"Having A Story To Tell"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 27, 2002

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Matthew 22:33-40


     When I entered the ministry, one of the pleasant tasks that came to me was to get to know the couples whose marriage ceremonies I was going to perform.  One of the interesting ways of approaching this, I thought, was to have each of them introduce the other to me.  They were to include everything they knew about each other, e.g., where they were born, what their hobbies and outside interests were, how they eventually chose to enter their chosen vocational field, etc. 

     The most curious thing happened; I had to abandon this technique almost immediately.  It did not work. Couples simply did not know that kind of information about each other.  In fact, some of them sat there totally embarrassed.  Many of them could not tell me much that had substance to it.  They would say things like, "He's sensitive and a good listener.  She's fun to be with.  We like to take day hikes on the Appalachian Trail.  We both like racket ball.  He makes me laugh." 

     The interesting element of this is that neither one knew the story of how the other got those listening skills, those sensitivities and that love of nature and sports. It may be that we spend more time researching the new car we intend to purchase than we do on the person with whom we intend to spend the rest of our lives.  What about our story?  Do we have one? 

     One of the exercises enjoyed by every new member's class is that before each weekly session we introduce ourselves to each other.  Each week after saying our names, we add some new disclosure, e.g., what has been our highest adventure, our greatest fear, our favorite pastime or our most memorable moment.  Last week we had to tell what each has done to make this world a better place.  Their stories were wonderful.  What is our story?  How did we develop that story? 

     There was a time when a group of us refurbished three or four houses in the area around Martinsburg, West Virginia. We did this during the last four years of my being a pastor there. About 30 to 40 young adults would assemble from three Baltimore-Washington Conference churches.  We would also field a group of volunteer professionals in the major trades which included an architect.            

     One of our contacts always managed to get John Hechinger to donate most of the building materials and Shepherd College would give us dormitory space to house the group. The team would spend a week to 10 days repairing these homes.  It was a fabulous experience for everyone involved.  

     The Church was providing the opportunity for each of the participants to develop their story. Each night the workers were exhausted, sometimes having worked from sunrise to dusk.  We would gather at the home of one of my parishioners and share stories about our jobs, the families we were helping and our interpretation of each day's significance. These experiences were giving each person a foundation for their story.  

     It was as if the Church was saying:

Hey young people -- you have a lot of gifts inside of you and you will never know you have them until you use them again and again.  Only by using them will they become a part of who you are. You can work as a team. You can participate in creation and know that you have made the world a better place because you have finally given form to this concept everyone refers to as "Love."    

     The Prince George's County school system requires a set number of community service hours before a student can graduate.  This helps.  The Church, however, creates group experiences that help people build their stories.  Not everyone is a self-starter.  Some of us are followers and that is fine. Some of us would not venture forth were it not for the Church helping us to get started. Before we know it, our lives have been transformed by what we observe ourselves becoming.  Soon we have a story to tell.    

     We use everything within us while we are creating our identity around such stories.  A skilled carpenter was teaching a young woman how to drive a nail without bending it over.  She said, "I can't do it!" He said, "Yes, you can!"  He patiently showed her how to hold the hammer and how to use her wrist.  Soon she was doing it.  Then she was spackling.  Then she was using various power saws. 

     Her potential was taking form right before our eyes because she was being trained.  The Church was helping her to develop her story.  Maybe somewhere on her life's journey she will be showing some young man how to hammer a nail into pressure treated lumber, spackle a wall or use power tools.  Maybe he will be impressed when she tells tell him where and how she learned such skills. 

     In our Gospel lesson today we have Jesus being challenged by the Pharisees who asked, "Which is the greatest of all our Laws?"  Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible about loving God with everything we are while loving everyone else with the same intensity.

     The problem is there is no accurate measuring device to show us how we are doing. We throw the concept of love around like a beach ball.  The words are on the lips of poets, musicians, speech writers and lovers.  But what story line lies behind such powerful words?

     I am sure many of us have seen that commercial where the attractive woman looks at her gentleman friend sitting across the table from her and says, "I love you."  He is a little slow on  his response and just looks at her smiling.  After an awkward silence, she abruptly gets up and leaves.  For some people their love is only that deep.

      People can" love" their families while having an affair with some hunk or trophy at the office. People can "love" sports without ever having participated in a single event.  We can "love" St. Matthew's without feeling the desire to contribute financially in a way that makes that statement abundantly clear to ourselves.  We can claim "love" while investing our energy in a hundred different substitutes that totally miss the mark.                 

     When I was in seminary there was an interesting saying making its rounds, "If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"  That is a good question that we need to ask ourselves. It is the Church that helps us build our story line. Very few people, however, can sustain the energy required to keep their personal mission alive.  It takes a community. 

     One of the touching human qualities that surfaced immediately following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was the outpouring of people's sympathies and loyalties. We could not drive anywhere without seeing "America, we love you" on nearly every overpass.  There were groups that collected sweatshirts for the workers at Ground Zero.  The workers at the Pentagon worked around the clock to finish the job within one year.  We watched as the big digital clock continued to tick away the minutes. They got the job done. 

     Individuals eventually lose their energy once specific goals have been reached and life drifts back to business as usual. The Church, however, is a community that keeps plodding along.  Its mission is to give form to our concept of love, and it has been doing so for thousands of years.  

     One by one very poor families in Juarez, Mexico are getting cinder block houses to replace those made of cardboard.  Teams are going into poor countries to teach people how to purify their water.  Dysentery no longer needs to be a part of the equation for their everyday lives.  Were it not for all the Church related schools in the Bowie area, the Prince George's County school system would be overwhelmed while trying to find classroom space for even more students. The Church has a story to tell. 

     One of the images I remember as a child in Sunday school was a teacher and her spool of thread.  She strung a single strand between two parallel poles.  She said, "Try to break it."  With ease, I snapped the thread.  The next time she added two threads, then six and then ten. A time came when I could no longer break the threads.  She said, "Boys and girls, I hope you will all understand how strong the Church becomes when we do things together."   

     St. Matthew's is like a bee colony.  The participants come and go but the momentum, the mission and the vision continue.  Many of you received the pictorial presentation in the mail some time ago.  This is our story.  If you did not get one, please let me know.  I will give you one today. 

     We are much like the human body.  The medical community informs us that within a span of five to seven years, every cell in our body has been replaced.  An individual cell does its job and then leaves.  Others follow.  The physical organism and the spirit that dwells within it continues to grow and expand.  This is who we are. 

     Together with our time, our talents and our financial resources, we will continue to tell our story.  We have a story because countless people have come among us with their own stories.  Stories are infectious and contagious. 

     Our love of God and of our neighbors, a lesson Jesus brought forward from a much earlier time, will move us into the future confident that this is God's Will.  Christianity came to us as a story.  When we choose to become principle characters in that story, we create a guidance system for others as we teach one another how to become more loving and peaceful men and women. 

     Let us support that story with our time and our dollars.  It's the greatest story on earth.  This is the only story that will help humanity survive.  Our hope is that each of us will remain a part of it -- a vigorous, generous and energetic part of it. 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Kind and always present God, nurture us in the ways of your spirit.  When we find ourselves seeking safety and security, trouble us so that we stretch.  When we are worried about current events, teach us what it means to live by faith.  When financial concerns give us tunnel vision, show us the Fall colors, the smiles of children and the beauty of music.  When we fear uncertainty, help us bring the certainty of our friendship to others.  Cleanse our minds with thoughts that consider the good in others, overlook one another's faults and enjoy the humor of laughing at ourselves.  Help us discover the fun and joy of serving one another with gladness.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     We come into your midst, O God, seeking a stillness of heart.  Every week we experience local and global events that attempt to deplete our energy and alter our focus.  We have known the upset and the relief that has come because the two who have been randomly snuffing out lives in our area have been caught.  Now we mourn the loss of Senator Wellstone, his wife and daughter and some members of his staff in an aircraft accident. 

     The world literally swirls around us with all its news as we remind ourselves that it was this very environment that Jesus willingly entered in order to make a difference.  Then he asked us to help him and if our answer is "yes" we welcome the opportunity to follow his lead.   

     Help us to see every venue and every circumstance as our potential mission field.  Every moment we are on stage making our statement about what we hold sacred.  May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable to you.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .