"Who Gives God Visibility?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 20, 2002

Matthew 22:15-22; Exodus 33:12-23

     Many years ago there was a debate between the evangelist Billy Graham and Madelyn Murray O'Hare, the well-known woman who epitomized the position that no divine consciousness created the universe.  I did not witness this debate; I only remember it.  The discussion between the two apparently had been extremely fair and well balanced. 

     Debates are usually an interesting experience for viewers because we never quite know what to expect.  When it comes to political candidates presenting their views in such a forum, many of us have already made up our minds about them long before they speak.  In this case, the people associated with Dr. Graham's position were already in his camp and those who sided with Mrs. O'Hare's orientation were equally committed to her position. 

     Close to the end of the debate, however, Dr. Graham asked Mrs. O'Hare a question that she could not answer.  I cannot recall the exact quote from Dr. Graham, but it went something like this: 

The compassion of Christians for the rest of humanity has been such that through the years we have founded and built countless libraries, hospitals, colleges and universities. We have improved the agricultural techniques and established schools in countries around the world.  We have promoted psychological services, prison ministries, supported free clinics, and distributed clothing and food to those in need. We are frequently the first to arrive on the scene of local and national disasters. Mrs. O'Hare, can you give us a modest listing of the agencies and organizations that serve humanity that have sprung into being because of atheism?  

     Madelyn Murray O'Hare had very little to say.

     In our lesson today from Exodus there is a very insightful verse.  Moses may have been having a crisis of faith.  He appears in this passage to need reassurance from God that God will always be with him and the people of Israel.  In a childlike fashion, Moses is outlining what he would like God to do.  During his discussion with God, Moses said, "Your presence with us will distinguish us from any other people on earth."  This was precisely Billy Graham's point.  We are a very distinctive people.  

     In some fashion, people who refer to themselves as Christians belong to a group whose mission it is to try in every way to make love visible.  It is no secret that we have to work at it nearly every day.  We make lots of mistakes in our judgment.  We sometimes say things to each other and about each other that enemies could say.  We sometimes hurt each other with our judgments and perceptions. We sometimes backslide in our loyalty to what Jesus taught, BUT, God allows us to become the channels through which God's grace becomes visible. 

     When the energy of love touches someone, it often affects everything about them.  Even very unhappy people can have their hearts mellowed because of the loving spirits that surround them.  We tend to understand that when irritable attitudes come from others, such responses are more often a call for love than anything else.  In spite of what they have done or what they have said, we love them anyway. We do this graciously because of who we have become within the Body of Christ.     

     One of my favorite stories deals with an old man who lived by himself on the outskirts of a town somewhere in southern West Virginia.  He never smiled and did not associate with anyone.  He was known for running hunters off his land when they accidentally crossed the boundaries of his farm.

     Word began to circulate in the community that the old man had broken his arm and badly injured his foot in a work-related accident.  He would be laid up for some time.  The teens in the United Methodist church in town learned of this, and they talked about him during one of their youth fellowship meetings. Everybody knew the man.  His reputation for meanness had become legendary in the town.

     There was an outspoken 17-year-old in the youth group who happened to be the president.  She said, "I think we ought to do something to help him whether he likes it or not."  Winter was very near and they knew he had not cut the necessary wood for his stove, so the kids came up with a "devious" plan.  They would work after school to cut and split the wood. Then at a prearranged time, they would sneak out of their homes and fill his three wood cribs. 

     That is what they did.  It did not take that group long to cut the wood.  It was 2:00 a.m. when the kids left the comfort of their beds to join in this adventure.  They met in the woods across the street from the old man's home and began carrying the wood.  Ever so quietly they filled the three cribs.  Then one of the kids remembered that he had a small one on the front porch.  "That's too dangerous!" one of them said, "He'll catch us!"  Of course, the more macho guys said, "We can do this!" 

     The tedious process began.  They were about done when the outside light came on and the old man burst onto the porch with his double-barrel shotgun leveled right at them.  "Don't shoot us!" one of the girls said, "We only came to help you with your wood.  We wanted it to be a surprise."  The old man spied the stacked wood.  He said, "Get out of here!  I don't need anybody's help!"  The youth ran back to their homes, horrified by the experience.

     The kids were terribly disappointed.  Their gift had not generated the results they wanted.  One of them said, "We should have figured that the old guy wouldn't be appreciative of anything." The youth advisors, who had known nothing about this high risk adventure, were both proud and chagrined by what they did.  They did not know whether to scold them or praise them.

     The weeks passed and eventually it was Christmas Eve.  Who should come to their service but the old man.   He sat in the church and cried for most of the service.  During a period when people could share their joys, he stood up and said very hesitantly, "A little over a month ago, I ran a group of kids off my property. . ."  He couldn't finish.  After a lengthy emotional pause, he sat down. 

     The word had spread in the congregation about what the youth group had done, and everyone understood that he was too overwhelmed to voice something he had never expressed for a long time -- his appreciation. The kids glanced at each other with looks that communicated, "This is some serious stuff going down here.  The old man has a heart after all."           

     Dr. Leo Buscaglia once wrote in his book entitled Love these words, "Just because a message of love is not received by someone, does not mean that it was unworthy of being sent."  Those youth went against their better judgment to err on the side of kindness rather than on what was safe and secure.  Sometimes people have to take risks with their love or their love will never become visible.  In this instance, it took a little time for an unselfish deed by a group of young people to be understood by a man who may have forgotten what it was like to feel loved.           

     Obviously, this message today represents the third in our stewardship series. Today's emphasis is on membership in the church, on belonging to this distinctive group we call United Methodists. We are often judged by people outside the fellowship as being hypocrites, as saying one thing and doing another or of being no better than those who do not belong to anything. When I hear accusations like these, I always say, "Such things are true. We are all those things and have earned labels that communicate much worse, BUT we are also so much more than what those descriptions communicate."

     Those of us who have belonged to the church for years too often take our faith experience for granted. Even though we have a lot of variations in our behavior, it is the collective consciousness of the fellowship that helps nurture us with the divine energy we call love.  We do not see it.  We cannot quantify it, but it is among us and in us nevertheless. We see tremendous results when we make visible God's loving energy.  It is during such expressions that we become one with God.

     When we plug into what Jesus taught, our lives change.  When we learn to give without counting the cost, our authentic identity begins to surface.  When we learn to treat other people as we would like to be treated, even more of our identity begins to show.  When we begin to volunteer, serve others and take responsibility for making this world a better place because we are here, we begin to see clearly what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

     The world is filled with blind alleys, and many people forget that where their treasure is, there will their hearts be also.  When their treasure and fortunes fade and change, this is frequently the time when their authentic search begins. That search can begin at any age. All conflicting issues within people are spiritual in nature, and we cannot find solutions if we are constantly looking in places that will not yield them.

     We need to thank God for our church and for the Grace of God that many of us find here.  We have all fallen short of the glory of God, but it is wonderful to know that we have a spiritual home.  It is right here, and it needs our support both financially and spiritually.  Being involved in St. Matthew's does make a difference in all our lives.  If it did not, we would not waste our time.  Invisibly, the Holy Spirit enables and inspires us to make God visible.


    Our lives are such a threshing floor, O God, and it is painful when the wheat is separated from the chaff.  Yet we desire to escape the clutches of our irritability and frustration.  We would gladly trade our learned routines and habits for a purpose that would give our lives greater meaning.  Hold our hands as we take these steps.  Empower us as we leave behind those things that once gave us a fleeting sense of happiness.  May we learn that for angels in the flesh, our purpose is to encourage and make hope visible.  Our meaning comes from giving love its hands and feet.  Our joy is in passing our peace to one another.  God, we trust the outcome of our lives to your care and guidance.


     Eternal and always faithful God, how grateful we are for our gathering this morning.  We often take for granted what happens to us by association.   We can be working with a shelter meal, serving on a committee, learning in a class, working with children in Church School or with their choir, and we do not realize how nourishing to our spirit such experiences are.  

     Jesus taught us that when we give away who we are, God can preserve hand-written letters until one day they are called Scriptures.  God can inspire a small group of people committed to following Jesus and suddenly his followers are on every continent around the world.  Ever so slowly the work of the church becomes the leaven for the loaf and so many people have been blessed as a result. 

     Help us to trust you completely with everything that we are so that we do not allow snipers,  difficult family relationships, challenging issues at work and our own frustrations with life to cloud our understanding of your presence in our lives.  May we live in such a way that who we are makes you visible everywhere.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .