"What We Share Only With God"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - October 28, 2007

Joel 2:23-29; Luke 18:9-14

     Once there was an actor who had a very powerful, persuasive voice.  He was of the stature of Charlton Heston, who played Ben Hur and Moses as well as portraying in films many other memorable characters.  This actor demonstrated his abilities at oratory by presenting several dramatic readings for an audience.  Each time, the applause was deafening. He was remarkably talented. 

     There was a retired pastor in the audience that night and he asked the actor if he would read the 23rd Psalm. The actor was pleased to do so.  The minister handed to him a small  testament of Psalms that he carried in his sport coat.  The actor read it, and, again, the audience erupted with a thunderous applause.  When the audience settled down, the actor invited the older gentleman to come to the microphone and read it again.

     The retired minister accepted the invitation.  He put his testament back into his sport coat and stood silently for a brief time and then he began reciting the Psalm from memory.  When he was finished, a hush fell over the crowd.  No one applauded.  The actor thanked him.  As the minister headed back to his seat, the actor said, "What you have just experienced is a contrast between two readers.  One of them is well trained in oratory.  The other personally knows the Shepherd who inspired the writing of the 23rd Psalm.  One reader's effort produced applause.  The other reader had the ability to produce contagious, reflective silence."

     In our lesson for today, Jesus displayed his rare sensitivity toward the way two people related to God.  He lived in a culture where faith not only had historic roots that were well known to every Jew, but that faith also defined the way people lived.  What happened through many years of passing their religious heritage from one generation to the next was that some people defined themselves by obedience to practicing the Laws of Moses.

     Today's lesson describes two people who had gone to the Temple to pray.  One was highly skilled in his knowledge of the Torah.  He voiced his gratitude to God that he was not like everyone else that was engaged in greed, dishonesty and adultery.  He fasted twice a week.  He gave a tenth of his income to the Temple.  As he looked at the tax collector, who was also praying, no doubt he thought, "There but for the grace of God go I."  This Pharisee's faithfulness to God knew no bounds.

     Next Jesus described the tax collector who was unable to lift up his head.  There was little about his life of which he was proud.  With body language that symbolized thought patterns and attitudes of repentance he said, "God, have pity on me.  I have missed the mark in so many areas of my life.  Have mercy on me." 

     It is interesting that both had come to the same Temple.  What was shared with God appeared to be at near opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum.  Both prayers were very personal.  Both prayers came from the heart.  One heart was filled with a sense of righteousness because of his obedience to God and the other was filled with an understanding that more than anything else, he needed God's mercy.  What does each of us bring when we enter our sanctuary?

     This building is known in our community as St. Matthew's United Methodist Church.  There is nothing particularly unique about our church facilities.  What makes any church a sacred place is what we bring to it.  More particularly, what makes a church unique is what it symbolizes in the deepest recesses of our spirits.  What does our church mean to us?

     In recent months, I have received e-mails from people who have spent many Sundays with us as members and constituents when they lived in our area.  One young family moved to Chicago.  Another moved to Colorado.  Others have moved to cities in the south and the southwest.  Their e-mails describe their frustration of trying to find a church like St. Matthew's. 

     They report that some churches are very large.  These church families offer the up-beat praise music, the mood altering lighting, and mesmerizing scenery of wheat fields and snow capped mountains that are projected on large screens, scenery that frames the words of the Scripture lessons and the hymns.   These multi-media presentations are very impressive and they enjoy their worship experiences. 

     They write of large choirs that are accompanied by synthesizers that produce the sounds of most instruments that can be found in an orchestra.  They say, "An hour and a half can pass and we are not aware that church is running later than usual.  Everything is carefully choreographed so that people leave having had an emotionally moving experience.  They write, "We enjoy these experiences but we miss doing things for other people."

     Others who have moved to the south and southwest write that some churches are very conservative in their theology. Even though the services are well done and are well attended, they leave the church feeling that they were not nourished.  They do not want to hear what their parents were taught.  They want their minds challenged.  They want to think.  They want to learn how to apply the Scriptures to today's challenges.

     When I respond to such e-mails, I tell them not to look for a church like ours.  As I mentioned in my message two Sundays ago, we are not our environment, or about the experiences some churches offer that appease our senses.  Worship has been and always will be about our ability to share, to give and to let God see the contents of our hearts.

     If we spend time looking for a preacher whose understanding and theology matches our own, we may be disappointed.  Like the Pharisee in our lesson, we can easily be looking for some external source to please us, to reinforce where we are, to confirm and affirm our clarity of vision.   The Pharisee said, "I am grateful that I am not like everyone else who was engaged in greed, dishonesty and adultery.  I fast twice a week.  I give a tenth of my income to the Temple.  I'm a good guy."  No doubt he was.  It is one thing to be obedient to the Law of Moses and feel good about that, and another to realize that we still need mercy and guidance from God.  Again, what does St. Matthew's mean to us?

     There was another couple in our church that seldom missed our worship services.  The commute to work had become longer with the passing of the years.   The traffic patterns had become more complex and frustrating.  They moved to Potomac and recently joined Potomac United Methodist Church.  Rather than looking for a church that offered them a St. Matthew's experience, they rolled up their sleeves and are now in the process of giving themselves away in their new church. 

     Dave is either the Chair of the Finance or Stewardship Committee and Cherie is Chair of the Altar Guild.   They are nourished by their experience not because of what they receive; they are grateful for their experience because of the opportunities their church has provided where they can use their skills. 

     What motivates our generosity is known only to us and to God.   Among all the qualities that people admire about St. Matthew's, there is one that I hear more often than any other.  That common thread is gratitude for their being a part of this congregation.

     In case you have not yet guessed it, my message this morning is my annual stewardship sermon asking you to support the spending plan of our church for 2008.  Only you and God really know what motivates us to be generous.  The amount we choose is one measure of how much we value our church.

     This year we Americans have been through a lot of drama economically.  When we examine what has happened to the prices of everything we purchase, we will readily recognize what has also affected the expenses incurred by our church. What we have experienced at the gasoline pumps is the same thing our Finance Committee has experienced as it crafted next year's planned expenses.   What does St. Matthew's mean to us?

     In keeping with the fires that terrorized southern California in recent days, I ran across a story of a family that experienced the most unfathomable high drama anyone could imagine.  Through every moment they never lost sight of their gratitude for everything that keep their faith alive and well.   Air Force Colonel John Franklin wrote about his family's experience for Guide Posts magazine.

     His family was living in San Francisco during the earthquake a number of years ago. Many of us remember that moment because the earthquake struck just prior to one of the games in the World Series. The Franklin home was destroyed. They were able to salvage only a few of their possessions.

     Next the Colonel received orders sending the Franklins to the Philippines. They considered themselves fortunate to get off-base housing. Their beautiful home had a commanding view of the mountains. One of those mountains, however, was named Pinatubo. When that long-silent volcano erupted, the Colonel's wife was at work and their three daughters were at school. There were moments when the five of them experienced enormous fear and uncertainty.  Each wondered if they would ever see their family again.

     The heavy rain of ash superheated the air. Reports were coming in that many of their neighbors and friends had died. The Air Force base was destroyed. Their home was burned and buried under debris. Miraculously the members of the family found each other and escaped.

     What happened next defied all odds. The Colonel's new orders sent their family to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.  For a third time their lovely home was obliterated by Hurricane Andrew. The Colonel wrote this article from their new home at Langley.  He closed his story with these words:

     No one can possibly imagine what our family experienced during recent years. For a while, it seemed as though the universe had turned against us. Our experiences, however, awakened us to values we had been taking for granted. We have learned to value every moment together.  Even when Mother Nature seemed to have singled out our family on which to visit her wrath, we remained grateful to God that we have each other, and that we have remained healthy and unharmed.  But more than anything, we are so grateful for the warmth and support we found in each of our three wonderful church families.  God may never have intended for us to find a purpose in such disasters, but we have.  Our faith is in tact, what we value is stronger and we are filled with joy.  These are the essentials of life. 

     Here was a family that went through potentially life-shattering experiences, and the Colonel was writing from a heart that was still being guided by gratitude and trust. We should think about this family each time we complain, each time we feel offended, each time we experience a loss, and each time we feel abandoned and alone.  In the midst of our personal heartaches and disasters, St. Matthew's church family continues to be here for each of us.  We have a family of faith to support us that many people do not have. 

     Among all 700 churches in the conference, St. Matthew's ranks number four in our giving for mission efforts.  We truly need all of you to step forward in order to help keep our dream growing.  God does not build and expand the mission of churches -- only inspired people can do that.  Please do your part in the greatest drama on earth B making disciples for Jesus Christ one person at a time. 

     My annual letter to the congregation will be in the mail tomorrow.  Please read and review everything in it as you prayerfully consider what your gift will be for next year.  I never trust our computer software to generate accurate address labels.  If you do not receive the letter, I would like you to let me know.  Do not feel gratitude because you did not get one!!! What you can be grateful for is that I only deliver one sermon a year on stewardship.  That is made possible because of your generosity.


     Thank you, God, for bringing into our lives a deeper awareness of how mercy, kindness and peace can heal our fears.  You have given us a powerful road map for living through the life and teachings of Jesus.  Yet we confess that there are moments when we feel fragmented.  We want to be generous with our money, while the voice of fear guides us to save for our rainy days.  We desire more patience because of the number of times we fail to experience it.  We have often replaced our desire to be in mission with scheduled priorities that take us in other directions.  Inspire us to shake off complacency as we climb to higher ground.  Allow us to make today a new beginning.  Amen.


     "This morning as we gather, O God, we are humbled by our remembrance of all that Jesus invited us to become.   We recognize that even though we have not always risen to the level Jesus knew we could reach, you love us just as we are. We thank you for the vast number of opportunities that you place before us the moment we awaken.  As we look at each new day, we can choose patience over frustration. We can engage in random acts of kindness without seeking recognition or approval. We can offer a lifestyle that is framed around forgiveness rather than seeking apologies for our form of justice.

     How grateful we are for your guidance. We are grateful that Jesus not only called us to follow him, but also he invited us to make disciples of those who have fallen in love with the gods of this world.  Inspire and motivate us to stand forth in our desire to give expression to our faith.   Help us to make visible the truth we have discerned so that we can continue to guide others to live inspired lives.

     Today as we consider our financial commitment to our church, kindle our memories of our own spiritual journey.  Help us recall the Sunday school teachers who focused our thinking on matters of substance when we wanted to be elsewhere. Help us recall the prayers that were offered for us when we felt vulnerable. Help us recall the miracle of your forgiving presence when we were convinced that we had lost our way.  Accept our generosity, O God, as one sign of our gratitude to you for all that your guidance has meant to us. We pray these thoughts through the loving, patient spirit of Jesus the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .