"The Rewards of Faith"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 15, 2004

Hebrews 11:29--12:2

     This morning I would like to talk to you about the rewards that come to us because we are people of faith.  This issue is not easily understood, particularly if we were in Florida right now and found our retirement home and most of our possessions scattered all over the neighborhood.  Our sense of grief and frustration could become compounded as we realize that the network of goods and services is also paralyzed.  The life we were taking for granted had somehow lost its way because of hurricane Charley.  Who do the followers of Jesus become during such a drama? 

     Some people receiving a reward look at it as one of those unexpected treats in life. These people claim not to be looking for any special treatment because they walk by faith.  They work diligently because this quality is part of their character. Sometimes we hear people say, “I love my job so much that I would do it even if they did not pay me.”  

     In spite of how we think about what motivates us, rewards loom somewhere, even if they are found in our satisfaction, or if they are part of our desire to please God.  Rewards can be a disguised motivator, but they are there.    

     For many other people there is nothing hidden about their need and desire for rewards.  They fuel their enthusiasm and eagerness to accomplish even greater achievements.  Such people work hard because they enjoy the fruits of their labor. Companies routinely build financial incentives into their compensation packages for executive employees. 

     Whether we recognize rewards as being a central driving force in our lives or not, they are there.   They fuel our expectations, and when our desired rewards are withheld, we experience disappointment.  We feel it, for example, when we are passed over for a merit pay increase. 

     Rewards are a built-in factor of life.  Much of the airtime given to commercials on radio and television is devoted to this theme.  Just listen to the claims about the results that will come when consumers use a hair product, drive a particular model car or experience a wonderful vacation packaged by Expedia.  Everywhere we look, some company is holding out a carrot tempting and enticing us to feel better, look better or become more whole by purchasing their product. 

     It is not so strange that anticipation of rewards can also become intimately associated with our faith.   For example, all our lives we have talked about the death of wholesome people as going to “their eternal reward.”  As children we had our understanding of rewards reinforced when Santa Claus was coming to town.  “He’s making his list, checking it twice, going to find out who’s been naughty or nice.”  

     Throughout our faith traditions, rewards have been dreamed about, promised and promoted as coming to those who live by faith.  Rewards were at the heart of the Covenant made between God and the Children of Israel.   It was as though God said, “Remain faithful to my covenant with you and you will prosper.  If you turn your back on our relationship, you will suffer the consequences because I am a jealous God!” 

     What causes our Scripture lesson today to be so unique is the author’s understanding of faith.  He begins by retelling the rewards that came to people in their faith history.  He reminded his readers why the walls of Jericho fell, or why the prostitute, Rahab, was not killed because of her kind treatment of Hebrew spies.  

     His words hint of Daniel being spared when he was thrown into the lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego not being consumed when soldiers threw them into a fiery furnace.  He wrote how the faithful “were weak, but became strong; how they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners.”  Readers of the Bible cannot help thinking that God always rewards faithfulness.  

     What happens to some people of faith when their promised land never shows up?  We may know people who are quite specific about why their life in the church is and will remain in their past.  

     They will say something like this: “I grew up in the church.  In my childhood I bought the mythology about how God answers prayers, the miracles of Jesus and how Heaven awaits good people when they die.   In my later years I went to church and was bored out of my mind by having to listen to some preacher pontificate about why I had to change my life.  I am happy with myself just the way I am, thank you very much! Then I was expected to pay for such drivel when they passed the offering plates.  It’s a racket. When are you religious people going to wake up to what is going on?”           

     What is interesting about this attitude is that it could be used to express dissatisfaction with any area of life.  Take for example the words of some Federal workers we may know. “I drag myself out of bed on Monday morning and sit in impossible traffic patterns for hours.  I get to work and have to associate with people who cannot justify why they take up so much space on the earth.  I have to listen to my boss who is a political appointee.  He knows absolutely nothing about who I am and even less about what he is suppose to do.  The quality of my work is never recognized.  I get a paycheck and helplessly watch the margin widening between my gross income and my take home pay.  It’s a racket.  If I did not have to pay for so many bills, I would be out of here in a heart beat.”            

     In both cases, rewards did not come packaged the way these people wanted.  Their dissatisfaction grew until they became disillusioned.  People have a way of letting everyone know when they are not happy with themselves or their environment.           

     Are there legitimate rewards that come from living by faith?  Absolutely!  However, a major problem can occur when we anticipate specific results. Too often what is fueling our hope are expectations.  We have to remember that authentic hope is never built on the quick sand of expectations.             

     Once a gentleman took a young lady to dinner and then to the Kennedy Center.  That evening cost him over $200.   When he returned her to her apartment, he was not invited to come in.  She thanked him for a delightful time and said, “Good night.”  He was upset.  When he was telling me about this I asked, “Was this your first date with her?”  He said, “Yes.” After I heard his answer, we had a little chat.  He needed a little coaching about his expectations, expectations that had nothing to do with her or her decisions.           

     Sometimes we need a lot of coaching about the kinds of rewards we expect because we are people of faith. We have this habit of expecting answered prayer, a miracle job falling into our lap, or some single available person, with no unresolved conflicts, waltzing into our life all because we are on a first name basis with God.   We have to admit that there are a lot of Scriptures that support this kind of thinking.  

     We may point to Joseph or Moses in the Hebrew Bible.  It is refreshing to look back on events that took place in the lives of our Biblical heroes.  Hindsight makes their lives look like faith in motion, when their lives were everything but that. What do we honestly think Joseph and Moses were experiencing as each event was unfolding?  Go back to the episode of the burning bush and read that again. When we have our hearts set on God rewarding us in some specific fashion because of our faithfulness, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.           

     Earlier I mentioned that the author of Hebrews presented his readers with another perspective.  After describing those who appeared to be rewarded for their faith, he wrote about many of the faithful who were not as fortunate.  They were tortured, mocked, whipped, put into chains and taken off to prison.  Some were stoned, sawed in two and killed with a sword.  He described their life-style.  Many wore animal skins and wandered like refugees in the deserts and hills, living in caves and holes in the ground.  They never received what God had promised.           

     What are some of the rewards of faith?  If not the miraculous, then what?  Caroline Myss tells a story about an incident that took place in one of the Nazi Concentration camps during the Holocaust.  Many of the Jews were forced to watch as their friends were shot to death at point blank range.  Their bodies fell back into open graves.  

    After experiencing this visual torture for a number of hours, two men returned to their barracks where the one knelt and prayed to God in gratitude.  His friend said, “How can you possibly be thankful to God for what we have just witnessed?”  His friend asked, “I was thanking God that I am not capable of doing to others what we have just seen.” 

     Keeping God central in our lives during moments that terrify us is a reward of faith.  Facing surgery courageously where the outcome is far from certain is a reward of faith.  Dealing confidently with the death of a loved one who died too early by our timetable is a reward of faith.  Knowing that an opportunity always comes when we find ourselves without a job is a reward of faith.

     The young man, who had felt rejected on his first date, invited his friend to accompany him for a second occasion.  I had told him that movies and the theater are wonderful escapes but they are not good settings for getting to know who lives inside that attractive body that caught his eye.  

     They rented bikes at Fletcher’s Boathouse along the C&O Canal and he took a picnic lunch.  He later told me that she was very impressed.  That was a pleasant experience for both of them because he was not expecting any reward.  He had not invested his energy in any particular outcome.  Plus, he did not have to spend the equivalent of a healthy car payment in order to spend a few hours with her.  

     I wish I could tell you whether or not they got hooked up. The incident took place nine years ago. We were transferred to St. Matthew’s, and I never learned if their romance survived my coaching. 

     Faith does provide us with skills.  Think of how wonderful it is when the behavior of people does not interfere with our ability to love them.  Think of how incredible it is to experience one reversal after another and yet still remain calm and peaceful.  Think of the power we have when we find ourselves in a place with few available options and our confidence is not shaken.  

     Developing these skills is like telling youself, “This is why I signed up to come to the earth.” Our circumstances represent our curriculum for growth.  The best part is to realize that God has given us everything we need to succeed.  It is all inside.

     It is wonderful to praise God from whom all blessings flow when we are sitting at a banquet table, when everyone in our family is healthy, when our children have secured lucrative positions of responsibility and are with mates who reflect how well we have taught them to window shop before they buy. 

     Authentic rewards of faith, however, cannot be understood by our five senses. Rewards of faith can be observed, however, when life has given us plenty of valleys through which to walk and we have conquered our fears and have let go of the fantasies of “what life might have been like had we only chosen differently.”  Regrets and laments cannot contribute to our confidence of spirit. 

     People with strong faith are in Florida right now.  Even though they may have experienced enormous losses themselves, they stand ready to roll up their sleeves in order to help their neighbors who may have suffered even greater losses.  

     We can observe the results of such inner strength, but we cannot see the spirit that made the countless little choices along the way that made possible such rewards of faith.  Life is a journey.  It is nice to remember that God is with us every step of the way.  For some of us, knowing this truth is reward enough.


    Thank you, God, for these moments together.  Our experience often appears too brief.  You gave us minds that will expand with new insights.  You gave us spirits that will grow in depth and power.  You gave us bodies that know how to heal.  You gave us the ability to surrender our frustrations and disappointments.  You equipped us with the ability to grow faith capable of moving mountains.  You made us in your image.  What more could we possibly need?  Help us, O God, to give away to others what we seek from you.  As we do so, help us gain more insight into our own identity.  May forgiveness, peace and kindness be seen in our eyes, sensed in our spirits and heard from our lips.  Amen.


    Thank you God, for the fragile moments in life that teach us that we do not have to know the reasons why anything happens before we walk with you each day.  Thank you for the challenges that make us stretch beyond our known capabilities.  Thank you for the times when all our symbols of security dissolve around us, and, once again, our thoughts must find peace with you as the unexpected unfolds.   

    Why is it, O God, that so often we quickly respond with frustration when your will may be fashioning our destiny?  Why is it that we find detours so unattractive?  Why is it that so often we conclude that something is a waste of our time?  What is more important than reflecting you in everything we do, in all the places we visit, and in the midst of all the experiences that try our patience? 

    As we reflect on our lives thus far, who could have known ahead of time the jobs we have, the partner with whom we enjoy a relationship, the children born to us whose personalities are still forming?  What an adventure life has been!  We confess it has been an adventure because of hindsight.  Today, we can look back and see how each piece interestingly fits into all the others.  As we anticipate tomorrow, help each of us to stand forth with faith, knowing that our future will be as fascinating as our past.  May we radiate such confidence by accepting every moment as our opportunity to mirror your nature to an audience of onlookers who we may not know is watching us.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray  . . . .