"The Perils of External Faith"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 13, 2002

Exodus 32:1-14; Mathew 22:1-14

     This morning we are embarking on the second Sunday of our stewardship emphasis.  Last week Jane Eagen Dodd helped us to remember the importance of Christian Education.  This morning Beth Lingg provided us with an overview of what St. Matthew's provides when our community of faith worships together.  

     After considering their presentations, just what does St. Matthew's give to us?  The fork in the road this question represents can take us in two different directions. The left fork is one of expectation.  We can ask ourselves, "What value do we receive by coming here each Sunday morning and by remaining involved in our various programs?"  There is a degree of self-interest in many of the decisions we make, particularly those dealing with how we use our financial resources.  We are generous to what adds value to us.  

     The right fork in the road is also one of expectation.  What do we expect of ourselves because we are a part of the gathered community?  This is the far more challenging question.  This path causes us to evaluate ourselves, not our church, not its many personalities and not our unique circumstances. This road helps us answer the question, "Who have we become as a result of belonging to St. Matthew's?"        

     This week when the 13-year old boy was shot by the roving sniper, what was our response?  What thoughts raced through our minds the last time we pulled into a gasoline station? The office staff experienced numerous calls from concerned parents wondering what specific steps had been taken by our Early Education Center to insure the safety of the 277 children under our care.  Some parents "hovered" around our facilities while a few others did not send their children to school during the days immediately following the incident. 

     It would be interesting for us to review our own personal response.  Were we "hovering" around our homes, cuddling with our families, hunkering down and not going into public places while blaming the shooter for our fear?  Or, were we able to take away the shooter's power by deciding to go on with our normal living patterns, realizing that no one is ever safe in this world. People "of faith" are not communicating well when they go into hiding or have a "panic attack" each time they see a white van.  When something external is controlling what goes on inside of us, we have given it  too much power?           

     There is a good example of this in the Exodus passage this morning.  Please observe how the Israelites set themselves up to abandon God.  Their faith had almost exclusively been placed in externals.  Listen as we briefly trace the Israelite history up to the incident described in our lesson. 

     God had delivered the Israelites from the land of Pharaoh.  They were now free.  When they found themselves trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptian army, once again they were saved.  When they were starving for meat and bread, the author of Exodus wrote how God sent the quail and manna. When they found themselves without water, God instructed Moses to strike the rock with the same staff with which he had parted the sea and water gushed forth.

     Notice what happened next as we listen to words from our lesson: When the people saw that Moses had not come down from the mountain but was staying there a long time, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, "We do not know what has happened to this man Moses, who led us out of Egypt; so make us a god to lead us.

     Aaron took their earrings, melted them, poured the gold into a mold, and made a gold bull-calf.  The people said, "Israel, this is our god, who led us out of Egypt!"  The people sat down to a feast, which turned into an orgy of drinking and sex. (Ex: 32:1f)   

     What is amazing about this story is how dependent the people had become on God for providing everything. After witnessing so many loving acts by God, they had not begun to take even the most basic steps of their inward journey.  For example, they had not developed any patience.  They could not display anything that looked like faith.  They had not developed any trust in God.  In Moses’ absence, they caved into their fears. Why?  Because their faith had taken root in an external God upon whom they were always waiting to solve every problem they faced.     

     Our faith journey can also take us in this same direction.  We want dynamic leadership from our church school teachers, we expect glorious anthems from our choir and sermons that enable us to overcome every unproductive response we can create.  We want a nice mix of old favorites and new up-beat hymns when we sing together.  And, we want all this packaged into one hour. 

     Suppose Moses stayed on the mountain a little longer than we expected? With the Washington Redskins playing at 1:00 p.m., what if we run over the time frame that we have committed to spend in worship?  What happens if the choral selection was not to our liking or we did not resonate with the message of the morning? What happens if someone says something to us that is unsettling and we decide to take our marbles and go home?

     There was absolutely no reason for the Israelites to give up on God simply because their immediate needs were not gratified within their time-frame. The character of  the gathered community was on display. Their "faith" was absent. When their leader was missing, they were like frightened sheep that were starting to scatter.  By relying on externals that change, they developed little staying power when their mood became restless.           

     What kind of atmosphere and environment is possible when a community of faith is practicing what it teaches?  The Church should always be the Church even when leaders are absent.  The community focus should always be on God's presence and not on some personal agenda.

     Recently I had an occasion to remember an incident at my former church.  We had three professing atheists attending worship regularly. I used to tease these gentlemen when I saw them at our coffee hour.  I would say, "Why do you come here?  You know there is no God! All creation was just a fluke of nature! The cosmos just burped and here we are!  Why do you waste your time?" 

     We would share a good laugh together.  One of them said, "The congregation is so accepting of us and we feel so loved when we come here."  Their smiles disappeared from their faces as the seriousness of their words delivered a clear picture of what was happening within them because they were with us. They knew there was room at the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church for all students of life.  They knew the church valued them for who they were, not because of what they claimed.    

     This is the kind of environment a church family can provide.  It never matters where people are on their life's journey.  Jesus and Paul always met people where they were.  This is why Jesus loved sinners and had to work on his own patience while among the righteous.  A congregation should not need to experience anyone's "spiritual pedigree" before they love them.  Even though we understand that this is our role, more can be done to improve our understanding of why we come here.    

     When we come expecting the perfect anthem and sermon, or flawless leadership, we are still looking to externals to guide us.  However, when we come here willing to be open, the Spirit of God can touch us. When we come aware of our many imperfections, we frequently become empowered to move beyond them.  When we come trusting God with all the uncertainty within each tomorrow,  we are often rewarded with a peace of mind we did not have.  Sometimes our shaken confidence can be restored because of the unseen power that dwells in our gathered community of faith. 

     Several months ago, I received an e-mail from a woman who no longer attends St. Matthew's.  Her job transferred her to the mid-west.  She will probably read this because she still uses our web site to read the sermons and newsletters.  From her lengthy note, here are a few of her comments:

    I am sorry that I didn't say "good-bye" when I left.  It's easier for me emotionally to walk away.  Such a thought may sound strange but I keep my sanity that way.             

When I came to St. Matthew's, I had not attended a church since I was a child.  I cannot tell you what initially drew me to your church.  I was never a religious person but something was missing. I'm successful and my future looks impressively promising, but I was so restless that I took up running.  That was nice for a while but it wasn't enough. I guess I had lost my purpose for occupying space on the earth.  I discovered that being productive and gregarious do not give one's life meaning.    


St. Matthew's helped me get in touch with how to grow again.  I didn't know anyone when I first entered your church but that didn't matter. I cannot describe accurately what happened to me during my first visit.  Something fit like a "hand in a glove," words Neil Diamond once used in a song. Everything I experienced quieted my restlessness.  I am now engaged in the process of "polishing my own stone," as you once told me to do.  I have turned everything and everyone into being "my teacher."  That has been my challenge, but it works as a great polish. 

You have a wonderful congregation and enough activities that made my head spin.  Good luck with the Christmas stocking project. I'll miss Sharon's uncanny aptitude for organizing. Oh, and please forgive me for never once signing your attendance sheets. 

     When the worshipping community causes us to look within rather than without, we have taken the more creative fork in the road.  Jesus was not everyone's cup of tea.  He knew that better than anyone.  However, he said, "My sheep know my voice."  Indeed, many of us do.  We do not need substitutes or some external "golden calf" to help us develop a greater sense of wholeness. When we experience God's love through the church family, a family that surrounds and supports us, life can only get better as all of us heal and continue our growth together.         


    We thank you, God, for being available to us every minute of each day.  You have given us the capacity to seek solutions for the problems we face.  We can reflect meaningfully on the mistakes we have made.  We can learn to trust the gifts you have given us when our paths are not clear.  You have taught us that the labels we use to define others present a self-portrait of who we are.  Help us mold our passions into compassion.  Help us reframe our hurts into a greater empathy for others.  May our experience of worship today serve to deepen our awareness of how much like you we really are.  Help us acknowledge that you made us in your image which has helped us to make you visible everywhere.  Amen.


    Eternal God, we thank you for what you have placed within each of us, for our timeless qualities which allow us to reflect your presence, for the spirit which remains sensitive to your bidding in spite of the overlays of distractions which come at us every day. 

    It appears that there is always something happening in our lives that tries to rewire our minds with cables that transport fear.   Everything seeks to define us and if we are not careful, we can forget that each of us is one of your children.  It is a challenge for us to realize that this is so, even for the predator in our midst.  With so much to do in life, we confess how difficult it is for us to imagine a person who has committed himself to taking away the lives of others.  This day we pray for the families, businesses, and communities who will be forever changed because one of their contributors is no longer with them. 

    Every week, O God, we are reminded just why Jesus sent his disciples into the world to teach about community, relationships, your plan for life and about the way you designed people to be.  Inspire us to go forward unafraid.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .