Our Struggles With The "Fs"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 11, 2007
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21; Matthew 25:14-30
I have entitled my sermon, "Our Struggles With The >Fs'," because there are two major themes that create tension in our lives in spite of how we think. The two "Fs" are Faith and Fear. There are times during our lives when we are not sure which "F" has the upper hand.
When I went for my hip surgery last year two days after Easter, I had faith in the surgeon, Marc Brassard, the surgical team of Arundel Hospital and in the kind words of so many others who had gone through the identical procedure. I trusted God that whatever happened during the surgery was something with which I would live.
Prior to the surgery, however, various assaults on my faith began to occur. As I reviewed the protocols prior to my entering the hospital, I had to get my Last Will and Testament up-dated. "That was odd," I thought. "What can possibly happen?"
Then when I was lying on the table for my pre-op discussion with part of the surgical team, an awkward moment occurred. Marc had just introduced the anesthesiologist as the finest specialist with whom he had ever worked. I greeted her warmly and told her that I would prefer an epidural instead of a general anesthetic. She said, "I can do that. There can be some side effects with that procedure, however, one of them being that you might never walk again."
She tried to recover from how her words sounded with, "but there is also the possibility with a general anesthetic that you could have permanent brain damage." Marc's eyes got bigger and bigger as these sobering truths rolled off her tongue until I started laughing. She recovered and said, " can tell you this, Mr. Stetler, if I were going to have this surgery, I would be requesting an epidural myself."
If there was a time for fear to make its presence known on the stage of my mind, it was at these various entrance points. Fear and apprehension, however, never came because I learned years ago that whatever was going to happen during any phase of my life was going to happen regardless of what I thought about it ahead of time. We have to learn to let go of many fears as soon as they arrive because arrive they will. It does not take much for our minds to become very busy with an infinite number of possibilities of what could happen to us. Having a blanket faith and trust can chase fear from our minds.
In our lesson today we have three servants who were entrusted with portions of their master's wealth. Jesus said, "The man gave to each one according to his ability: to one he gave five thousand gold coins, to another he gave two thousand and to another he gave one thousand."
Two of them invested wisely and the third, overcome with fear of his master, buried his one thousand gold coins. The master of the servants returned after a long time and asks for an accounting. The two that had invested wisely, doubled their master's assets. The third one, however gave back only what he had been given.
Jesus concluded his story with these words, "To every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough. The person who has nothing, even the little he has will be taken away from him. Throw this useless servant out into the darkness where he will cry and gnash his teeth."
We might ask ourselves, "Why would Jesus, who is normally very compassionate, use such a story? Where is his mercy?" When we examine this episode carefully, we discover that Jesus words were only describing what people bring on themselves when fear rules their lives.
Think about your life's experiences. Do we trust in God's constant presence, or do we first analyze all the unwanted possibilities of what could happen to us? For those who do the latter, nearly everything is dark. Some people can spend a lot of time being hurt. They can expend enormous quantities of energy being upset. They frequently are the ones who blame others for their actions as the one servant did. The third servant said, "I knew you were a hard man, who reaped harvests where you did not plant and gathered crops where you sowed no seed."
All three of the servants had the same information about their master. Two servants acted wisely and the third responded with fear, a thought pattern he no doubt had developed over years of using it instead of learning from the adventures that come from risk taking. Faith encourages risk taking. Our responses are not rooted in faith if all outcomes are predictable.
I was talking to Jan Edwards last week. Jan is a master of acupuncture that has been treating me. She told me that she had been discussing matters of spirit with a potential client. A woman had been referred to Jan because of a number of physical issues that had occurred in her body. In discussing what else was going on in her life, the new client told her several things.
Jan responded, "Dr. Deepak Chopra has written a book on this subject and I found it to be an excellent read that addresses the issues you are facing." The woman responded, "That man speaks for Satan. I would never read anything from him." Jan told me, "Can you imagine making such a judgment about an author you had never read? What may be even more interesting is that she never returned for another treatment."
Think about Jesus' words, "Throw this servant out into the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth." Think about the quality of the light coming from our life when we are ruled by fear. It could be said of us that even the little we have will be taken away. Why? What we have has not been helpful. What we have has not served us well during times of uncertainty. Worry and fear have become our truth.
During one session of this summer's Spirituality class, one of our church members told us a story that was quite engaging. She was driving somewhere in Europe with her two children when darkness came. She noticed that her fuel gauge was on empty and the light signaling the same was clearly visible on the dash. Her travels had taken her to a very rural area of the country she was visiting.
As she became increasingly concerned, a gasoline station finally came into view as she crested a hill. The place was not well lighted and there were a number of men loitering outside a small building. She got out of her car and discovered that the pump would not accept American dollars or her credit card. She got back into the car and contemplated what to do next. The men came over to her car and started rocking it, trying to entice her to get out. Her heart began to race as fearful thoughts entered her mind. She quietly asked God for help as she griped the steering wheel.
Just then a motorcyclist came over the hill and into the station. He saw the men taunting her and ordered them to stand down. They backed away. She rolled down the window to thank him and discovered that he spoke three languages. One of them was English. She told him her problem. Together they calculated the amount of American dollars it would take to fill her tank. She gave him the money. He pumped her gas and put the amount on his credit card. She thanked him and asked, "What is your name?" He said, "My name is Gabriel."
We could say that was a miracle, that it was a coincidence or simply happenstance. All of us have a way of interpreting our lives through either of the two "Fs". This kind of story can increase our understanding that we have guardian angels or that God's love surrounds us.
We can also say, "Yes, but there are plenty of people who have prayed and nothing happened." That is not what happened in this instance. Even Jesus prayed for deliverance and Gabriel did not come to the rescue. However, part of the miracle of Jesus' life was that he never gave up his understanding that God was with him even when faced with uncertainty.
Faith would not be faith if it did not strengthen us in the midst of uncertainty. Obviously, two of the servants took risks. They stepped out on faith that the money would grow if it were invested. The other was so fearful, so protective that he prevented the wealth of his master from circulating in the local economy by investing it. As a result, fear would be his constant companion.
This morning we received a bulletin containing an estimate of giving card that will indicate our financial commitment for St. Matthew's 2008 spending plan. We are also filling out this card during a time when oil is closing in on $100 a barrel, when the stock market has been pulling back for weeks, when our recent draught has sent our water bills soaring, when shipping costs have increased what we pay for all the products we buy. Every year at this time, however, we have the opportunity to step out in faith or to play it safe.
In yesterday's Washington Post, B-9 of the Metro section, there is an article entitled, New York Man Takes Bible Literally for a Year. A.J. Jacobs is a Jew by birth and an agnostic with his beliefs. During research for a book, he lived one year obeying most of the 800 rules found in the Scriptures. During that year, he said that he stoned suspected adulterers in Central Park with pebbles he had gathered, engaged in snake handling at a Tennessee church and even sacrificed chickens. The Scriptures forbade him to cut his beard.
Because the Bible commanded it, he gave 10 percent of his gross earnings for services to others. He admitted that doing this research was not easy, but strangely enough, he found it liberating. He indicated that obeying all the laws of the Bible was "almost a lovely, paradoxically liberating feeling to be free of having to make choices." Because the Bible commanded it, he did it. No choice was needed.
Frequently, we do too much thinking and too much debating while trying to be reasonable and responsible. We can say to ourselves, "If I give 10 percent of my gross income, will I have enough for the weddings of our two daughters? I have the costs associated with their college education coming up soon. Suppose one of us needs surgery and the medical insurance only covers 80 percent?"
While we do not want to hear it, such thinking is in the same vein as the third servant who said, "I knew you were a hard man, who reaped harvests where you did not plant and gathered crops where you sowed no seed. I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. Look! Here is what belongs to you."
During my 41 years in the ministry, I have never known anyone who tithed who also struggled financially. Like with our church member who was driving on fumes when a man named Gabriel came to her rescue, we could say, "Those who tithe experience miracles, coincidences or mere moments of happenstance." Perhaps their experience is the fruit from their faith.
The German poet Goethe once wrote,
Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back is always present. This always produces ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: The moment one definitely commits oneself, then the universe moves as well. All sorts of things occur to help the person that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues forth from that decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come his or her way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it! Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now!
There is so much about our lives that we take for granted. There is so much for which we seldom voice any gratitude. Jesus said, "Give without counting the cost." For many of us, our adventure with God's presence will not begin until we do.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving, ever present God, too often we find ourselves struggling with the tension between our faith and our fear. We come to you with our needs and often your voice is silent. We want our adventures and experiences to enhance our happiness and many of them do not. We want those who love us to do so in a form we would prefer, but we remain disappointed. How wonderful it is when understanding and wisdom stir within our spirits. Thank you for teaching us that expressing love is better than receiving. Thank you for guiding us to remember that all our needs will be met when we invest ourselves in living. Thank you for helping us to discover that the bitter pills of life often become the best medicine. Help us to exchange our expectations of you and of life, for faith and trust that we are disciples who still have a lot to learn. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that our lives are as varied as they are. You have equipped each of us with ways of expressing our love that are uniquely ours. Some of us are good listeners. Some of us love to talk. Some of us use our vocational environment as a place to be in ministry. We have learned that if we have a group of friends or colleagues, we have a congregation.
"We thank you, God, that our lives are as varied as they are. You have equipped each of us with ways of expressing our love that are uniquely ours. Some of us are good listeners. Some of us love to talk. Some of us use our vocational environment as a place to be in ministry. We have learned that if we have a group of friends or colleagues, we have a congregation.
This morning, many of us will be declaring our financial support for our church family and its numerous ministries. We thank you for equipping us with the potential for generosity. Thank you for your Son's reminder that as we sow, so shall we reap. Even the ancients, who were far less economically blessed than we, knew how to honor and reverence you with a tithe of everything they grew or earned. They looked at their gifts as a duty; we look at our gifts as a measure of our faith and as a fruit grown from our spirit of gratitude.
Today also is a time when our minds turn to the men and women of our armed forces who are serving in places that were never part of their life's plans. They have left family and friends behind because duty called them. Heal the thought patterns of so many people of this world, O God. Quiet the minds of our service personnel and their anxious families who await their return. We give this problem to you, O God, as we pray the thought, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .