"Our Thoughts Can Dissolve Barriers”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – March 23, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 139:1-14; John 4:5-19, 27-30, 39-40


    This morning we are going to talk about barriers that appear everywhere in our experience.  Many of them are not as visible as were the “Whites Only” signs many decades ago in almost every social venue.   Today, we find church authorities saber rattling on both sides of ordaining women.  We find Islamic Jihad a very divisive concept even though very few people define the word’s meaning the same way.  One of the earliest definitions of Jihad described the inner struggle people experienced when they wrestled with their temptations and values.

    We could spend hours listing the barriers that divide people, including how diced up the Body of Christ is with its various independent churches growing alongside those of the Roman Catholics and the numerous Protestant denominations.  It appears that everyone interprets his or her experiences through lenses that perceive differently from others.   

    Where do all these different values and perceptions come from?  The answer is very clear.  They have their origin in our thoughts.  In fact, all barriers are clusters of thoughts that others have taught us or that we created because of what we value.

    There was a time when a man from Croatia visited me in my office.  We were talking about what life was like in former Yugoslavia and what it is like today since his parent nation was petitioned into several smaller nations. 

    I was curious about the differences in his culture, so I asked, “If there were a social gathering of people from all over your former nation, would you be able to tell from which part of Yugoslavia each person had come?” He said, “Not really.   Like in the States, there are differences in speech patterns; however, if the group learned which people had come from Serbia, the rest of us would want to kill them.”  

    This kind of pent-up hatred for a labeled people could only come from a person’s thoughts.  We can hardly imagine such hardened attitudes that persons would want to kill someone just because of where they were born.  Barriers that we create can be lethal.

    Lois and I were walking in a business district in Amman, Jordan some years ago and children threw stones at us.  What would cause them to do that when they had no idea who we were or what country we came from?  When children act out like this, the chances are good that a teacher is somewhere in their lives with an attitude about outsiders. That person could be a parent, a relative or a good friend of the family.  Every generation passes on certain barriers to the younger generations.   What did Jesus do to break the cycle?

    In our lesson this morning, Jesus and his disciples had taken a trip for the purpose of getting away from the crowds of people, many of whom were more eager to watch Jesus perform miracles than take his message to heart.  Being in ministry for months had exhausted the group.  Jesus sent the disciples to town to buy supplies.  He stayed behind and lingered near a well that had been used centuries before by his ancestors.  This was Jacob’s well. 

    Women came at fairly specific times during the day to draw water for their families. When a Samaritan woman approached, Jesus asked her if she would give him a drink.  She said, “You know I can’t give you a drink.  You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan.  I see you have nothing with which to draw water from the well.  I wouldn’t want to taint you or give you leprosy because you allowed me to give you a drink.”

    Jesus knew that this woman was very comfortable with verbally sparing with him about racial barriers.  There is some speculation that she was quite beautiful.  She was a veteran of five marriages.  Perhaps she used her attractiveness to up-grade each time a man with better qualities came along. 

    Jesus must have known about her reputation because this is the only time in the Gospels when he asked a woman to bring her husband to meet him.  She said, “I don’t have a husband.”  Jesus said, “You are correct!  You have discarded five husbands and the man you are living with now is not your husband.”  She said, “Well, I see you are a prophet.”

    Jesus knew how easy it is for labels and perceptions to distort a person’s understanding of others.  Jesus ignored numerous barriers that his society’s customs, laws and traditions had been put into the minds of his people for centuries.  He replaced all of them with acceptance of her just as he found her.  To Jesus she was a child of God.  He treated her no differently from a woman of his village, even though she had five failed marriages and was living with a sixth man.

    When the disciples arrived, they were dismayed to find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman.   However, they did not approach Jesus about this obvious breach in Jewish custom.  (John 4:27)  This experience might have been as confusing to the disciples as the time when Jesus used “a good Samaritan” as the hero in one of his parables. (Luke 10:25f)

    Think about all the times that Jesus became completely blind to social barriers.  Jesus did not mind when a prostitute touched him. (Luke 7:39).  He ate with outcasts and tax collectors. (Mark 2:15)  He made no judgment about an adulteress that had been caught in the act.  In fact, his understanding of barriers had saved her life. (John 8:7)  He once told a thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)  He had no barriers in his mind toward those that drove nails into his body.  (Luke 23:34) 

    Can we imagine how our lives would change if we understood people as Jesus did?  There are no barriers in the world.  All of them are in our minds.  Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21)   Can barriers and the Kingdom live together?  Absolutely they can!  However, they can polarize us.   They can immobilize us, and eventually they smother the growth of our spirits.

    When we are born, our lives are like the blue sky.  Every day the sky is blue.  However, dark clouds can appear that block the sun and hide the true color of the sky.  Storms come like hurricane Fabian that temporarily redesigned some of our coastline.  We lost a section of South Road.  We lost the Natural Arches near Tucker’s Town.  But, the sky remained blue the entire time.  Our thoughts act the same way.  Our barriers prevent love from showing up in our lives.

    Jesus addressed this pair of opposites in the parable of the wheat and a look-alike weed that were growing together in the same field.  There was another parable where the Kingdom feast had been prepared.  All of the invited guests found that they each had something more important that needed their attention.  They excused themselves from coming.  (Luke 14:15-24)  Our thoughts create the clouds that hide our blue sky.  

    We live in a world where religious people excuse themselves all the time.  Last week there was a rumored report that a Hindu had desecrated a copy of the Koran by tearing some of the pages from the Islamic sacred text.  Islamic students from several theological seminaries joined the protest and destroyed a Hindu Temple with fire.  Last year, several Coptic Churches were destroyed or defaced in Egypt by those that are threatened by the influence of Christianity in their midst.

    The world is no different now than it was when Jesus was teaching.  People are still walking around with their blue skies temporarily blocked by some cloud covering.  They have no idea why everyone does not have the same values as they do. Jesus taught his followers to get over it when they come into contact with those whose deeds and attitudes demonstrate that they value the clouds more than anything of substance.  Clouds do that to everyone’s blue sky.

    This is why Jesus taught, “Forgive 70 times 7.”  (Matthew 18:22)  His message was “Grow up!  Everyone must find their own way.  We cannot change the values of other people by judging them harshly.”  When we do so, we have created a barrier that prevents us from loving them. Remember, God continues to love us even though billions of us know only cloudy days.

    There lived a monk whose name was Telemachus.  He made a pilgrimage to Rome with a desire to change the world.  He could no longer tolerate the appetite of the public for watching men kill each other and call it “public entertainment.” 

    One day, this old, frail monk dressed in a hermit’s ragged clothing, entered the crowded Roman Coliseum and pleaded with everyone to stop the bloodshed.  The games stopped temporarily.  Someone yelled, “Get that crazy man out of here.  Let the games continue.” Gladiators pushed him aside but he got between them again.  Another person yelled, “Isn’t anyone in charge here?  Get him out of the arena.”  Then a nod from the commander of the games was given to the gladiators and they killed Telemachus with their weapons. 

    The visual image of such cruelty caused the vast crowd to fall silent.  Everyone understood that the monk was defenseless.   The inconvenience he was causing did not merit his death. An amazing thing happened. One by one, people began to leave the Roman Coliseum.  The date of Telemachus’ death was January 1, 404 AD, the day when gladiatorial combat ended in the Roman Empire.

    We pray every Sunday, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Clouds will cover our blue skies from time to time.  How will the Kingdom ever come when the clouds persist, causing us to respond only to people’s differences?  The answer is that there is absolutely nothing that can or will prevent God’s will from being accomplished.

    Think of this:  How could a humble carpenter and his disciples change the thinking of the world’s people when their names and mission were only known within a 200 miles radius of where they lived in one of the most obscure parts of the world?   

    Jesus once taught, “The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John3:8)  Who knows what God can do through us?