Be Alert -- A Sermon for Lent 5

Mark 13:21-23

A little over a week ago Fred Phelps died.  If you don’t know who Fred Phelps is, he was the leader of a small fringe Baptist church from Topeka, Kansas.  Fred and his church, which is composed mostly of family members, are well known for picketing religious gatherings and funerals, especially military funerals.  They have a two-pronged message –  “God hates fags” and “God hates America.” I first encountered this group when we were living in Kansas.  It seemed like every time we drove to Topeka on a Saturday morning, they were just finishing up their protest march at the local shopping mall.  I’d never heard of them until I got to Kansas in 1995, but since then they’ve become an increasingly visible presence across the country.   They claim to represent God.  But do they? 

Many claim to be prophets, but who really speaks for God?  How do you know who is speaking truth?  Does the message of hate proclaimed by the Phelps family represent the message Jesus proclaimed?  Or, are they simply the most visible expressions of what Martin Thielen calls Bad Religion?

Some of you might recognize Pastor Thielen’s name, since we used his book What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? in our study groups a year or so ago.  Now he has a new book with the title: The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion.

Because the gospel of Jesus gets drowned out by negative and hateful messages offered in the name of God, many in our society find the message of a famous John Lennon song attractive:

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.
No Hell below us, above us only sky. 
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

If only there were no countries and no religions – then we could live in peace.

But, must we abandon religion if we’re going to live in peace?  Speaking only as a Christian, is my faith defined by the likes of Fred Phelps and others like him?

Jesus warns us about false messiahs who claim to represent God.  He tells us that even if they perform signs and wonders don’t follow them.  Instead, be alert to the voice of God that calls out to us.  In this call for discernment, Jesus tells us that he has already taught us everything we need to know to distinguish between bad and good religion.

In Mark 13 Jesus offers us an apocalyptic vision.  Like the Book of Revelation, this much briefer apocalypse puts things into perspective.  His message to the disciples is simple – don’t put your trust in buildings like the Temple they had been admiring or in nationalistic movements that continually arose in Roman-occupied Palestine. These buildings will be destroyed, and these movements will fail.  Mark even puts in a little note reminding his readers that the Jewish Wars that had occurred not long before this gospel was written had left the city of Jerusalem and its Temple in ruins, while its nationalist messiahs lay dead.  That is not the way of the Gospel.  Yes, Jesus will suffer death, but Easter will also come, and with it comes a new community – an alternative community that will exhibit the values and vision of God’s realm.    

So beware of the scam artists pretending to represent God.  Like those computer-generated calls that tell you that your car warranty has run out and invite you to re-up – just hang up!   If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  They may perform signs and wonders, but don’t let them fool you.  These are just tricks designed to deceive you.

There is bad religion and there is good religion.

According to Martin Thielen, bad religion is self-righteous.  It’s also chronically negative.  That is, it’s always complaining.  It can’t find anything good to say about anyone or anything.  It’s also arrogant and intolerant.  It’s partisan and nationalist.  As Disciple theologian Joe Jones puts the question:  
Am I an American who happens to be a Christian, or am I a Christian who happens to be an American? Which identity orders which?”  (A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, p. 31).  
How we answer that question will help determine the nature of our faith.  Finally,  bad religion is nominalistic.  That is – it gives its time to God and church when it’s convenient.

  There are many other elements that we could add to the list, but this gets the point across.  If this is what people see when they see religion, then it’s no wonder they opt out of “institutional religion.”  With religions like that, there will never be peace on earth, and good will to all!

But, is this the only option?  Or is there the possibility of good religion?  Martin Thielen offers a list of elements of good religion that range from engaging in service to having an open mind, from prioritizing love to promoting gratitude.  These expressions of good religion affect the way we live our daily lives – not only on Sunday for an hour or two.

The way to good religion depends on who and what guides our lives. It speaks to the way we make our decisions?  And it defines our witness to our neighbors.

In Mark 13, Jesus tells us that he has given us the instructions we need to live before God.  That message echoes one we find in Deuteronomy 13. 
The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone shall you fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him shall you serve, and to him shall you hold fast. (Deut. 13:4).
There are many voices calling out to us.  Not all of them are specifically religious. But these are competing voices.  The question is – to whom will you listen?

Jesus invites us to be people of discernment.  He invites us to look at our lives through the lens of the Gospel.  It’s not just the religious dimensions of life, but the entirety of our lives – our jobs, our volunteer efforts, the cars we drive, the way we vote.  As we prayerfully seek a way forward, we will need to train ourselves to filter out all the extraneous noise that can distract us from hearing God, who often speaks to us in a still and soft voice.  But Jesus tells us that we have everything we need to discern God’s voice.  We can know the difference between bad and good religion.  We just have to follow the voice of Jesus.

We value diversity of opinion in this congregation.  It is a core value that we trace back to the founding days of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  It is part of our creed – our orthodoxy.  But, this sense of freedom needs to be tempered by an attentive ear to God’s voice that comes to us through Christ our Lord.

Our tradition, as theologian Joe Jones puts it, has often embraced a worldly creed that declares: “Nobody can tell me what I ought to believe; it is my own private decision.”  But, is this true?  Or is Jesus Lord over you lives?  If so, what does that mean in our context?  (Lover’s Quarrel, p. 57).

How we answer the question about the Lordship of Christ will determine whether we embrace a bad form or a good form of religion.  How we answer will determine our witness to the world.  As Paul writes to the Thessalonians:
 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).    

Scripture text appears in David Ackerman's alternative lectionary: Beyond the Lectionary
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday of Lent
April 6, 2014


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