"When Religion Is At Its Worst"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 26, 2007

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 13:10-17

     Years ago an actor named Flip Wilson played a character named Geraldine on the evening television program, Laugh In.  Geraldine’s boyfriend was named “Killer” which might suggest the kind of company that she hung out with.  She was always talking about her sordid lifestyle, and when she was asked why she engaged in such questionable activities, invariably her response was, “The Devil made me do it.” 

     According to her self-perception, she was always the perfect picture of innocence, but the pesky Devil was always hanging around the margins of her life causing this poor dear to make visible every sort of character flaw we might imagine.          

     Of course the audiences everywhere loved Geraldine.  What was done in the spirit of humor had an underlying message that most of us know all too well.  We like to think of ourselves as innocent.  For example, we left our job because we were not being treated well.  We left our marriage because our spouse took us for granted or was not attentive to our needs.  We stopped going to church because no one spoke to us for three Sundays in a row or because the preacher said something that was most offensive to us.  We wrote a firm letter to the editor because life in our town is not the way we want it to be.             

     If we carefully analyze our lives, most of us would find that we could blame a lot of pesky devils for making us do things we normally would not do if we took time to think about them.  When Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, he showed us how pathetic the temptations of our devils really are.  They have no power in themselves.  We are the ones who have to say, “Yes,” to the things of this world, things that are always changing, things that stay here when we leave or things that have little to do with the origin from whence we came.  Devils are powerless to make us do anything unless we want to do them on some level.             

     What happens when we use religious teachings as a means for judging others as being unworthy or lost in God’s sight? Like Geraldine, we are the innocent ones.  Our religious teachings are causing us to think in these ways.  We might become judgmental when we meet people who believe differently, people who have not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in the same manner we have.  What then?  How do we understand the meaning of such differences?

     While I was a pastor at Cheverly United Methodist Church, I had three women make an appointment to see me.  They belonged to a Bible study group that was being conducted by a pastor from an independent denomination. They had come to tell me that they were praying for me.  I thanked them for their prayers and then I inquired as to their reason for doing so.  They told me that God had sent them to warn me because I was preaching error.  Because I was a pastor, they explained, my punishment would be greater than others because I was leading people astray from a position of authority.

     I inquired what they thought would happen to me if I did not conform to God’s instructions as they were coming through them.  They told me that I would go to Hell.  It was then I told them something they simply could not compute.  I told them that if I have a choice at my death, I would gladly choose Hell.

     They stirred nervously in their chairs because they realized I was very serious.  They did not know how to respond.  There were no Scriptures that supported someone’s willingness to enter such a punishing environment.  They asked me why I would even suggest such a foolish thing.  I told them that I could not accept the reward they fully expected to receive while knowing that countless souls were still experiencing darkness because they never understood anything about the world of spirit.   

     I asked, “Who will communicate to them and teach them if not some of us?  How could any of you turn your backs on those in darkness to accept paradise?  Were we not called to be a light in darkness?  Or, do you think we were called to be a light to light?”  They were silent. Then I asked, “Did not Jesus come here to teach and show us a better way to live because humanity lived in ignorance of God?”  Again, they did not know what to say.   

     I chose not to nibble at their fear-based thinking.  I explained to them that I spend a lot of time in Hell anyway, i.e., being with spouses who cannot grow beyond their grieving the loss of their husband or wife, being with parents of a teenager who was killed in a car accident, being with a youth who was dying of cancer when all his life appeared to be ahead of him, or being with a young girl who had slashed her wrists as she attempted to take her life.  She learned that she was pregnant and could not bear to disappoint her parents.  

     What is fascinating about any judgmental attitudes is that we assume that we have God on our side.  We are the innocent ones.  “After all,” we say, “In John 3:16 we find that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”             

     Does such a teaching give us the license to judge other people who do not believe in Jesus in the manner we do because they are Jewish, Islamic, Taoists, Hindu or Buddhist?  What happens to our attitudes toward our friends when believing in Jesus means something very different to them?  How many Christian communities can we name that have isolated themselves around an exclusive understanding that they are the only ones who have the truth?   

     There is another translation of John 3:16 that I prefer and it is as follows:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  Whoever believes in what he taught will not be lost in this world but will gain insights that will help them discover and live a whole and lasting life.”  One interpretation appears exclusive and bound to what people believe.  The other one accommodates anyone who embodies a lifestyle that authentically models what Jesus taught.   

     There was a time when Jesus warned his listeners about those who looked upon themselves as God’s favorites.  Jesus taught his listeners, “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and God will apply to you by the same rules you apply to others.” (Matthew 7:1)  “When that day comes, many will say, ‘Lord, Lord, in your name we spoke God’s message; by your name we drove out many demons and performed many miracles!’ “Then I will say to them, ‘I do not know you.’”  (Matthew 7:22)

     Our lesson this morning definitely demonstrates what it looks like when religion is at its worst.  Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when his compassionate eyes saw a woman who had severe scoliosis for eighteen years.  He said, “Woman, you are free from your sickness.”  He placed his hands on her and immediately she was healed.

     What happened next was quite remarkable.  The officials of the synagogue became angry because Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath.  They said, “There are six days in which we should work.  Come during those days and heal, but not on the Sabbath.”   

     Can we imagine labeling a deed of compassion as work?  Can we imagine condemning an expression of love because it was performed on a day when we reverence God’s presence in our lives?  The officials looked upon themselves as innocent. It was their beliefs that made them perceive without love.           

     There was a day two years ago when I had participated in a unique setting with a group of clergy from other faiths.  We had one of our inter-religious dialogues.  Among an assortment of Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy was also Khalil Shadeed, Imam Dawd Abdur-Rahman and Rabbi Steve Weisman.               

     Someone who attended that function out of curiosity said to me, “What do you hope to gain from these dialogues?  You know that everyone is going to cling to his or her version of the truth.  They are not going to accept Christ as their spiritual leader and you know that.”   I said, “I don’t know how to answer.  All I know is that if we do not talk to each other and communicate our acceptance of each other just as we are, we will never develop a spirit of community.  This world needs to move in that direction more than most of us realize.”

     So many religious people have made beliefs their god.  Beliefs have a profound way of blinding people to what Jesus called all of us to become.  Those synagogue officials who blamed Jesus for healing on the Sabbath were correct in their understanding of the Law, but wrong in their ability to communicate compassion when faced with a need.             

     Perhaps my sermon title this morning is incorrect.  “When Religion Is At Its Worst” puts the ownership for causing our unloving attitudes on our religious beliefs.  That is not where such ownership belongs.  The world’s great religions only provide markers or signposts for believers to follow.   How we make visible what we understand is what makes the difference in what we communicate in a world that needs healing so badly.           

     The only harsh judgments Jesus made of people came when he delivered very strong words to one particular group.  Read the entire chapter of Matthew 23 and you will see whom it was that Jesus denounced – those who believed they were among God’s chosen, those who believed they were among the saved.  Jesus loved sinners; he always kept the righteous at arms length.

     Coming back now to our lesson, Jesus responded to the authorities of the synagogue this way -- “How can you make such a ridiculous statement?  Each of you will untie your ox or your donkey from its stall and take it out and give it water on the Sabbath.   How can you possibly think of withholding healing from a woman who has been held captive by her condition for 18 years because it is the Sabbath?”

     All religions communicate an understanding about God.  We have to remember that we give expression to our personal faith through who we have become.  Our lesson tells us, “His answer made his enemies ashamed of themselves while the people rejoiced over all the wonderful things that he did.”

     I was telling someone this week about a number of paintings I had seen that really spoke volumes to me.  One of them featured a pastor preaching mightily from his pulpit to thousands of people.  Jesus was sitting in the first pew of that church sound asleep.  That one really packs a punch!     

     The second painting featured another pastor who was also preaching to a large congregation.  He held his outstretched arms high to his left, revealing the doctoral stripes on his pulpit robe.  Between his arms was a cartoonist’s bubble that contained a gigantic church facility, a large educational unit, cars, and a well-appointed home.  To the left of the pastor was a shadowy figure that was barely visible.  What was unmistakable, however, was the nail print in his hand.  Underneath the painting were these words from Jesus’ parable, “But he turned away sorrowful for he was a man of many possessions.” (Matthew 19:22) 

     The third painting was much like the one that greets people as they enter the Mormon Temple just off our Rt. 495 Beltway.   It features the saved dressed in white on the left.  In the center is The Light presumably the symbol for God.  Those on the right are lying on the ground with signs of destruction everywhere.  This part of the painting presumably is Hell, featuring the goats that were separated from the sheep

     However, while viewing the original painting called “The Secret,” a boy stood mystified.  His mother had been explaining the symbolism of what the painting was communicating.  The observant boy noticed something that was very odd.   He said, “Mom, why would someone in Hell be helping someone else?”  Sure enough, there amongst the rubble of destruction was a man cradling in his arms another person.  He was giving that person water to drink from a hollowed out gourd.  On close inspection the hand holding the gourd had a nail print.   

     Is this not what Jesus called us to be – a light in darkness?  There is no darkness in Heaven but such a condition remains among those who do not know the love of God.  How could any of us accept any reward knowing about these others?  Were we called to abandon them? 

     In conclusion, I guess religion is never at its worst.  What may be at its worst is our interpretation of God’s will for us.  God can only do so much.  With our free will, we are the ones who have to interpret God’s will through eyes that still see everything in material terms. 

     The problem is that God is pure loving energy that embodies and expresses hope along with God’s love for each of us.  There is nothing material that God can point to in which we should trust.   Even Jesus invited us to live in a Kingdom that is not of this world.  That Kingdom will always remain invisible. It will and will always remain a matter of spirit.  Through Jesus, God said, “Trust me and let go of what you know.  Express your love in every form you can discover.  I will take care of the rest.”  This week, give away who you are, sow your seeds of kindness and let God create. 


     O God of love, light and understanding, we find ourselves grateful that we have the ability to reflect your likeness.  What a privilege and enormous responsibility that is.  We confess that too often our creature-habits cause us to radiate what is far beneath our potential.  Our past responses have too often written the script for the reactions we now communicate.  Our familiar patterns of living often prevent us from seeing the more creative solutions to the challenges we face.  We live according to how our religious training has taught us to think.  Awaken our spirits, O God, that we might be more attuned to your guidance.  Teach us how to affirm the beauty we see in others, to respond to the remarkable alternatives that surround us, and to understand the kind and peaceful ways that love can be communicated.  Amen


     Loving God, who dwells all around us in a world we cannot see, thank you for the urge to be in our church this morning.  As we are here, reasonably comfortable in our sanctuary, we are aware that chaos reigns in so many lives in our country and around the world. 

     So many others have experienced their lives being turned upside down because of weather conditions that appear at extreme ends of what we consider normal.  Drought and floods can drive us into despair or they can inspire us into a closer sense of community.  

     We find change the only constant that makes us think, “Everyday there is always something coming up that we did not expect.”  What a comfort it is to know each day we have the opportunity to make our understanding of love to be expressive, visible and healing.  We have no understanding of what a seed sown will become when we release it into your care and we let it go.  May our confidence rest in what Jesus showed us through his life.  He died never seeing a church building, never hearing the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” never hearing a choir sing the great anthems of our faith and never knowing that anything he said would ever be remembered, let alone written down.  He showed us what faith and trust in you looks like to get the job done.  Today, we are his disciples.  We have received the torch of spiritual freedom from all those who have gone before us.   Thank you for your guidance and your love.  Thank you for opportunities to make your presence known.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .