"Growth, A Challenge Of Faith"

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

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:20-30

     We are living in a time when religious beliefs and practices appear to occupy center stage for many current events.  For example, we heard considerable discussion when an elected official wanted to take his oath of office by placing his hand on the Koran.  We read editorial after editorial of how religion has been hijacked by politics or by ancient sectarian hatred.   

     There are sensational lawsuits that find their way into the media featuring the legality of God and Country being emphasized in the curriculum of the Boy Scouts of America.  There may be hostile reactions over a decision by Montgomery County’s Board of Education that would allow Montgomery Blair high school to hold its graduation in the Jericho City of Praise church in Landover.  There is a group of people who would like to see “In God We Trust” removed from our currency.  The discussions and debates are non-ending.  How wide spread is such thinking?  I don’t know.   

     We are a nation where our differences of beliefs and opinions hold the spotlight in the headlines.  It is not news worthy when people live together peacefully in communities.  What I want to explore today only you can answer.  What is the level of your frustration when other people’s values and religious beliefs are very different from your own?  Are we really as disturbed about such differences as some media specialists would have us believe?  How we answer these questions may give us a gauge for measuring how well we are doing while living in an environment where different religious traditions are struggling with how to coexist.

     In the recent life of St. Matthew’s, three religious traditions converged to create the perfect storm for one individual.  Not too long ago our trustees granted permission to the Cornerstone Assembly of God to use part of our facility for their middle school while our neighbors up the street were in the process of building classrooms for their students.           

     In addition to them, annually we give our sanctuary and a number of classrooms to our Jewish friends from Temple Solel when they celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Their facility is not large enough to hold the number of people who attend these services.  When they come each year, we remove the crosses from our sanctuary.  They construct a shroud to cover our large one to the right of the altar.  This is their temple even though they are our guests.

     A very angry woman from Cornerstone met me in the hallway of the Wesley Wing.  She asked, “Are you the pastor of this church?  You, of all people, granting the Jews permission to cover the cross upon which our blessed Savior shed his precious blood – what were you thinking?”  Tears were coming down her face.  This was a moment of high drama for her convictions.

     I responded by saying, “Do you think that during his ministry, Jesus would have remained silent had the Romans decided to erect a gigantic execution device in his synagogue at Nazareth?  Our sanctuary is not a Christian church for them when they are here.”  She glared at me and said, “And you consider yourself to be a Christian pastor?” and walked away.   

     Again, where are we with respect to our tolerance and acceptance of others when their beliefs differ from ours?  Are people who are dramatically opposed to fundamentalism becoming a different kind of fundamentalist? 

     In our lesson this morning, we learn that 2,000 years ago Jesus encountered the same problem with people in his hometown.   How many times have we been told that polite people do not discuss politics or religion with strangers?  The people who have given us that little tidbit of wisdom have done so from years of experience.   

     Religious beliefs can be a flash point that can ignite heated discussion and debate. Quite often in such battle of words, there are no winners.  The woman from Cornerstone Assembly of God had very fixed beliefs about the centrality of the cross in her life.  Yet she had little tolerance for someone who had chosen to honor the sacred traditions of another faith community.

     Returning to our lesson, notice how quickly the mood of the crowd changed from being impressed with Jesus to becoming extremely violent.  Verse 22 says, “They were all well impressed with him and marveled at the eloquent words that he spoke. They said, ‘Isn’t he the son of Joseph?" 

     Jesus offered a few insights about their history and his words were enough to shift the mood in their attitude toward one who had grown up in their community.  At the end of our lesson, we find these verses, “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with anger.  They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town and took him to the top of the hill on which their town was built.  They meant to throw him off the cliff but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went on his way.”

     What did Jesus say that would move to violence a group of listeners who moments before had marveled at his eloquence?  Matthew and Mark also contain fragments of this story, but only Dr. Luke records why the people rose to such a level of anger that it turned into violence.

     Jesus had just told them that God’s love was not exclusive to the Jews.  He reminded them that during the days of Elijah, there had been many widows in Israel who endured a three and a half year famine.  Elijah, however, had gone only to a Canaanite woman who lived in the city of Sidon.  He also told them that even though leprosy was wide spread in Israel during the time of the prophet, Elisha, not one of them was healed.  Elisha healed only the Syrian general, Naaman.

     The Jews of Jesus’ day believed that only they were God’s chosen people.  They believed this to the point where they despised all others.  In fact, from the literature of the time we read words that reveal this attitude, “God created the Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell.”  They must have forgotten God’s call to Jeremiah that was also read for you this morning, “I chose you before you were born to be a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)  We cannot get much more global than that. 

     What Jesus was saying was a departure from the prevailing dogma.  As Jesus’ ministry continued to flourish, we note other departures, e.g., the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the forgiveness of a Canaanite woman who had lived with seven husbands and the healing of a Roman officer’s servant.  There was the time when Jesus said that God would have more mercy on the Canaanite cities of Tyre and Sidon than on Bethsaida and Capernaum. (Luke 10:13-15) 

     Jesus was opposed to beliefs that confined God or which projected narrow attitudes upon God or that created rigidity within people’s religious beliefs.  How many of us do grow intolerant when we meet others whose beliefs are different from our own?  How do we deal with those thought patterns?

     When the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was completed, a group of us went to visit this marvel of sacred art and architecture.  We were incredibly impressed by the mosaics, the paintings and the ornate statues of saints.  However, watching people kneeling and praying to statues disturbed me.  To me that was very close to idol worship.

     Many years later I developed numerous close relationships with Roman Catholic priests and I spoke to them about this practice.   They said, “We cannot speak for all people, but if a believer understands Saints like Francis or Christopher to be a comforting companion or a spirit who is more worthy than they to go to God on their behalf, he or she will talk to them.”  I said, “Do you mean from your point of view that we have to be worthy to talk to God?”  They said, “No, but some people believe that the only way to communicate to God is through another.”   

     Before I could respond further one of the priests said, “Dick, please give people the right to come to God through whatever means they have learned.  God understands where each of us is by listening to how we think.”  Upon hearing those words, I grew silent and in that moment I stretched another inch in my understanding of other people’s religious practices.           

     There may be times when we believe that it is up to us to accomplish God’s will. Perhaps this is why we cling so tightly to our orthodoxy, our dogma and our beliefs that convince us that our path represents the only way to honor God with how we live.   

     What would the Christian Church look like today in its witness if more of us were persuaded by what Jesus taught?  He is the way, the truth and the life.  His way, however, was cleansing our minds of everything that would prevent love from flowing freely from us.  He would not want us to speculate as to whether or not a person is worthy of our love.  Perhaps this is why he was so comfortable being with sinners.

     Between now and the day when more people understand Jesus’ message with greater clarity, individuals who let God create through them will have discovered a path of remarkable value.  Remember what took place because of a three-year effort by one man who never ventured more than 90 miles from where he was born.  He spoke to very mixed crowds, some of Jesus’ listeners were educated but most of them could not read or write.    

     Alfred Nobel was the Swedish Chemist who made a fortune by inventing an explosive that was the most powerful the world had ever seen.  He licensed the formula to governments to make weapons to protect their borders.  One day Alfred’s brother died.  The newspaper made a mistake and printed an obituary as though Alfred had died.  The article attributed Alfred with the invention of dynamite.  He was credited as the man who made a fortune by enabling armies to achieve new levels of mass destruction.

     Alfred Nobel slumped in his chair as he read and re-read that article.  He saw through this mistaken obituary that deed for which he would be remembered.  Suddenly the vast wealth he had accumulated was of little value to him. He felt as though he had given children a book of matches with which to play.  He decided to give his wealth away to establish awards, or prizes as they are called today, for accomplishments in various fields that would benefit humanity.  He was one individual of high visibility who rose above his perceived mistake.  He gave his fortune away in the hopes of encouraging other individuals to make our world a more wholesome place for men and women to live.

     When Deirdre Koppel graduated from Duke University in 1987, her father was invited to deliver the commencement address.  Here is the last paragraph of Ted’s comments: 

     I caution you, as one who performs daily on that flickering altar our television has become to set your sights beyond what you can see.  There is true majesty in the concept of an unseen power, which can neither be measured nor weighed.  There is harmony and inner peace to be found in following a moral compass that points in the same direction, regardless of race, religion or creed.   There is hope that, if we can only set our course according to man’s finest aspirations, we can achieve what we all want, and that we can have it without diminishing our neighbor’s share:  peace.   May it come to your generation.

     The torch of Jesus’ timeless message has been passed to our generation.  Will we perpetuate the past, or will we light the way for the next generations?  Will we stay with the faith that we know, or take risks of faith in order to establish communities where peace and harmony must one day reign if we are to survive as a species?  When like-minded individuals come together to accomplish this task, because of what they are committed to doing, they are followers and disciples of Jesus Christ, who happens to be our guide.


     Loving and always faithful God, we know that the story of faith has never been revealed by people who placed their trust in security and dogma.  Joseph was sold into slavery.  Moses had to overcome his insecurities.  Jesus had to wrestle with refining his identity.  Saul was challenged by a different truth. Luther could no longer live with what the Church had become.  Teresa left teaching to become a savior to the starving.  King had a dream of humanity being in community.  Help us see ourselves, O God, as people standing in the same swift currents of change as those who lived before us.   May we welcome the voice of change.  Help us remain people of faith rather than fearful followers of what represents permanence and stability.  Amen.