"Being Where The Need Is"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 9, 2002

Psalm 33:1-12; Mathew 9:9-13


     This morning I would like to talk about our church.  We are an organization that has many boards and committees.  We have our mission and vision statements which define who we are and where we think we are going.  We have just completed a 2.6 million dollar addition and our last two new membersí classes coordinated an incredible open-house for us last Sunday.   

     All this we understand, but do we know what is happening to our lives because we come here? The answer, of course, is "No."  We have no way of measuring how our church facilitates our spiritual growth or how it allows us to develop a better relationship with God. 

     For example, during Christmas last year, Shirley Bickel and her staff produced an excellent program featuring our Church School children.  The sanctuary was filled with so many people that we had to turn on the air-conditioner to manage the body-heat being generated.  Parents were lined against the walls with their camcorders as they taped the children's performance.  I thought to myself, "Who are these people?"  I did not recognize many of the adults.

     The same thing occurred during Bible School.  On closing night the children always produce a program.  Once again the sanctuary was filled with people.  During this annual event, frequently we have no idea who many of these children or their parents are. There are parents in our community who know we are here and want their children involved in what we do. 

     After hearing me comment about this, someone said to me,  "Come on, Dick, don't you know what's going on? My neighbor researches the Bible School schedule for every church in Bowie and  she religiously takes her children every chance she gets.  She and her husband love it.  Sometimes they get a month of free baby-sitting that way." 

     The motivation of a number of parents may be mixed, but what an opportunity we have to make a difference in the lives of the children who come. It may be free baby-sitting for some parents, but imagine the seeds that are being sown in young lives because of it?  Those children may not receive another opportunity to become exposed to the spiritual building blocks of life. For clay to be molded, it must first be exposed to the potter's hands.

     With our Early Education Center, another 230 children and their parents are involved in various programs throughout the year.  We had graduation from kindergarten several weeks ago and the same phenomenon occurred.  Most of the parents and relatives I have never met. Yet because we are here, we have waiting lists for what we offer.

     Recently, as I was leaving the church to go home for lunch, a group of children were being led to the playground by their teacher.  One of the little girls -- Sarah Behringer -- swung around the hand-railing at the bottom of the outside stairs and said to me, "I know you. You go to my church!"  I said, "Yes, I do."  She gave me the gift of her words and her smile. She made my day!  We have an impact on the lives of all ages because we are here. 

     The same activity was taking place in today's Scripture lesson.  Shortly after Jesus called Matthew to join him in ministry, he did what I frequently do, he invited himself for lunch.  While the Scriptures are silent about the context, we might make an educated guess as to what was taking place.

     Matthew was a tax collector who had just said, "Yes" to Jesus' invitation. No doubt he informed a number of his tax collector colleagues that he was leaving the profession.  Perhaps Matthew said, "It's because of Jesus that I'm leaving. It would be well for all of you to hear what he has to say. If you're in the area, drop by the house. He's coming for lunch next Monday."  Our lesson says, ". . . many tax collectors and other outcasts joined Jesus at the table."

     Jesus was in the middle of his conversation with Matthew's guests, when the gossipy judgments began to be voiced by representatives of the religious community.  One of their more revealing questions was this one, "Why does your teacher eat with such people?"

     Jesus' response was a classic, "Go find out what is meant by the Scripture that says, 'It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.'"  Anyone can remain faithful to various religious rituals, but it takes a generous, forgiving spirit to be kind.  According to Jesus, God resonates more easily with those who know how to give themselves away.

     The church's role in our world is often out of alignment.  We constantly have to monitor ourselves and the message we communicate.  We are not here to say, "We have something that you need in your life."  Rather, we must always say, "Come and join us.  Together we can make our world a more wholesome place to live."  When the Church is feeding, nurturing and equipping people, God's Spirit is present as well, even if that occasion is only for the closing of Bible School, or the delivery of children for an hour of Church School. 

     God's Spirit works in ways we cannot possibly know.  Imagine the reaction of parents when they have to respond to questions their children frequently bring home with them.  We have some extremely sensitive, bright, insightful children in our midst.

     Sometimes they will ask, "Daddy, where do you and Mommie go when I am in Church School?"  "What happened to Grandpa when he died?" "Will my gold fish, my hamster, my dog or cat go to Heaven?  Does God love them too?" "Daddy, where did the Bible come from?"

     Such requests can break our hearts when we hear them, but they reveal the sponge-like quality of children who absorb everything around them even though their teachers may have them for such a short time.  Thought-filled seeds always sprout when they are sown in a fertile mind.

     In our lesson today Jesus also demonstrated his insight into human behavior when he told the Pharisees, "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick.  Many people feel that they do not need what I have come to teach.  I have come to those who do."  Jesus made himself available to anyone who wanted to learn.  When we follow his lead, we can make a powerful impact on people even if they are with us only for a little while. God does not need much time to work a miracle.

     I sought permission to use the following story.  It touches on how God can work even in the midst of a person's inner-struggles.  We have a woman in our congregation who was reared a Roman Catholic.  She has been attending St. Matthew's for several years and really enjoys her involvement. When she is given the opportunity to volunteer, she is here.    

     She spoke to me one day about why she has never joined our church.  She said, "I cannot bring myself to become a member because I feel that if I did, I would somehow be betraying my family and my up-bringing.  The priests in my background instilled a lot of strong beliefs in me.  Even when I take communion, I have guilt feelings as though I am doing something wrong.  The way I feel defies all logic because I love St. Matthew's.   It is frustrating that I cannot let go of my past."

     I reminded her that her feelings are very important and that she needs to listen to them.  Further, I told her that the Roman Catholic Church is mother church, just as Judaism is our parent faith. I pointed out to her that the important thing is to grow, to ask questions about life and to be led to find answers that will give her moments on earth purpose and meaning. God knows how to do that. In my book, the place where such growth takes place does not matter.

     I indicated that she was fine just as she is, and at St. Matthew's we would not want her to be any other way.  She relaxed as if I had given her permission to be who she is.  What is so important is that we are here and the people who connect with our message can feel at home.

     I have to believe that this is what Jesus was doing with the tax collectors and others who were not welcomed in the more religious circles. They would not fit into such settings, but with Jesus, fitting in was easy.   They felt comfortable because they were not being judged nor were they being asked to conform to something he was teaching.  He was only making himself available to them.

     More than likely some of them went on their way with only a full stomach. That is the way life is.  Some people want to grow through change, while others are fairly content with who and where they are.  Jesus understood that.  "Many people feel that they do not need what I have come to teach," Jesus said.  "I have come for those who do."

     Every community of believers is always teaching.  If we love to surround ourselves with beautiful trees and gardens, we are teaching.  If our facilities are inviting for little people and they provide a comfortable place for infants and toddlers, we are teaching.  If we lead others to reach out beyond our walls by being helpful to those who cannot help themselves, we are teaching.  If we warmly affirm those who connect with our community, we are teaching.  The ingredient we cannot measure is what God does through the community we have become.

     Examine again those who were sitting around Matthew's table.  We must presume that Jesus was teaching how love can be made visible by putting it into motion.  Just his presence and the way he taught, communicated what his words could not -- "He loves us just as we are." It does not matter whether we are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, or Muslim.  Everyone of us has a stake in making the world a safer, more caring place to be in community.  With God's help, we are the only ones who can make that happen.

     So many people have confused this message with "developing and holding a positive attitude."  Certainly such thoughts are part of our faith, but such a description is not an accurate portrayal of how people can be led to grow.  Jesus once said, "Unless you are born again," i.e., change the spirit by which you perceive, "you will not understand how God can enhance and guide your life."

     When our church ministers to children, we have a captive audience.  They are with us because their Mom and Dad want them to be here.  They eventually enter the world with a specific orientation to life, i.e., a basis for understanding their role during life's many changes.  Because of the education they received earlier, they frequently become involved in serving others with their life's work. 

     We will volunteer.  We will assist others during local or national emergencies.  We will deal creatively with others at the office with kindness and gentleness.  Why?  Because as we were growing up, we were taught that when we give ourselves away, the glow from our energy lifts the spirit of everyone around us. Exactly how that happens will be different.  Love expresses itself in many different forms. That is the way we were made by God.  Our role as a church is to help people discover and hold on to what they find.  God will do the rest.

     We all know the wonderful song, "I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony . . ."  If we could do that, there would be less warfare, there would be less mischief and there would be fewer people wanting to hurt others.  The problem the world has is that the development of such a life will always remain a matter of individual choice. 

     As Jesus said, "I have not come for those who feel they do not need what I have to say.  I have come for those who eagerly want more from their lives."  That is the role our church fulfills by being here.  The need is everywhere.  By being in the midst of life itself, we open the door for people so that God can work a miracle.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     We thank you, God, for your presence in our lives.  We confess that there are times when our day-to-day drama prevents us from recognizing your presence.  By wanting control over our lives, we frequently miss your guidance.  In pursuing the outcome we want, we often miss a much greater opportunity.  Guide us to think differently.  Remind us that living hope-filled lives helps to fulfill our destiny.  Remind us that shouldering our burdens with confidence, serves to encourage others as they carry theirs.  Remind us that teaching about you is a way to make truth visible.  Remind us what we came here on earth to do.  As we evolve, may all the world's people evolve with us.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Once again we have gathered, O God.  We confess that we never know what can happen to us as a result of our coming.  There are so many times when the familiar patterns of worship are shattered by a shaft of light and we know you have spoken to us.  

     Yet how often we take our lives at St. Matthew's for granted. When we think of what we are led to do and to be, how incredible the experience here really is.  Because we are here, sometimes we laugh a little more.  There are moments when we do not take ourselves or our problems with the seriousness we once did.   When we see the beaming spirits of others whose loses and reversals have been much greater than our own, we are mysteriously healed by their presence.  When we bring our aloneness into the teaming energy of this community of faith, our spirits experience a harmony we often cannot define.

     This morning as we celebrate those who reveal your truths to us -- our teachers -- we thank you that they have remained students of your word as well.  We thank you that their pupils will one day become teachers. We are always teaching others who we are, O God, through what we do, and we thank you for all the people who have helped us along the way.  Continue to encourage us to reveal more of your spirit.  We pray these thoughts now through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray. . .