might be as big a challenge for you as it obviously was for them.
Years ago when Lois and I were preparing to spend several months in the Middle East on an archaeological dig, we were advised not to discuss religion or politics with the Jordanians. We were told that people in that part of the world tend to have such a passion about what they believe that they can become volatile if someone tries to discuss another point of view.
Should a person's faith ever evoke volatility in their spirit? It should promote just the opposite. If we have faith, the truth of that faith should show in our caring for others in spite of how they think or believe. When we examine our own life experience, however, we know that we do not have to travel overseas to find people who become uncomfortable while being in the presence of those whose beliefs differ.
Look at what frequently happens to people who move into our area. If they have been involved in a church prior to their move, they will eventually begin to shop around for a new place to worship. What is the tendency in most of us? Many times we are looking for a church family that uses all the familiar symbols, phrases and theology to which we have grown accustomed for most of our lives.
It is interesting how little things can communicate comfort or discomfort. If we really admit it to ourselves, we do not like change. And we can become very skeptical of any message that does not sound like the one we have grown accustomed to hearing for years. Those home-town folks in Nazareth were no different. They did not want their thinking and beliefs disturbed.
When I was a student working my way through the school system, I soon discovered that math was an area of real struggle. I would have preferred to stay with simple addition and subtraction. Then the times tables came along. Then there was long division. Then there were postulates and theorems in geometry that had to be memorized. I kept thinking, "I'm never going to use this stuff. Why do I have to learn it?" And then when the calculator came along, I was in heaven!
But suppose during those years of growing academically, I was allowed to shop around for a class that was still teaching addition and subtraction. It would have been a wonderful find. Everything I had been taught would have been there. I could solve problems and get correct answers on all my tests. Indeed, I would have found comfort and security.
Unfortunately, life is not like that. Our problems are not solved by staying with what makes us comfortable. We grow by having our thinking challenged, by leaving the security of our families and by learning how to stretch in unfamiliar circumstances. Our experiences constantly require that we surrender cherished beliefs in order to move on to thoughts and feelings that help us become more responsible, caring people. A number of religious people have placed a great emphasis on "correct theology" without regard to the impact such thinking may have on how they behave toward others.
Most of us are constantly adjusting our beliefs. We quickly learn that not all people are kind and polite. We learn that success in life is something we have to achieve. We learn that when we make mistakes, we have to live with the consequences. We learn that God is not partial to some people; death comes to children as well as to the elderly. We learn that what we want from God may be something God has already given. We are just not accessing it. Life forces us to make adjustments to what we believe. There would be no growth otherwise.
It was a lack of openness in his listeners that caused Jesus to say, "Prophets are respected everywhere except in their own hometown and by their relatives and their family." Up until this time, the Jews had been trained, educated, and conditioned to the idea that obedience to the Law is what produced their saving relationship with God. Their fear of being lost held them fast to teachings that represented hundreds of years of tradition. The Law made them comfortable because it was familiar. Besides, the Law had been handed down by Moses himself.
Jesus' understanding of God had moved him beyond his own traditions. His ministry was to teach people new insights into the human spirit without also giving them the message that he was setting aside the importance of the Law. To his people, Jesus' words were too different. The people could not understand the difference between "their need to conform to the Law" and what Jesus was teaching. Jesus' message described what would happen to the spirit of his listeners if they made choices from a thought system based on love, not Law.
Look what happened as a result of their lack of openness. Verses 5 and 6 say it all. "He was not able to perform any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them. He was greatly surprised, because the people did not have faith."
What did Jesus mean by saying, ". . . people did not have faith." Certainly they had faith. In fact, their strong faith formed the basis for their rejection of Jesus. It was their fierce loyalty to the Law that prevented them from accepting Jesus' message.
Frequently, people joining our church will ask, "What do United Methodists believe?" In anticipation of this question, Patti and I distribute our Social Principles and the doctrines of our denomination. Answering that question only supplies new members with information. The greater question is, "What do you believe and do your beliefs enable you to radiate the quality of energy Jesus described in his teachings?"
Those in Jesus' hometown knew "the social principles and the doctrines" of their "denomination." However, that knowledge was just enough to prevent them from moving forward into the new realm of possibilities that Jesus said was possible. Their "faith" had become the source of their inability to grow spiritually.
To the home folks, Jesus' words represented a mockery of what God had done through Moses. Ultimately, this kind of thinking was one of the contributing factors that led to Jesus' crucifixion. History shows that yesterday's "heresy" tends to become today's Gospel. People are seldom generous, forgiving or kind when they meet people with vision. Remember, the horse- and-buggy people laughed at Henry Ford.
One of the greatest things we have to learn is the meaning of the word "faith." In order for faith to become our ally, our friend, and our greatest tool, we have to move in our thinking beyond any theology that we endow with the ability to save us. No particular belief saves us, anymore than believing and practicing the Law could save the Jews. We are saved from this life by the love of God, period! This is what Jesus came to teach us. If we do not have this understanding, we will always be searching for a more correct way to believe, or for some formula of salvation that sounds more perfect than the one we currently hold.
When I entered the ministry, I had no idea what would greet our family. We had been through the death of Lois' brother in an automobile accident as he and his wife were coming to visit us. We were moved from our church in Cheverly to a rural church in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Then, once again we were uprooted and sent to an inner-city church on Capitol Hill.
Prior to our move to the District of Columbia, we decided to leave our son in Martinsburg so he could finish his junior and senior years in high school. That decision created an enormously painful period of adjustment for our family. And now we are here. In fact, it was five years ago today that Lois and I came to you. Our first day at St. Matthew's was our wedding anniversary just as it is today.
As we tried to live Jesus' definition of "faith," we discovered that it had little to do with our beliefs. Faith has everything to do with the One in whom we entrust everything. Faith as trust causes us to thank God every moment for God's marvelous healing and energizing presence that fills our cups to overflowing. God is all we can trust when our lives our being propelled in a direction outside of our control.
We do not have to know where life is taking us. We do not have to experience our lives unfolding in the timely fashion we would prefer. And we do not have to worry whether or not we are saved. Jesus once said something that is most insightful in this regard. He said, "I assure you of this, unless you are able to receive the Kingdom of God like a child, you shall not enter it."
What do children know about any theology of salvation? A child understands and trusts that her parents will always love her in spite of her grouchy days, in spite of her failures, and in spite of moments when clearly she is lacking in good judgment. Faith is that childlike trust that God holds on to us and will never let us go.
It is this kind of understanding that has brought Lois and me to this day. Life has always been out of control. Variables occur in the life of Patti and me that most time managers could not deal with. We are on 24-hour call, 7 days a week. Yet there is peace that comes once we stopped trying to control our lives. We accept what comes. We attempt to bring our best to each moment.
Think of the possibilities. There is so much we do not have to know or try to solve. God will do what is necessary through us. Having this understanding of God in our lives is like getting that calculator when I had become discouraged with math. We no longer have to understand the "why" of life when we know that in every circumstance there will always be something for us to do. It is this understanding that causes our "faith" to become our greatest tool.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that you have created us with the ability to be surprised by the unexpected. We feel joy at the spontaneous hug of a child. We feel challenged when life requires the use of a skill we have not yet developed. We experience strong emotion when someone expresses their love of us. We feel sudden peace when a relationship is healed. How wonderful it is when we discover that such possibilities were around us all the time. It was we who were too preoccupied with life's maze of distractions to notice them. We thank you for your constant presence, for your chipping away at the walls we have built, and for your never-ending desire to be one with us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and always loving God, these moments of worship are so often distracted by thoughts that dart through our minds which have little to do with why we are here. There is so much in our world that demands our attention, and so we are often here in body but not in spirit. Yet we thank you for loving us just as we are, and for knowing how to send a shaft of light through the cracks so that we are nurtured and fed in ways we may not understand.
Some of us have concerns at work for which few solutions appear visible. There are issues in our family relationships that invite us to worry. We have friends who will not come to church with us because they are uncertain how spiritual alternatives would fit into their universe of understanding. And there are times, O God, when we hear Jesus telling us to remain as a light that is set on a hill and we are confused about what he was asking of us.
We find ourselves without a lot of answers. Yet it is a strange comfort when we realize that everyone who has ever walked this earth has stood right where we are, even the disciples of Jesus, even the Apostle Paul and all others who allowed their faith to remain a matter of constant growth. Teach us, O God, why it is important to stretch our understanding and expand the horizons of our faith. Teach us what it is like to experience the simple trust children have of their parents, so that we might enter your Kingdom without all the "what ifs" that challenge our thinking. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .