"Being Faithful In Small Matters"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 15, 2009
I Timothy 6:17-19; Luke 16:9-13
A steady diet of such incoming information often helps to educate us to be cynical, skeptical and distrusting of everything. Recently, there were reports that our country might run out of pumpkin because of the poor growing season. We can find ourselves drawn to an area of human experience that feeds our doubts and fears until we become stressed and anxious that our culture and our society are headed into a major decline.
Gratitude for our environment is often lost in the mix of our emotions even though that response is something over which we have total control. Let’s think about our lives for just a moment. Who can put a value on grocery stores that are five minutes from our homes? Who can estimate the value of having the most sophisticated hospitals in the world within a 45-minute drive? If a water main breaks in the middle of winter at 2:00 a.m., a repair crew comes immediately to fix it. Everything from pharmacies, gasoline stations, large shopping malls, auto repair shops, to all the cyber space resources that are at our finger tips completely surround us.
This is the golden-age that humanity has looked forward to for thousands of years, but we take it for granted partially because of the bombardment of the deeds of a few who create a tapestry of information about which we can do nothing. Our lives are not enhanced one bit by parading the deeds of a comparative handful of people when compared to the 300 million of us who live here. We are made to worry about 10% unemployment instead of celebrating the fact that 90% of us are working. This is a remarkable ratio when compared to other nations.
Our society has designated one day when we celebrate the fact that we are living during a period in history where freedom and opportunity are everywhere for most of us. Even that one day is frequently dominated by our consuming quantities of food that are way beyond the boundaries of our normal diets, taking our Nexium or Prilosec capsules and napping in front of football while others are cleaning up the remnants of our feast.
When I was a child, Thanksgiving was a special time for our family. We always traveled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to the home of my grandparents. All the Stetler families came together including my other set of grandparents. To begin our meal, my grandfather Stetler would read a portion of Scripture, pray and then he would carve the turkey. It was the same ritual each year. While my grandfather’s prayers were always very touching, he frequently thanked God for blessing the Stetler family. Occasionally, he would mention specific incidents that made all of us feel as though God had singled out our family for a special blessing.
Even as a young boy, I greeted with great skepticism the belief that God had chosen the Stetler family for special treatment. I reasoned that if this were so, God lacked consistency. I knew of so many families who had fallen on very difficult times and whose lives had been tragic and filled with disappointments.
The afternoon following our Thanksgiving meal I found my grandmother alone in the kitchen resting at the table. I asked her why grandpa prayed as he did, particularly the part about our family being particularly blessed by God. She gave me a lesson that deeply imprinted itself within me.
She told me several stories about my grandfather’s early life that I never knew. Of three children, he was the only one who survived child birth. He had wanted to go to college but there was no money to fund his education beyond the first semester. He came home and got a job to help support the family. She told me about his idea of keeping God in the middle of his life. That daily orientation toward life gave him a sense of expectancy rather than a cause for alarm when his plans did not work out. Everything that happened to him, he considered a blessing because the currents of life were taking him to places he had never been.
She said, “His prayers came from his looking back through the years and Seeing God in Little Things, discovering that With God We Can, and knowing all the while that God Was There.” In fact, that last sentence contains the titles of three of my grandfather’s books. Because of his faith, my grandfather could readily sense how God had worked throughout his life. The intriguing ingredient was the eyes of faith or the God-orientation that helped him to frame his life in a way that nothing else could and still produce results from his sense of being in partnership with our Creator.
This is what we can expect from having and practicing our faith. We teach ourselves to understand life as an exciting journey that places us in circumstances where we can sow our seeds. This orientation is not for our comfort, our spiritual protection or our isolation from the things that give us the sense of vulnerability and loneliness.
Sure we doubt. Sure we become cynical and skeptical some times. Sure we become disoriented by paddling in waters where we have never been and taking risks by painting outside the lines. Sure, we can even question whether or not God cares at all.
However, when we imagine that God is in the center of everything we experience, we have an expectation of life’s events that God will guide us safely through anything. My grandfather was highly motivated because of that understanding. Armed only with a high school diploma, his life carried him to become the Publisher of the Evangelical Press which was the equivalent of the Chief Executive Officer of Cokesbury.
Our scripture lesson this morning is the keystone for all that has been said thus far. The words come from Paul’s letter to Timothy:
Tell the people who are rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and proud of their investments, pension plans and Social Security benefits. (Of course, I am taking some liberties with the Greek.) These are accumulations that are here today and gone tomorrow. Tell the people to make God the center of their lives. God has the ability to pile on all the riches anyone could possibly manage – to do good deeds, to be rich in helping others and to be extravagantly generous. When people do that they will create a consciousness within them that will provide the inheritance of what it means to have abundance in life.
During the last several years, the Stewardship Committee has given up on gimmicky campaigns that are designed to sensitize the congregation about our church’s financial needs. You receive one sermon a year on money that mentions the spirit of generosity toward your church. That sermon is today. Our task is to ask you to look at all that you have and take a bigger step from the one you took last year.
Tomorrow the church office staff will put into the mail a letter from me, a letter from Gail Seekins, the chair of our Finance Committee, an abridged copy of our 2010 spending plan and an estimate-of-giving card. If some of you enjoy far more transparency of our budget, unabridged copies will be available in the narthex literature rack next Sunday.
I have to tell you from my personal experience that my grandparents and my parents imprinted in me the value of giving from a spirit of gratitude. The other teaching that deeply impressed me came from Jesus when he taught, “Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.” We really do define ourselves.Some years ago at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California, a little girl was suffering from a rare and life-threatening disease. Her recovery chances were about twenty percent. Somehow her five-year old brother had suffered from the same disease and had miraculously survived. He had the antibodies in his blood. The doctor explained the situation to the little fellow and asked if he would be willing to give his blood to see if a transfusion might save his sister’s life. He hesitated only for a second or two and then said, “I guess so.”
Listen to these words remembered by one of the attending nurses as she described what happened:
As the transfusion progressed, he lay in a bed next to his sister and
smiled, as we all did, when we witnessed the color returning to her
cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at
the doctor and asked in a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right
away?” Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor. He thought
he had been asked to give all his blood to his sister. His question
shook all of us when we realized what the little guy was going through
emotionally thinking that he was about to die to save his sister’s
As you fill out your pledge cards this year, I want you to remember one thing: Do not give to your church because you believe the church needs your money! Give to your church generously because that is the kind of person you are or want to be.
When we transition from this world, we cannot take with us the skills of how well we managed our possessions and earthly wealth. Such a talent has no use there. What we can take with us is a generous spirit born from our gratitude. In time we will learn that there was never any risk involved. To understand that while we are giving, however, takes trust and faith.
The spirit that creates abundance is the spirit in which our Creator gave us everything we have. In deciding how much is too much is a choice only we can make. Maybe our hearts will soften when we look around and take stock of so much that we have taken for granted. Learning to give without experiencing fearful thoughts that we might run out is true spiritual freedom. This is what Paul was referencing when he wrote, “When people do that they will create a consciousness within them that will provide the inheritance of what it means to have abundance in life.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, we thank you for showering us with countless abilities and talents. We have the potential to fashion our lives any way we wish. If we counted the number of opportunities to expand our awareness of your gifts, we would cease to see all else. We have grown wiser. We have experienced you in our lives. We have learned that we reap exactly what we sow. We have discovered why it is important to be gentle with ourselves rather than defining who we are by our perceived failures. Our life-experiences have taught us to mistrust attractiveness, prosperity and power as sources for our spiritual guidance. In their own season each of them will eventually change. Heal the fears that often magnify our insecurities. Help each of us to accept the invitation of Jesus to change the quality of our thoughts. Nurture the work of our faith community so that we become extensions of its witness and ministry. Help us to recognize that what we value and believe is always visible on life’s stage for everyone to see. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God that our lives are as varied as they are. You have equipped each of us with countless 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 to nurture.
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 who we are becoming as we let go of what we know and grab on with both hands to our trust of what can happen through a fearless spirit governed by generosity.
Today we could not be happier as a congregation that we will be joined this morning by people who want to declare St. Matthew’s to be their new church home. This is truly an opportunity for all of us as it will be for them. The journey in life is complicated and often filled with side trips and detours, and yet often we experience sheer delight in many of our experiences. We sense you whispering in our ears, “We can accomplish all things together.” Bless us this day by making that truth the center of our lives. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .