"When Guidance Blinds Us"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 30, 2009
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15
Such rigid responses are
similar to what European Christians experienced when, between 1096 and
1500, they engaged in war seven times to recapture real estate that held
symbolic value to the practice of their faith. Ironically, these wars
were called, The Crusades. On an individual level, of course,
few committed Christians can sense the controlling influence that a
number of their beliefs have that can easily separate them from the rest
of humanity. Some responses border on spiritual arrogance.
For example, as most of you are aware, for years we have invited the congregation of Temple Solel to use our church facilities without cost for their high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jews literally take over a number of our classrooms and the sanctuary for four days.
To prepare for their coming each year, our Altar Guild removes everything that would reveal that we are a Christian church. Also, the Temple’s mechanics install with PVC pipe a structure that supports a shroud that completely obscures the cross. In front of our altar they place their Ark containing the Torah. These changes preserve the sanctity of their worship space.
Some years ago a neighboring Christian parochial school was using the upstairs of the Wesley Wing for its middle school while their church was under construction. During that time I was confronted by a mother of one of their students. She learned that the Jews were using our facility and saw that they had shrouded the cross. She was livid.
She met me just outside the music room and asked, “Are you the pastor of this church?” I told her that I was. She continued to interrogate me, “How could you possibly allow the Jews to shroud the cross upon which our Savior shed his precious blood? Where are your values? Is nothing sacred to you?”
I made a comment and then I asked her a question. I said, “When the Jews are with us the sanctuary is no longer ours. It has been transformed into their Temple.” Then I asked, “Do you think that Jesus would have tolerated a Roman execution device standing in the middle of his synagogue?” She was speechless for an instant but I knew more was coming. She said emphatically, “And you call yourself a Christian pastor!” She turned abruptly and left my presence very upset by the way we always accommodate our Jewish friends. Such differences of opinion among Christians are all around us.
During one of our recent memorial services, I used a different translation from the Gospel of John. One verse stood out for a particular listener. Instead of, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one goes to the Father except by me,’” I read, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one goes to the Father except by the way I have taught you to love.’” One translation is very exclusive and challenging to visualize and the other is more universal and very easy to understand. The gentleman was very troubled by my departure from his theology.
A number of Christians forget that Jesus taught his listeners about an achievable level of consciousness, a level that humankind had not yet discovered. That consciousness is what governs the quality of our attitudes, perceptions and patterns for living. Most of his teachings were about the choices we make and not about the centrality of himself to our faith. In fact, in the same passage from John we find Jesus saying, “The words I have spoken to you do not come from me. The Father, who remains in me, does his own work.” Jesus taught that God is also in each of us. (John 15:21f)
Rigidity of belief in any of us can effectively block our ability to communicate Jesus’ prime directive, “Love one another.” One cannot accept others just as they are while having strings and labels cloud their responses.
Our lesson for today opens with an issue that is akin to these illustrations. During this episode, Jesus was dealing with the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law concerning their ancestral traditions of washing everything from their hands to their pots and pans before they eat.
In light of the H1N1 flu spreading through a number of the societies of the world, this tradition of the Hebrew ancestors was an excellent idea. In fact, they were far more advanced of most societies when it came to personal hygiene. They may not have known about bacteria but they were wise enough to realize that those who went through ritual washing were not as ill as those who did not engage in this practice.
Jesus chose to use this moment to teach an important lesson. Jesus quoted from Isaiah. This is what Isaiah wrote:
The Lord said, “These people claim to worship me, but their words are meaningless and their hearts are somewhere else. Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized. So, I will startle them with one unexpected new insight after another. Those who are wise will turn out to be fools, and all their cleverness will be useless. (Is. 29:13f)
Jesus provided one of these new insights when he pointed to how authentic faith should be expressed. Jesus gathered his listeners around him and said, “Listen and understand what I am about to teach you. Nothing that goes into your body from outside can make you unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of you that causes you to appear unclean.”
In other words it is not our beliefs that matter; what matters are the skills of spirit that our beliefs enable us to express. Jesus was clearly in charge of all exchanges he had with the religious authorities. He was always able to point to the real issue. For example, on the lawfulness of taxes Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” On the issue of adultery Jesus said, “The one, who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Jesus’ responses to the countless issues that he faced dealt with what comes out of a person.
There have been times when I was working with a crew that was making repairs on houses when someone mashed their thumb by a misplaced blow from their hammer. On another occasion a cinderblock fell on the foot of the one who was passing the blocks along through a human bucket brigade. The words that poured forth in both instances were so colorful they made our crew smile as we identified with each person’s pain.
Yes, we heard their words, but what was coming out of these two people was more than their words. They had given up a week of their time to be with others who could not help themselves. There was also the understanding and empathy coming from us. What we silently communicated was “No damage has been done to ears or thoughts about you because we love you just as you are.” Nonverbal responses like that build trust.
Jesus knew that even his closest disciples were not on his level of consciousness and that is why he understood when James and John wanted to rain down fire on a village that would not receive them. (Luke 9:54) That is why he could listen to them arguing over which one was greater than another. (Luke 22:24) Jesus understood that they were asleep when he covered the lesson that the greatest among you is the one who is a servant to all. Again, it is what comes out of us that reveals where we are on our infinite journey of spiritual evolution.
There are so many stories that parents have told me through the years of their once challenging children coming back and saying, “Mom and Dad -- how did you ever put up with me? I was awful and must have caused you to have many sleepless nights, making your lives miserable. Thank you for not giving up on me.”
There are teachers who have had students return to say thank you and using the same thought pattern. They are now on the faculty of a university, an accountant for a bank, a master electrician or the owner of a small business. This happens when parents and teachers never allowed anyone to put a bushel basket over their light. Instead, they put it on a stand for everyone to see.
We cannot change anyone’s life. All we can do is love them and remain their friend while they go through all the things they feel compelled to do. The Prodigal Son thrashed around while involved in all kinds of valueless activities. Because of the love of his father, who allowed his son to discover the lessons of life in his own time, that wayward young man found his way back home.
We are completely out of control when we allow our loving energy patterns to pour forth from us. We do not know who is watching. We have no idea in what garden the seeds we are sowing will land and sprout. We do not know the ripple effect of our smile, our patience, our support and our caring when someone is reflecting values quite different from ours. Jesus was teaching his listeners that it is better that love come from them so automatically that they do not have to think about it.
When we think about what Jesus was asking us to become with our attitudes and spirit, think of what God’s love must be toward us. We do not have to worry about our salvation – God understands and knows us perfectly. We do not have to fear that we are lost – God knows that we make mistakes in judgment and that sometimes we wander away even from the path that we know extremely well. We do not have to be concerned about the spiritual welfare of our loved ones because God’s plan for humankind will work for their lives as well.
God’s plan is that we pay no attention to guidance that causes us to perceive without love, that causes us to feel spiritually superior or that causes us to feel smug and secure because of our beliefs, deeds and disciplined life-style that have saved us. Believe me such things do not save us. Our creator is the one who has given all of us eternal life. The only differential between us after we leave this life is that we do not exist on the same level of awareness after we leave our solid forms.
Remember, Jesus loved sinners so much that he dined with them. He once told a gigantic crowd of strangers that they were like salt and light because those two well known symbols have the ability to change their surroundings.
When we live what Jesus taught because we are trying to save ourselves from illusions of the material world, there is probably no motivation more focused on self-interest than this. Jesus certainly did not live that way. He gave himself away in simple trust that God would take care of the unfolding of creation.
I will conclude with a quote that I received some years ago from Louise Mott. “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride.” Jesus would not have said that, but I am sure he felt that way when he transitioned into the next level of awareness. Jesus lived without fear as he followed his passion to change the religious thinking of his people. Clearly, their guidance and faithfulness had prevented them from seeing the much greater reality that he was teaching. Hopefully, many of us are not trapped by the same blindness.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We cannot live through a single day, O God, without being surrounded by reminders of your presence that touches every aspect of our lives. Yet we realize how easily we allow discouragement to prevent our recognizing them. We forget that there are no failures; there are only results from how we think. Jesus taught us that we can change, yet how often we cling to old ways of perceiving. We have our own unique qualities to share yet often we envy how others are using theirs. We were invited to live with kind and caring attitudes, yet we allow the wisdom of our unchallenged fears to govern what comes out of us. Free us, O God, from all that clouds the spirit Jesus invited us to display. Lead us to become adventurers, discoverers and more wholesome creators as we seek to make your kingdom more visible to others. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
With humble and grateful hearts, O God, we have come into our sanctuary to celebrate life’s countless adventures and for the remarkable role that you play in each of our lives. We have learned that we can extend our love through a vast number of venues – our choice of words, our smiles, our healing touch, our patient listening skills, our confidence in and support of each other and our willingness to take risks.
Thank you for our confidence to step into experiences that we could easily fear the most, knowing that we no longer need to be afraid. Thank you for teaching us how to release to you the outcome of our pending surgical procedure, a business decision, or one of life's seemingly endless chain of uncertainties. When our fear is gone, what a great ride the experience of life can be! We watch as people of faith like Moses, Joseph and David fearlessly confronted their giants. Help us to follow our savior who faced crucifixion with filling the silences with words of love and forgiveness.
Help us to move beyond the thoughts of what life should be so that we can think of how best to serve, how best to make a difference and how best to redefine our discipleship so that our lives represent your presence and not some image of what we believe righteousness should look like.
Inspire us to wear more smiles, to experience more laughter and to spread more joy, as we breathe new life into all our relationships. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when we prayed . . .