"We Follow Only When We See"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/29/2000

Job 42:1-6; Mark 10:46-52


     When I was a little boy I can remember a number of emotionally-charged discussions within my family concerning the habits of my grandmother. My Grandma Fisher was a very strong-willed woman, and that is putting it mildly. She had lots of opinions and never winced at telling anyone willing to listen what was on her mind. The word "stubborn" was frequently used in describing her inability to accept possibilities and alternatives different from her point of view. There was only one way to consider anything and that was her way.

     One of the odd things she did was insist that she pay her bills on the day they were due. Most creditors would welcome such a woman; however, there was another variable. She insisted on traveling to the oil company or electric company and paying them in cash. In her later years, when she was no longer able to drive herself, this habitual practice meant that someone had to take her or she would ride public transportation.

     My grandmother had lived through the Great Depression, a period in our country's history that started with the crash of the stock market in 1929. The savings of my grandparents were in one of the many banks that failed. There was no FDIC in those days so people who trusted in such banks lost everything. My grandmother never recovered emotionally from that experience.

     To my grandmother's thinking, the banks had beaten her at the money game. She had a very competitive spirit. Once she became committed to a cause, she never looked back. As long as she was able, she never again trusted a bank with her money. The memory of losing everything shaped her understanding and blunted her ability to trust financial institutions.

     Many of us have had experiences in our lives that made indelible impressions on us. We have mental snapshots that can take us back to the exact moment when someone or something created such an impressionable moment. Some of those experiences were so significant that, like the failure of a bank for my grandmother, they fashioned our world view, our attitudes, and many of the responses we call automatic.

     Let me give you another example. I always enjoy having discussions with people who are non-believers. In fact I enjoy those moments far more than with people who have that unshakable faith of Job. The stories of their own spiritual journeys are often fascinating. In many instances they have developed conclusions similar to my own, but they arrived there from a very different path.

     When living in Cheverly I remember working with a woman who was an avowed atheist. She cringed each time someone offered a prayer. She frequently overreacted with agitation when she was in the presence of Christians. Her younger sister was in my youth group at the time and had recruited me to participate in her sister's medical research project. That presented the occasion for the two of us to meet.

     She came to my office to explain what would be expected of me during the experiment and during those moments, she disclosed her thoughts about what I did for a living. I had been tipped off by her sister that she might do that. She confessed her confusion with how intelligent, likable people could honor a God that would allow Jesus to be crucified. How could they honor a God that would permit people who had something of substance to communicate to be martyred, and who apparently had ordered the death of people by the Israelites simply because they had been taught all their lives to honor another god.

     What surfaced during our discussion was a behavioral reaction she had never considered. Her father had wanted a boy as their first child, and his unrecognized anger over her arrival outcropped in numerous forms throughout her childhood. When she heard references to God as "Father," they brought back hundreds of snapshots of the only father she knew. And when she discovered that many of the same shortcomings of her father were also in the God many people worshiped, she chose for the rest of her life to disavow any references that would place such a being at the heart of anything she valued.

     What eventually happened to her was the same thing that happened to Bartimaeus in our Gospel lesson this morning. Once she was able to interpret events in her past with more understanding, she understood the source of her hatred for God. Like Bartimaeus, once she was able to see, she followed.

     This morning we are going to be looking at our lives together and how our experience of God as revealed through Jesus has produced dramatic results. Those results would not have developed in our lives had God not been part of our life's equation.

     Let us first review our lesson. Like the two previous illustrations, blindness can make a life-shaping, indelible impression on those who were born into such circumstances. Bartimaeus obviously wanted to see. When he learned that Jesus was approaching his village, he screamed, "Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!" Villagers observing his rude behavior tried to silence him. He only screamed louder. Once he got Jesus' attention, the crowd said, "Cheer up! He wants to talk to you."

     Jesus heard his request and gave the man the ability to see. Our lesson says, "And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way." This is not some idle story that is being taken out of context here to support a point. Bartimaeus became one of the many witnesses who would later testify about Jesus' ability to heal.

     Closer to the time of Jesus' crucifixion, authorities were trying to gather evidence against him. They brought Bartimaeus before them. They wanted him to say certain things about Jesus and he refused. As they kept badgering him for answers, he finally said, "Look, I don't know how to answer your questions. All I know is that once I was blind and now I see." (John 9:25)

     If we could not also say this, I doubt we would be in our sanctuary this morning. Even though we have all felt the pangs of doubt and have endured stages during our lives where we have asked the question, "Is anyone really listening to me?", most of us have surrendered to the hope and understanding that there was. And there have been times when true mystical experiences have come and we learned to trust that God's spirit surrounds us. Our joy this morning is that we gather on Sunday mornings to celebrate this truth.

     God does not exist, however, to fill up the holes in our lives. It is not part of God's identity to become our life raft each time we fear our boat is sinking. If God intended to live our lives for us, there would have been little point in creating us. What fills us, inspires us, and motivates us is our experience of God.

     Yes, Bartimaeus was given eyesight, but Jesus did not decide at that point to make all his choices for him for the rest of his life. Because of his vision, Bartimaeus had different choices he had to make. He could no longer earn his livelihood, for example, by sitting next to the Temple gate and beg for money. He had to produce results in his life. He had to demonstrate that his gift of sight had made a difference.

     A number of days ago Carol Hulen showed me a booklet that had been printed with the date June, 1964 on the cover. The front read, "St. Matthew's Methodist Church Bowie, Maryland. C. Alan Hogle, Pastor." Upon opening it, the first page featured this statement, "1965 Budget Goal $27,140" But more revealing than the budget figure was the picture above it.

     The picture showed a wooded parcel of land with a sign that was angled so traffic coming and going along Rt. 450 could read it. The sign said, "Future Home of St. Matthew's Methodist Church." Where our sanctuary is now located there was nothing more than tall trees and scrub pine. Among the names listed in the back of that booklet are eight people who are still with us.

     Go back in time in your mind and join that group of charter members for a moment. They are standing there looking at that piece of property and dreaming about what they might build there. They were looking at the numbers of their budget and wondering if they could raise that amount.

     What we know now is that all of them took risks of faith and gave of their time, talents, passion, and possessions to make the dream of St. Matthew's become real. Dreams only become real when we roll up our sleeves to make them happen. God does not build churches. Inspired people do.

     Guy and Maggie LeVee were two of those eight people. Maggie was the first Director of our Early Education Center. Both of them have been in business together for a number of years designing and overseeing the installation of elevators in buildings all over our country. They are donating their engineering-skills for the elevator that will go into our new wing. They were there 35 years ago standing among the dreamers and believers and they are here today still standing among us as we dream and believe.

     The point is that no one would be dreaming about possibilities were it not for the fact that each of us has experienced the grace of God in some way. It is that experience that inspires us to be a part of what happens here. Budgets never inspire anyone. Seeing numbers cause the eyes of many of us to glaze over. However, when our lives have been touched by God, when our children and teenagers have been given a place to learn about what has been revealed through Jesus, and when we sense our responsibility motivating us to create more space because of our growth -- that is what inspires us to step up and do our part.

     Jesus gave Bartimaeus the ability to see. Yes, that experience had an enormous impact on him. It demonstrated Jesus' compassion for the blind man. The larger looming question, one that remained unanswered by the Scriptures, was this: How would he express his gratitude? Our lesson reminds us that he followed Jesus.

     All during Jesus' ministry, lots of people followed him. As we are well aware, real commitment among those followers was rare. When something was required of them, many faded into the background of the greatest drama ever to unfold. The Church has survived because as people followed they did something that made a difference to the future. Through the centuries, followers of Jesus built churches and hospitals. They established foundations and developed mission fields. They brought into being Hospice, allowing people to leave their bodies with dignity.

     Last week we received a Conference mailing on scholarships for United Methodist students. Among the documents was a legal-sized sheet listing 123 United Methodist colleges, universities, and seminaries. The list included names that most of us would easily recognize, American, Boston, Duke, Drew, and Syracuse Universities. The listing of our denomination's hospitals is equally inspiring.

     This morning I am asking all of you to be more than a follower of Jesus. I am asking you to be a financial participant in what happens here at St. Matthew's because you are a follower of Jesus Christ. Our spending plan is not just for bricks and mortar, electricity and water, and salaries and future mission projects. Our spending plan represents a dream that will keep on giving and providing for others long after most of us have died. That is what others have done for us. Let us together make that dream come true. With the continued presence of God in our lives, I have no doubt that our inspiration will enable our dream to become visible.


     We come this morning with spirits desiring to hear your voice. Yet we confess that your voice is one among many. Your voice tells us to let go when we desire to hold on. Your voice asks that we forgive when we want to nurse our wounds. Your voice asks that we trust you when we want control. Your words tell us that there is no other God but we pursue self-esteem, accomplishment, and creature comforts. Your voice asks that we give generously of our means, but frequently we turn away sorrowful for we have many possessions. Your voice tells us to reveal you to others, while we struggle with our own need for approval. Thank you for accepting us as we are while pointing to the horizons we have yet to reach. Amen.


     This morning as we gather, O God, we are humbled by our lack of accountability as followers of Jesus, yet we celebrate your desire to love us just as we come. We thank you every day for the vast number of opportunities that you place before us the moment we awaken. We can choose patience over frustration. We can elect the response of service over our own need for approval. We can be deliberate in our forgiveness rather than engaging in our often silent need for justice and apologies.

     How grateful we are for Jesus who taught us about you. We are grateful that he not only called us to follow him, but also to make disciples of those who have fallen in love with the gods of this world. Guide us and teach us. Inspire and motivate us to stand forth in our desire to give expression to our faith. May we be doers of the word and not merely stand among those who have heard it.

     Today as we consider our financial commitment to St. Matthew's, may each of us remember our own spiritual evolution. May we recall those Sunday School teachers who focused us when we were wanting to be somewhere else. May we remember prayers offered for us when we felt vulnerable. May we recall the miracle of your forgiving presence when we were convinced that we had stumbled tragically. Accept our generosity, O God, as a sign of our gratitude to you for all that we have experienced. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .