"How Easily The Tide Changes"
Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 31, 2010
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:16-30
At the conclusion of Jesus’ comments Luke records, “When Jesus finished speaking; the people in the synagogue became filled with rage. 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 over the cliff, but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went his way.”
What did Jesus say that caused his listeners to sing his praises one minute and in the next developed such contempt and resentment that they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff? This volatile response was made toward one of their own. Jesus had been reared in Nazareth.
Jesus’ words changed the temperament of the crowd in an instant when he challenged one of their most cherished beliefs. No doubt, the villagers were living relatively contented lives. They were pleasing God by attending a service in their synagogue. It was when Jesus introduced a new way of thinking that the tide of being a favorite son dramatically changed.
Jesus said, “There were plenty of widows in Israel during the time of Elijah when a severe famine spread throughout the land. Don’t you find it strange that Elijah only visited a Canaanite widow that lived in the resort city of Sidon in Phoenicia?” Jesus added to a second insight from his people’s faith-history, “There were lots of people in Israel who suffered from leprosy during the time of the prophet Elisha. Don’t you find it strange that he only healed Naaman, a general in the Syrian army?”
Jesus was teaching that God’s love for people extended beyond the Jews. He was preaching a different message -- one that went against centuries of tradition that the Jews were God’s chosen people. Surrendering beliefs because of a new understanding is impossible for many people.
Last Sunday I began my message by reminding you of a number of references where the Apostle Paul was against marriage and where he felt it was an absolute disgrace for women to have any role in the life of a church. Later we learned that these references were only beliefs held by Paul and had nothing to do with the will of God.
As a couple was leaving church after last week’s service, they told me that their son is very active in a large Presbyterian church in the South where Paul’s thoughts about women are in practice. His congregation believes in the literal interpretation of the Scriptures. Of course, if they were actually practicing Paul’s beliefs across the board, none of them would be married.
What many Christians through the ages have not understood is that Jesus did not teach specific beliefs. Many Christian beliefs were developed by the Church centuries after Jesus’ life on earth.
Jesus’ teaching focused on the dramatic change that will happen to people once they choose to live in the Kingdom of God. This meant that there is a clear difference between people who perceive others with love and people who do not.
Without knowing it, his congregation was providing the perfect illustration. In a flash, affectionate thoughts about Jesus turned to those of hatred. Beliefs build walls between people. Beliefs are looked upon as being sacred. Beliefs can blind the faithful so that they often cannot perceive with love people whose values and faith-story are different from their own.
The Dalai Lama came to New York City a number of years ago and during his visit he spoke at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, the Divine. The congregation was filled with Roman Catholic and Protestant bishops and Cardinals as well as leaders from the Muslim faith and several branches of Judaism. The media editorialized about this moment as a tremendous witness of togetherness by the world’s great religions.
Later that week, the Dalai Lama addressed 15,000 Buddhists who had come from all over the world for the occasion. He told them to continue with their religious practices. While being very kind and compassionate he told his Buddhist audience not to assume a false sense of hope because of the great witness of togetherness by the other faith communities. “None of the representatives present at St. John’s Cathedral,” he said, “are prepared to yield their unique beliefs concerning their understanding of the truth. Their beliefs will always separate humanity.”
Buddhists are not concerned with labels like Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim. This is why they have never engaged in warfare. Buddhists do not teach with the intent of converting anyone. They will only explain the nature of reality if an explanation is being sought by someone.
Two thousands years ago, Jesus was teaching that God loves everyone, not just the Jews. He was teaching what life will become when loving energy patterns are at the center. Today, Christians have a divided witness because of their beliefs. Beliefs have taken on a divine quality that frequently places them above loving others whose beliefs differ.
One of the illustrations I use during my Spirituality classes deals with the belief of three women who came to see me one afternoon. They told me they were praying for me. I thanked them for their prayers and then inquired what evoked their thoughtfulness. Their reason was as I had suspected. They said, “You are preaching and teaching error.” They told me that God had directed them to visit me so they could tell me to repent. Further, they told me that if I did not, the consequences would be dire and Hell would be my destination.
I said, “Suppose I told you that Hell is where I choose to go when I leave my body.” The three women sat there expressionless. One said, “You are not taking seriously what we are saying!” I responded, “Quite the contrary. I am and I meant what I just said.” “Why would you say that?” they asked. I responded by saying that in Hell I can engage in storytelling and bring healing thoughts to those who cannot understand their greater purpose. The women did not know how to respond. There were no scriptures, of which they were aware, that supported someone’s desire to dwell in a place of darkness.
Before they left my office, I told them that Jesus said, “Follow me” and he had entered the darkness of our world in order to bring light and engage in storytelling. Further I told them that in an earlier version of the Apostle’s Creed, it is written “Jesus descended into Hell.” A person cannot let their light shine unless they are in the midst of darkness. They left my office realizing that I did not agree with their belief and was not afraid of Hell.
When we are committed to blooming wherever God needs us the most, there can be no room for fear. Fear-based religion was created by early evangelists of the Church. Jesus brought the notion that love makes no room for fear because loving energy is always moving away from a person radiating it. Jesus inspires our consciousness to take the inward journey where we will find a great treasure. God’s infinite love for each of us is what allows our continued evolution spiritually, not our beliefs about that process.
We have to remember what beliefs have done to people. Some time ago a Wisconsin couple was sentenced to 10 years probation and 30 days in prison for the next six years for praying instead of seeking medical treatment for their 11-year old daughter. Dale and Leilani Neumann were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide. Their daughter died of complications associated with undiagnosed diabetes.
A belief that the Japanese emperor was a human manifestation of God is what inspired 6,000 pilots to become suicide bombers during World War II.
A belief is what caused the recent attempt by a young man to detonate an explosive device on his aircraft on Christmas day, an act that would have killed hundreds of passengers if he had succeeded.
A belief is what caused the murder of Dr. George Tiller while he was attending church. Dr. Tiller was the physician who was performing late term abortions. He left behind a wife and four children. The confessed shooter will be sentenced in the near future.
A belief in the infallibility of the Bible is what caused the EBible Fellowship to document from Scripture that the end of the world will occur on October 21, 2011. Again, beliefs separate people and they were not what Jesus came here to teach his listeners.
Jesus realized that something had to be done with Judaism which had become the practice of legalism, a practice that did not consider the spirit in which a deed is done. His love for all people would not permit him to stay silent.
His listeners were attempting to live according to the Laws of Moses. Jesus was teaching that attitude and perceiving others with love are the pearls of great price. His listeners understood that they were God’s chosen people. Jesus was teaching that God loves everyone equally and that a person’s culture and heritage did not define the depth and breadth of that love.
When my father retired after thirty-five years of ministry at the same church, the pastor that followed him delivered his first sermon entitled “Useta Is Dead!” The new pastor looked upon himself as an agent of change. He did not want to hear from the congregation, “We useta do it this way.” Changing traditions is always very difficult. Shattering old molds for how we order our lives, however, is absolutely essential if more creative ways are to be discerned and utilized.
Charlie Davies plays the striker position on the U.S. Soccer team. Last October Charlie was involved in a traffic accident where the only surviving part of his car was the rear section. No one knows how Charlie survived. The accident broke his right femur and tibia, shattered his left elbow, fractured every bone in his face and lacerated his bladder.
His surgical team painted outside the lines in their experimental surgical techniques. They peeled off his face in order to repair the multiple fractures that left many of his facial bones completely pulverized. The article that featured Charlie’s miraculous recovery went on to say, “This was Terminator type stuff.” Today, Charlie has recovered. He expects to be playing for the United States in June’s World Cup. Before and after pictures of Charlie’s face were placed side by side and only the surgical team knew which was which.
All of us have witnessed the unprecedented improvements in the surgical techniques, protocols and high-tech medications that have saved countless lives. In order to reach these new frontiers in medicine, researchers in the medical community had to move beyond the conventional practices and beliefs of yesterday’s medical truths.
If the tide of our emotions, thoughts and spirit can rapidly change from joy to resentment because of the way something or someone affects us, we cannot blame the cause of our response on anything found in the external world.
The rapid change in Jesus’ congregation resulted from their inability to perceive with love. Such ability has nothing to do with beliefs; rather it has to do with a complete willingness to do what Jesus demonstrated from the cross – to love and not count the cost. When we acquire this skill that Jesus said was possible, our prayer will be answered, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Loving and always faithful God, we know that the story of faith has never been revealed by people who placed their trust in the security of 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 his Church had become. Teresa left teaching to become a savior to the starving. King had a dream of humanity living in community. Help us see ourselves, O God, as people standing in the same swift currents of change as those who lived before us. Inspire us to greet change as a friend. Help us to remain people of faith rather than fearful followers of what appears to represent permanence and stability. Amen.
Loving and always faithful God, quiet our spirits during these moments. Help us to set aside distractions that attempt to take up residence in our minds. Our preoccupations are like demons that desire to bring hurricane winds to the stillness of our ponds. Each of us desires for these moments of communion with you to be unguarded, quiet and peaceful.
We readily confess how quickly tiny incidents in our lives distress us. We allow the careless words of others to hurt us. We allow the insensitivities of friends to impact the quality of our relationship. We become frustrated with our colleagues, neighbors and family members when we feel detached and uninvolved in their lives. Yes, there are times when we are starved for signs that others love us enough to want to be a part of our lives.
Lead us, O God, away from such expectations. Help us to practice everyday who we want to be rather than looking for ways that we can feel validated. Help us to understand that when we suffer we do so in an environment that is overflowing with blessings. When we sense the permanent losses in Haiti, our life-reversals appear so small. Lead us to show up in the lives of others with compassion, understanding and an authentic friendship – one that does not count the costs. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .