“A True Test of One’s Religion”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – June 3, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 139: 1-6; Mark 2:23-3-6

    All of us become aware during our early childhood that there are certain unspoken laws by which all of us are expected to live.  There are specific times when we eat our meals.  There are responsibilities where our follow-through is expected.  There are permissions that need to be gotten before we venture forth with the family car. These are the laws of our particular family that may not be in place in other families.

     We also encounter laws in our society.  These laws are universal for everyone because living in a community requires compliance.  A stop sign does not mean “drift.”  A traffic signal provides us with three colors that have significance attached to each.  These laws are often violated until a person ignoring the law is caught on camera.  With so many cell phones available to capture the deeds of certain risk-takers, it is wise to remain obedient.

    There are also national laws, many of which no one can escape. When we left for our vacation on May 15, we did so knowing that we would be traveling with my expired work permit.  Since our work-permit extension was in process, we assumed that we could re-enter Bermuda at the conclusion of our vacation.  Upon entry, Immigration could check with their database and see that we were in the process of having our status renewed.  

    A week before our flight, Lois recommended that I contact Immigration officials to make sure that we were fine.  I discovered that we were not fine.  We had to secure a landing permit that took five business days to process. We received the approval at 11:30 a.m. on the Friday prior to our leaving. Had we landed on May 30th without that permit, we would have been fined $500.00. 

    Finally, there are certain laws that various religious groups assume were created by God for our well-being. In our lesson this morning, the Pharisees were watching Jesus' disciples pluck and eat grain as they walked through a wheat field.  They scolded Jesus by saying, "It is against the Law for your disciples to gather and eat grain on the Sabbath!"

    Doing any task that could even remotely be associated with working on the Sabbath was akin to a major crime against God’s Law.  God created the Sabbath for resting.  No doubt their memory recalled a time, during the days of Moses, when God ordered the execution of a man who was found picking up sticks on the Sabbath. (Numbers 15:35f)      

    The next section of Mark's lesson reveals the character and nature of those who were doing the scolding.  While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, there was a man who had a paralyzed arm.  Jesus asked everyone in attendance a key question that became central to Jesus’ teaching.  "What does the Law allow us to do on the Sabbath -- to help or to harm?"  No one dared to answer.

Jesus asked the man to stretch out his arm.  As the man did as he was told, his arm was healed.  Our lesson states, "So the Pharisees left the synagogue and met at once with a group of Sadducees to develop a plan to kill Jesus."  (Mark 3:6) 

    Today, we cannot imagine highly religious, spiritual people punishing people with their death for healing on the Sabbath.  However, Church history is filled with this reality.  Since many Biblical authors believed in a God that was well-known for responding with harsh punishments, the Jewish leaders used God’s own behavior to justify their hostile responses toward those who were misbehaving.

    Once when a mule stumbled while carrying the Ark of the Covenant, a man named Uzzah reach out to steady the Ark, preventing it from falling.  The Scriptures tell readers, "At once the Lord God became angry with Uzzah and killed him because of his lack of reverence."  (2nd Samuel 6:7)  

    There was another time when two men so displeased the Lord, that God killed both of them. (Genesis 38: 7-10) God was pictured by the Jews as needing servants who obeyed him.  Little mercy was shown to those who violated God's rules.

    On another occasion, God allegedly encouraged mass murder:

The Lord God of Israel commanded all the Levites to put on their swords and go through the camp from one gate to the other gate and kill their brothers, their friends, and their neighbors because of crimes they had committed. (Exodus 32:27)

    Moses praised the Levites for this act of obedience and said:

Today, you have consecrated yourselves as priests in the service of the Lord by killing your sons and brothers.  The Lord has given you his blessing. (Exodus 32:29)

    These and a number of other Biblical references are what compelled Jesus to abandon the war-god of the Hebrews.  Instead, Jesus began to present a new understanding of God whose nature was one of infinite mercy and forgiveness for all men and women living on various levels of awareness. God sends the rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:45) 

    What is difficult to understand is what happened during the early days of The Church’s development that caused its leadership to abandon Jesus’ new understanding of God’s nature. What Jesus correctly taught was incorrectly learned hundreds of times by the leadership of the Church.   

    Church leaders were seduced by thoughts and feelings that they had divinely inspired power and authority and were appointed by God as representatives to make sure people obeyed Divine Law. They became so self-absorbed with such authority that they were blind to the attitudes and behavior that Jesus exhibited.      

    As we have noted on previous occasions, anyone who chose their own bride or groom was punished by death.  Teaching anything that went against the doctrines of The Church provided the leadership with what they needed to condemn people to death by a public execution. 

    William Tyndale translated the Bible into English.  His crime was that he tinkered with The Word of God. Tyndale also spoke out against some of the major teachings of The Church.  For these and other atrocities, William Tyndale was strangled to death by priests.  To send a stern warning to other free-thinkers, The Church burned his remains in public. Such laws were designed to keep people loyal to Church doctrine and dogma.

    How times have changed!  Today, what is the true test of one's religion? As Jesus taught, it has nothing to do with being obedient to laws.  The true test of a person’s religion is what it does to the spirit by which they live each day.  (Matthew 22:40)   When our energy flows away from us with attitudes filled with love, mercy, and forgiveness, we are free from being defined by obedience to laws.   When we experience such freedom, we have found the pearl of great price.  

    People who feel entitled to hold on to feelings of resentment, or hostile, negative, and pessimistic judgments are investing their energy in responses that have no application after we exit this life.   Try to imagine one sin that we can commit once we graduate from the world of forms and human responsibilities.

    Our lesson today features Jesus asking a key question, "What does the Law allow us to do on the Sabbath -- to help or to harm?" This question sets the tone for everything Jesus taught during his ministry. 

    Today, we are blessed by being born in a generation that tolerates many variations of beliefs.  Jesus taught the most creative way for people to understand their wholeness is to express loving energy in everything that they do. (John 14:6)

    Being afraid of God has been erased from our religious practices and beliefs.  We are free to embrace whatever is coming up for us with kindness, compassion, and empathy. Like Jesus who could forgive from a cross, we will still be teaching others by our responses to whatever is happening.

    When Islamic zealots were beheading Christians, one of these guardians of their faith was about to end the life of a missionary.  A rope had been thrown over a tree branch and she had her hands tied above her head.  This Isis evangelist was about to kill her when she said:

    I, too, am a follower of Allah’s teachings that came through Jesus.  Your friends have violated me in every possible way imaginable and now you are going to end my life.  I just want you to know before you kill me, that if our roles were reversed, I could never want to harm you in any way.  I would much rather that you be my friend because I believe with all my heart that you are my brother.

    With a mighty blow from his sharp machete, instead of cutting off her arms and head, the warrior cut the rope and while looking into her eyes, he said, “I believe you.  Go back to your people.”   She was prepared to die demonstrating what her faith led her to teach during that terminal moment.  It was as if Jesus said through her, “Father forgive him; he is not aware of what he is doing.” 

    Every day we must remember that there is no law against loving those whose values are different.  (Matthew 5:43)



Thank you, God, for these moments together.  Many of us do not come seeking the prizes of the material world.  We come because of our desire to learn the path that allows patience, compassion, and peace to flourish in our lives.  When we are happy, our world sings. As we experience our lives, help us to remember that even our most humble deeds can move mountains in the lives of others. Jesus has demonstrated for us what can happen with a teacher and twelve followers.  Help us to reflect on our identity as being among other angels on assignment in a world that swirls with change.  Amen



We have drawn ourselves into your presence, O God, with a deep sense of appreciation for how the experience of worship has the ability to center our lives on the needs of our spirits.  When we come here and open ourselves anew to the healing of your presence, how peaceful we become when we let go of everything that makes demands of us.  Your presence becomes like a sponge that absorbs our fears. You never tire at giving us new ways to define who we are. Your inspiration provides us with fresh insights into our struggles and frustrations.  Your tireless patience with us keeps us centered on the values and spirit that produce a life filled with happiness and peace.

As our spirits seek to continue their evolution, we know how easy the temptations come for us to take the path of least resistance.  We know the struggles when issues of pleasure confront those of character.  We are no strangers to the attractiveness of compromise.  We know how blinding self-interest is when we are faced with a decision that will be unpopular for others. 

Evoke in us, O God, the memory that we are created in your image.  Help us to carry that awareness into each relationship and circumstance.  Remind us that our lives reflect everything that we believe.  In that knowledge, we pray that we will make visible the values that create community, friendship, healing, and wholeness.  May your will be done on earth because we at Centenary are alive in your service.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .