I received this nice mailing the other day (a health-related mailing from a health-care provider). You have probably received one like it, I’m sure, from your insurance company or a local health care provider. Every week I receive information about how to remain healthy. In the mailbox, in my email, through social media – I am inundated with ways in which I can look after my physical health. Isn’t it nice that people worry enough about us to encourage us to take care of our health? And, as I have aged, I certainly do pay much more attention to my health than I did in years past.
Do you ever wish there was as much attention paid to our spiritual health? It is very important to consider our spiritual health, and that is our topic for this week, specifically, the damage that can be done by unhealthy religion.
I’ve been thinking about this message for a while – The Danger of Unhealthy Religion. I was originally working on this topic for another piece of writing, something that eventually will be much longer, and decided to try and condense it down into a Sunday message.
Our Scripture text this morning comes from Luke 14:1-15, a passage in which Jesus encounters, as he did far too often, unhealthy religion. When we read through the gospels we find many expressions of unhealthy religion, mostly emanating from the usual cast of characters – the scribes, Pharisees, and religious leaders in the time of Jesus. On this particular occasion, Jesus confronts the unhealthy religion before anything is even said. Much of the time, Jesus was confronted by the verbal abuse of these individuals; on this day, Jesus responded to it before his critics said a word.
1 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.
2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body.
3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”
4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?”
6 And they had nothing to say.
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:
8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.
9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.
11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.
13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,
14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
I should begin by offering a definition for unhealthy religion. Unhealthy religion is any religious expression that uses manipulation, shame, fear, or judgment; it builds walls of separation instead of tearing down the barriers between people; and it is expressed in anger, judgmentalism, dogmatism, and legalism. It trades in mistrust of others, is skeptical of anyone who is different, and is always searching for someone to condemn. Pick almost any other negative adjective and you can apply it to unhealthy religion.
Those unhealthy expressions, which we have all witnessed or experienced, tear apart congregations and in the process hurt many people. It is no wonder, I have sometimes thought, that some people decide to give up on church and religion, as they are so hurt and so disillusioned by the abuses of unhealthy religion that they believe the only alternative is to give up on church – and sometimes even faith – completely. What a tragedy!
It was not at all unusual for Jesus to have encounters with unhealthy religion. In today’s passage he is invited to dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees, and Luke immediately points out that Jesus was being carefully watched (verse 1). That is one of the elements of unhealthy religion – watching, with the hope that there will be a reason to be critical and condemning. It was obvious to Jesus that the Pharisees were watching with that intention and, anticipating their criticism, he took action to counter their unhealthy religion. Knowing what was in their hearts he asked them if one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out? (verse 5).
You can almost hear the frustration in his voice, as Jesus expresses amazement that the dogmatic, unhealthy religion of the Pharisees would find fault with healing or helping. Who in their right mind would be critical of someone being healed or helped, even if it were on the Sabbath day? But the unhealthy religion of the Pharisees insisted on clinging to their legalistic views, believing such an action would violate the commands of God.
Though we don’t use the name Pharisee in an official sense today, their unhealthy spiritual ancestors are alive and well. Listen for the angry, condemning, judgmental, and fearful voices that shout from houses of worship and from religious people, and you will find that the spirit of the Pharisees is, unfortunately, alive and well. In my conversations with skeptics of religion, it is often mentioned that religion is a negative and destructive force in our world. Now, I certainly do not agree with that point of view, but I think it is obvious that some unhealthy expressions of religion so exist in our world today. Religions – all religions – have among some of their adherents those who express an unhealthy view of faith. There are several events in recent history that have caused some people to view religion negatively, and I believe we must both acknowledge and address them.
1. Religion and violence.
We’ve all heard people say that religion has caused all the wars and violence in human history, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. I do not believe that religion causes violence, but I do believe that violent people grab hold of certain tenants of religion to justify their use of violence. When religious people use violence to further their causes it’s effect is to make people look askance at religion, whether it be from the bombing of abortion clinics to the troubles in Northern Ireland to the jihadist mentality that has brought harm to so many.
It is of critical importance that we condemn violence, especially when done in the name of God. In the Christian faith there is no justification for violence, and this is borne out by the words of Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount. The gospels are the heart of the Scriptures, and the Sermon On the Mount is the heart of the gospels, and the words of Jesus about loving our enemies is the heart of the heart of the heart, as he says in Matthew 5:43-48 – 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
These verses represent the core ethic of our faith, which is a love for people that excludes violence.
2. Scandals among religious leaders and televangelists.
I heard someone say once, and I initially thought they must be joking – but they weren’t – that all ministers were wealthy and all of them were after nothing more than money. That is so far from the reality. Most ministers are poorly paid and make significant financial sacrifices to serve as vocational ministers. Most churches are small and unable to pay ministers very much money, and many ministers serve bivocationally in order to contribute an adequate amount to their family’s household income. I have been there. I’m not there now, and I am very grateful that this church treats me more than fair.
But the caricature of the televangelist with his hand in a wallet has been, in some cases, far too accurate. And when we see reports of them flying in one of their multi-million dollar private jets, pictures of one of their mansions, and see them adorned with very expensive clothes and jewelry, bought and paid for by the sacrificial tithes and offerings of others, it is nothing short of scandalous and offensive. And when we hear reports of their personal failings, with members of their staffs or congregations, it only drives home the point to some people that they are representative of all leaders, and all ministers, and all religious people.
I want you to know that I have nothing to do with the finances of this church. I do not handle the money in any way. My name is not on any of our church’s bank accounts. I cannot write or sign a check (it’s actually a lot like home!). Furthermore, I do not know what anyone gives, and I do not want to know. I do not know how to access that information and I can guarantee you that I never will.
I understand that I am in a position of leadership and the manner in which I conduct my life is very important. I do not take that seriously, and I do my best to conduct myself in a way that seeks to avoid any embarrassment to the kingdom of God or to this church.
3. The abuse scandal of the Catholic Church.
I have a relative who told me he was not interested in giving another dime to church or attending church because of that terrible tragedy. There is no other way to frame that scandal except to say it is unfathomable in the pain it caused and in the way it was handled by the church hierarchy. There is simply no excuse for the way in which the Church covered up that abuse and resisted efforts to deal with it.
That’s not to be a critic of the Catholic Church overall, but it is a critique of what institutional religion sometimes does – it protects the institution, even if it brings harm to individuals. That’s what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did. Remember what Pilate said in John 11:50 – Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish. They were willing for individuals to suffer in order to preserve and protect their power and privilege.
The tragedy of abuse extends even further than the Catholic Church. Several years ago, in response to cases of abuse in Southern Baptist churches, it was recommended to begin a database of abusers so churches could have the information and put in places layers of protect to guard against the perpetrators. The vote failed.
In Disciples churches we have “standing.” As ordained ministers in the Disciples tradition, David and I are required to maintain our standing by meeting particular requirements. That standing is renewed each year, and every so many years we are required, among other things, to take a boundaries class, part of which deals with the ethical ways in which we are expected to deal with members of our congregation and community. “Standing” is our Region’s “good housekeeping” seal of approval. If, however, I commit and unethical action, such as misappropriating church money or other actions, I will lose my standing and every Disciples church in North America will know not to have any dealings with me.
Now, allow me to make a few further statements –
1. Unhealthy religion comes from unhealthy people.
All of us have our issues, don’t we? And, sadly, we sometimes bring those issues into our religious expressions. That’s one reason why I believe a very individualistic approach to faith is not healthy. Some people say we don’t need to be involved in a church or any organized religious expression. I very much disagree, because we can’t do this very well on our own; we need others who will help us to see ourselves for who we are, who will help us to see and understand our shortcomings, and will help us to bring healing to our lives.
The goal of Disciples’ churches is to be a movement of wholeness in the world. We are so broken and fragmented as people, we are, as Paul writes in II Corinthians 4, earthen vessels or jars of clay. We are fragile people, easily damaged and broken, and in our fragility and our brokenness we can bring unhealthiness to our religious expressions.
2. Unhealthy religion uses unhealthy methods.
People don’t always relate to one another in healthy ways, and that can be transferred into our religious expressions as well. Jesus certainly faced this from those who followed him around and constantly criticized him. Over the years I’ve had people ask me to be tougher on them, to yell at them and step on their toes. That is so not me. I know some churches have more of that approach, but people do not need to be yelled at, as that is not a healthy method, in my opinion.
Neither is guilt, which is often used as a motivator. Sadly, churches sometimes lean on people with guilt. Guilt is a harmful and destructive force that people too often use to get what they want out of people. I do not like guilt, and I hope I never use it to try and manipulate people. I prefer conviction, which is a healthy appeal to people to order their lives in a manner that is in keeping with their core beliefs and values. I believe there is a difference between conviction and health. Conviction is a healthy emotion and motivator; guilt is one that is destructive and negative.
3. God seeks to make us who and to heal our brokenness.
In John’s gospel we find a story in which Jesus asks a very strange question. The story is found in John 5:1-15 and takes place at the pool of Bethsaida –
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” 7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” 8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, 10 and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” 11 But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” 12 So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” 13 The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.
Did you notice that odd question that Jesus asked – Do you want to get well (verse 6)? Isn’t that a strange question? But the reality is that sometimes we don’t want to get well. We hold to our insecurities and our struggles, even though we don’t like them, because we are familiar with them and because we know how to function with them. Changing, even for the better, can be very scary, so we continue in our unhealthiness. But God wants to bring healing and wholeness to us. We must open up our hearts, our lives, and our minds to the healing power of God!
I am grateful that I received this mailing, as it does help me to think about my health. But I also know that is not enough; I must be vigilant about my spiritual health as well, as you must, and as our church must.