"Why Love Is Not A Religion"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 8, 2008

Psalm 33:1-12; Matthew 9:9-13


    One of the many challenges that faced Jesus as he started his ministry was how to distance himself from Judaism's current form.   What kind of message could he teach that would encourage his listeners to change how they understood their relationship with God? 

     For centuries Jews had been taught that honoring God meant following laws reportedly given to Moses by God.  Everything in their religious heritage and culture reinforced this understanding.  Moving Jewish thinking beyond the notion that The Laws of Moses were a privileged divine imprinting on them was no small undertaking for Jesus.  

     If you are interested in understanding what Jesus faced, you should read Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Even a quick scan of these books may surprise you at the depth and breadth of the intricate legal structure that governed the lives of the Hebrews, particularly their relationship with God.

     For example, "The Lord gave Moses the following regulation.  No fat of cattle, sheep or goats shall be eaten.  Anyone who eats such fat will no longer be considered one of God's people." (Leviticus 7:22-25).   Just think of how they had to prepare their meats in order to please God.

     The next example is a law that has definitely fallen by the wayside.  "The Lord gave Moses the following instruction. Every special contribution that is offered to the Lord belongs to the priest to whom the offering is presented.  Each priest shall keep the offering for himself."  (Numbers 5:5, 9-10)  Isn't that just the best?   Perhaps we need to reinstate this one! 

     Jesus had to teach people that the laws, traditions and religious practices had their place but God would prefer that the Jews think, feel and expand their awareness in a direction that was unknown to the Hebrew mind. 

     Learning to love others without judgment would be vastly different from being obedient to the external Laws of Moses. The former became a matter of choice, an act of will to be kind, compassionate and patient toward all others.  The latter required conforming to legal expectations in order to please God.    

     To begin this massive re-education of his people, Jesus began teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven.  He began teaching about the quality of consciousness, attitudes, awareness and having compassion even for those considered to be enemies.  Matthew devoted his Chapter 13 to this new orientation toward others and to God.  

     In essence Jesus taught, "You can live in heaven right now and here is what such a life looks like."  He said, "The Kingdom of heaven is like this:  AA man takes a mustard seed and sows it in his field.  It is the smallest seed but when it grows, it becomes the largest plant.  A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour and the entire batch of dough rises.  A man happens to find a treasure hidden in a field.  He sells everything he has and buys the field.   A man is looking for fine pearls and when he finds one, he sells everything he has and buys that pearl." 

     Jesus' listeners were engaged in practices, rituals and observances because they had been taught to them when they were children.  Jews never questioned why they practiced them.  To change anything in their culture, heritage or loyalty to the Laws of Moses would have been unthinkable!  The Jews would have rebelled. 

     One December a number of years ago, I made a presentation to our United Methodist Men on the traditions and symbols of Christmas.  Very few of my listeners understood the significance of wreaths, Christmas trees decorated with tinsel and ornaments, candles in the windows, sending Christmas greetings, singing Christmas carols, exchanging wrapped presents, Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace and Santa Claus in his sleigh drawn by eight tiny, flying reindeer.  What do any of these traditions and symbols have to do with the birth of Jesus?  Yet, in our heart of hearts, Christmas would not be Christmas without all of them.  

     Think of how ridiculous it would appear if the United Methodist Church began discouraging the use of such traditions because they had very little to do with what took place in Bethlehem.  Instead, our denomination declared, "Christmas is a celebration of Jesus' birth.  As such, Christmas should awaken our consciousness to love the Lord our God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves."  How we celebrate Christmas has been imprinted on us since childhood and we would rebel if asked to change.   

     Jesus had to become the architect of a new way of thinking.  Doing this was extremely difficult. Jesus' disciples asked for clarity to a number of his parables.   Even today we are still trying to turn our expressions of love into a religion.  Christianity has utterly failed at doing this.  Believers have to incorporate into their thinking lots and lots of theological beliefs just to fit in to their particular group.  Loving our neighbor appears not to be enough.  Anyone outside of the church has to be confused by the many dogmatic doctrines. 

     In the Southwest of the United States there is a large company that employs several thousand people.  The company was putting into place a new pension plan for their employees.  The only challenge was that the company needed 100% participation. 

     When representatives of the pension plan placed the benefits before the workers, most employees were very enthusiastic.  The only requirement was that a modest sum of money had to be taken from each employee's paycheck.  

     Everyone went along with the program but one powerful, very outspoken division chief who had grown sick and tired that every time he turned around someone was getting into his wallet.  Also, he was highly suspicious because of financial irregularities that occurred with the Teamsters' Union Pension Fund. 

     One day he was summoned to the office of the CEO.  The meeting was very short and to the point.  The CEO said, "This is a copy of the pension plan and here is a pen.  You either sign that document or you will be terminated immediately."  Without the slightest hesitation, the man picked up the pen and signed the enrollment form.

     The CEO said, "Charlie, I really don't understand this.  You have been the most outspoken critic of this program from its beginning.  In fact, you were placing our entire effort at risk.  Why have you refused to sign up until now?  He said, AI signed it today because you were the first person, sir, to explain the program to me with such clarity."          

     It would be quite remarkable if Christianity brought such clarity to our true identity and the powerful relationship we could have with God.   Right now Christianity is filled with countless pockets of believers, each professing to have the truthThere is no clarity because many Christians have made their beliefs their treasure.  Jesus was quite clear that where your treasure is there will your heart be also.  Beliefs are what divide us.  Love does not.  

     What Jesus brought to humankind is the most important information we can have as a species.  We have the ability to reflect our Creator's likeness and many of us still live in total ignorance of that reality.  Observe where Jesus started his re-education of the world.  

     According to our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus called to discipleship the most unlikely candidate a tax collector.  Jesus began to demonstrate his new understanding toward others by extending his love to a person that was passionately hated by nearly everyone.  

     The Romans had devised a way of collecting taxes that was efficient and cheap.  There were specific taxes that Rome needed and any additional amount of money these tax collectors could extract from their countrymen was theirs to keep.  The abuses of tax collectors were enormous.   
     Not only did they fleece their own countrymen, many of them also did their best to swindle the Roman government.  They took bribes from the wealthy and in return these select few avoided paying any taxes at all. Tax collectors were self-regulating and they had the power of Rome behind them.  No one could successfully confront them.   

     The Pharisees asked some of Jesus' disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?"  These righteous onlookers were disgusted.  Whatever Jesus taught would be tainted in their minds because he was guilty by association. We need to remember that the Pharisees were experiencing Jesus from an orientation imprinted in them that was centuries old.   

     Jesus was expressing love to someone everyone had judged as an evil cancer in their culture, a behavior that did not match their understanding of righteousness, piety, ritual purity and Jewish traditional and legal wisdom associated with a person having a right relationship with God.

     The chief difficulty that people have had historically in defining love is that it is dependent on many aspects of life that cannot be measured. Extending love to others depends on a person's motivation.  Loving expressions can be as manipulative as a sales pitch.  Other forms are sincere and come from our core values.  Only the individual will know the truth surrounding his or her expression of love.  

     Love will never become a system of beliefs.  Love will never become a religion.  Love will always remain part of the divine spark that is within each one of us.  How individuals express love to others will always be different.  Only when we get in touch with the source of our being and express it, will we become instruments of change.  Without it, all we can do is try to convince others that the truth we have is superior to what they have.  Notice that Jesus did not do that with Matthew.      

     When Jesus heard a Pharisee questioning why Jesus was consorting with such sinners Jesus said, "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick."  While his comment may first appear that Jesus is referring to Matthew as being sick, that is not the case.  Jesus continued in his answer to the Pharisee with these words, "Go and find out the meaning of the scripture that says, 'It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.'"  Jesus was quoting the prophet Hosea.  The actual passage is this:  AI want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than to burn offerings to me."  (Hosea 6:6) 

     God was not interested in the practices, beliefs and rituals of religion.  God was interested in people authentically caring for each other, not because the Laws of Moses offered guidance for this behavior with rules, but because compassionate living is what people wanted to express above every other response.   

     Religions have enabled us to label each other.  When someone loves us, however, we become surrounded by a presence that enjoys being with us just as we are.  Jesus said, "I will be with you always, even until the end of the world."  This was not a religion talking.  This was how Jesus defined his new message.  We need to remember his words when we feel alone, misunderstood or even lost.   

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     What a comfort it is, O God, to know that you are always searching for us. We cannot fathom the depth and breadth of your love.  Our expression of love is often spiced with personal needs. You have given us our wonderful world and we become unhappy when the weather spoils our golf outing.  Jesus taught us forgiveness and we still justify why "an eye for an eye" is justice made visible.  We defend our need to ventilate our anger.  We want everyone to perceive your will as we do.  We want to reserve the right to defend our values with great passion.  We are humbled as we realize that Jesus saved the world without defending anything.  He loved and did not count the cost.  Teach us how to be healers, reconcilers and bridge builders by giving those qualities away.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Merciful God, once again we have gathered in remembrance of our Sabbath day of rest.  We confess that we never know what may happen to us as a result of our coming to church today.  There are so many times when the familiar patterns of worship are heightened by a new understanding and we know you have spoken to us personally.  

     We thank you for what it means to be a part of our church family.   Because we are here, sometimes we laugh a little more.  There are moments when we do not take ourselves or our problems with the urgency that we once did.   When we see the trusting, nurturing spirits of others whose loses and reversals have been much greater than our own, we are mysteriously healed by their presence.  When we bring our aloneness into the teaming energy of this community of faith, our spirits experience a harmony we often cannot easily define nor find elsewhere.

     This morning as we celebrate our church-school teachers, we thank you that they have remained students of your word as well.  We thank you that a number of their pupils will one day become teachers. We are always teaching others who we are by what we do, what we say and how we think.  We thank you for all the people who have helped to light the path of our journey.  We pray these thoughts of gratitude and thanksgiving through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .