"What Inspires Spiritual Depth?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 17, 2004

Jeremiah 31:27-34; II Timothy 3:14-4:5

     I am sure that most of you noticed the colorful posters in the narthex creating images for our Stewardship emphasis.  This is that time of year when we begin to think about the financial needs of St. Matthew’s and what amount that each of us intends to commit in 2005 to support our church family.  

     A series of worship experiences has been developed to help us focus on the value St. Matthew’s has for each of our lives.  This morning’s emphasis is on education.  The kind of knowledge we will be addressing is not easily found in our culture outside of the church.

     Today, for example, we are giving Bibles to our young people in the third grade.  All of us recognize that the Bible is a symbol.  The book represents potential. The Bible only becomes an opportunity for people when they open it and take the time to learn why we think and feel the way we do about life and other people.   

     Not only does the Bible provide the unfolding of human history interpreted through the eyes of faith, but we also have distinct life-patterns revealed in Jesus’ teachings. When we live them, they produce dramatic and powerful results.  Who else is teaching us how to carry our energy with loving creativity? 

     Is this kind of knowledge really that important? Think about this instead of merely saying “yes” because we are talking about our faith journey.  Does this highly specialized education have any practical value, particularly when we live in a world that stresses form, materialism and financial success?   The pressure is on all of us to make our mark in each of these areas.  Let us not pretend otherwise. 

     In spite of these social pressures, this education is so important, so critical to our development as a whole human being that Jesus referred to it as the pearl of great price.  He referred to it as the treasure that is buried in the field.  In both instances he was referring to who we will become when we live in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus was referencing specific skills for expressing ourselves based on love rather than fear.

     Christian education can be intellectual.  Our practice of it can reinforce our highly refined beliefs.  It can enable us to recite chapter and verse of certain meaningful Scriptures.  It can encourage healthy disciplines and appropriate behavior.  But all such practices and habits were also central to the lives of the Pharisees, a group whom Jesus criticized on more than one occasion for being hypocritical.

     The education that drives us toward the perfection about which John Wesley preached is different from knowledge; disciplines and ethics that help us build organizations, mass transportation systems and heightened security at our airports.  We can polish our values, faith and understanding, but what does such mastery enable us to express through our spirits?

     Listen to the words Paul wrote to Timothy in today’s lesson.  “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.  So that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and skilled to do every kind of loving deed.”  Have you ever had your departure from core values confronted by what happens within our church?           

     Some years ago a man came to me after having his identity badly shaken.  He was married and had a number of young children.  However, he met woman at work who embodied everything he imagined that he wanted in a mate.  She was also married and had a family.  A discussion had taken place in his Sunday school class that helped him remember the core values upon which he had always based his life.  Those values shattered the bubble of his fantasy. He remembered that love could not come from a motivation that wants and needs something in order to feel whole.   

     Where else in our society could he have had his changing identity confronted? During his romantic madness he was not interested in hearing about good and evil.  He did not care what Jesus said or did not say.  His imagined needs dominated every value he held.  He was positive he knew what he wanted.  After all, King David had thought the same way as he, and had even engaged in violence to achieve his objective.  David never lost favor from God. 

     His justification for fulfilling his dream was in place.  He had his laundry list.  Most frustrated spouses have the identical list of issues that they assume are the cause of their unhappy marriages.  Because of the role the church played in his life, however, he had the opportunity to examine again what love is and what it was not.  

     As our lesson for today reminds us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.” He revealed to me how the class discussion held a mirror in front of him. 

    He had to ask himself a series of questions.  “Who would he become in his own eyes if he equated love with walking away from responsibilities that he once valued?  What values were being displayed by his friend who was willing to place her intense, emotional feelings above her own responsibilities?  What values were being revealed when she made herself available to him?  Was it love when he was asking a woman to forsake her commitments just so he could feel better about himself?”     

    How easy it was to focus on an illusion while forsaking the dream he once had of creating a happy family?   The discussion in his class enabled him to wrestle with himself.  He did not leave his family and today he is in a far different place emotionally and spiritually.  He is grateful to a class experience that made him think twice before he made a decision that would have infinitely complicated his future.  The pasture on the other side of the fence is never as green as anyone first imagines.   

     When the church causes our lives to intersect with the teachings of Jesus, our lives are given the opportunity to develop a firewall that warns us when danger is near. That kind of education has value. What we learn in a church helps us distinguish the difference between love and an appetite.  What we learn helps us to decide what is genuine caring and what is neediness.  

     What price do we put on self-respect?  What price do we put on character and integrity?  What price do we put on a skill that allows us to look temptation in the face and say, “No thank you”? What price do we put on skills that help us evolve beyond hurt feelings and painful memories?  What price do we place on authentically working with others whose perceptions and values are different from our own?  

     Being in possession of the pearl of great price can bring clarity to our thinking that no other kind of education can provide.  The church becomes very valuable as a classroom that has the potential to keep our lives tracking wholesomely. If we do not have knowledge of the path, we have nothing to come back to when we make an error in judgment.   

     Many people know the teachings of Jesus but not everyone has developed the ability to radiate what today’s lesson instructs:  “ . . . so that the person who serves God may be skilled to do every kind of loving deed.”  Sometimes our beliefs cause us to send a mixed signal to others. Our strongest convictions can easily place a basket over our light when they should be enhancing our ability to make love visible.           

     Several weeks ago while in our Wesley Wing, I met women from another church family who asked if I were the pastor of the church.  When I acknowledged that I was, she told me how thoughtful it was that we opened our church to the congregation of Temple Solel for their services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Then she revealed her authentic interest in meeting me.  She asked, “Why did you allow the Jews to place a shroud around the cross, completely obscured it?  When I saw that, it broke my heart.  Our precious savior shed his blood on that cross.”           

     I told her that when the Jews come to worship at St. Matthew’s, our space becomes their temple, their holy ground and the place where their spirits are inspired by their heritage, their history and traditions.  A large highly visible cross standing in their midst would represent a cruel requirement if we imposed it.  She responded, “So you don’t have a problem with their covering it?”  I said, “None whatsoever!  In fact, I was the one who suggested they do that.”  She appeared deeply distressed and hurt, turned abruptly and left. 

     Obviously the two of us were operating from vastly different faith values.  The church is the only place where this kind of dialog can take place.  The church is where we Christians have the opportunity to debate who we want to be in a world where cultures and a variety of religious traditions are accelerating toward each other at a speed no one can slow.    

     Who knows what Jesus would have thought if a massive Roman execution device had been erected in the midst of his synagogue?  We forget that Jesus was never a Christian.  It is we who have built our beliefs and theologies as though he had separated himself from his culture.  He never renounced his heritage; he only tried to perfect it. 

     Sometimes our strong beliefs and values can be expressed in ways that prevent community.  Indeed, we may have the pearl of great price in our minds but it can lose its light when our spirits are unable to communicate kindness, patience and understanding.  These are some of the characteristics of God in whose image we are created.

     Perhaps our continued prayer needs to be, “Deliver us from trying to impose our beliefs on everyone else.”  When the Body of Christ becomes a mirror that reveals who we are, sometimes it will validate us and there will be times when it causes us to think again what is important to communicate, our theological position or our compassion. 

     Finally, St. Matthew’s is a place where we can accurately discern weakness and shortcomings in each other. All the issues we have going on inside of us individually can easily come out while we are here.  We all understand that.  No one at St. Matthew’s lives on Mt. Olympus.  But our church family is also a place where we can reveal ourselves authentically and find comfort and safety in doing so.  Where else in our society can that happen?   

     There is great value in belonging to a healing community of other sinners who will pray for us, send cards to us, bring meals to us, call on us, run errands for us and encourage us.  The slogan of the Olive Garden restaurant fits the culture of St. Matthew’s, “When you’re here, you’re family.” We simply cannot put a monetary value to our sense of belonging. What we can do is celebrate our understanding with gratitude.  

     Many people have stood up during our period of joys and concerns and thanked the congregation for its support while they traveled through one of life’s more fragile moments.  Now we are approaching the time when it is our moment to determine our financial support for the church family that makes all this happen.  What will we be communicating about our gratitude when we fill out our pledge card?  How grateful are we for the kind of education we learn from being a part of this incredible community of faith? 


    We recognize, O God, that each of us comes from a world of contrasts.  We experience both well-loved and lonely people.  We experience people who are needy and those who are generous.  We sense those who exude confidence and those who communicate insecurity.  We live among those who wear masks and those who are authentic.  As we seek to grow in such a world, thank you for giving us the power to discern one path from another.  Thank you for your Word, which lights our path.  Lead us away from what would encumber our spirits.  Inspire us to trust the unseen wings of spirit, so that our lives will soar even in circumstances that try us.  As we follow Jesus Christ, may we do so from having conquered all fear of what we do not understand.  Amen.


    How wonderful it is, O God, to be a participant in so many unpredictable dramas.  While we sometimes want to stop and smell the roses, we realize that we would never be contented if we were not busy making a difference in someone’s life, making a contribution in our workplace or having an impact on the future our children will one day inherit. 

    We are thankful that you called us to faithfulness rather than worry about the meaning of life’s events.  We are grateful that you endowed us with the ability to love others even though we may never understand the path that brought them into our lives. 

    Enable us to be accommodating and generous of spirit.  Enable us to become the shoulders upon which another may stand to see more clearly their life choices.  Help us to resist the temptation to create others in the image we want for them.  May we develop the courage to allow people to be just as you created them.  Give us the patience to trust that you are working your perfect will in their lives in spite of the judgments we make.  

    We ask today for healing to troubled hearts.  May worried minds find peace in letting go.  May we all remember Jesus’ words, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .