"The Rewards of Faith"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 15, 2004
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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
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 . . . .