"Who Are The Least of These?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 28, 2003

Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Ephesians 2:14-22

     This morning is the second in our series of messages concerning our personal stewardship to St. Matthew's.  Last Sunday we talked about how critical worship is for everyone.  The main thrust last week was that when we do not feed our spirits, they will communicate to us that they are starving to death. Unsuspecting people who remain unaware of what their symptoms symbolize, will often turn to alternatives, everything from suicide to medications, or from having intimate affairs to eating comfort foods.   

     St. Matthew's creates the opportunity for feeding our spirits not only in worship but also by challenging each of us to be in mission- our topic for this morning.  Exactly what does being in mission look like and how can such an activity be applied evenly to everyone? 

     In the book, Sacred Contracts, the text I am using for our Fall Retreat, Caroline Myss wrote about a personal experience.  She was walking near her home in Chicago when she came upon a group of fifteen-year-old rebels.  They were loitering in the parking lot of the White Hen Pantry.  She noticed that their bodies were covered with tattoos and piercings.  It was easy to spot the leader she said because he displayed more than anyone else. 

     She initiated verbal contact.  She asked them why they felt the need to decorate their bodies in such a manner.  Most of the boys looked to their leader who responded with rebellious language and rudeness.  It was a test to see if she would give them respect.  She did.  Then she said to them, 

Are you aware that piercing was an ancient spiritual practice common to many civilizations.  It became a way of honoring one's inner power and it marked a stage of maturity signifying that a young man was capable of taking charge of part of his tribe. The markings and piercings commanded respect from others.  They were symbolic of the power that came from understanding their spirituality. 

     The leader challenged her and said, "We don't believe in religion."  She responded, "I did not say religion.  I said spirituality -- the journey made by the evolving power of your spirit."  Caroline said that their defensive posture disappeared. The leader said, "We don't know anything about spirituality.  Can you teach us?"  She writes, "I was momentarily stunned by their response and their display of emotional vulnerability.  I told them I would, but, unfortunately, I never saw them again."

     We tend to equate our being in mission with going to another land, being a missionary, building churches and giving witness to our faith.  We tend to think of listening to the experiences of a group returning from an Appalachian Service Project or a project from Camp Hope.  We tend to write checks that will enable people who were wiped out by hurricane Isabel to get started on having the quality of their lives restored. All this is true. This is the work of being in mission, but such experiences come and go.  

     The incident described by Caroline Myss indicates how our mission field can be in our own neighborhood.  It can be in the office.  It can be in our families. Our opportunities can be as close as our address labels.  Caroline regrets that she never saw that group of boys again, but she sowed a seed that might eventually help them to understand their symbols of rebellion as something that has far more significance. We never know how God works through even our most casual contacts, but it sure helps to show up with that purpose in mind. 

     The style of Caroline Myss was much like that of Jesus.  He engaged in mission everyday touching lives one at a time, lives whom he never saw again.  We remember the rich young ruler, the woman at the well or the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years. We remember his going to Jericho and having lunch with Zacchaeus.  The record does not mention that Jesus saw these people again but their lives were changed. What happened during their meeting that changed the direction of their lives? 

     The value of St. Matthew's to us is that through worship and through our mission emphases, we are reminded of what we so easily forget. We are God's representatives in every situation.  When the quality of our energy and witness comes from honoring this identity, changed lives will follow.     

     Without our experience at St. Matthew's reinforcing this identity every week, we can so easily say, "I would love to represent God's presence in this situation, but this guy is an absolute idiot.  Every day he tests me.  He wears his power with unbelievable levels of arrogance.  He publicly belittles other employees.  He's a jerk!  If he worked for me, he would have been gone long ago!"

     The value we gain from our church family is the weekly encouragement to chip away at such people through our use of patience and understanding.  Their behavior is a call for love, and if we do not recognize this, we are a baby's breath away from growing increasingly hurt and defensive suggested by the comments we just heard.   

     By labeling their behavior, we easily transform ourselves into being among "the least of these" rather than representatives of God.  This transformation, this defensive response feels so natural, we are not aware that we have allowed someone to cause us to lose our purpose, perspective and our identity.  This happens when we represent our resentful self interests rather than the caring God who wants to sow a seed through us.  We have just covered our light with a basket. 

     We do not build muscle until we pick up a heavier weight.  It is the same with being in mission every day of our lives.  Other people may represent those weights.  We dare not personalize their struggles even though we are being impacted by the energy wave they created.  Knowing that we are on a mission of sowing seeds, we will remember our identity.  The person in front of us literally needs for us to reveal who we are. God will do the rest.  This is what being in mission looks like.   

     In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he described how all people are under the umbrella of God's love.  What separates people is humanity's fear and lack of this consciousness.  As a Jew, Paul wrote to the Gentiles in Ephesus with these words,

     So then, you Gentiles are not foreigners or strangers any longer; you are now citizens together with God's people and members of the family of God. You, too, are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself.  It is his love of all people that holds the whole human race together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to God. Remember, you are also part of the fellowship where God lives through his Spirit. 

     One of the elements of being in mission is captured by Paul, i.e., we are part of a much greater community.  All of us can engage in helpful activities.  There were countless examples of this when Isabel came ashore a little over a week ago. People were engaging in mission everywhere, e.g., neighbors were helping neighbors while Red Cross volunteers were handing out survivor packets.  But after a disaster it does not take long for life to return to normal, allowing our routines and schedules to take up where they left off.  Paul was reminding the Ephesians that they belonged to the family of God.    

     Well meaning individuals rarely last long when they are caught in the undertow and cross-currents of the world's vast storehouse of energy.  Jesus surrounded himself with "the family" of his twelve disciples.  John Wesley created a little group called, The Methodists.  In fact, this year is Wesley's 300th birthday!  Martin Luther King, Jr. was supported by the Southern Leadership Conference.   

     St. Matthew's feeds us, sustains us and gives us opportunities to make course corrections. Our church reminds us that mission is a way of life. When we are not in mission, who are we?  There is no room in this question for a gray area.  Either we represent God's loving spirit in a situation or we are bringing ourselves, our needs and our desired outcome.  We so easily join the ranks of "the least of these" when we engage in the latter behavior.   

     We are involved in numerous other groups but the church family has a way of focusing our scattered energy unlike any other family of people. This is why it is important to us that we support what we do with our tithes and offerings. Nothing just happens at St. Matthew's without all of us displaying our generosity in gratitude.        

     When we face what life brings to us and we can stand forth confident that God's will is being done, we do so knowing that this response does not come easily for most people.  St. Matthew's helps keep our spirits centered.  Without the value of that focus, we can easily forget who we are and who we serve when unanticipated life reversals visit the stage where we are performing. 

     Use your imagination this week.  Try imagining that you are an angel (a messenger of God) disguised as a person. Try to imagine that you possess more power than anyone alive today.  Walk into each relationship knowing you could make anything happen that you want, but out of love and respect for the journey that others are making, you remember that you are only here to encourage them to grow beyond where they are today.  

     Your purpose is not to walk for them but to inspire them to learn how to walk, run and eventually fly. See if your mission and purpose in life does not become abundantly clear.  It becomes clear when we have taken our needs and wants out of the equation of God's unfolding will.   

     There can never be a dollar amount assigned to the privilege of being a representative of God. We must learn with humility to live in grace and gratitude as we go into the world to bring light, understanding and the message of God's love. This is what Jesus did and look what happened.  He asked us to follow him and we are.  That is why we are here today.  Being in mission is what we do.  This is who we are.     


     We come this morning, O God, knowing that we have been called to love each other as you have loved us.  Open our eyes to the mission field that surrounds us.  When others need a friend, may we be there.  When others need someone to hear them, may we patiently listen.  When others seek to belong, may we grant them acceptance.  When others appear confused, may we walk with them.  Enable us to be your hands and feet, your ears and tongue.  Amen.


     Loving God, we are always humbled by the surprises that come to us when we learn how to step away from our needs and wants and give to others without counting the cost.  Instead of being on our knees asking you for help, how energized we are when we become your voice, hands and feet for someone.  We experience meaning when we give a senior a ride to church or take them to a doctor's appointment.  We find our own purpose when we write words in a card to someone who lost a spouse or a parent.  We feel of value when we listen to someone who is struggling with the meaning of some of life's events. 

     Thank you, God, for calling us and sensitizing us to be in mission every day. Help us to become more comfortable and confident in our role of angels in the flesh.  May we not seek "to fix" people but learn to guide them through who we are becoming.  May we not take responsibility for managing someone's journey but learn how to remain a support that is firm yet detached.  Teach us how to love without violating someone's boundaries.  And as we learn these things, may our trust grow that you are more than capable of doing the rest. 

     Bless us today with minds, hearts and spirits that remain centered on our relationship with you, however we define that.  As we extend to others who we are, may we help create a world  where men and women remain free to grow without guilt and fear to fulfill their purpose for being here. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray. . .