"Don't Let Life Fool You"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 8, 2002

Mathew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14

     How many of us believe that our world is the most exciting classroom for learning and growing that we can imagine?  Could God have created anything finer than what we have?  Thinking this way can be extremely challenging.  This is because our experience of life is like playing our role in some drama that offers us a thousand things to see.  It offers us countless opinions to consider. 

     Our families, schools and places of work, for example, try to mold us into their likeness.  We feel constant pressure to conform, to please and to fit in.  There are subtle rewards for those of us who live up to the expectations of others. The seductive powers of our world pull us in every conceivable direction.  

     We can either become confused by life or we can look upon everything our Creator has made and say with God, "It is very good." Why was everything in creation declared "good" in the Book of Genesis? What did God have in mind? 

     We would think that developing a healthy, enthusiastic relationship with God is an easy thing to accomplish but it is not.  Once again, we have many alternatives from which to choose. What do we want from God?  What does God want from us?  For centuries people have tried to answer such questions.  Think of the implications when we turn to various "authorities" for help. 

     Imagine yourselves being among the newcomers to live in our area.  How would you look for a new church?  Several churches offer contemporary worship experiences that feature very upbeat Gospel music accompanied by an ensemble of musicians who play guitars, drums and a keyboard.  Others offer liturgical services with Holy Communion every Sunday.  St. Matthew's offers a mixture of both formal and informal forms of worship along with hymns reflective of our traditions.   

     Sprinkled throughout these churches is a wide range of theological points-of-view.  We would have to consider the fact that not all denominations hold the Scriptures in the same light.  Some believers understand that the Bible was dictated by God to the various writers. Others look upon the Scriptures as a life-guiding resource that reflects what people were thinking thousands of years ago.  Confusing?  Absolutely!  Because of how differently people understand the Scriptures, the belief  is out there that some people are "right" and others are "wrong." 

     John Wesley, the founder of our particular denomination, understood that the Holy Spirit is everywhere and can communicate to us in any fashion God chooses.  In addition to the Scriptures, Wesley believed that God could also reveal truth through experience, reason and tradition. However, his explanation was merely one among many.

     How does one choose?  Is there any church "closer to the truth" than another church?  These can be difficult questions for people seeking certainty or some "authority" that will guide their lives "correctly."  Fear can cause people to roam all over the landscape of Christendom until they find what for them is a right match.  But for others the search is different.

     There have been numerous studies conducted to determine why people select one church over another. The answer might surprise you.  The number one reason why people attend a particular church is that someone invited them. The primary reason why people stay in a church is because they find inspiration, unqualified acceptance, and a place to be of service.  There is a common thread that will tie life together in one glorious bundle once people accept it. What is that thread?

     When Paul was writing to the newly formed community of faith in Rome, he said this, "The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery, do not commit murder, do not steal, do not desire what belongs to someone else -- all these, and any others besides, are summed up in the one teaching, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  If you love others, you will never do them harm; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.”  Once people grasp this skill-building inward commitment, they can navigate anywhere.        

     People can tolerate theology that differs from their beliefs.  People easily adapt to differing styles of worship.  They enjoy finding ways of supporting a pastor who may be deficient in a number of ministerial skills. They know how to move with grace through occasional disagreements without having their feelings hurt. 

     The truth is that there are no perfect church families.  There is no one church that has the correct answers even though some communities of faith may make such claims. As Jesus once taught, "Those who desire to be first will be last." The simple test for any congregation is this:  Are they building bridges between people? 

     A very interesting thing happened within our congregation a couple of months ago that answers this question very clearly.  Dan Blades and a number of people in our church wanted to give James Young a lasting gift. As many of you know James has been our custodian since St. Matthew's opened its doors in 1963. They wanted to do some major renovations to this gentle man's home  much as we do each year for others during our participation in the Christmas In April program.

     One problem existed.  We did not have any money for building materials in the church budget. I told Dan that I would tell the congregation what we had in mind and ask them to help.   Dan told me that we needed about $2,000.  When we finished counting the special offering that Sunday, we had collected $2,363.  With this week's wonderful weather, the crew has been at work.

     The quality of our worship experience and the theological views expressed from this pulpit are of little consequence in comparison to the statement we make when we work together to make love visible. Some of us give money. Some of us swing hammers.  Some of us do other tasks.  Together all the instruments in the orchestra create the symphony.  Such a witness represents a church family during one of its finest hours. 

     Life can fool us, however!  Nearly everything that we experience has the potential to blur our vision, unless we have this very fundamental light guiding us.  If we do not have what Jesus and Paul taught as our orientation toward life, we can find ourselves thinking that we have found salvation because of what we believe.    

     In the past, people were so convinced that their beliefs were right that they burned people at the stake for translating the Scriptures from Latin into German and later into English.   People were so self-assured that their ideas were correct that they nailed Jesus to a cross and never realized who he was. "Committed faith" is at the heart of terrorism.  Beliefs can be very tricky; making a loving statement with our deeds confuses no one.

     On Friday evening I brought greetings to our Jewish brothers and sisters as they gathered in our sanctuary to celebrate their New Year -- Rosh Hashanah. There were a number of somber realities surrounding their gathering. Armed security guards had been hired to protect the congregation.  Everyone entering the building had to be screened by presenting a ticket.  Their fear was that a suicide bomber might slip in among them.  We can hardly imagine such a thing in America.

     When I told our friends that I was going to read them a passage from the New Testament. I imagined that some were sitting there thinking, "Oh dear, we are going hear something about Jesus."  They were right! 

     I read to them our text for today. This was Paul's interpretation of Jesus' constant theme.  Here are those words again, "The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery, do not commit murder, do not steal, do not desire what belongs to someone else -- all these, and any others besides, are summed up in the one teaching, 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  If you love others, you will never do them harm; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.'" 

     When I finished, Rabbi Weisman said, "Oh Dick, in less than one minute you have spoken what I intend to take 45 minutes to say at tomorrow's service."  This lesson is so simple and so universal that it applies to every person in the world and will work for every experience that comes our way.  When this energy governs every relationship, God's infinite, creative presence becomes part of each one. 

     Teenagers find it difficult to decide which college or university to attend.  They do not know what to do with the rest of their lives.  As thy travel into their futures, some are confused about what to look for while selecting a mate. Is there anyone among us who ever knew for sure before we made our choices? As we discuss these matters, how should we direct them?

     It does not matter if there are  a thousand opinions, a thousand theologies, a thousand possibilities for our relationships. When our love is focused on others, we are  literally standing in the heart of God.  Love casts out fear, and when we forget that, it is because life has fooled us into believing that something else is true.  This is what we can tell them.   

     Life fools us all the time.  We can teach the lesson of love day after day.  We can rehearse it with every breath we take.  However, life can be so manipulative, so tricky that we can backslide into forgetfulness.  The moment our sense of justice and fairness generates the expectation that we deserve better treatment, life has fooled us.

     I learned this one day after I received a call from Lois.  She had left the headlights on in her VW bug and when she got into the car to return home from work, the battery was drained.  It was rush hour and she was in the heart of Montgomery County. 

     I gave her careful instructions on how to put the gearshift into neutral and roll the car out of its parking space.  I told her how to turn on the ignition, push the car gently down the incline, jump in, put the gearshift into third and pop the clutch. "It will start," I told her. 

     After patiently listening to my instructions she said, " I am in a skirt and dress shoes. I am not doing that. When are you coming?"  I said, "Go into the building and find a guy who will perform this simple task for you!"  She said, "I am not doing that either.  When are you coming?"  I said, "I am on my way."

     Had I not been thinking strictly of myself, I would have gone immediately.  In the context of our living, most of us do similar things all the time.  Our caring has to suit us.  Requests must come at a convenient time. Life can fool us and when it does, love comes in second best behind all the things that we want first.

     There are times when high ranking officials in the office display certain developmental disabilities. They never learned how to use words that encourage, motivate and inspire. What they know how to do best is to wear their power in ways that are not supportive to the people working with them.  This is our moment to be who we are.  Do not be fooled by this kind of experience.

     Keep in mind that there are plenty of times when life tries to fool us into believing that something else is true.  Always remember that when we do not and cannot care for people of all makes and models, all the lessons we have learned from Christ, all the beliefs we hold about the  authority of the Scriptures are meaningless.  Jesus said, "Many will call me 'Lord, Lord', and I will say to them 'I never knew you.'"

     All people in the world need to experience God's love; they do not need to hear various theologies and "correct interpretations" about love.  They need to experience being loved.  When God heals others through our presence, know that we are standing in the heart of God.  This is what it means to be created in God's image.  Do not be fooled into believing that something else is true.  Nothing else is. 


    Loving God, we thank you that your love is everlasting.  We thank you that you continue to love us even though you know every page in the book of our yesterdays.  We know that our lives often reflect cross-purposes.  We form our priorities by how we feel rather than on how best to serve.  We know that our pain and hurts can often determine our destiny.  We seldom ask ourselves, "Is this who I really want to be?"  In the spirit of humility, each of us comes seeking the truth that will set us free.  Help us discover the insights that will give love better eyes, ears, hands and feet.  As we seek the wholeness of those around us, we know that it will come to us as well.  Amen.


    Lord God, we gather on this day feeling a mixture of emotions.  In a little while many of us will experience the consecration of our new building.  We feel enormously grateful for your inspiration and guidance, for all the hours spent by those who were shepherds of our project, and for the moment when we lay our cornerstone into its permanent place, clearly marking a new era in our growth. 

    We also find ourselves near the eve of when, a year ago, over 3,000 people were murdered in acts of terrorism the likes of which we Americans have never seen in our land.  As we remember, we also mourn for them and all humanity. 

    We know the hour is late for us.  We know that Christ gave his life that we might see more clearly what you had in mind when you created us. We look forward to the day when caring and kindness will be as automatic as breathing, a day when understanding and mutual trust will flow from us naturally.  Help us remember that from your Son came 12 disciples, and from them came the rest of us.  Lead us to join hands and celebrate the reality in our lives that  your Kingdom has come on earth as it is in Heaven.  All we have to do is choose to live in it. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .