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Sermon for Nov. 8, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Faith and Morality
Matthew 22:23-40

Many religions make many strict requests of their members. This has always been the story for Christianity. For instance, consider the New Destiny Christian Center of the Assemblies of God located in Colorado. New Destiny Christian Center’s goal frightens people into believing in heaven and hell. In 1990, the church created an alternative to the traditional Halloween haunted house. They call it “Hell House” Every Halloween Season guides walk visitors through a building where youth actors depict disturbing scenes in hell. The purpose of Hell House is to save souls – to convert members of the community, specifically teens, into recommitting their lives to Jesus. What started as a small event is now produced around the world. At any given time, one may encounter a Hell House; they are no longer strictly reserved for Halloween. In fact, it can be purchased as an “outreach kit” so it can be performed anywhere at any time. The kit includes a variety of scripted scenes, which depict events as: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the ‘born gay’ lie and died of AIDS;” a “riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” and, a school shooting scene and a “satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice.” The church’s official website (godestiny.org) claims that Hell House, “average[s] a 33% salvation and rededication decision rate” by the end of the “tour.”

The idea is that living a life against Christianity’s ancient morality codes will earn you a personal frying pan in Hell. Accept Jesus, and your life will be turned around. Heaven will be your home. Fail to live your life according to a certain group’s specific morality code, and you are toast. What do you think? Is eternal punishment God’s plan for those who don’t follow the rules? Our question for today is this: Is religion dangerous because it leads people to follow irrational beliefs? Are we supposed to follow biblical laws blindly, or is it OK to realize that moral attitudes change, sometimes for the better? Can it be that morality develops over time, and that religions can develop more humane ways of following God?

Most of our religious moral codes came out of a time called “The Axial Age.” Axial is another word for pivotal, or transformative. The centuries before the life of Jesus were transformative in the ways people thought about religion. Confucianism and Taoism emerged in China. Hinduism and Buddhism were founded in India. Judaism and monotheism began in the Middle East. Philosophy emerged in Greece. Before this time, people thought about the world differently. The world was alive with forces that brought opportunities and threats. It is generally believed that our Stone Age ancestors viewed the powerful forces in their lives as being controlled by spirits or gods. They came to believe that a god, for instance, controlled the gusting wind; a spirit was in the rushing, swirling river; and a fairy swayed the mighty trees. This is called animism—the belief in nature spirits. It is probably the earliest, most universal, and longest lasting theological understanding humans have had.

Around 600-800 years before Christ, religious thinking began to change. It was the beginning of a fresh age of religion. Religious thinkers began to approach their relationship with spirituality differently. They began to ask questions. They began to teach that it is more important how you behave than what you believe. It’s more important to treat people right than to be right. In fact, the Golden Rule comes from the Axial Age. It was firest stated by Confucius in China: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” He said this five centuries before Jesus. The Axial Age began a new form of compassion that came from a very deep place within. People began to understand their connectedness to others. It was also a time of turmoil and social chaos. The message of the Axial Age was to find a place deep within of peace and steadfastness, even when everything around is in turmoil.

I’m giving you this little history lesson because I want us to understand that our religious moral codes are thousands of years old. They were invented during a time when people needed peace, stability, and new ideas. However, as time progresses and societies change, we now have new situations that were not covered in the original codes. Many passages in the Old Testament reflect a tribal mentality that portray God as hating everyone the people of Israel hated. For instance, God’s law justifies the institution of slavery (except for fellow Jews) and defines women as the property of men. Note that even the Ten Commandments tell us “not covet our neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his ox, his donkey, etc.” The neighbor is clearly a male, and the things that we are forbidden to covet are all male possessions. These Hebrew Scriptures, however, also define God as love, justice and as a universal being.

So, there is a lot of current debate about how we should apply these laws for today. Are ancient morality codes supposed to be the basis for all of society’s laws? Are these codes set in stone, or can they be altered to fit our current times? The idea of unchanging, eternal law actually comes from Greek Philosophy. Greeks in the Axial Age believed that perfect truth was eternal. Truth never changes. If you ever took a college psychology course, you might remember the name of Lawrence Kohlberg. He came up with something called the Stages of Moral Development. He wanted to know how children develop a sense of right and wrong. Kohlberg looked to the Greeks to demonstrate how boys and men developed moral standards as they got older. Men, like the ancient Greeks, develop their morality based on unchanging, unbending standards.

Along came another psychologist named Carol Gilligan. She looked at Kohlberg’s research and said, “Hey, he only tested males. Why are the women left out of the research?” She did her own research on the moral development of girls and women and she discovered something very different. While men looked for unchanging standards, women’s moral lives were governed by relationships. Women weighed the cost of their decisions based on how they affected others. For Gilligan’s female subjects, morality was situational and relative.

Maybe this should be true for religion, too. Rather than referring to some unchanging rule, instead of mandating ethics that are unchanging and absolute, perhaps God’s outlook on morality is changing and flexible.

I think Jesus had this kind of change in mind. In today’s reading, Jesus has two conversations with his own religious leaders and law experts. They are trying to trap him. They ask him intricate questions, expecting Jesus to answer according to the strict, eternal code of Jewish Law. Jesus sees the trap. He knows that following the Law is supposed to bring joy and freedom, not oppression. He says to the leaders, “God is for the living, not for the dead. Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” I hear Jesus saying, “Look everyone, following these rules alone does not please God. This life is supposed to be a gift. God is love. If you want to follow God’s lead, then let your lives be defined by love, not law.”

We stand at a moment of great opportunity. Some religious thinkers say that we are in the middle of a second Axial Age. It probably began at the Enlightenment, when society was liberated to use common sense and to question everything. If the first Axial Age was about owning individual beliefs and behavior, this Axial Age that we are now a part of is about global consciousness. It’s about understanding ourselves as part of a global network of people and things, and the earth. It’s about a growing awareness that God is present in us, in others, and in life itself. This second Axial Age is a bringing together of the east and the west. It is a stage for us to draw the best from our tradition but to understand that the moral center of Christian tradition is really no different than the moral center of other religions. Religion is not about judgment, death, and punishment. The core of religious morality is relationship and understanding. The central message of our morality is love.

When American writer Langston Hughes was 12 years old, he was taken to an evangelical revival tent meeting by his auntie, who had prepared him for several weeks before it by saying, “When we go to this meeting you will see Jesus, and when you see Jesus, you will receive him into your heart.” Langston was very excited, waiting for this day when he would finally see Jesus. The night came. He heard an impassioned sermon. The story for that night was the 100 sheep: 99 were saved and there was one who was lost. The preacher came to the end of his talk and shouted out “Do you see the light! Do you see Jesus?” Children scurried to the front of the tent, and received Jesus in their heart -- all except for two young boys, Langston and another boy named Wesley. The two of them huddled together at the back of the tent, Langston upset because he did not see Jesus anywhere. , Meanwhile, Wesley was saying, “Come on, we have to go down in front, this is getting embarrassing.” All the adults gathered around them and prayed for their souls.

Eventually, Wesley said, “I’m out of here!” He went to the front, turned around, and grinned at Langston. Langston thought, “How ironic, this boy is just pretending to be saved, and there is no Jesus here.” Langston sat and withstood the pressure, but eventually ran up to the front and said “Okay, I’m here.” He went home that night and wept in his bed. He thought for sure that Jesus did not exist. He had not seen Jesus. He had just gone down to the front and pretended. Langston Hughes went on to live an inspirational life as a wonderful writer, an activist on issues of racism, someone who knew the heart of the story of Jesus so well. One who had already been saved, and went about liberating others.

Religious morality is dangerous when it is about putting weighty and unreachable expectations on people’s behavior. Religious morality is dangerous when it asks people to be fake in order to please others. Religious morality is dangerous when it creates saved insiders versus unsaved outsiders. Morality should be about liberation. This is all about living authentically, and knowing yourself, and being true to your own perspectives. Of course, we need laws. We need morals. But there should be some guiding principles.

1. Question everything, including everything I say to you. Test everything you hear against your own common sense, your own integrity.

2. It is more important how you behave than what you believe. It is more important to treat people right than to be right.

3. Find that place deep within you that senses its connection with all other things, and practice compassion out of that place.

4. When we are surrounded by chaos, and everything seems to be in turmoil, find a place deep within you that is peaceful and steadfast. When you find that place, you have glimpsed the God within.

Here is the core of our morals: God is every action that you take, every word that you speak. In your actions of compassion toward people, you are no more and no less than showing the presence of God. How marvelous!

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