"God Is At Work In You"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 30, 2005
Psalm 107:1-9; I Thessalonians 2:8-13
This little colony of believers lived in an extremely hostile environment. Many of them suffered persecutions because they were followers of Jesus’ teachings. Paul came into their midst during very challenging times and reminded them of a very important truth -- “God is at work in you who believe.”
Paul was not teaching that there was a magic bullet that would end their persecutions, or change their environment, or restore them to a sense of community while living among those who hated them. He taught them only that God was at work in them. That is the message that I want to deliver to you this morning.
Recently I received a letter directed to St. Matthew’s that was signed by 27 people from the Head Start Program in Slidell, Louisiana. One paragraph says,
Thanks to the compassionate souls of your congregation, many people have received helpful items to begin the rebuilding process. It is a blessing to know that God’s people are always there in times of distress to help each other maintain strength and dignity to carry on with all of life’s trials and tribulations. Without knowing us, you opened your hearts and gave generously to us all.
After Pete Saderholm and Dan Blades returned from Laurel, Mississippi, Pete told the 8:30 a.m. congregation, “You have no idea how much inspiration people can create when they are working among others who have lost nearly everything. While we were there, we helped over 10,000 families.” The Apostle Paul said, “God is at work in those of us who believe.”
Yesterday during the memorial service for my fishing buddy, Lefford Fauntleroy, I recited one of my favorite poems that captured for me the essence of his life. The poem’s message expresses what happens to others when God is at work in us.
I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day. I would rather one walk with me than merely tell me the way. The eye is a better student and more willing than the ear; fine counsel can be confusing, but example is always clear. I can soon learn how to do it, if I only see it done; I can watch your life in action, while you’re serious or having fun. The greatest of all my friends are the ones who live their creeds; for to see the good in action, is what everybody needs.
All of us would readily admit that living in the Kingdom is not an easy task. We forget how to be kind when the pressures of life are overwhelming. We forget to use the most appropriate language when discussing or describing a frustration. There are some days when our lives are in knots and other days when we feel as though we are sitting on top of the world. A community of faith allows for such latitude in our attitudes and behavior.
One of the interesting insights in our lesson is found in verse 11. Paul says, “You know that we treated each one of you just as parents treat their own children.” These words could have sounded condescending had Paul not just visited their community. They understood the spirit of Paul and why he had written these words. Paul knew that they were beginners who were newcomers to the faith. They needed coaching, encouragement and a little education for them to continue growing. No one in any community of faith is tuned into the Kingdom life all the time.
Frequently Jesus found himself in the midst of the disciples who were arguing among each other. He told his disciples many times that they lacked faith. In frustration, he once said, “How long must I put up with you?” Once John wanted to rain down fire to destroy a community that would not receive them. Once Peter’s enthusiasm for Jesus did not impress the Master. Jesus said, “Peter, I know you mean well, but tonight before the rooster crows, you will swear three times that you never heard of me.” We are not always able to live in the awareness that the Kingdom surrounds us. Jesus understood that better than anyone.
When I was at Capitol Hill some years ago a woman came to see me. As soon as she entered my office, it was obvious that I was about to experience an emotional volcanic eruption. For a moment I thought I was at Boot Camp and she was some Drill Instructor upset about her out-of-shape recruits. She used every expletive I can think of as she gave voice to her frustration.
I said, “Well, I can tell that this is not one of your better days!” I could not contain myself. Honestly, this was one of the funniest episodes of my entire week. I said, “I’m certainly glad that you don’t have to put on any airs when you come to see me.” When I said that, she burst into laughter, too. She calmed down and we worked out a solution to her troubles.
My gift to her was to accept her just as she was. By allowing her to vent her frustration without judgment, the cork came out of the boiling steam kettle and she was fine. Others may not find the exchange I just described as being very Christ-like. Perhaps she should not have used such language, and I should not have been so insensitive to her anger by laughing. The exchange, however, was both healing and authentic because there was no judgment from either of us. In spite of her temporary frustration with our church trustees, she knew she was loved just as she was. To me, this is the church at its best. There are times when we are in pain just as that little colony of believers in Thessalonica.
The value of our church family is that individuals are not graded by anyone. The choice of how quickly we evolve spiritually remains up to us. The value of our church family is that we care more about where you are going than where you came from. The value of our church family is that we remain for each other a spiritual learning center that allows each of us to give and take as much as our schedules and finances will allow. The truth about our church family is that God is at work in what we do. This was Paul’s message and it is mine.
The odd thing about that small faith community in Thessalonica is that we would never have known of its existence had Paul not written two letters to them. Paul’s letters reveal one of the mysteries of how God works. Think of all the saints, all the little communities of faith, and all the wonderful invisible deeds done by a host of people who were never mentioned, not even in a footnote, in the unfolding of human history. That little church family in Thessalonica, along with countless others that Paul never wrote to, have brought us to this day.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and the Prophets, Jesus and Paul did not refine our faith history all by themselves. It took millions of people working almost in secret to make love visible. Think of what has happened in the last 200 years in this country. A person cannot drive through Baltimore without seeing countless hospitals that grew from the Church’s vision. Think of the universities that are all over our country, from Notre Dame to Southern Methodist University. They also grew from the church’s vision.
Think about little, unknown St. Matthew’s of Bowie who beat FEMA into Laurel, Mississippi and Slidell, Louisiana. Our youth know the song, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it, you spread his love to everyone one; you want to pass it on.”
Believe it or not, this is my money sermon for 2006. In light of all that you do, I did not think that you people needed to be reminded or convinced about what this church means to all of us. The 2006 spending plan has been raised a modest 2.8 percent. If all of us will raise our giving level by 5 percent or more, we will make it with money to spare. We only talk about money once a year. This is that Sunday and we are doing it right now. God is at work in you. Never forget that!
It is hard to believe that Lois and I are in our tenth year being among you. During our time together we have always paid our Conference Apportionments in full, we have always exceeded our budget, we have always given very generously to UMCOR when a disaster strikes, and we have always sent our youth somewhere in Appalachia to help people who cannot help themselves.
All of us have counted on each other to help make these events happen. Always remember what Paul wrote to that little church family in Thessalonica, “God is at work in you who believe.” If God had not been active among those unknown people, more than likely we would not be here today. Our faith history reveals that God knew their activities.
As long as each of us takes a step forward in expressing our faith with our tithes, time and talents, the entire universe will move with us. There is no mountain we cannot climb together as we continue to make disciples. Remember, it only takes a spark to get the fire going. That’s how it is with God’s love. Once you’ve experienced it, you spread his love to everyone; you want to pass it on. If we all put our money where our hearts are, we will be fine.
I received a card yesterday from the Angel Gang. In it were these words, “Dick, while you sit watching over your flock of sheep, just remember you have a group of Angels and only God knows what they are doing.” That is so true. I could never have anticipated the coming of that card nor the words that they would write in it. Their words were perfect. I want to thank all of you for being you.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God, for bringing opportunities into our lives to express mercy, generosity and kindness. When Jesus came among us, he confessed to having no place to lay his head. His message was simple; he wanted us to extend ourselves in love so that you could inspire people in our midst. The King of Kings did not mind being last, and he did not mind being the servant of all. He taught us to trust all outcomes to your creativity. He found value in the widow who gave away everything that she had. Then he did the same with his own life. As we open ourselves to you, touch our minds and hearts with your spirit and word. Call us with a voice that is unmistakably clear. Inspire us to listen to the words of your son, “Follow me.” Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for the opportunity to renew ourselves each week as we come together for worship. We are aware of how easy it is to neglect our calling to be the ray of sunshine during someone’s cloudy day. Spare us from questioning our effectiveness among others. We have no idea who we are influencing as instruments of your presence.
Thankfully our faith has changed how we view our relationships. Faith calls us to a greater faithfulness when we have strayed. Faith lifts us when our obvious flaws influence our attitudes. Even though many of us fail at doing our best, we are nevertheless confident that together we can make a difference toward the healing of our community and world. Help us to remember that you have the ability to work miracles with our smallest deeds.
We do not know how to assign a value to kindness that we extended to someone. We do not know the value of a smile effortlessly given to a stranger. We do not know why it is that a message or an anthem on Sunday morning appears like a direct message from you to us, but it happens. Teach us to be attentive to the needs of your Kingdom here on earth so that one day your loving will, will find expression everywhere. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .