“Don’t Invest Your Life in Piety”


Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – November 5, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 107:1-7; Matthew 23:1-12

All Saints Sunday

    One of the curious characteristics of Jesus was his distain for religious people, particularly the clergy and those who have invested themselves in displaying their piety socially.  In fact, the 23rd chapter of Matthew is the strongest testimony of Jesus' dislike for those who wore their piety on their sleeve every day. 

    Numerous times in the Gospels, Jesus taught his listeners to pay careful attention to the lessons that their religious leaders were providing while advising them not to imitate their attitudes and behaviors.  Jesus knew that the Scribes, Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law were excellent at passing on the faith of their heritage even though very few of them accurately mirrored their piety during their stage presence.  (Matthew 23:3)

    Every religion emphasizes that believers need to have the knowledge of its teachings as well as the practice of its core beliefs.  What is often missing is teaching believers the importance of displaying emotions that produce a warmth of spirit and compassionate attitudes toward everyone.  

    There was a time early in my ministry when a particular Sunday school teacher was spending time teaching children about the existence of The Devil. She had an urgency to address all the temptations that come to children in an effort to keep them safe from the clutches of Satan. 

    Parents became disturbed by the questions that their children were bringing home with them.  Some of the children were having nightmares about being caught by this evil being that God had allowed to come after them.

    Discussions with this teacher about her teaching bore little fruit.  She could not violate her passion to tell children the truth. She preferred to resign rather than change her teaching practices.  She not only resigned but she left the church. 

    There are people who have totally invested their lives in their piety to the extent that they know and bring an urgency to their witness of what everyone else needs to experience to be saved.  Many of them do not have the flexibility to display a warmth of spirit and an eagerness to be a friend to those whose values and beliefs may be quite different from their own.

    Typically, they have clear Scriptural references that justify their position, and they refuse to hear anything other than how they have trained themselves to believe.  They often seek a church family with a pastor that reflects their own beliefs about salvation and the need of people to please God by how they live. 

    During Jesus' ministry, an episode unfolded in the gardens of a wealthy Pharisee.  When the host of this event saw a sinful woman touching Jesus, he said to himself, "If this man were really a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him.   He would know what kind of sinful life she lives."  (Luke 7:39) 

    Jesus loved sinners, outcasts and tax collectors. To Jesus, sinners did not have the leprosy that caused the righteous to distance themselves from them.  In fact, Jesus often ate with sinners and enjoyed being with them.  He was openly criticized for doing so.  (Mark 2:16) 

    He knew that people would live more refined lives if they were only shown a better way to live.  They needed to be encouraged to try responses like kindness, instant forgiveness and generosity. Jesus was more eager to teach people a more loving way to live than he was to judge them because they had not awakened from their spiritual slumber. (Luke 19:7-10)

    Jesus said, "People who are well do not need a doctor.  I have not come to teach respectable people how to live but to teach those whom our society calls outcasts." (Luke 2:16f).

    People whose company we enjoy are those who are not afraid to

acknowledge that they frequently make mistakes, who often say words that they wish they had not said, and who sometimes tell jokes or relate stories that appear unbecoming to a person of faith.  This is precisely why Jesus loved them. They did not feel the need to wear masks.

    They had tossed their piety into the trash-can years earlier just as St. Paul had done in deference to living more authentically, warts and all. (Philippians 3:8) Many of these are the saints that we personally celebrate today because they modeled for us how to be a Christian without sacrificing the fun of being alive. Typically, sinners do not wear the masks of righteousness every moment of their lives.  What you see is what you get.  Jesus enjoyed their authenticity.

    If we really understood the mind of God, we would live totally authentic lives every day.  Our need to pretend to be someone that we are not would vanish. Fear would no longer take up residence inside our minds. How would knowledge of God's mind enable us to do this? 

    Each of us is one of God's children!  Everything that God creates is perfect for what it was designed to do even though countless people have no idea in whose image they were created.  

    We cannot be hurt, damaged or destroyed by anyone or anything, and few religious leaders celebrate this fact or even discuss this understanding. We are infinite spirit-beings packaged in a temporary biological life-form that allows us to experience life as very limited human beings. We are vulnerable to many of life's threatening experiences.  Damaging our form does not touch what lives inside of us.  We are not our bodies as Jesus clearly demonstrated following his death.

    What creates the shadows in our lives is fear.  Historically, religion has been filled with fearful thoughts and judgmental attitudes. Any practiced religion has missed the mark when they condemn a scientific mind like Galileo.  Anything that teaches us a more productive way to perform a task is a lesson learned. All challenging life-experiences are skill-builders. 

    Having this orientation in life makes all the difference in the world in the development of our attitudes and vision of what our life-experiences are teaching us. Our self-perception will determine what and how we experience life.

    The religious dream that we are in this world to please God can become a full-blown fear-based notion.  Some people invest their lives in trying to please God, believing that their piety is the least that they can do to honor God by how they live.  

    Why do people try to second-guess what it is that will please God?  Why not let God decide what God needs instead of investing our energy trying to figure out what pleasing God might look like and then base our obedience on our own speculation.

    When children try to please their parents, they often abandon their own happiness. What happens when dad wants us to be a physician and we want to be an artist? If our passion is in creating art, become an artist!  Start to paint!

    Mature parents want their children to stand on their own two feet, to make their own decisions and to have the freedom to celebrate their choice of a vocation where they want to invest their energies. 

    When we are giving away what we enjoy doing, we are a delight to ourselves and to others.  Happy people create happy homes, happy families and happy work environments.  As we give our happiness away, our cups are never empty.  Happy people do not develop the fears and concerns that somehow they are not whole or that somehow they are disappointing God.

    Our journeys in this life can be powerfully productive when we learn that our enemies are mostly those of our own creation.  These are the demons that rob our faces of their smiles and cause us to lie awake at night with minds filled with worries.

    Just as butterflies come equipped with skills that will free them from their cocoons, so do we.  Our cocoons, however, are invisible and made up of frustrations, disappointments, self-destructive thoughts and self-pity.  Trust and faith must be built on fearlessness, not on dependency and a daily neediness for God's daily guidance.  Loving energy always guides correctly. Our fears are what attack us with self-doubt.

    All of us are terribly flawed, but so what? We should not allow our perceived flaws to define our identities. We are God's children!  Since we have God's DNA flowing through us, own the flaws! They are part of your uniqueness.  

    We were not born as mature arch-angels when we came out of our mother's womb.  We were born with raw potential and we were designed to stumble as we gradually discover more productive and fruitful ways to live.

    God is not moody, needy or overly concerned about any of us.  God's energy is consistent and is constantly radiating waves of creative opportunities for anyone who is paying attention and reaching for more understanding.  Rather than investing in our own piety, let us invest our energies in what produces happiness, instant forgiveness and peace for every occasion. 

    No matter what we decide to do with our lives, God will always love us in spite of our level of consciousness when we leave our bodies.  Grab on to life with both hands.  Live enthusiastically as though you will live forever.  What we will discover immediately upon our deaths is that we are poised to do just that.

 

CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

Eternal God, we thank you for the gift of memory.  Enable us to remember that every healthy branch is connected to a vine, and that every house stands because of the strength of its foundation. Today, we remember with gratitude those who once occupied our sanctuary during the last 178 years. We thank you for everyone in our background who modeled and taught us the value of character and integrity.  Guide us to remember that the inward journey that Jesus pointed to allows us to make our outward journey one that is filled with hope, courage and vision.  Thank you for Jesus who left us with a blueprint for ways of making our faith visible.  Amen.

     

PASTORAL PRAYER:

How pleasing it is, O God, to set aside the stress and tension that surrounded many of our tasks of last week.  During these moments enable us to let go of them and experience peace.  As we worship, help us to imagine someone with a sponge erasing the whiteboards that we hold in suspension within our minds.  These internal whiteboards held all the to do lists, the calls we needed to return and the personalities who made challenging requests of us.  Lead us to feel appreciation for the experience of sanctuary within these walls. 

How wonderful it is to be reminded that laughter is good medicine and that shaking hands while looking people in their eyes reminds all of us that we are family here. We thank you for creating us with so many ways to express, "I love you." 

Thank you for teaching us how to accept people just as they are.  Thank you for teaching us that all such extensions of spirit come naturally when our identities as your sons and daughters are totally secure and firmly rooted in your love for each of us.  Teach us that you have created us to be saints who have the potential to lead others to discover a Kingdom they cannot see with their physical eyes.

May these moments together with you nourish us with memories that heal, empower and enhance all of us to be more peaceful and loving men and women.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .