“Obedience Can Be A Dead-end Street”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – July 2, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42


    This morning we are going to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of being obedient to the various rules that govern our lives.   All of us are keenly aware of how many of these rules for living have changed radically during our lifetime.  

    Some of us can remember when dancing was prohibited in churches. When I was ordained in 1968, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to allow the consumption of alcohol by clergy to be a matter of conscience. Most of us can remember when no stores were open on Sunday.  Swearing in motion pictures first appeared in a modern movie entitled Gone With The Wind. This was followed by nudity, vulgarity and violence becoming acceptable if the movie carried an R-Rating.  The list of significant changes is a long one.  Many of today's societies are open to accept almost anything adding to the confusion that often causes people to move beyond the rules that governed previous generations.

    During our consideration of the life of King David, our Bible Study class was drawn to focus on the rules that governed the lives of the early Hebrews. If a person had murdered someone, sooner or later someone returned the favor.  (I Kings 2:29b-33)  This law of revenge was engrained in people because they had been taught that all laws came from God. If God showed no mercy toward people                  who wandered from the rules, why should God's chosen people be any different?  (Exodus 21:23f & Deuteronomy 19:21).  

    The class remained open-minded about distinguishing between the nature of God reflected by Hebrew authors and how God's Spirit was described and characterized by Jesus.

    When the Roman College of Cardinals declared that their collection of manuscripts was The Word of God, they did so to put an end to the ecclesiastical pressure coming from the other four branches of Christianity to add additional manuscripts to what eventually became the Bible. Such a declaration has lasted until the present.  

    There are still many Christians who share the conviction that the Scriptures must be read word-for-word as coming from God even though Jesus declared by his many changes that these manuscripts were not The Word of God.  The books of the Old Testament were viewed more as a collection of how the Hebrew writers perceived the activities of God in the unfolding history of the Jews.

    Numerous times Jesus taught, "You have been taught 'An eye for an eye,' but now I tell you, 'Do not take revenge on someone who has wronged you.'"  (Matthew 5:38)  "You have been taught, 'Love your friends,' but now I tell you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'"  In addition, Jesus completely distanced himself from the God of his ancestors when he taught, "God loves everyone equally regardless of how they think, what they believe or the number of crimes they have committed. Jesus taught that God sends the rain to fall and the sun to shine on all of them." (Matthew 5:43f)

    When people in modern times read the Bible and discover that they are not capable of committing the atrocities attributed to God, The Word of God begins to lose its relevancy for many readers.  This dilemma has caused generation after generation of people to own Bibles but seldom read them.

    For newer generations, there was no longer any need to be obedient to laws and beliefs that no longer speak with authority.  The Church has refused to revisit the meaning of why and how the Bible became The Word of God. Such refusal is part of the reasoning why churches are faced with empty pews.  Several generations are so far removed from the guidance and foundation that the church once supplied that they have thrown the baby out with the bath water."   

    In today's lesson from Genesis we have the disturbing story of God needing to test the loyalty of Abraham.  Abraham had moved from the city of Ur to a country where child sacrifice was common.  Try to imagine yourself binding your only child, and laying him on a pyre that you intend to set on fire in order to appease God.  Your knife is raised as God had instructed you to do but just before the execution of your son, an angel intervenes preventing your son's death.   

    Abraham saw a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket.  That ram was used as a sacrifice instead of Isaac. We have to ask ourselves what this story is communicating about the nature of God.  Could this really be God or was this a story that grew from the imagination of Abraham himself?  The Scriptures reveal that after that day of terror, the relationship of Abraham and Isaac was never the same.

    In the Book of Job, try to imagine God making a wager with Satan.  (Job 1:9f)  As a result of God's arrangement, Job lost everything, e.g., his family, his house, his herds and his health. With boils all over his body, his wife asked, "Why don't you just curse God and die?" (Job 2:9)

    Job refused to do so but he held thoughts of being abandoned. God showed up. Did God apologize?  Did God say, "Job, you were great, you see I had this bet with Satan and I won?" God said nothing of the kind.  Instead God asked "Who are you, you little worm, to question what I am doing?" (Job 38:2)  In paragraph after paragraph God described how powerful He was and said, "Can you do anything like I can do?"  Job responded to God by apologizing for ever questioning God's judgment. (Job 40:3-5)

     Rather than destroying the years of religious training experienced by his listeners, Jesus simply began teaching an entirely different understanding of the nature of God.  He did so without apologizing for what had been taught for centuries by his ancestors.

    The nature of God from Jesus' point-of-view was like a compassionate, loving and forgiving Father described in our Gospel lesson.  Jesus distilled his message in the simplest of terms, "Anyone who gives a drink of cold water to a thirsty person will have a rewarding life. (Matthew 10:42)  Just imagine how our world would be transformed if people adopted just one response - kindness.

    Each of us is an individual that is free to develop any way we choose.  Living in our limited bodies gives us choices to make.  Such freedom does not come with God's need to punish us when we do not do well. Life has a significant learning curve.

    The people who are no longer acquainted with Jesus' teachings, are navigating in life without the compass, the road map that Jesus' software has provided to others.  While we are not punished by God, there are self-inflicted wounds that come as a consequence from behaving with attitudes that lack love.

    Equally our personal salvation was never one of Jesus' teachings.  Jesus taught what a loving spirit looked like, however, his goal was to encourage his listeners to go into the world and teach others about the power of love. He taught  "The one who needs to be first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)  "The one who is the greatest among you is the one who reaches beyond his or her needs in order to willingly serve the needs of others." (Matthew 23:11f) 

    Further, Jesus never mentioned anything about shedding his blood.  He never talked about the significance of his death if it happened.  All such theology developed later by men that interpreted what the death of Jesus meant to them.  Coming from the Hebrew cultural traditions that featured animal sacrifices to God, it became a natural extension to define Jesus' death as a sacrificial lamb.  

          How are we to think about these realities?  Are we to be obedient to Jesus by developing our attitudes of compassion, or should we follow the teachings that came from the inspired imaginations of those that followed him?

    These are critical questions that we need to answer if our spiritual growth is to be expressed in the forms of kindness, compassion and forgiveness rather than through our obedience to doctrines, disciplines and dogma that have come through the institutional church.

    What Jesus taught has become a universal language that can easily be recognized and understood by most people regardless of their background or life-experiences. When lives are transformed, it happens when people come in contact with the loving energies that Jesus taught. Do we ever hear of lives being changed because of the teachings of Moses?   

    Many religions of the world teach their own exclusiveness that communicates, "My group has the correct path to eternal life."  Eternal life, however, does not take place in a divine parcel of real estate which reflects all of the material forms we have grown accustomed to want.  Heaven is an attitude that can be shared by anyone that wants to reflect the nature of God that Jesus revealed.  We do not have to wait until we die to experience Heaven. Living in Heaven is available right now.

    Perhaps the best answer that defines the source of where guidance for living comes from was spoken five hundred years before Jesus was born. Siddhartha Gautama, considered by billions of people to be The Enlightened One, spoke words that may have influenced Jesus.  Gautama's teachings were readily available in the Middle East 200 years prior to Jesus' birth.  Such teachings were centered in Alexandria, Egypt.  Here is what he said:

Do not believe what you have heard.  Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.  Do not believe in anything that has been spoken of many times.  Do not believe because of written statements that have come from old sages.  Do not believe in conjecture.  Do not believe what comes from authorities, teachers or elders. Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, UNLESS it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.  After careful observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it will benefit everyone, then accept it and live by it.

    Approaching and defining all our experiences through the energy and attitudes of love will distinguish for us The Word of God for ourselves.  Obedience can be a dead-end street.  We are the ones who must determine what governs our lives.  Will it be following sacred laws and rules of a religious institution or will we decide to willfully follow the many forms of expressing love that are available to us? 

    The Apostle Paul once wrote, "These three attitudes remain the foundation of our lives: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love."  (I Corinthians 13:13)  When we love like God, what else is there that we must do in order to become a light for the world? 



Merciful and always present God, we thank you that you have taught us that laughter and happiness have healing powers. You have shown us how our appreciation and gratitude bring out the best in others. We have learned how listening without judgment creates confidence for those who are talking to us.  We have discovered how our values can change others when we share them. We have learned that the truth is one, but the priests in every culture call it by many names. Continue to allow your light to shine through all of us even though people have assigned different labels to us. Help us to remember that nothing we do, believe or think has the power to separate us from your love.  Amen



We thank you, God, for placing within us the desire of wanting spiritual freedom.  It has been our nature to want alternatives from what various authorities have decided that we must believe in our becoming who you created us to be.  Even though some of us are not wise stewards of our choices, we realize that we now live in the best environment for our growth.  Making mistakes is part of the learning process.   

When we contrast our culture in Bermuda with what appears to be taking place all over the world, we suddenly develop a renewed appreciation for what we have. We are grateful for the rules that have been designed to give our liberties form, direction and purpose.  Even though we share a great diversity of opinions, many of our values are commonly shared and cherished.  When we use our choices to be of service to each other, we share an abundance that would not have happened without all of us working together. 

Each day, we are given the opportunity to redefine who we are.  In spite of our circumstances, we can choose to remain kind.  We can decide not to hurt others with our words.  We can reflect spirits that are forgiving and generous.  We can become the presence that stills troubled waters simply by being a part of one another's struggles.  As we ask for your mercy, O God, for the number of times we fall short, so may we choose to act mercifully toward others whether they request it or not.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .