"Be Careful of Those Expectations"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 19, 2001
Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29--12:2
In our culture we have grown accustomed to hearing the suggestion that our economic prosperity and well-being are an outgrowth of our faithfulness to God. If our bounty truly comes from God, what is to be said of the faithful who know only biting poverty, depravation, and ill-health?
One of our customs is to say grace at mealtime. We thank God for "blessing us" with an abundance of every kind of vegetable, fruit, and meat. In fact, some of us find ourselves "so blessed" that we could stand to lose 15 to 20 pounds and never miss it. If a broader truth were known, many Americans are killing themselves because of "how blessed we are" with our vast abundance of food.
Routinely, we hear our politicians end their speeches with "God Bless America." Such words sound wonderful, but what do they mean? Are they saying that they want God to continue giving us every kind of convenience, opportunity, and prosperity? We are "so blessed," that with only 6 percent of the world's population, we Americans manage each year to consume 85 percent of the world's natural resources. Does God really have anything to do with such "blessedness?"
Earlier this month, I received a letter from two of my colleagues. The letter was addressed to "Pastors and Administrative Board Chairs." Our Annual Conference is experiencing a financial shortfall because a number of churches have fallen behind in paying their apportionments.
The letter stated, "Timely apportionment contributions enable us to avoid serious cash-flow problems and to fully fund the vital ministries of our Conference." Then the letter said, "Some congregations, blessed by the Lord, will want to contribute more than their apportioned amount to support our connectional ministries." This statement implies that churches that are also experiencing financial challenges may not be so blessed by God.
When we receive such a steady diet of messages that link prosperity with how God "blesses" the faithful, we forget that Jesus said, "The Son of Man has no place to lay his head." We need to be very careful that we do not find ourselves expecting a particular quality to our material lives based on what and how we believe God rewards people.
Where did such a belief have its birth? Such thinking has its roots in the Hebrew Bible where Joseph rose from slavery to become second in command in Egypt because he never doubted God's presence in his life. We remember how Moses found favor with God and was empowered to stand confidently before Pharaoh. He eventually secured the release of his people.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil or spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more cloth you, O people of little faith?" Then he taught, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well."
We have no shortage of Scriptural references that align material prosperity with God's activity among the faithful. The Book of Hebrews, however, communicates a more balanced understanding. This morning we are going to examine faith as a quality of spirit that remains independent from the material aspects of our environment.
After talking about the mighty acts of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, the author of Hebrews wrote that they received what God had promised. He said, "They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, and escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak and became strong; they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners."
The author then turned the page on those "so blessed" and recalled events where the righteous were mocked, whipped, put in chains, imprisoned, stoned, and cut in half. This author was well aware of stories circulating in the oral traditions of his people.
For example, 2 Chronicles 24:20f tells how Zachariah was stoned to death because he dared to tell his listeners the truth. Legend has it that Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt by those who once revered him as a prophet of God. There was also a well-known story of the prophet of Isaiah who was cut in half by a wood saw on orders given by the Hebrew King, Manasseh.
The drama of Isaiah's death was graphically recorded in this non-biblical passage, "While the saw cut into his flesh, Isaiah never uttered a single complaint nor shed a tear. He continued to commune with the Holy Spirit until the saw reached the middle of his body."
The Book of Hebrews celebrated people who continued to do mighty deeds while withstanding torture and experiencing agonizing deaths because of their faith. The writer even ended this passage with a focus on Jesus' willingness to die in public disgrace on a cross, the means of death reserved only for criminals of the worst kind. His words were pointing to faith as a quality of spirit that does not link itself to any expectations of being materially rewarded by God.
Last week at all three worship services our mission team of 30 brought us stories of families who had been economically decimated by recent floods in Sophia, West Virginia. People were forced to face enormous health issues caused by their exposure to human waste and the toxic spores from mold, yet their personalities radiated with a spirit of joy. Once again, those who had the most to give returned having received a different perspective on what faith looks like.
What many of the early Hebrews and Christians had was a wealth of spirit, a wealth not based on abundance or prosperity. They had patience, but the particular Greek word for this quality of spirit is difficult to translate into English. The word literally means "steadfast endurance." It does not mean patience that enables people to sit down and accept life as it comes. It does not mean patience that suggests that people have to grin and bear it because this, too, shall pass. The Greek word here means a patience that enables people to master life's events.
Obstacles will not thwart it; delays will not depress it; discouragements will not remove its hope. When such steadfast endurance operates in life, people of faith can forge their way into the future with a power similar to dandelions that grow up through asphalt or to seeds that sprout with boulder-shattering strength. Their spirits are never defeated even if they are cut in half by a wood saw. This is the faith the author of Hebrews wanted his readers to examine and understand.
Consider some of our more fragile moments of life. For whatever reason our marriage failed or a child died. Perhaps a day came when we discovered that we are expendable; we lost our job as our company was downsizing. We retired and no one remembered or cared. Perhaps we have been healthy all our lives and suddenly we have an intestinal blockage. Our boyfriend of two years wandered away with one of the cheerleaders. Our military parents are moving from Bowie to San Diego and this fall we were to begin our senior year in high school.
Life-changing events are constant and the quality of such experiences should not be used as a gauge to measure God's love of us. Typically our responses to such experiences have everything to do with our expectations of life, God, and our loved ones. However, when we have the kind of faith described in our lesson, we will have mastered what to expect from ourselves when the scenery and participants in our lives change.
Faith can move mountains and calm angry seas. Faith will also equip us to hold on tightly to timeless values when others appear to be pursuing illusions that cannot possibly meet their expectations. The writer of Hebrews wanted his readers to know this and to find courage to pass this understanding of faith on to future generations.
This writer provided his readers with a mystical image in the closing portion of our lesson. The faithful who have experienced either material success or a martyr's death all form a cloud of witnesses around us. He suggested that we are never alone in manifesting the Kingdom of God on earth. The enormous energy for holding on to our steadfast endurance is partially provided by all those who have gone before us.
There have been a number of evenings when I have walked through our church alone at night in the dark. While doing so, I have experienced what others have told me about our church. There is an energy in our building perhaps left by all those who have ever been a part of our church family.
While walking, I open myself to everything that has happened here since this site was merely a partially-wooded parcel of real estate. Think of the risks others took with their hopes, dreams, and vision. Think of their financial commitment through the years just so generations not yet born might have a spiritual learning center from which to launch countless mission projects.
I think of the new three-story educational wing we are building. Soon each of us will be part of that cloud of witnesses referenced by the writer of Hebrews. We are continuing the work of all those who have gone before us. We have prepared today for a future that may not remember the names of any of us. Will that matter? No. It is what we do together today that gives form to our faith.
Mike League stopped into my office on Thursday and provided a perfect example of this. He informed me that John Bain died in Fern Park, Florida at the age of 82. John's obituary was in the most recent Bowie Blade News. Mike told me about the leadership roles John held in our church when Tom Starnes was your pastor. Since I have been here, I never once heard his name mentioned. But it does not matter that his name has faded from the institutional memory of St. Matthew's.
When John died he was the head usher in his United Methodist Church in Winter Park. Some of us stay at St. Matthew's a long time. Others of us pass through our church on our journey to pollinate another part of the world with a faith that makes visible our love of God. Is it possible that all of us energize our church, making it a living, always-changing creation that promotes acceptance and healing?
When we understand that God works through us, our faith needs nothing else. That is how God raised up Moses, John Wesley, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The author of Hebrews told us that the list of names in his day was endless. The same is so today.
God dwells within us. When we trust that, we will enter all our changing experiences with the courageous faith our world so desperately needs to see. This is leadership! This is discipleship! Is each of us ready to display such faith, having surrendered any thought of being materially rewarded because of it? We will always experience moments of feast and famine, mansions and huts, understanding and confusion. In the face of such changing moments, is our faith ready to show its power and strength?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
How is it, O God, that we can focus our attention so effectively during this one hour, and re-enter the world as if we were not nourished? How is it that we can put our lives into compartments, saying, "This for God and this for coping with the 'real' world?" How is it that we can pray, "Forgive us in the same manner that we forgive others," and treat so lightly the significance of our words? O God, help us understand that each experience defines us. Spare us from feeling either "blessed" or "abandoned" by you. Guide us away from such judgments. Help us understand that each of the bittersweet elements of life will change while your love of us cannot. Whether it rains or shines, may we live our lives from a place that radiates trust, confidence and peace. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever-faithful God, thank you for these moments of stillness and reflection. As each one of us tunes in to what is happening in our world, in our communities, and in our personal lives, we wonder if our experience is any different from the days when Jesus lived. And yet we are here today because we have taken seriously his invitation to live in a spirit that is very different from what so many others display.
We admit that we are challenged nearly every day to resist turning the other cheek, praying for those who hurt, abuse and destroy, and choosing to remain the leaven for the loaf. This is not easy work. There are moments when we feel compelled to force our truth on to others, particularly when their lives do not appear to be working for them. And yet the great paradox remains that Jesus had the answer, and Judas appeared unable to hear it.
Enable us, O God, to live our lives so that other people find it easier to be kind and gracious. May the loving energy we radiate help others to make decisions that bring them peace and confidence. Help us hold steadfastly to our trust that you are working your perfect will in each of us even when our physical senses tell us otherwise. Thank you for the witness to such confidence that Jesus displayed as he was leaving our world, nailed to a cross. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .