Tuesday, 02 March 2010 16:38

February 28, 2010 Sermon

“Religion: A Force for Good?”
Luke 10:25-37
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 28, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Is religion a force for good?  Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and others would say no.  Just look at the crusades.  Look at Al Qaida.  Look at the brutality of then Incas.  Look at the holocaust.  Look at how whites misused the Bible to support the slave trade.  Look at how people misused the Bible to put down women and deny them rights.  Look at the way the Bible is used these days to deny rights and dignity to the LGBT community.  All of this would seem to say that religion is not a source of good.  In fact, it seems too much evil has been done in the name of God or Allah for there to be any good news.

Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, “the persecutions of the roman empire against Christians were feeble and occasional as compared with the zeal of the Inquisition.  It takes religion to put a steel edge on social intolerance.  Just because it is so high and its command of social loyalty so great, it is pitiless when it goes wrong.”  Not only that, but “Estimate the harm which the exponents of religion have done simply by suppressing the prophetic minds who had received from God fresh thought on spiritual and intellectual problems, and by cowing those who might have followed the prophets.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917 pp. 249, 250)  Can religion be a force for good?

The Pew Research Center implies that young people are beginning to agree that religion is not a force for good, or at least is not as good as it once was.  If you measure church attendance, the number of Millenials, those born after 1980, actively involved in church is much less than previous generations.  Pew reported, "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5-6 times the historic rate (30-40 percent have no religion today versus 5-10 percent a generation ago)."

And yet, Pew also says that these “spiritual but not religious” people are devoted to God.  In fact, they have the same level of belief in God as previous generations.  The difference is that they are distrustful of religious institutions.   The Pew researchers found: "Youth's religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics."

Back in 2002, Berkeley professors Michael Hout and Claude Fischer wrote that
in the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion." (from Politics Daily Jeffrey Weiss, Contributor “Young Adults Doing Religion on Their Own? Blame It on Politics” 2/25/10)

Is religion a force for good?

Or like Marx said, it is the opiate of the people, putting us to sleep and helping us to ignore the real problems of the world.  Nick Coleman wrote in the Star Tribune today that the governor said that God is on his side and that God runs the show.  If you invoke God, Coleman mused, is it something that people argue about, or is it a sound byte that removes you from responsibility?  Coleman also quoted last week’s Forum speaker Brian Rusche who reminded us that scripture tells us over and over and over again that we are to help the poor.  This seems to be another voice of God that refuses to be asleep as long as people of faith hear it and act on it.

Is religion a force for good?

It depends upon what the followers of religion do.

Believe it or not, religious folks do do good.

Most liberation movements that have been successful have been rooted in religion.

Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement was an intensely religious movement.

The abolitionist movement had its sources in the church.

The Civil Rights Movement formed in the Black church and had religion as its soul.

The Black Power movement of Malcolm X and others had its roots in the best parts of Islam.

The liberation theologians of Latin America reframed religion in a way that unmasked its true nature as a force for Good.

Jesus claimed to bring Good news to the poor.  Recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to declare the acceptable year of God’s favor—a land reform—a year of jubilee where all debts are settled, all slaves are freed, all land is returned to its rightful owner and there is reconciliation in the land.  That’s the true nature of religion.

But we have a tendency to move away from that ideal, don’t we?  Evil has such a tremendous power over us.  It uses religion in a way that mocks the good works that others do.  In the book of Revelation, the Beast—Satan’s spokesman, uses all of the language of the Lamb—Jesus.  The Beast seduces the people into thinking that they are being righteous while following the Beast.  The Beast appropriates the language of the Lamb and the people say, “Who is like the Beast?”  Only those with eyes to see and ears to hear see through this façade.  The church is the one that encourages people to persistently resist the Beast, bear the faithful witness and be of good cheer.  That’s what the church is for.  It’s for being a force for good in a land and a time when the religion seems like the enemy.

Walter Raushcenbusch called religious bigotry an evil that killed Jesus.  Writing before the holocaust, and at the time of the Russian revolution, he was saying that we need to watch out how we demonize those of other religions.

“Jesus was killed by ecclesiastical religion”, said Rauschenbusch.  “He might have appeared in almost any highly developed nation and suffered the same fate.  Certainly after religion bore his name, there were a thousand situations in which he would have been put to death by those who offered salvation in his name.  Innumerable individuals contribute their little quota to make up this collective evil, and when once the common mind is charged with it, it gets innumerable outlets.  This sin, then, was borne by Jesus, not by imputation, nor by sympathy, but by direct experience.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, 1917 pp. 250)

The question for us is, are we implicated?

Do we unwittingly participate in religious bigotry?

It is before the political backdrop of religion-influenced evil that Jesus gave his most politically charged parable.  The Good Samaritan.  It’s not so charged because it’s about helping someone out.  It’s charged because it exposes the unconscious religious and cultural judgmentalism to which we are all subjected.

You know the story, a good upstanding citizen, a lawyer even, asked Jesus how to interpret the law as it pertains to neighbors.  What is the jurisdiction for neighbor-love.  What if we live next door to people whom we don’t particularly like.  What if those people want our land?  What if they don’t do the rituals of religion in the right way.  We are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But you just mean the neighbors in our tight community, right?  The ones in our club, right?  The ones who do religion like us, who vote like us, who walk and talk and dress like us.  Those are our real neighbors, right?  That’s who we’re talking about.  Ain’t it?

That’s when Jesus lays into him.  But he does so by painting a picture of his neighborhood.  Jesus tells the story of someone who was beaten and left for dead.  Two religious leaders passed him by with lots more important things to do.  It was a Samaritan who helped him out.  A foreigner, an enemy, someone we have learned not to trust.  Samaritans were people of the Hebrew lineage, but they followed a slightly different holy book.  They had once been friends, even family with the Hebrew people.  But over the years, they had ended up with the wrong alliances.  They recognized a different temple.  The Samaritans saw their temple in Shechem while the Jews had their temple in Jerusalem.  Centuries before, the Samaritans made a strategic alliance with the Assyrians, enemies of the Judeans of the Southern Kingdom.  Ever since, they had been suspect people that good Jews learned to stay away from.  Their religion became a convenient excuse for their strategic history.

And yet, Jesus lifts up this foreigner with the wrong religion as someone who is the best model of faithful Judaism.

We’re supposed to love our neighbor, and here’s the rub: not like religious people do.  We’re supposed to do it surprisingly, the way even our enemies have the capacity to do—with exuberance, without hope of return, without hope of repayment.  Jesus is being rather uppity here.  And he’s trying to make a point.  We show God’s love, God’s real love, by loving our enemies—by remembering that all people are our neighbors, even those who drive us nuts are our neighbors and deserve our respect.

Do you notice how there is no call for conversion on the part of the Samaritan or the person who was left for dead?  The core of religion, demonstrates Jesus, is how we take care of people, whether they are from our religion, our nation, our church or not.

I’m reminded of the story of the Spanish missionary who went to evangelize amongst the Aztecs.

He came across three Aztec priests.

“How do you pray?” asked the priest.

“We have only one prayer, “ answered one of the Aztecs. “We say: “God, You are three, we are three. Have mercy on us.”

“Beautiful prayer,” said the missionary. “But it is not exactly the prayer that God hears. I shall teach you a much better one.”

The priest taught them a longer prayer:  “our father who art in heaven…” He then went on his way to spread the Gospel among others. Years later, on the ship taking him back to Spain, he stopped at that island once more. From the deck he saw the three holy men on the beach – and waved farewell to them.

At that moment the three began to walk on the water towards him.

“Father! Father!” shouted one of them, approaching the ship. “Teach us again the prayer that God hears, because we can’t remember it!”

“It doesn’t matter,” said the missionary, seeing the miracle. And he asked God to forgive him for not understanding before that God spoke all languages.”  (From By the River Piedra, I sat down and Wept by Paulo Cuelho, 1997—preface)

Is religion a force for good?  It depends upon what the followers of religion do.  Already we have seen over $1 million given by American Baptists to the struggling people of Haiti.  That’s religion doing good.

Now that another horrible earthquake has hit Chile and the waves lap at the shores of the Pacific Islands, we will have yet another chance to be known by our love and generosity.

We at UBC give over 20% of our resources to help thos less fortunate than ourselves.  Our very building is a big piece of this.  Many groups use it and it has become a community resource of hope and welcome.

But religion is more than about charity.  It’s also about justice.  It’s about remembering that God is on the side of the poor and forgotten, and this knows no national nor religious boundaries.

I had the chance to testify at a hearing about marriage rights at the capital this past week as they discussed three bills in committee expanding marriage rights for all.  I was given the opportunity to say:

“I serve alongside the good people at University Baptist Church.  We are one of about five thousand churches who have declared ourselves welcoming and affirming of all people regardless of sexual orientation.  The movement of inclusion is a growing one amongst religious people.  It is a growing movement because it taps the deepest roots of our scripture-based religion.  Jesus always stood with the outcast and always embraced inclusion and mutuality.  We believe that Jesus rejoices when people commit themselves to one another in love.  We believe that the clear teaching of scripture is that people are to love one another.  We see nothing in scripture to deny rights to people of the same gender who love each other.  In fact, scripture is silent on homosexuality as we know it today.  What scripture is very clear about is the call for justice, compassion, mercy and rights for all people--especially those deemed by religion or society as an outcast.  We know other people in this room do not interpret scripture as we do.  And yet our state seems to have codified one interpretation of scripture into its laws by denying marriage rights to same-gender couples.  This seems to us to be a violation of the freedom of religion.  We long for the day when all people will be able to have their marriages honored not just by their inclusive churches and synagogues, but by the great state of Minnesota.”

I like to think that is religion is a force for good.

I see people in churches set free as they realize that Christ is on the side of the oppressed and outcast, that God wants us to be healthy and merciful and hopeful in a world of hatred, mistrust and me-firstism.  If we can harness that power, then religion is a force for good.

Hear this, religious bigotry is against everything that God commands in the Christian scriptures.  What Jesus shows us from the welcoming of the outcasts to the call to love our enemies to the story of the Good Samaritan is the fact that true character and true Christianity is about love and respect for all people.  It’s about understanding even the people with a differing belief system as our neighbors.  And if they are our neighbors, we are to treat them like we would want to be treated—which means not trying to kill them anymore, wouldn’t that be a good start?

Being against religious bigotry is not the same things as saying anything goes or that all religions are equal.  It’s saying that we can disagree without being hostile.  We can have our own belief system but we shouldn’t be forcing our belief system down another’s throat.  That is the shadow side of belief.  It’s the temptation to be so zealous in our belief that we think that our faith is the best for everyone.  And if we believe that then we are a stone’s throw away from forcing people to believe one way.

The hard thing is not fighting religious bigotry out there.  It’s fighting the temptation in our own selves to make snap judgments upon someone based up on their religion.  I’m like that.  I’ll hear someone’s a Baptist and I’m automatically suspicious.  I find I need to find out what kind of Baptist.  Part of that is self-protection.   And yet, it does no good if it impedes the way we can help out our neighbors.

When the church is at its best, it takes a cue from the story of the Good Samaritan.  It helps out those in need.  It doesn’t care what they believe.  It doesn’t try to convert.  It help them and that is the powerful force.  It’s what true belief is all about.  It’s that force that we have at our fingertips.  The church exists for mission, for helping our neighbors.  And if we do that, heck we might even grow.  Eschewing religious bigotry and embracing acceptance, inclusion and mission is what it’s all about.  And if we do that, then religion is not a source, but the source of good.