"Value What We Value"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 28, 2001

Luke 18:9-14; Joel 2:23-29

     Most of us know how easy it is to talk about what we believe. We have opinions on almost every topic. And many times we share them even when unasked. But who do we become when we are confronted with ideas that are very different from the ones we hold? This morning we are going to be looking at how much we value what we claim we value.

     Two weeks ago we were discussing the skill of having patience during the Tuesday morning Bible study. Everybody believes that having patience is a wonderful gift of the spirit. We admire people who remain unflappable during circumstances we would judge as threatening, uncertain, or downright ugly. People who possess patience can make decisions and proceed to other tasks with such focus and centeredness that our admiration of them may even border on envy.

     We wonder, "How did they achieve such power?" "It's genetic," we say. We speculate that such people had parents who modeled such behavior. We believe that they were taught well by kindergarten and elementary school teachers. While such influences may have been contributing factors, patience was a choice that they made each time circumstances could just as easily have justified a hasty, knee-jerk reaction. Furthermore, such people build their skill of patience one decision at a time. Today they are masters at it. They have created a form that communicates what they value, allowing their patience to become visible.

     We live on many different levels of awareness. The only accurate way to learn the truth about ourselves is to observe how we respond as we face the requests of each day. Who are we anyway? Most of us feel we have a pretty good idea. But we really do not know until we are tested and tried and we must translate our thoughts and opinions into activity.

     There are many examples where what we believe about ourselves runs into difficulty when we have to step forward and produce. For example, we claim that we are extremely open-minded and flexible until someone interprets the Scriptures differently from what we have been taught, or someone's point of view stands in sharp contrast to our own.

     Perhaps such a person has had to watch an American burn our flag in protest over some decision our government has made. To complicate matters this observer may have lost a father or a brother in Vietnam defending freedom and human rights. Sometimes being open-minded and flexible is a challenge. Giving form to what we value is not as easy as we might suppose.

     People may say, "When I retire, I plan to travel to all the places I have always wanted to go." Yet as a number of studies of our population suggest, just the opposite is true. People who never traveled while they worked, tend not to travel after retirement. They never took the time to acquire the risk-taking skills their travel-savvy peers did who were always off to somewhere when they were younger. As we get older, we build on the skills we developed during earlier times.

One of the reasons why God created the earth was so we spirit-beings could experience who we are. We may believe ourselves to be great lovers until that love is tested. What happens to us when the object of our love betrays our trust, or the company for which we have affectionately worked for years suddenly treats us as collateral damage caused by our current recession? Can we make visible what we value as the "lover" we believe ourselves to be?

     Exhibiting loving energy is a one-way street and it assumes many forms. When Jesus asked us to follow him, he was inviting us to take our relationship with God more seriously than anything else that we cherish. In fact, he asked us to be like God in all things. If we think this too pretentious to be taken seriously, listen again to Jesus' own words as they appear in Luke:

If you love only the people who love you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners do that! And if you give money only to those who will give the same amount back to you, what good is that. Sinners do that as well! You can only become children of the Most High God by being like him. (Luke 6:32-36)

     This morning, I going to ask all of us to look through our own pair of glasses to view how much we really value what we claim to value when it comes to our lives together at St. Matthew's. Most of you know that I preach one Stewardship message each year. It is your good fortune that today is that day!

     In some churches money is a more frequent topic of conversation. That will not happen here on my watch. Each time we talk about money, I feel as though I am preaching to the choir. We all know who we are and what it is we have been called to do. But once a year, I enjoy the privilege of asking everyone to increase the amount you give to your church. I would never ask you to do something that I do not intend to do. Money communicates what we value in every area of our lives. It is no different with our lives here in our church family.

     We enjoy talking about tithing our time and talents. These are very important areas. However, they are safe topics. They do not excite people in the same way as when people are being asked to give more money. And we know that there are lots of people who say "no" to teaching Sunday School or working in the nursery. There are others who say, "no" to working with youth, a shelter meal, or singing in the choir. They may not wish to display their acting ability so they steer clear of getting on stage with the members of our theater troupe. We all thank God that there are lots of us who say "yes" when it comes to giving more money. That is something everyone of us can do. This is one of the ways we show how we value what we value.

     Andrew Sloane is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Washington, a church that was founded in 1866. He wrote an article on giving that recently appeared in the Washington Post. That article captured how one person found he could help, even though his schedule would not allow him to serve in other capacities. In that article, Rev. Sloane wrote:

A man one day telephoned me and asked if he could come to my office. He gave me a check for $250,000 made out to the church. As he did so he said, "I have learned something recently. I am a rich man in so many ways. I cannot take my money with me. I know that what goes on here will be going on long after I am gone. I want to help insure that our ministry continues to be available for others as it has been for me. Currently, my responsibilities make it impossible for me to participate as I would like. But this check represents something I can do."

     That person knew where his heart and spirit stood with respect to his church. He understood his church's importanceónot just for him but for everyone who will benefit from its presence far into the future. He translated his thoughts and opinions into a form that made them visible.

     This morning we worship in a free building. Others paid for it long before many of us started to attend here. Many of them have died or retired to other states. Every gift, however, helped to make our experience here possible.

     What is amazing is the confusion that often exists in some people regarding money and their church. Recently one of our members told me about an experience he had while standing in line at the grocery store. He overheard two women talking about a wedding that was being planned. One woman was overheard to ask,

Do you know what churches are charging these days for weddings? I called five or six churches in Bowie and their costs are unbelievable. You have to pay to rent the church. There is a cost for the custodian, the organist, and the minister. It's ridiculous! Wasn't there a day when all that was free?

     Obviously, she did not have a church family or she would not have been shopping around to find the cheapest one.

     Yet there is confusion even among the faithful. I remember visiting a Roman Catholic priest who had recently been appointed by his Bishop to serve St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill. I had gone there with the intent of inviting him to join Capitol Hill Group Ministry, which he readily did. During the conversation we began talking about budgets and he said,

I don't see how you guys do it! (Referring to us Protestants) I may have a thousand people come here on an average Sunday. They can give anywhere from $2, $5 or $10 bucks a week and think that's terrific! That barely keeps the heat on in the winter. It takes a lot of money to run this place and they don't get it.

     There is confusion about giving to the church. And yet people can buy season tickets to the Washington Capital's hockey team and never feel confused about paying one player 11 million dollars per season if he can help them win games. For a wedding, there is no confusion about what people have to pay for the dress, invitations, a limousine, the catered reception, and the honeymoon package. The church, however, causes a dilemma for a minority of folks when it asks for more money.

     We are willing to pay for what we value. So how much do we truly value our church? When the airline pilots or the auto machinists threaten to strike, the nation's economy can be threatened. Everyone cries for arbitration and for the President to sign a bill for a 90-day cooling off period. I have often wondered how Americans would respond if every priest, minister, and rabbi went on strike for higher wages, shorter office hours, and fewer meetings.

     My thought is that nearly everyone would throw up their hands with joy and say, "Ah, at last, a Sabbath where we can truly rest. Hey kids, we're all sleeping in tomorrow!" And over the sounds of Brittany Spears or 'N Sync, a teenager might scream, "God is so good!"

     The truth is that none of us would ever strike over such issues. The ministry is not a job; it is a way of life. Most ministers I know have been around long enough to realize that there is a lot about life that is not fair. Life can be very demanding as we all know. What is wonderful about our church family is that all of us on staff here have never faced a single day of our lives alone.

     Some of you are taking communion to shut-ins. You make calls to people just to see how they are. You coordinate the delivery of prepared foods for people who need a little extra help following their surgery. You take many of people to doctor's appointments, chemotherapy treatments, and even cut the grass and rake leaves when others simply cannot. You gather to prepare and send bulk mailings. You stuff our bulletins. You count the offering and prepare our financial statements. The list is incredible.

     Every week there are miracles because we have learned to give without counting the cost. And when it is our turn for a more challenging chapter in our lives, others we may not know circle their wagons and the support comes. Our church family is one-of-a-kind.

     This coming week many of you will receive a letter from me with an Estimate-of-Giving card. If some of you have fallen through the cracks, call the church. We do not want anyone to miss out on this opportunity! I will hand deliver it to you personally.

     As you think about your church family, just remember that when all of us pull together we can get the job done with plenty of room to spare. Giving more money is not just for us, it is for everyone who will ever use this building and the addition we are building. There is nothing that God and we cannot accomplish together.

     In our lesson this morning the prophet Joel twice used these words, "Praise the Lord your God, who has done wonderful things for you." Now it is our turn to say, "Thank you!" Our praise and thanksgiving have always been demonstrated at St. Matthew's. We have given our thoughts and opinions financial visibility. This is who we are. This is who God has called us to be. Join with me and let us raise 2002's spending plan together. Let us do it so that we have plenty of room to spare.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving and ever present God, were we to count the number of opportunities that have come to us since birth, there would be time for little else. We have grown wiser. We have become more trusting of your presence. We have learned that we reap exactly what we sow. We have discovered how to define ourselves by the qualities of the spirit. Thank you for giving us the capacity for inspiration, hope, and vision. Thank you for healing the temptations that come to magnify our insecurities. Help each of us to take seriously the work that we do as a community of faith. With grateful hearts we have learned to receive and to give. May we always understand that what we value shows in how we live. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     We thank you, God, that in a day when uncertainty looms on so many horizons, when toxic substances threaten the lives of those who process and receive mail, and when the fear of who is next tries to attack the comfort and trust of our daily routines, what a joy it is to remember that you stand in the midst of your creation to remind us that you are still in charge of all that you have made.

     We are grateful for our church, for its witness in our community, for the way it remains a vehicle through which you work to nurture all who enter our doors. We may be a questioning-believer who feels your presence in the love that surrounds us. We can feel lost and come to know that we need not walk that path alone without guides. We can be hurting because of a loss and feel the comfort you bring, knowing that there is not a single thing in life that you and we cannot manage together.

     Thank you, God, for the friendships we feel, for the support which, at times, is overwhelming, for the profound sense of peace that comes when we realize that no longer do we have to struggle with issues over which we have no control. You are with us and that is all that matters. Bless us this day with peace that removes all doubt. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .