"Learn To Examine Your Beliefs”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – March 30, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 23; John 9:1-34


    This morning we are going to discuss how our beliefs can become a window through which to experience the Kingdom of God or a window to view one of the sources that has been isolating us from the rest of the world  --  our negative attitudes, our need to blame others, our challenging moods, etc.  Lent is an excellent time to place our beliefs under our individual microscopes.  Beliefs are determining the direction and quality of our lives.

    Our lengthy story in John’s Gospel this morning is a prime example of religious authorities allowing their beliefs to shield them from experiencing a miracle.  Their powerful beliefs were so engrained in their minds and in their daily practices that there was no leeway for being open to another possibility.

    Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.  This healing was so remarkable that even the blind man’s neighbors doubted that he was the same man.  (John 9:9)  His friends asked him, “How is it that you can see?”  He told them, “The man Jesus made some mud and rubbed it on my eyes.  Then he told me to wash my face and after I did that, I could see.”  (John 9:11)

    The news of this healing spread throughout the village and eventually found its way to the Pharisees.  They doubted that this miracle was of God because the person who reportedly healed the blind man was a sinner.  Jesus had broken the Sabbath law by healing on Saturday.  This was a major crime.

    Some of us may recall the time recorded in the Book of Numbers when a man was caught gathering firewood on the Saturday.  Listen to how this drama unfolded:  “The Lord told Moses ‘the man must be put to death; the entire community is to stone him to death outside the camp.’  They took the man outside the camp and killed him as God had commanded.”  (Numbers 15:32f)  

    Religious beliefs that outcrop in this fashion can give people attitudes and behaviors that are as insane as are those that are practiced today by the Taliban.  Many of these laws came from the inspiration of priests.  The Priestly Law Code provided rigid guidance to the Jews for maintaining their community.  Jesus frequently set aside many of these laws. For example, He once taught, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say, ‘Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.’”  (Matthew 5:38f)

    The Jewish authorities went on a fact-finding mission and decided to question the blind man’s parents. His parents said, “Yes, he is our son and he was born blind.  We have no idea how he came to see or who cured him.”  The religious leaders brought the man back before them and made him swear before God to tell them the truth. He did just that and then said, “I don’t know if Jesus is a sinner or not.  What I do know is that I was blind but now I see.” (John 9:25)

    The man began to tell them that no one could restore the sight of someone that had been born blind unless the healer was a man of God. These leaders had no desire to be flexible in interpreting the law.  Their response was classic.  They said to the man, “You were born and brought up in sin and you are trying to teach us?” They expelled him from the synagogue.  (John 9:34)

    Reviewing this remarkable story during our Lenten journey gives us the opportunity to study a number of our own beliefs.  Are they a rock upon which we can build our lives or are they ideas that proclaim a message that is void of compassion, patience and understanding?  All of us have a number of unrecognized beliefs that govern our responses. 

    I have performed a number of marriage ceremonies for Roman Catholics where one or both have been divorced.  They could not tolerate the inconvenience and trouble that their parish priest wanted to impose on them.  They did not care about the laws of the church.  During my premarital session with one couple, their attitude was, “Who cares if our priest refuses to give us Holy Communion for the rest of our lives?  We can live with that.  Their rules, however, speak louder than their respect for people that believe differently.”   

    When I officiated at a marriage between a Roman Catholic and Jew, both of their families were so opposed to the marriage that they refused to attend the ceremony.  Their wedding took place with just the three of us.  The bride and groom said, “We love our families very much, but their refusal to approve of our love is their problem not ours.” 

    What does it mean when our beliefs prevent us from accepting the decisions and beliefs of others?   When we feel badly about anything, the chances are good that lurking behind our being upset are beliefs that we have not examined.  Jesus’ teachings offer guidance for those that wish to grow spiritually.

    If people want to beat up on themselves with attitudes that help no one, that is their choice.  However, they need to recognize that they are holding onto something that they cannot control.  Even the father of the Prodigal Son had to let go so that the young man could experience life for himself. 

    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once offered the following guidance, “The great thing in this world is not so much where we are or what we are experiencing, but in what direction we are moving.”  We know from Jesus’ parable that the son returned home because the world was not as exciting as he once imagined.

    When the blind man featured in our lesson received his sight, that healing put Jesus at odds with the religious leaders that had spent the better part of their lives being students of their heritage, laws, customs and traditions.  Their beliefs would not allow them to see the miracle.  They chose instead to dwell on Jesus breaking the Sabbath.  We can hardly imagine such thinking, but it happens all the time in some of the best religious circles.

    The Jews, for example, have always known that they were and are God’s chosen people.  We can think to ourselves, “How arrogant of the Jews to think this way? What about the rest of us? Are we all lost because we did not enter this world through the body of a Jewish mother?” 

    And yet, consider the thinking of Christians that have preached that people must accept the Lord, Jesus Christ as their personal savior in order to be saved.   For millions of believers, this teaching is one of the cornerstones of Christian thinking.  When we put this belief under our microscopes, this belief is as exclusive as the belief of the Jews. 

    What about the rest of the world’s people, i.e., the Buddhists and Hindus?  We also have to remember that when Judaism and Christianity were flourishing in the Middle East, neither religion had any knowledge of the Aztecs or Mayans in South America, or the Chinese and Japanese in the Far East.  Each had their own religious practices flourishing.  Is God’s mercy and love limited to only those with specific beliefs?

    Jesus taught what was far more universal, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor the way you love yourself.  Do this,” he said, “and you will live.” (Luke 10:27-28)  

    What saves us from being tangled in the numerous issues found in our world does not come from just our beliefs.  Beliefs change.  Our salvation comes solely from God’s love.  (John 6:63)  There are countless Christians, however, that are not open to anything other than what they have been taught. This reality is precisely what caused the Pharisees and the religious authorities to remain blind to understanding that a miracle had just happened in their community.  

    Some beliefs empower us and enable us to live without fear.  Others beliefs communicate the most unloving responses imaginable. Jesus was not afraid to resist the righteous authorities because he knew his message was for all humanity.  He taught that when we love others unconditionally, we have fulfilled the truth contained in the Laws of Moses and the Prophets.  (Matthew 22:40)  Doing this willingly allows the Christ in us to become visible.

    Having compassion for everyone is the only rock upon which to build our lives.   Expressing love, compassion and our freedom of spirit is different from merely believing in the value of those qualities.   The first one describes our desire to let our spirits show up in all circumstances.  The other describes a life that only believes in the value of having these virtues.

    One of my Ethics professors said, “I am not sure what I believe, but give me a set of circumstances, and I will tell you how I will likely respond.”  God knows each of us and God knows that we cannot give away what we have not discovered and nurtured within ourselves through our years here. 

    God must use creation as a teaching device for all of us.   Just look at how much the human drama has been occupying our minds recently.  For example, in the United States, we have had earthquakes in California, a massive mud-slide that buried people, tornadoes, a deep freeze in the northeast, the struggles over a medical insurance plan nicknamed Obamacare and we would be remiss if we left out March Madness for the basketball fans. 

    The world’s attention has been focused on what happened to Malaysian flight 370.  Dozens of experts have bathed us with their opinions without any resolution.  In addition to this drama, the world eagerly waits for the decision by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as his massive troop buildup continues to grow along the eastern border of Ukraine.

    In Bermuda, we have the costs associated with our unpredicted recession.  We experience the OBA and the PLP nipping at each other’s heels on a daily basis.  There is talk of a third political party being formed.  We have worries about jobs for Bermudians and there are the issues over work-permits being granted.  Also, we had the tsunami drill this week. 

    Will such drama ever end?  No.  This is the way the world is today.  It’s a wonderful opera for the observer and even better for those of us who participate.  We have the opportunity to be among the masses of humanity with the compass with which Jesus equipped us so we can lead others to find peace and happiness.

    God remains quiet and invisible, but God never stops creating.  Maybe it would do well for all of us to do the same. When our beliefs produce frustration, anger, sadness or even self-righteousness, God gives us the power to change them and create new ones that better serve ourselves and others.  The 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, “If you are irritated and become unsettled by every rub, how will you ever become polished?” 

    Knowing that life will never be experienced the same way by any two people, perhaps this is why Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”  Even though there is so much uncertainty in our lives, each of us has the power to live the truth that we have found.  We can trust God, enjoy what we have accomplished and never stop sowing the seeds of our smiles, our open spirits and our desire to encourage others.  This is who we are and this is what we do.