by Rev. Daniel J. Webster
“There will never be peace between nations until there is peace among religions. And there will never be peace among religions until there is dialogue between them.” Words attributed to Hans Kung, the great theologian.
As we sit here this morning our country is at war. In this war the word “God ” has been thrown about by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Those who have brought terror upon our homeland claim a version of a religion that justifies their actions.
Some in this country have claimed God is taking away His protective shield from America because of our sins. While those statements have been subsequently followed with apologies they are rooted in a belief in a God who would act this way, a God who would reign down such unspeakable horror on God’s own people. You can find such actions attributed to God in our scripture, the great flood is just one example.
The Bible is full of stories, images, metaphors, and messages that have been used throughout the centuries to justify outrageous, unspeakable horror. Slavery, oppression of women, homophobia, genocide, child abuse, murder, all have been committed in the name of God because someone found something in the Bible to justify it.
It is a frightening thing that we are still confronted in this day and age with people who will attribute to God such horrible actions and events in this world as a consequence of their idea of our country’s moral behavior.
Literal interpretation, or better yet, perverted interpretation of anyone’s holy scripture to serve ones own prejudice, fear or bigotry is the absolute personification of evil in our world.
Paul Tillich, the late 20th century theologian, was lecturing in Chicago. Afterwards, as the story goes, a young and restless student approached him nervously clutching his Bible and said, “Dr. Tillich, do you or do you not believe that this Bible is the holy word of God?” “Yes,” said Tillich, “if it grasps you. No, if you grasp it.”
Our reading from Timothy today says the aim of our lives now is “godliness combined with contentment.” The Greek word for “godliness” here is “eusebeia,” sometimes translated as “piety.” It can also be translated as “religion.”
How we govern ourselves as a church has nothing to do with religion if our governance does not feed the gospel. If our human organization does not empower us to build up the Beloved Community of God here on earth then we ought to close the doors.
Religion conjures up so many reactions, images and stories in people. It can bring up stories about such things as diocesan convention. Some may ask what that ultimately has to do with religion. My answer is: Nothing. How we govern ourselves as a church has nothing to do with religion if our governance does not feed the gospel. If our human organization does not empower us to build up the Beloved Community of God here on earth then we ought to close the doors. We become just another human institution with rules and regulations that happens to have a cross on top of our buildings and on our walls.
Last April, I attended the first ever conference of the Progressive Religious Partnership in Washington, DC. It was convened by the Rev. George Regas, former rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena, and the People for the American Way Foundation. That group was one of those named by Jerry Falwell as having been partly responsible for God allowing the attacks on September 11. The conference brought together clergy and lay people together to talk about social justice, the government’s faith-based initiative, school vouchers and more.
We were all inspired by the Rev. Dr. Charles Adams, pastor, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Detroit. His words from six months ago have a chilling ring today.
“There’s an old black spiritual that asks the question ‘Is you got good religion?’ Not just is you got religion, but is it any good? There’s a whole lot of dangerous, bad, sick religion in the world.
“Bad religion is worse than no religion. There’s not an evil cause in the world that has not been sponsored by somebody’s sick, perverted, bad, hateful religion.”
“Bad religion can make you hard, cold, mean and insensitive. Bad religion is worse than no religion. There’s not an evil cause in the world that has not been sponsored by somebody’s sick, perverted, bad, hateful religion. Bad religion spawned the military crusades… bad religion set up the inquisitions to enforce religious conformity… bad religion murdered the Anabaptists, burned Joan of Arc at the stake… bad religion took apartheid to South Africa; brought slavery to America, fostered segregation, bigotry and exploitation; organized the Ku Klux Klan; generated the Nazi party; created the Moral Majority; produced Jim Jones, Jimmy Bakker, Jimmy Swigart, Jerry Falwell and David Koresh… bad religion assassinated Mahatma Gandhi; murdered Anwar Sadat; slew Indira Gandhi; cut up Lebanon; destroyed Iran; devastated Iraq… that’s why grandma asked, ‘Do you got good religion?’
“Bad religion takes life. Good religion gives life. Bad religion destroys folk. Good religion liberates folk. Bad religion talks about national defense, but good religion talks about national purpose… bad religion divides folks, good religion unifies folks; bad religion makes you hate folks, good religion makes you love everybody; bad religion segregates, good religion integrates; bad religion stays in the church, good religion breaks loose in the world; bad religion hangs around the altar, good religion walks down the Jericho Road; bad religion accentuates the love of power, good religion lifts up the power of love.
“Bad religion is shaped like a spurious pole that tries reaching up to God without reaching out to anybody. But good religion is shaped like a cross with a vertical beam that reaches up to God for power and with the horizontal arms it reaches out to people with love and goodness and joy and peace and justice. Is you got good religion?”
That’s our choice. What kind of religion will we Episcopalians offer our communities? The writers of Timothy say we are to fight the good fight of faith. That fight is a good fight if it is in keeping with the Spirit of God’s word, not the letter. We can do that if we are living witnesses to good religion.
We do that by the way we treat one another; our spouses, partners, children, friends, co-workers, students, deacons, priests, bishops, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, Mormons. We can spread good religion. We can preach the Spirit of the word of God by the way we live and invite others to help us build the Beloved Community of God that is inclusive of everyone…everyone. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel J. Webster is Director of Communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. A media producer with background in television and radio, he has served churches in Utah and California since his ordination to the clergy. This sermon was offered at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Logan, Utah, on September 30, 2001 using the following reading: 1 Timothy 6:6(c)19