"What Works, Spreads"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – January 23, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 27: 1, 4-9; Matthew 4: 12-23

          Our Gospel reading for today discusses the beginning of a movement that grew from a small group of twelve men surrounding a carpenter into one of the world’s larger religions.  How did that happen?  What did those early believers teach that imbedded itself into the minds and hearts of generations of people for thousands of years?  What was it about their message that caused people of every ethnic and cultural background to embrace this new way of perceiving their life experiences and their relationship with God? 

Through the centuries, Christians have echoed a number of answers to these questions.  One is that Christianity’s growth has been the work of the Holy Spirit.  Another was that countless passionate, persuasive preachers began drawing thousands of converts by a message that inspired them to change the quality of their lives.  

This growth progress was made possible through the centuries because the church became an institution whose leadership organized the faith around key beliefs, rituals and traditions.  In addition, church leaders also saw to it that certain manuscripts were copied that would guide believers into the future.  Those manuscripts eventually became our Bible.

What does all this mean for the 21st Century, particularly when people’s interest in the church is not even close to what it was fifty years ago?   Why is being a part of a church family no longer appealing to thousands of people whose families were once deeply rooted in the church?   What has been happening? 

Is it that people are busy with other activities?  Is it that the church has lost its way with a message that is irrelevant to the kinds of issues that people are facing today?  Is it that people have learned to meet their spiritual needs in other ways? Those remaining on the sidelines have these and other more personal reasons for staying uninvolved.   In light of how the values of society have dramatically changed during many of our lives, my hunch is that a vast majority of people is starving to death spiritually and they have no idea what is happening.

Some years ago, a couple came to me to be married.  For the man, this marriage would be his fourth.  His former marriages had ended in divorce.  I had to ask him the obvious question, “Why do you think this marriage will work when your other three did not?”  The man’s response was interesting. 

He said, “I was the one who defined how I wanted each of my wives to love me.  When my wives no longer met my expectations, the marriages were over as far as I was concerned.”  Rebecca, who was sitting next to him, knew the risk she was taking with this man but she believed that she had done her homework with him.

Mark continued, “Rebecca held a verbal mirror in front of me and unloaded her thoughts with surgical precision.  She told me that I was a great guy but that I was totally self-absorbed.  She told me that she loved me but she could never marry me because I had never learned how to love anyone but myself!  I was shocked and confused.  I had no idea what she was talking about.”  I believed him.  He did not know!  He could not grasp how other people were viewing him.

There was no room for anyone else in his life.  He knew nothing about patience, tolerance and compassion.  He could not define what listening skills he had.  He knew nothing about open communication.  It was his way or the highway. His former marriages and most of his relationships had been about “me, me, me.”   How often we forget that love is a learned response.   Ignorance of our spiritual side can lead us anywhere but where we need to be.

I asked him if he attended church.  He said no.  He claimed that past experiences during his youth were not good.  I read him these verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.  There is no law against such as these.”  (Galatians 5:22)  He said, “I don’t know a thing about spirituality.  To me it’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.”

Our spirit is one of the unseen and often-undiscovered drivers of every human being regardless of what people believe.  Spirit governs how happy we are and how industrious we become.  Spirit determines whether or not we attract quality relationships.  Spirit guides us toward a highly energized and creative work ethic.  Spirit inspires us to reach out to others.  The spirit by which we live supports the quality of our inner world.

The reason Christianity has survived and spread from that small group of men to every country in the world is because what Jesus was teaching works.  Jesus characterized this process of transforming life as learning how to live in the Kingdom of God.

Today, we would call this same process of learning as getting in touch with our inner world.  Today we understand that no one can make us happy and productive.  It is our responsibility to bring these qualities into every experience and relationship.  If we cannot bring enthusiasm and confidence into our daily activities, no one is going to come along and give those qualities to us.  

What Jesus was teaching works so well that his orientation toward life has spread well beyond the often-cloistered walls of the Church.  For example, every major industry today dies when it forgets how to serve others.  When the focus of any company is on profits and dividends for stockholders, it will lose market share because executives have taken their eye off their own mission statements to serve the public.   Everyday, people and institutions – even the church – lose their way.  It happens so slowly with small baby steps that take us away from the path Jesus taught.

Two couples decided to vacation together.  The men were playing a round of golf while their wives were shopping.  It was around the 9th hole when one of the men was gazing off into the distance as if distracted by something.  His friend said, “You are some place else, aren’t you?”  He said, “Yes, you caught me.  I’m used to being in church at this time.  I’m feeling a little guilty.” 

His friend responded, “My wife and I used to go all the time and I found it to be a total waste of time.  I never came home with anything.  You sing a few hymns, recite a lot of words that are written for you, they pass the offering plates and then you listen to some priest yakking about something that is totally irrelevant.  To tell you the truth, I can’t remember a single thing that a priest ever said.”

His friend smiled and said, “I think you’re right.  Your words describe perfectly what I experience, too. I don’t remember very much by the time I get home.  However, I will tell you this, I’ve been married for 38 years and during that time I have eaten thousands of meals prepared by my wife.   She is an excellent cook, but to tell you the truth, I can’t remember many of them.  What I do know is that I would be dead now had I not eaten them. 

“Going to church helps me to remember that invisible part of me that rules every decision I make.  Without the nourishment coming from those little reminders of God’s presence in my life, I would be a very angry person today because my world is seldom the way I want it.  Church keeps me anchored.”

When we look at our own experience of church, there are always those who come for the message of the morning.  If it’s good, they may come back.  There are others who come because they are with people who have become their friends.  For them, church is a focal point for bonding.  There are others who enjoy being in mission together, even if it is something as simple as taking care of someone who lives alone or has recently returned to their home following surgery.  A group of people takes a turn bringing meals, doing chores, helping sort through the mail, whatever!  They grow each time they allow the love inside of them to show.  The Gospel can be summarized in three words, “Love one another.”

Jesus called into discipleship two brothers, Peter and Andrew, and later two more brothers, James and John.   Jesus was preparing his little group for great things by teaching them to change how other people think.  He said, “I will make you fishers of men.”  This was Jesus’ mission as he went throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and preaching about the Good News of the Kingdom.  He was teaching people how to regain control over the spirit by which they live.

Suppose our beliefs and our faithfulness to the church simply do not work for us?  What then? What happens to us when we are having those moments of quiet desperation?  We are having a very challenging time and few of our friends know about it.  Again, what then?

In one of my former churches, I received a call from a woman who was preparing to end her life by overdosing on her medications.  She said, “Dick, I am calling you because I love you and I wanted you to know why I can’t go on with my life.  I will never get over the death of my husband.  Without him, my life has no meaning.  I have tried to move on and I can’t.  Heaven has to be a better place.”  I asked her if I could come by to visit.  She said, “Yes.”

          When I arrived, we visited for a while.  I told her that I wasn’t going to preach to her because I do not walk in her shoes.  I said, “However, before you do anything, I would like for you to do me a big favor.”  She said, “I would be happy to.”  I said, “I would like you to bake a cherry pie.”  She said, “Excuse me?”  I repeated myself and added, “And I would like you to take it to the woman who lives three houses up on the other side of your street.”  I pointed to the house.  She said, “I will do that for you.”   I had a prayer with her and left.

The next day she called me and was in a much better place.  She said, “I had no idea that woman was a member of our church.  She attends the other service.  She was delighted about the cherry pie and you must have known that it was her favorite.  We spent three hours together.  Thank you for opening my eyes to something I was missing.  I still have worth.”  We always have worth!  While experiencing the challenging, painful episodes of our lives, we can easily forget that.

What worked in this situation?  By baking that cherry pie, her energy began to flow away from her preoccupation with the death of her husband.  By visiting a neighbor with that cherry pie, her entire orientation toward living changed.  The dark clouds that hovered over her day and night had caused her to forget how healing is to do something for someone else.

God’s love is a one-way street.   God doesn’t need our love before God sends the rains and the sun to the just and unjust alike.  When our energy flows in the same direction as God’s, the times we become self-absorbed with our personal issues become fewer and fewer.  Worry and fretting come to us only when our thought-patterns flow back on us.  By reversing that flow, healing comes to those areas of our life that have caused us pain. 

Jesus taught, “You are like the light for the whole world.  No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket; instead it is put on the lamp stand, where it gives light for everyone in the house.  In the same way, your light must shine before people so they can see the good things you do and express gratitude to God.” (Matthew 5:14f)  

What Jesus taught has little to do with theology; it has to do with our maintaining a quality of spirit that lights up the world around us, not by beliefs but by being the person God designed us to be.  Then we, too, will become fishers of men and women.  As has happened for thousands of years, the teachings of Jesus will continue to change people’s lives.  We are stewards of that information.  It is now our turn to pass it on.

When we leave here, put that into practice.  Do not allow a week to go by without inviting people to church or to invite them to return to church. There is always something magically wonderful about an invitation.  All we have to do is extend that invitation and let God  handle the rest.