Monday, April 25, 2016

Too Much Religion?

 Mark Edwards in his commentary on the book of Mark says these words in regards to our Gospel lesson from the 14th chapter, “The world has never had a problem with religion in moderation.  It has no problem with too much wealth or power or sex or influence, but it has a problem with too much religion.”

 You don’t even have to leave these four walls this morning to realize the truth of this statement.  Now, this doesn’t apply to all churches, but it certainly does to this one.  What do I mean?  Well, just let someone stand up this morning and begin waving their hands or dancing to the music, and tell me what would go through most of your heads?  Let someone shout out “Amen” to a particular point in my sermon, and tell me what most of you would think.  Heck, just let me try to ask you a question in the middle of my sermon and expect you to answer.  Why is it that I have to repeat a question several times before anyone is brave enough to speak?  “That’s not how we do it here,” is often repeated.  Translation: generally, we’re not comfortable with being too demonstrable with our faith.  We are happy to sit.  We are happy to listen.  We are happy to sing a little bit, but to go above and beyond?  To become exuberant?  To have someone other than the pastor pray?  To talk about how God has moved in our lives?  Not generally gonna happen.

 Society tends to feel the exact same way.  There is an unwritten rule out in the world these days: believe what you want, but don’t try to convince anyone else that your beliefs are right or true or good for everyone.  Keep your religion to yourself.  It’s better for everyone that way.  Aside from the fact that such a rule is a belief in and of itself that is being imposed upon others, society is quick to demand that we religious people put our faith into action by helping others as long as we don’t try to convince others to believe like we believe.  In other words, we are invited to respond to the recent flooding in our communities by donating of our time, money, and goods, but the moment we try to do so in the name of Jesus or God, we are essentially told, “Don’t push that!!  Just help out.  Shut up about your beliefs.”  The world doesn’t have a problem with religion in moderation–it does with too much religion.

 In some ways, it’s not difficult to understand why.  We know the dangers of too much religion.  We’ve seen people who are so convinced of the rightness of their religion and the wrongness of others that they are willing to fly airplanes into buildings, commit atrocities like cutting off people’s heads, bomb buildings, protest at funerals, and verbally abuse others.  The vast majority of people condemn such behavior.  The vast majority of people want no part of such behavior.  The vast majority of people want to see such behavior gone from the planet so that we can live in peace.  If people only toned down their religious beliefs, then all this stuff would stop–at least, that’s the hypothesis.  But what if the hypothesis is wrong?

 Today, we begin the final chapters of the book of Mark–the passion of Jesus.  Chapter 14 begins with some daunting sentences, “14It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’” We know from our travels through Mark that the chief priests and the scribes are Jesus’ enemies.  They do not like Him because He is a threat to everything they stand for.  Jesus has undermined their thoughts about what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like.  He has taught a very different understanding of what it means to be right in the sight of God.  Jesus has revealed the selfishness of their hearts and has shown that they are more interested in money than in getting people to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The chief priests and the scribes hate Jesus, and they want to get rid of Him, but they cannot do so openly.  Their actions would cause a riot because Jesus was popular with the people.  As Edwards again says in his commentary, “The resolution to kill Jesus is an official decision as opposed to a popular decision.”

 As of this point, we might say, “Well, here is further proof of the hypothesis.  The chief priests and the scribes had too much religion.  If they didn’t have too much religion, they would not have tried to kill Jesus.”  Yes, you have some evidence, but let’s press onward.

 Mark now shifts the scene to a house–the house of Simon the Leper.  This house is in Bethany, and Jesus and His disciples are there for dinner.  It is during dinner as Jesus sat at table that an extravagant event takes place.  A woman enters carrying an alabaster jar.  She breaks the jar, and pours the contents all over Jesus’ head.  Now, let’s examine the details of this more closely.  For you see, it was a social taboo for a woman to interrupt a meal of Jewish men unless she was serving food. 
This woman stepped all over societal custom.  Not only did she break society’s unspoken rules, she did something rather lavish.  Those around observed that the perfume that was used could have been sold for over 300 denarii.  It was a rare perfume that had come from India.  This was the equivalent of a year’s wages.  Imagine taking a year’s worth of your income and putting it into a jar, breaking the jar and then pouring the entire amount on someone.  That is what this woman just did!  And she broke the jar too so–there was no going back.  There was no saving anything that was left over.  There was a totality to her gift.  She was giving it all!  And, since most women had no ability to come up with this much money in that day, it was probably a family heirloom that had been given to her.  It not only had monetary value; it had sentimental value.  So, let’s put this into a bit of perspective: this woman stepped all over societal customs to lavishly dispose of a jar of perfume that cost a year’s wages that was probably a gift to her or her family by pouring the entire jar onto Jesus’ head.  Extravagant?  You bet.  To the extreme.

 Now, the fallout to her extravagance is almost expected.  There is an uproar, especially among the disciples.  They complain.  “That could have been sold and the money given to the poor!”  And they scolded the woman. 

 Jesus turns the tables on them, and harshly.  Why?  Let me read to you Edward’s commentary once again.  Please listen carefully:

 We cannot know whether their indignation is owing to genuine concern for the poor, or whether, as is often the case, the poor are simply used as a pretext for other motives.  Whatever their motives, they regard the costly devotion of the woman as a “waste.”  Their condemnation obviously demeans the woman and her gift.  In asserting that there could be better use for the money, however, they demean Jesus as well, whom they regard as unworthy of such extravagance.  The world has never had a problem with religion in moderation.  It has no problem with too much wealth or power or sex or influence, but it has a problem with too much religion.  That is evident here.  The unnamed woman deems Jesus worthy of her sacrifice, whereas the disciples do not.

 Is it any wonder why Jesus turns the tables on the disciples?  Is it any wonder why Jesus praises this woman?  She is willing to pour great extravagance upon Him.  She is willing to spend a year’s wages on Him.  She is willing to shower Him with an affection and love that those most closest to Him could not or would not.  She deemed Him worthy of such a gift, but the disciples did not.

 Now, I don’t want to be too hard on the disciples because ultimately, this story is about Jesus, and there are some who have taken issue with Jesus’ words in response to the woman.  “7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”  Some use Jesus’ statement to relieve themselves of the responsibility of caring for the poor, but that is not what Jesus is saying here.  Not in the least.  Edwards says something rather interesting about this in his commentary, and we turn to it for a final time.  “In placing himself above the poor Jesus places himself above the great commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Why would Jesus do this?

 Well, Jesus said there was only one other commandment greater than love your neighbor as yourself.  Do you remember what that commandment was?  I do.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.”  This woman was putting that into practice.  She was pouring out extravagant love upon Jesus–the God incarnate.  It is no wonder that Jesus said that her actions would be told wherever the Gospel was proclaimed.  This kind of love for Jesus is rarely found throughout the scriptures.  Loving God with this kind of extravagant love is not easy to set forth because it comes at a great cost.  Most of us aren’t willing to pay that cost.  The disciples weren’t willing to pay that cost.  And that’s why we generally appreciate a moderate amount of religion.  It doesn’t cost much.  Extravagant religion costs much.

 And you might point out to me right now that this is the problem.  Those fanatics who practice too much religion are willing to die themselves.  They are willing to die as they kill others.  They think other people deserve to die and are heathen.  They think other people need to be punished and driven to believe like they believe.  We need to keep such religion in check.  We need to keep people from becoming too religious!!

 Now, wait just a second because there is an alternative to this.  Extravagant religion does not by necessity lead to a person killing another person.  The extravagant religion the woman showed in this snippet from Mark did not kill anyone at all, and she is but a pale comparison to the heart and core of the Christian faith.

 But, you might say that there are more than a few Christians who go around spewing all kinds of hate and violence toward others.  There are Christians who protest at funerals holing up signs that say, “God hates fags.”  There are Christians who kill abortion doctors.  There are Christians who are racist and sexist and homophobic.  They think they are right about everything and that God only loves them.  They think everyone else is going to hell and that they need to scare them into believing as they believe.

 You are correct, but do not confuse their brand of Christianity with what Jesus practiced.  Because it was Jesus who practiced a truly extravagant faith–a faith that far surpasses what the woman did to Him.  For you see, if there ever was a person who could point the finger at the rest of us, it was Jesus.  If there ever was a person who could condemn the rest of us to hell for not following what God demands, it was Jesus.  If there ever was a person who could accuse us of missing the mark in loving God and loving our neighbor, it was Jesus.  If there ever was a person who could judge us for our failure, it was Jesus.  If there ever was one who could scold us and make us feel unworthy of the love of God, it was Jesus.

 But what did Jesus do?  Did He scold us?   Did He condemn us?  Did He judge us and call down God’s wrath upon us?  No.  No He did not.  Not in the least.  He stretched out His arms and died for us.  He faced God’s wrath for us.  He paid the price for us.  He allowed Himself to be betrayed, condemned, judged, beaten, tortured and crucified.  And on the cross, He looked down at those who killed Him, He looked down at us and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  He loved us with an extravagant love.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.” 

 Extravagant religion led Jesus to die for you.  Extravagant religion led Jesus to love you when you were unlovable.  Extravagant religion led Jesus to forgive you when you didn’t deserve it.  Extravagant religion led Jesus to save you when you had failed. 

 Does this kind of love move you?  Does this kind of extravagance touch you to the very depths of your heart?  If it does, then you will find something dramatic happening within you.  You will find a wellspring of love swelling up within you.  You will find that you have an extravagant love of God–an extravagant love of Jesus.  Your heart will be filled with a desire to love and serve and give to Him.  Your heart will be filled with a desire to love like Jesus loved, and you will look at those who disagree with you; you will look at those who have hurt you; you will look at those who are in great need; and you will begin to love them with that kind of extravagant love.

 This kind of love is much needed in the days ahead in our community.  As we reach out to those affected by the recent floods, it is our call to bring Jesus’ extravagant love to them–to help them know that God is not punishing them; God does not hate them; God loves them.  God cares for them.  God wants to shower them with an extravagant love, and He will use you and me to be a part of that.  Amen.

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