“Spirit Qualities Cannot Be Mandatory”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – September 2, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 45:1-7, Mark 7:1-8


    There were times during Jesus' ministry when he appeared to go out of his way to evoke the unhappiness of the religious authorities.  Mark's Gospel lesson described one of these occasions.  This morning we are going to look at what Jesus was doing by challenging the hygienic laws that the Jews understood had been mandated by God for centuries.

    The Hebrew culture was highly advanced in understanding the need to wash their hands, their fruits, and vegetables before eating.  This early culture knew nothing about germs.  They understood, however, that eating with dirty hands and consuming food without first washing it thoroughly was a recipe for illness.

    In this episode, the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law noticed that Jesus was allowing his disciples to violate the Laws for Cleanliness that had been handed down by their ancestors.  They questioned Jesus about his permissiveness.  That gave Jesus the opportunity to explain the difference between ritualistic laws and those that govern the quality of the spirit by which people live.

    The Hebrews had elevated their dietary laws governing good hygiene to the level of Divine Law and this is what Jesus was challenging.  He quoted God from the inspired words of the Prophet Isaiah:

These people claim to worship me, but their words are meaningless, and their hearts are somewhere else. Their religion is nothing but human rules and traditions, which they have simply memorized.  (Isaiah 29:13)

    Every society has laws that must be obeyed without question. If we drive through a red traffic signal because we are in a hurry, our reason for doing so will not matter to a policeman who gives us an expensive ticket to pay.  What we did was violate a law of our society.  We did not violate some divine law.

    In certain countries, bribery is the way commerce is transacted.  Building permits can be secured in record time if a sum of money is paid to a person who can expedite the process. 

     Walmart has built 2,411 stores in Mexico in record time by paying money to officials to accelerate the construction in choice locations of real estate.   Walmart was taken to court in the United States on charges of bribery and fined 400 million dollars.  In an appeal based on how business is transacted in Mexico as well as many other countries in the world, a judge ruled in favor of Walmart and the charges were dismissed. Walmart had not been violating the laws of Mexico.

     Jesus was not against common sense hygiene.  He was allowing a problem to surface so that he could teach the difference between hygienic laws and those that govern the emotions and spirit of his people.

     Matters of the heart were far more important to Jesus than the washing of hands, vegetables, and fruit.  He taught, "There is nothing that goes into you from the outside which can make you ritually unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of you that makes you unclean." (Mark 7:15)

     Christians can sometimes confuse their Christian ethics with their ethics during Monday through Saturday.  They can become highly involved in a church family and remain authentic and most sincere. There are a number of people who have the ritual of being a Christian memorized.

     They attend church most Sundays when they are in town. They work faithfully on various church committees and building projects.  They generously tithe to the church.  They may teach a Sunday School class and remain very popular among the students under their care.  They can quote Scripture and can do a good job preaching on Laity Sunday. They are model Christians. 

     However, who are they when their business practices, their abilities as a parent, and the way they treat other people are put under a microscope?  It is under this kind of scrutiny that stark contrasts may outcrop.  Are their outer practices an outcropping of their inner desires to love and truly serve one another with understanding and instant forgiveness? Jesus was interested in the latter.

     Today, it might be said that a number of Roman Catholic priests have had their personal lives placed under the microscope of public scrutiny.  There is public anger coming from numerous archdioceses regarding the behavior of priests everywhere.  What has surfaced may be just the tip of the iceberg as more adults come forward with stories of abuse when they were altar boys.  Their abusers had their Christian ethics memorized.

     Reginald Lewis was once the Chief Executive Officer of Beatrice Foods.  He was among the first African American billionaires in the United States.  Lewis was having some plumbing work done at his barn.  During a day when he was not working, he saw the plumber's truck and decided to see what the problem was that had caused a flooding problem. In dirty blue jeans and an old shirt, he walked down to the barn. During an interview that I was watching on television, Lewis revealed the response of the two white plumbers who had assumed that he was a hired hand.

     One of the workers said, "Does Mr. Lewis know that you are down here?"  Mr. Lewis deliberately chose not to make this a memorable moment for the two men by embarrassing them.  He politely answered, "Yes, Mr. Lewis knows that I am on his property."

     What came out of Mr. Lewis was an understanding that the two workers had made assumptions based on the color of his skin. Even though no one was around to see his spirit, he remained faithful to the message that he wanted to send.  His humility was so impressive that his response to the plumbers stuck with me. 

     There are many people who enjoy the use of titles in front of their names as well as thriving on their place in society. They enjoy sharing the stage with other movers, shakers, and power brokers.  Mr. Lewis was not one of these. He knew who he was and that is the only thing that really mattered to him.

     It is interesting that the Creator of the universe chooses to remain invisible and work in ways that few people can detect.  There is an invisible world that supports the physical world.  It does not matter to God what we do with our lives before love is abundantly shared.

     I mentioned this in my last prayer with Tony before he died.  I prayed directly in his ear so that he would hear even though he was not alert and conscious.  Further, I spent an hour with Charlie discussing the invisible world that he was about to enter before he left his body this past week. 

     The good news is that God does not need a single thing from any of us to remain a being that extends love towards all of us.  Our lives here are a gift from God.  These moments of life have become our time to play by responding to everything that comes up for us.  These moments are our time to see what we can do as want-to-be creators in a safe environment.  

     God would never allow any of us to enter our limited physical lives and allow our spiritual destiny to be determined by the decisions that we make.  We are children in adult bodies and every one of us is living and responding on a much different learning curve.  The Church has never taught this.  In fact, it has used fear to teach believers just the opposite.

     Luke captured God's nature and spirit in a meaningful way when he wrote: 

God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth. God does not live in temples made by human hands. Nor does God need anything that we can supply by working for him, since it is God himself who gives life, breath, and everything else to everyone.  (Acts 17:24f)

    Clearly what comes out of God is the complete nature of God's spirit.  When we have our lives centered in knowing that we are an angel-in-the-flesh, what comes out of us will be the result of that knowledge.  Those of us who can deliver a presence that is filled with compassion and love, even in the midst of circumstances filled with the misguided behavior of others, can easily feel as sent missionaries when we enter settings that normal people would avoid.

     One morning Dr. Clarence Forsberg of the University Hospital in Chicago was reading the Tribune newspaper.  He was in charge of the Department of Internal Medicine for the Hospital. The front-page story depicted the tremendous riots that were taking place in the city streets of Chicago the day following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.  A series of photographs captured the confrontation between angry mobs and those trying to maintain order.

     While sipping his coffee as he did every morning, he was shaking his head in disbelief that the anger of people had reached such a level where they were destroying businesses that were serving them.  Suddenly, Dr. Forsberg noticed something unusual in one of the pictures.  He went to the offices of the Tribune and asked the staff to enlarge one of the pictures for him.   They gladly complied with his request.

In the middle of the front-page pictorial of those nightmarish events, he had noticed someone dressed in a white coat with a medical bag kneeling beside an injured person lying in the street.  The enlarged photograph clearly revealed that this figure was one of Dr. Forsberg's students who was giving first aid to a victim of the riots.  That intern had entered the fray as a volunteer whose desire was to be helpful to those being injured by the rage of others. 

     That young intern had no idea that someone would be taking a picture, a picture that would be used for years by Dr. Forsberg to instruct countless medical students that were about to assume their new identity as healers.  That one picture spoke volumes and placed the form, depth, and substance of the Hippocratic Oath into the minds of his students.  

     When Dr. Forsberg spoke to that intern later that week he asked, "How did you maintain your calm in the midst of what was going on around you?"  The intern said, "My focus was on helping a man who had head trauma.  I do not remember anything that was happening around me."  

     We do not need to know the meaning of anything that is happening around us before we show up as an angel.  We may not know what to do or even what to think or say. Yet, we show up out of our desire to be a presence.  We should not be surprised when the right words just flow through us during those moments.   

     Try to imagine Jesus hanging on the cross in agony while he was dying.   His horrible death on the cross would become like Dr. Forsberg's intern.  Jesus hanging on the cross would become an image that would be used by the Church throughout its history to demonstrate to future followers of Jesus what love and forgiveness look like.  

     This was his message from the cross.  The Church has not been clear on this message. Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins.  Forgiveness is never about those who are being forgiven. He died demonstrating what the saving energies that love and forgiveness had created in him.  His image is an invitation to his followers both present and way into the future to do the same with their lives.  Doing so is what saves us from falling under the spell created by the material world.

     What was within Jesus was coming out of him in numerous ways while he was dying: To a thief he said, "Today, you will be with me in paradise."  To the world he said, "Father, forgive them.  They have no idea what they are doing."

     The quality of our inner world is always on display. When we remember who we are and allow what is inside of us to show up, God will do the rest.  After listing examples of the many remarkable qualities that can spill out of us, the Apostle Paul wrote, "There is no law against these qualities." (Galatians 5:22f)

     We cannot legislate or mandate for everyone the qualities of being an angel. Such qualities come out of us when we choose to let them show up.  Jesus used average men who could not read or write to be his representatives to pass on the torch light of his teachings.  The good news is that we are loved in spite of  who we have become.  This is what angels willingly give to others.



Thank you, God, for your kind and gentle spirit.  You know each of us and understand how easily we become distracted.  We know that your love surrounds us, but we tend to trust the aspects of life that we can see and understand. We trust our relationships with friends.  We trust our financial health that prevents us from living in poverty.  We know well the tension of living spiritual lives in a material world. Thank you for creating us with hearts that heal, with spirits that remain resilient, with faces that can smile and with memories that remind us that your love comes in many forms.  The beauty of your love and your world encourages us to grow and feel alive.  Amen.



Loving God, we thank you for these moments together.  We thank you for the wisdom from the Scriptures that tell us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things we cannot see.  Yet, how many times we have strong reactions because of what we can see. Our thoughts are kind, until the words of others hurt us. We remain faithful to what we believe until a major inconvenience or tragedy intrudes into our lives. We love without counting the cost until that cost becomes a steady diet of having to tolerate people whose values are more self-serving than ours.  Every one of us still has so much to learn.

This morning as so many students, principals, and teachers return to their schools, we are reminded that Jesus was a teacher who influenced billions of people during the thousands of years since his three-year ministry ended. During our years of education, we found our horizons expanding until our vocational interests came into view.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we bring to mind those who build our homes, pave our highways, string electrical cable like Charlie DeSilva did for years, maintain our farms that supply us with fresh eggs like Tony Buckley did for years, bring us the news of unfolding events, fight fires, maintain social order, drive our trucks, attend to our medical needs, feed our souls, teach our children, fly our aircraft, and take refuse to the dump that we have discarded.  Lord, the list is endless.

May we welcome the thought, that everyone who becomes a fiber in the fabric of our society is precious and needed for everything to work as a harmonious community.  Regardless of our beliefs, all of us find ourselves doing what Jesus asked, "Serve one another."  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .