The Correct Way to Get Closer to God?

September 17, 2017              15th Sunday in Pentecost

Exodus 14:19–31        Romans 14:1–12         Matthew 18:21–35

There is a neat Buddhist parable that I would like to share with you. There was once a Buddhist Sage, a really wise, wonderful, and loving teacher. One day he heard about a hermit monk who had lived in solitude for many years, and he thought, “This man must have so much knowledge. I must go and meet him.” So the Sage traveled to see the Monk who lived in a cave, on the other side of a great lake. The Sage persuaded a local fisherman to row him across the lake, and there was the Monk, sitting in a cave, by the lake, chanting OM MADI PADME HUM. (This is the simplest prayer in Buddhism. It’s like our: Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord, have mercy)

The Sage and the Monk greeted each other, talked about their faith, and then the Sage asked the Monk, “How do you meditate and pray?” The Monk replied, “I have only ever chanted OM MADI PADME HUM all these years.” “Oh, how simple, how wonderful,” said the Sage. “But if I may, you are not pronouncing it quite right. May I teach you the correct pronunciation?” And the Monk said, of course, that he wanted to learn the correct pronunciation. So the Sage taught it to him, and then they said goodbye, and the Sage got back in the boat and the fisherman started to row him back across the lake. In the middle of the lake the Sage thought, “I am so glad that I was able to teach him the correct pronunciation, because now he will be able to obtain great knowledge and wisdom.” Suddenly the Monk was standing by the Sage outside of the boat! “Please, Reverend Sage, will you teach me the pronunciation again, I don’t feel that I have it quite right yet.” The Sage was so startled that he said, “I think you have the right pronunciation anyway.” “Thank you and bless you,” said the Monk, and then turned and walked back across the lake, on the top of the water, to his cave.

The story is meant to teach us not to get so hung up on the “correct” way to do things. There is nothing wrong with doing things a certain way to develop your spirituality, but it doesn’t mean that your way is the ONLY way to get closer to God.

Isn’t that the purpose of a prayer, to get closer to God? Isn’t that the purpose of a hymn, to get closer to God? Isn’t that the purpose of a fast, or a worship service, to get closer to God? What does it matter if we pray with different accents or languages; or use different melodies for our hymns; or if I choose a different fast from you; or if the candles we use are a different color than the church down the road; or if someone brings in a different bread for communion? What matters is: That we learn about God, and are reminded about God, and bring ourselves out into the world and live with God in our hearts and in our actions.

If you read Paul’s letters he can seem to be very arrogant and preachy sometimes. But if you keep in mind that most of his letters were written to churches which were trying to figure out how to be churches then the tone of the letters changes. You realize that he is answering questions about the things in churches that people were getting hung up about. Paul starts out this section of our scripture by saying: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

I can just imagine that Paul was getting letters, or delegates of people, who were coming to him with complaints of: They don’t say the prayers in the right order. Their hymns are different from ours, and we don’t want to sing them. They don’t fast on the same days we do. They don’t eat the same things we do. We do things our way and we don’t want these people in our church unless they do things the way we want them to.

Paul is trying to get people to understand that it is the intention of honoring God that is important, not the minutia of how the honoring is done. In worship when anyone prays, or sings, or fasts, or gives thanks for what they have been given, they are making an offering to God. Our entire worship service is an offering to God, not just our tithes and offerings.

What is it that we say in our communion service? We ask God to make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world – that means that our daily ministry, our actions in the world, are offerings to God given in the name of Christ and His Love. The third commandment is: To love others as Christ has loved us. Love is an action whereby we show our feelings of love, and we can make every action of love an offering to God.

And these actions don’t need to be huge. Make cookies or a dinner for someone who needs it. Drive someone to the store who can’t drive. Smile at the waitress and say thank you when she brings you your coffee. Every little act of kindness is an offering to God. Paul wanted to get people to see that just because people don’t do things the way you might do them, or have them completely “right” according to your standards, does not make the offering to God wrong. It is God who accepts the offering not you.

Now of course sometimes we are going to try to do something for someone and instead of it being an act of GRACE (a generous, renewing action of care everlasting) we make a mistake and end up spontaneously or systemically inflicting negativity on people.  Come on, we’re human, not divine and omniscient, so we mess up. And this is the point where forgiveness comes into play.

Peter wanted to confirm with Jesus that he should forgive someone seven times, which was considered to be the standard amount to forgive someone. If you needed to forgive them because they did something for the eighth time you didn’t have to forgive them anymore and you could stay mad at them. (Seven was the traditional number used for divinity so if you had forgiven someone seven times that meant that you had been acting in a holy manner.) But Jesus turns around and challenges Peter to forgive someone: Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Seventy-seven times is my Bible’s translation but some translations have also written seventy times seven, which would mean 490 times. That’s a lot of times to forgive.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t point out to the person that they are committing an act of negativity, or that you don’t fix whatever is wrong in the system. Remember last week’s message about Jesus telling people how to straighten out misunderstandings? Once you realize what the problem is you try to fix things with love, by beginning with forgiving.

Sometimes you have to forgive ignorance, because some people just don’t know what they are doing. Often we learn that their heart was in the right place. Is the offering negated because they were wrong? I don’t think it is with God, and now we have a chance to make our own offering to forgive them and to teach them with love.

Sometimes we need to forgive when we get new information and people are working with out of date information. Again they were just trying to do the best they could, and we can forgive and teach them with love.

Sometimes you have to forgive custom and tradition, because what worked before doesn’t work now, so it’s time to change it. Sometimes you even have to forgive the system itself because the bureaucratic ways of doing things are so entrenched that the only way to keep your sanity, and get through to the other side, is to forgive as you go, get the job done, and hopefully instigate change in or after the process.

But once you forgive you have a broader perspective, and a more open mind, that gives you insight to see that often there isn’t only one way to do something.   Or maybe you’ll see that the situation might call for doing something differently.

The Sage in our story felt that you needed the correct pronunciation of the prayer for it to work so he could get closer to God. I think he was a kind and wonderful teacher, but he let himself get hung up on the minutia and he couldn’t see the holiness of the monk until the monk was standing right in front of him on top of the water. The Monk, who concentrated on the meaning of the prayer, got close to God despite the incorrect pronunciation, because his entire life of prayer was an offering to God.

So here in worship allow everything, the prayers, songs, silence, listening, and tithes be your offering to God. And in your life dedicate all your actions of love to God, and accept and praise actions of love from others, even if your actions or their actions aren’t perfect, as offerings to God. As Paul said, someday we will all stand before the judgment seat of God, and whether we live to God, or die to God, we are the Lord’s.

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About pastorpeg

Hi -- I'm the pastor of the United Methodist Churches in Lakeville and Sharon CT. This blog was created to post my sermons so that people can read them who were not able to come to our worship services (Times of Worship: Lakeville: 9:15 am, Sharon 10:45) or for people who want to review them during the week. I hope you enjoy reading them.
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