Healthy and Unhealthy Religion (Sermon Series: Spirituality Checkpoint)



So, the new Archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, is meeting the press in a big time way.  He’s having to answer questions about the $900,000 stolen from the Archdiocese before he came, not on his watch but still in his lap.  Law enforcement investigators along with insiders serving on the financial staff of the Archdiocese think they’ve narrowed down the evidence to point to a single culprit, to one senior level staff person in the hierarchy of the previous Archbishop, Justin Rigali.
Chaput is at pains to stress that the stolen monies came out of general operating funds, not out of the organization’s sacrosanct accounts–no pun intended, such as one account that helps the needy.  Still, nearly a million missing dollars is still a huge hit for almost every religious entity, whether it be a local synagogue/church/mosque, a denominational infrastructure, or a religion-based school.  This kind of act isn’t all that unusual, and yet when one happens a sizable number of people are still shocked.
As soon as this news hit the papers and the airwaves, reporters were all over the place asking people what they thought of such a thing.  One woman responded to the television reporter’s question by saying something like, “Well, of course, I’m shocked, and it makes me ask, ‘Who CAN you trust?’”  You see, there’s a built in respect for almost any religion by many of the people who have respect for religion at all.  Another way of saying what the woman said to the reporter is, “If you can’t trust religious institutions, who can you trust?”  The fact, though, is that the failure of one or a few religious entities doesn’t mean or prove the worthlessness of the whole kitnkaboodle.  One bad apple may spoil the whole barrel of apples provided someone leaves the rotten apple in the barrel long enough to poison the others.  Several flawed religious groups, even a majority of them, still doesn’t mean that they’re all bad including those being staffed by employees who’d steal money from goodhearted, hardworking supporters.
Tough news for more than a few people in our world.  The goodness and trustworthiness of one church doesn’t assure by any means that the church down the road or the church next door will be committed to the same values.  Furthermore, one person can’t be responsible for representing the whole religious organization.  For every person stealing from a synagogue, church, or mosque, there are hundreds or thousands giving for the well-being of the religious organization and those whom it serves.
Still, this most recent negative incident should be a reminder to all of us that religion can be unhealthy; as I said, one person in the group doing what is wrong doesn’t make the whole organization unhealthy.  On the other hand, though, an unhealthy religious organization can produce people within it who do what is wrong because of their association with unhealthy religion.  My key point here is simple enough:  not all religion is healthy religion.
We shouldn’t look at one of religion’s failures, and say, “If you can’t trust religious people, then who CAN you trust?”  The reason we shouldn’t ask a question like that is because unhealthy people are present in both healthy and unhealthy religious organizations and because the most ethical and the least ethical religious organizations are, after all, made up of imperfect human beings.
A question like the one the woman asked in response to the reporter’s question to her reveals that she wants a person or an organization around in whom she can trust, on whom she can depend to be honest and faithful even if she’s not a participant.   Well, I have some good news for that lady and for others who ask the same question, “Who CAN you trust?”
In the United States, citizens polled by the Gallup folks say nurses are the most trustworthy professionals in the land, followed by physicians and pharmacists.  Nurses have topped the list every year beginning in 1999 and into the present except in 2011when, in the aftermath of 9/11, firefighters hit the number one slot.  At the very bottom of the list are politicians–former, present, and future politicians.
When asked specifically about institutions over against individuals, U.S. Americans have the greatest confidence in the military, followed by small businesses, followed by police forces, followed by organized religion.  The medical establishment as a whole is in fifth place.
Even though organized religion is fourth on the list, only 48% of the respondents named it their number 1, while 78% listed the military as the institution in which they most trusted.  Who’s at the bottom of the list?  Again, congress.  One step above congress are HMO’s.  One step above HMO’s on the distrust list is big business, a little less trusted than organized labor and banks.
So, while the woman on the news was genuinely, visibly shaken that someone working for a religious organization is a crook, the poll says, about half of all Americans wouldn’t be surprised at all or surprised just a bit.  If someone, an American, asks you one of these days, “Who CAN you trust?”, you should say, “Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Thirty years ago, clergy were typically listed as the most trusted professionals around, and while we’re still not as low down, I mean as far down on the list as politicians, people like me have to be honest and say that was probably because many people didn’t know then what is more widely known today about historic and contemporary clergy and religious organizations’ scandals.  Religion has been sick, sometimes getting well for a while, off and on since there was organized religion of any type.  Not all religion is healthy.  Not all churches are healthy.  Not all clergypersons are healthy.  When the time comes for you to embrace a religious movement or organization, you absolutely have to–as uncomfortable as that may make you–ease in with a critical eye.  Later in our Gathering, we’ll hear a list of the traits of healthy versus unhealthy religion.
Standup comedian, Emo Phillips, had this story in one of his routines:

“I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge about to jump off so I ran over and said, ‘Stop! Don’t do it!’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he said.
I said, ‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
He said, ‘Like what?’
I said, ‘Well…are you religious or atheist?’ He said, ‘Religious.’
I said, ‘Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
He said, ‘Christian.’
I said, ‘Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?’
He said, ‘Protestant.’
I said, ‘Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’
He said, ‘Baptist!’
I said, ‘Wow! Me too! Are you American Baptist or Southern Baptist?’
He said, ‘American Baptist!’
I said, ‘Die, heretic scum,’ and pushed him off the bridge.”


Jesus was a seriously religious guy, but his approach to religion was extraordinarily healthy.  He was a Jew from birth til death, and the conflicts he had with other Jews of his day had to do with his desire to want to reform the way their ancestors had taught them to practice religion–namely, all tied up in rules and regulations with little time or interest in actually being connected to God through commitment and communion.  When I say “communion” here I’m referring to prayer and/or meditation.
So, Jesus respected the rights of others to follow their pathways toward truth UNLESS they became people who thought they had stumbled upon or created THE religion for all.  Our dear friend, Dr. Pam Cummings, before scampering off to Texas to begin retirement there once gave me a bumper sticker as a gift; it reads, “No religion is big enough for all people.”  Now, you and I both know those who’d instantly object to the claim made by that statement; ironically, those who’d say there’s room for all people in their religion are often the very ones spending the most time making others feel excluded from the religion they dishonestly designate as a religion for all people.  What they really mean is:  a religion for all people who are willing to believe and act as I do on the basis of what I believe my religion demands.
Ironically, the only religious types with whom Jesus became displeased, and we’ll have to say he was irritated with them quite often, were precisely those who thought that their take on religion was the only one that could possibly be pleasing to God.  All others, they believed–and “they” refers to the Pharisees and the scribes, the holier than thou Jews in Jesus’ day–would eventually be turned away by God.  Their arrogance and their willingness to live on a foundation of unexamined falsehoods threw Jesus into a tizzy.  On a few occasions he became openly angry with them, but most of the time he dealt with their doctrinal defects by poking fun at them–hopefully in a way that would make them take stock of where they’d ended up spiritually speaking.
In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that you heard read earlier, Jesus is somewhere between anger and one of his standup comedy routines, joking around about how the scribes and Pharisees had made the Jewish religion so unhealthy that they were killing it off.  There are many places in the Gospels where Jesus intends to be humorous, but not in the passage before us today.
Scribes were the lawyers of religion in Jesus’ day, and the Pharisees were their best buddies willing to live out the scribes’ strict interpretations of the ancient laws absolutely literally.  I think we can fairly say that in this passage, Jesus is lambasting the scribes and Pharisees.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you get in a dither about making certain that you tithe an utterly precise tenth of each herb in your herb garden while you conveniently ignore what matters in the true religion of the Jews:  justice, mercy, and faith.  Justice means that people other than your fellow scribes and Pharisees get a shot at a fair shake in life.  Mercy means that even those who have fallen short of the ideals in our religious traditions, fallen short big time perhaps, are entitled to forgiveness and a fresh start for more than one round of failures.  Faith means that God is at the center of the process, not a few scribes and Pharisees or all the scribes and Pharisees in the world.  You know how to dole out the dill to offer up as a burnt offering–of benefit to no one.  But were you to try to say, ‘I forgive you,’ even to one of your wives or children, you’d choke.  Call out the EMT’s!’”
Ouch!  Jesus was just getting wound up.  My Dad’s family was not huge, but larger than average, so I had several aunts and uncles growing up.  One aunt and uncle not only saw each other at home, but also at work.  They were both in law enforcement.  He was a Deputy Sheriff, and she had several jobs in the police department until her dream job came along.  She was asked to become a matron to the female prisoners with psychiatric disorders.  If you’ve seen, in the film, “Chicago,” Queen Latifah as the matron, an officer specializing in involvement with female prisoners, you have some idea of what I’m talking about.  My uncle, her husband, stopped by one evening to tell us the news.  “Yeah, she’s gonna be a matron to the criminals with mental problems.”  He paused then added, “The blind leading the blind, you know.”
Speaking of that, Jesus castigated the scribes and Pharisees for appointing themselves spiritual guides for others to follow when in Jesus’ eyes they had no idea where they were going or exactly what they were seeing.  “You claim to be guides?  How is that possible?  That’s the blind leading the blind!”
“You’re so concerned with doing everything by the book that, figuratively speaking, you’ll strain a gnat out of your wine because you have a sore throat; then you’ll get back to your main course and swallow a camel.  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you humongous hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and bowl, but inside they remain full of greed and self-indulgence.  If your religion were healthy you’d be infinitely more concerned with what was going on inside of yourself spiritually speaking, than with a polished exterior.  But you’ve reversed it so that what others see when they look at you and how you live is much more important to you than the fact that all the rules you’re keeping haven’t brought you anywhere near God in so long you can’t even remember when, so all you’ve got left is the pride you feel when people look at you and say, ‘A true person of God,’ even though you’ve so separated yourself from God with your sick religion that you’d have no idea it was God if God came along and sat down beside you.”

In the responsive reading you saw what renowned pastoral counselor, Howard Clinebell, thought in terms of what is healthy and what is unhealthy religion.  Here’s another take on the same topic from a truly wonderful website,
You know you’ve stumbled into an unhealthy, maybe even a dangerous religion–and there are plenty of those out there–when:

1) The organization is willing to place itself above any law, all laws if need be, of the land.

2) The leadership of an unhealthy religious group dictates (never suggests) important personal details of followers’ lives–not traditionally spiritual concerns such as coaching to be involved in prayer and attending worship services, but unarguably personal matters that a healthy person should decide on her- or himself.  For example, should I get married and if so, to whom?  You don’t answer either of those questions if you’re a part of an unhealthy religious group.  The leaders will answer those for you.  If you should be trusted enough to be free to leave a compound and go to school, the leadership of this religion will tell you exactly what you must study; this is not a decision you can make for yourself.

3) The dominant leader establishes strict ethical guidelines that all members must follow to a tee, but for some reason that is never explained with clarity, the leader who established the principles is exempt from abiding by them.

If you stumble into that kind of religious group, stumble out immediately.  Jesus never asked anyone to keep any principle that he himself was unwilling to keep.

4) Nearly always the group sees almost all other religious groups as enemies and speaks critically and disdainfully of them as a matter of course.

5) Also, in practically every modern case, the unhealthy religious group is preoccupied with the end of this world and the coming of the next world wherein they will be top dogs.  Steer clear of groups that give a lot of attention to and put a great deal of credence into repetitive predictions of the end of time.

6) The leader of an unhealthy religious group routinely makes statements that he, rarely but sometimes a she, knows to be false to throw off both insiders and outsiders.  False information is a primary tool for control.

There are plenty of people out there who think that there’s no such thing as healthy religion; in fact, they’ve seen so many abuses in the name of religion that they believe the two words “healthy” and “religion” when used together comprise an oxymoron.  I’m going to say, and this will not surprise too many of you–a few maybe, that I don’t think “healthy religion” is an oxymoron.  There really is or can be such as thing as healthy, wholesome religion.
There was a PBS series a while back called “The Ascent of Humanity.”  In one of the episodes, healthy versus unhealthy religion came up.  Someone who had lost his family to the gas chambers at Auschwitz stood right there in the death camp and said something along these lines:  “This is how people behave when they believe they have absolute knowledge, but anyone or any religion that claims absolute knowledge and tells people what to think is clearly a horribly unhealthy religion.”
So, then, what’s healthy religion?  Healthy religion is kind of a little cycle.  A healthy personality produces healthy religion, and healthy religion promotes a healthy personality.  Healthy religion encourages you to know and claim who you are and to act on that, spiritually and otherwise, as you wish, as you see fit, as you are so inclined.
The great spiritual seeker and spiritual director, Evelyn Underhill, had her forefinger on the pulse of healthy religion when she wrote:  “God is always coming to you in the sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive God there with gratitude in that sacrament.”
In an untitled article, as far as I could tell, in National Times during April a couple of years ago, I found this quote with which I challenge us all today:

“Gratitude is the distinctly religious approach to the world. By this I do not mean gratitude for particular things – health, a good meal, a sunset – though they come into it. It is a lens through which one filters the world, a mode of trust, an affirmation that the world is good.”



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