"When Religions Lose Their Way”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – August 17, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 133; Matthew 15:10-20


    This morning, I would like us to transport ourselves back to the time when Jesus was teaching.   Let us pretend that we are among his crowd of listeners.  Our Hebrew faith and traditions come from our Patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We were trained to be obedient to the Laws of Moses.                 

    As we listen to Jesus teach, we become intrigued.  His message is different.  We hear him routinely setting aside many of our laws as though they no longer mattered.  While this new teacher is intriguing, we know very little about Jesus other than that he was a carpenter from Nazareth and is now teaching and preaching like a rabbi.   If we were honest with our thoughts, what would we think about him?   

    A number of people would listen and shrug, communicating, “So what?”  Others might become quite disturbed that their orthodoxy and dogma were being undermined by someone who was not recognized as having the authority to do so by the Pharisees, Priests or Teachers of the Law. 

    Regardless of what Jesus was teaching, most of his listeners would stay and become quite engaged for one reason.  The moment people began to witness the blind receiving their sight and the lame beginning to walk again, each would instantly recognize that Jesus had an ability that none of them had ever seen.  They would assume that he had a gift from God. 

    The larger that Jesus’ audiences grew, the more people learned about him.  He could read and write.  He was well-schooled in what the ancient Prophets had written.  He knew many of the shortcomings of his ancestral faith. He would say, “You have been taught to hate your enemies and now I tell you to love your enemies.” He was never intimidated when he was challenged by Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. 

    Just prior to what was read for us in our lesson today, such a group of religious leaders came to Jesus and said,  “Why is it that your disciples disobey the teaching handed down by our ancestors?  They don’t wash their hands in the proper way before they eat.”  This prompted Jesus to respond by quoting the words of God that were written by the Prophet Isaiah:

These people claim to worship me, but their words mean nothing and their hearts are somewhere else.  Their religion is nothing more than human rules and traditions which they have simply memorized.  What is worse is that they claim that these laws have come from me.  (Matthew 15:8 from Isaiah 29:13)

    Jesus called those that were listening to this exchange to come closer.  He said, “It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean but rather what comes out of you.”  After Jesus finished and the gathering had disbursed, his disciples came to him and said, “Do you realize how your words hurt the feelings of the Pharisees?”  Jesus responded, “Don’t worry about them. They are blind leaders trying to offer guidance to the blind.  When one blind person leads another blind person, they both fall into the ditch.”  (Matthew 15:14)

    Peter was frustrated by Jesus’ words so he asked him to explain what he meant.  Jesus provided a new meaning to the law.  He said, “What makes a person attractive to others is the spirit that they use to communicate.  Their attitudes and behavior come from their compassionate heart.”  Peter immediately understood.

    This carpenter was teaching a new message that would later become the heart and soul of Christianity.  Rather than to remain obedient to ancient Laws that belonged to another day and another people, Jesus taught his followers to make love visible in everything they did.  What Jesus taught stands in stark contrast to what many religions and Christian denominations teach today.    

    We cannot imagine the followers of the Prophet Muhammad raping or selling women, killing families and forcing people to either abandon their current religion or face death.  Members of the group Isil have more in common with Attila the Hun than anything remotely associated with Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. 

    If Muhammad returned and confronted them about their atrocities, most certainly they would try to kill him as an imposter.  They would not have the ability to recognize the very Prophet they claim to revere and serve.  Surfacing in this newer group of people are attitudes that display a ruthless disregard for others that they have labeled as Infidels.

    If there is one thing that we have learned in our own faith journey, it is that religions lose their way from time to time.  Through the centuries humanity has slowly fashioned God in its own image, replete with human emotions, flawed logic and an inability to stay with the decision once it was made.  (Exodus 32:14)  

    For example, the Jews were taught eons ago that God made a promise to give to Abraham’s descendants a land flowing with milk and honey.  It did not matter that other people had settled in that land and were living in peace and traded with one another.  The Hebrews invaded the land of Canaan with the Ark of the Covenant going before them and they took the land with full knowledge that they had God’s blessing.  (Deuteronomy 6:10)   In some instances, the Hebrews engaged in genocide because they had been told that this was part of God’s plan.  (I Samuel 15:1-3) 

    The way Christianity has been practiced through the centuries has taught us that there is very little difference between killings in the name of God in those days from what is taking place in Iraq at the hands of this new group Isil.

    For example, Charlemagne Christianized thousands of people by threatening to behead anyone who would not submit to Christ. His men beheaded 4,000 Saxons that refused to accept Christ as their savior.   Pope Leo III was so pleased with him that he crowned him Emperor of the Roman Empire in 800 AD.

    There was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre where fanatical Roman Catholics slaughtered twenty thousand Presbyterian French Huguenots in the streets of Paris in 1572.  Pope Gregory XIII entered the Sistine Chapel and sang praises to God.  The way of Jesus had nothing to do with the way Christianity was manifesting itself through the lives of those considered its religious leaders.   Clearly, Christianity had lost its way.

    We can hardly imagine the time when John Stephenson, the first Methodist missionary to Bermuda, was jailed because he preached from 1799 to 1802 to everyone regardless of the color of their skin. Even in jail he continued to preach through the bars of his window.  Our fellowship hall was named “Stephenson Hall” in his honor and memory.

    Every religion has its seasons of infancy, adolescence and maturity.  Those seasons could also be reference points for our own spiritual growth.  Jesus was way ahead of his time when he introduced to humanity that when the spirit of people exudes loving values and ethics, they are living from the same creative spirit that God displays.

    One of my favorite stories is about a young man who was on a college football team but he never played.  He worked very hard during the practices but he had very little athletic ability.  He had been the brunt of countless practical jokes from his teammates, but he had developed the ability to laugh at himself.     

    One day Jimmy was sick and missed practice.  The coach had been observing how his players were treating Jimmy so he decided to use the young man’s rare absence as an opportunity to explain to the other players why this athletic misfit had made the final cut and became a part of the team.  This is what the coach said: 

I want you boys to listen to what I have to say about Jimmy who is sick today.  Jimmy doesn’t know a thing about football.  He can’t remember plays.  He can’t hurt anyone.  He doesn’t want to block.  He can’t hold on to the football.  This afternoon, I want to tell you what Jimmy means to this team and why I have great respect for this young man’s abilities. 


Jimmy was born with a disease that prevents him from doing what comes naturally to most of you.  In spite of these handicaps, I want you to know why I find him such an essential part of this team.


His enthusiasm, drive and desire to win are qualities that some of you have lost along the way. I want you to watch Jimmy.  I want you to listen to him. When a better opponent is beating us, Jimmy’s spirit just might inspire you to overcome your own doubts and insecurities.  He loves you guys. He believes in you and he is frustrated as to why we are not winning more games.  More than anything else in his life, he wanted to wear your uniform and be a part of what you do.  I gave him that opportunity. 

    The guys did watch Jimmy after this briefing from the coach.  By watching and listening to him, each player was uniquely transformed and they began playing as a team.  They did not lose another game for the rest of that season. 

    The sports reporters for the newspapers, radio and television said that the team had finally found its soul.  Jimmy mysteriously led the Orangemen of Syracuse University to victory after victory from the sidelines where he infused his teammates with enthusiasm and a renewed belief in themselves. 

    Jesus has had the same impact on us that Jimmy had on his team.  Jesus taught people how to win at life and how to do so without any need to hurt or threaten anyone that practiced their faith differently or lived with different values. 

    He basically told his followers that the consequences of any faith become the best teacher.  He said, “Don’t worry about the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. They are blind leaders trying to offer guidance to the blind.  When one blind person leads another blind person, they both fall into the ditch.” All religions lose their way from time to time including our own. 

    When people’s spirits are exuding loving energy patterns carried on the waves of their words, their body language and their attitudes, individuals like Jimmy can lead the way to victory for their entire team.  With Jesus as our guide, what comes out of us will eventually lead the way to a healed world.