Perfect Fear Casts Out Love

Sermon preached March 11, 2012

Text: John 2:13-22

We made a decision at the staff meeting on Tuesday February 28 that if the schools were closed on Wednesday February 29 due to the expected snow storm, we would keep the building closed until noon and then decide about the rest of the day. The schools were closed, so I had more time that morning to read the newspaper. One item tickled my funny bone. It was a weather-related closing. The state tournament sendoff for the Superior High School boys hockey team for today has been cancelled due to the team leaving Tuesday. Seems a pretty good reason for cancelling a pep rally, the team has already left town.
Has religion, the church, an idea of God ever left you feeling empty and alone, alone in the blizzards of life, maybe even created the blizzard? Has religion, the church, an idea of God left you feeling like that? Have they been a burden instead of relieving burdens? Instead of making life more alive and interesting, have these left you feeling more lifeless?
Here are some stories.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He tells the story about an art show the church held a few years ago. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” This story was the initial impetus for Bell to write his book Love Wins (p. 1).
Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, the largest United Methodist Church in the United State tells this story. I was officiating at a graveside funeral for a young man who had taken his own life. The parents were still in shock and experiencing intense grief. In the eulogy and message I sought to help them and all who had gathered to make sense of this terrible tragedy while finding comfort and hope in God. As a part of the service we remembered the unique and special qualities of their son. Following the service a husband and wife – sister and brother-in-law of one of the boy’s parents came to me and asked, “Why didn’t you tell them that their son is in hell today?” Hamilton shared this story in his book When Christians Get It Wrong (7).
A woman I know suffered through one of the most difficult experiences a mother can, her young adult daughter died suddenly while in the hospital. She told a group that as she was sharing her story with another person one time, this other person told her that she probably had not prayed enough, or not prayed just right for her daughter.
Jeri finds herself in the office of a Christian counselor. She was either going crazy or on the verge of a spiritual breakthrough. The counselor asked her what was going on. Well, I went to my pastor a few months ago because I was feeling depressed a lot. He pegged the root problem right away, but I can’t seem to do anything about it…. I guess I would have to say the problem is, well, me. My pastor says I’m in rebellion against God. Apparently Jeri’s pastor, on hearing that she was depressed prescribed memorizing praise verses from the Bible to be repeated over and over again. When that did not help Jeri, she returned to her pastor to let him know that it was not helping. Further she told him that women in her family had some history with depression, that she was having some physical problems, and that things with her husband were not so great. She wasn’t sure his recommendation was what she needed. The pastor had a response. The fact that you won’t accept my counsel without raising all these objections and other possibilities was the major indication to me, Jeri, that your root problem is spiritual, not physical or emotional. When you talked about arguing with your husband, rather than submitting to him and trusting God, that confirmed it. The pastor concluded that Jeri was in rebellion against God, leading Jeri to seek help elsewhere. This anecdote is from a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (17-18).
Renee Alston in her book Stumbling Toward Faith, shares this horrendous story. I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual – and when I say spiritual, I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents… I mean that my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns. (Bell, Love Wins, 7) Perfect fear casts out love.
I know – all these stories are from a Christian context. I am certainly not saying that all awful things that happen in the name of God and religion happen in the name of Jesus or the Christian religion. Each religious tradition has its horror stories. Hindus in India burn Muslims in train car. Muslims in Afghanistan, while perhaps rightly outraged by the desecration of Korans, nevertheless allow their outrage to boil over into murderousness – much to the consternation of many other Muslims. I focus on Christian stories because that is my tradition, our tradition, and it is from that tradition and to that tradition that I speak. It is for that tradition I have some responsibility.
Given these horror stories, is it any wonder that National Public Radio might broadcast a debate entitled “Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?” By the way the debate was held at New York University and prior to the debate, 52% of the audience members agreed that the world would be better off without religion. After the debate, 59% agreed. (NPR, November 21, 2011)
Given such stories, is it any wonder that Daniel Radcliffe, the young actor who played the role of Harry Potter in the highly-successful films might say the following when asked about his religion. I don’t [believe in God]. I have a problem with religion or anything that says, “We have all the answers,” because there’s no such thing as “the answers.” We’re complex. We change our minds on issues all the time. Religion leaves no room for human complexity. (Parade, January 8, 2012)
Perfect fear casts out love.
This Lent our theme has been “journey to and journey through.” Some of what we need to go through on our journey of faith, our spiritual journey, our journey with Jesus, may be religious baggage, scars and wounds left by people who have wielded religious language as a weapon. Many of us have experiences of being hurt or wounded. We have experienced things that have come in the name of God, but that miss the Spirit of God. We have experienced things that have come in the name of Jesus, but without the love of Jesus. If we are to grow in our faith we need to allow ourselves to look at these scars and wound. We need to see where religious language has gotten in the way of a relationship to God instead of facilitating that relationship.
And from where might we get the idea that our journey with Jesus can be helped by questions and critical thinking? How about from Jesus? The story we read this morning is sort of the ultimate in a journey through religious baggage. The story should not be read as a wholesale condemnation of Jewish practice in the time of Jesus, nor in our time. It should be read, I think, as a cautionary tale. Religious language can become hurtful and repressive. Religious concepts can be misused. Religious practices can become life-denying rather than opening us up to the fullness of life. In the story, Jesus recognizes that the tools meant to further the God-life can be misused. His cleansing of the temple is a wonderful symbolic/metaphorical action – it is the journey through religious baggage. It is the willingness to learn and grow and cast off old religious notions that no longer give life or connect with God.
Two quotes and a wrap-up. Kirk Bingamon, a psychologist and theologian, in one of his works writes about “the supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (Freud and Faith, p. 60). In his lectures on religion, Alfred North Whitehead writes that “Religion… runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion” (Religion in the Making)
To see the journey of faith, our journey with Jesus, as a journey through religious baggage is see the importance of growth in faith. It is to understand that there are unhealthy uses of religious language and practice that need to be avoided, and sometimes wounds in our lives from such misuse of religious language and practice – wounds that can be healed more fully. In our journey with Jesus, questions are o.k., even necessary. In our journey with Jesus, critical thinking is, well, critical.
I want to cultivate in my life a passionate and compassionate faith that is also a thoughtful faith, a faith that not only leaves room for human complexity but helps me understand it even better. I want us together to build a community of faith where we hear the stories of hurting people even when their hurt has come from someone claiming to speak in the name of God, of Jesus, and of Christian faith. I want us to be a place where after the temple is cleansed, after we have critically looked at our religious baggage, God’s of love still flows freely and Jesus remains alive and well. I want us to be a place where we can let go of whatever hurtful ideas have come to us in religious garb and embrace God as our companion on the journey. God has already embraced us in Jesus. Amen.