Message Supplement (27 September 2015)

Each person of faith has a mandate to spread love and truth and do wonderful things in the name of the Lord. Whether you call it mission, outreach, or even traditional evangelism, the point is that we are representing God’s love and truth to the world.

Mark 9: 38-40 reveals how Jesus’ closest followers (the apostles) complained about outsiders exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. This problem demonstrates how doing things in God’s name can be complicated. We needn’t allow our views about demonic possession to distract. Jesus’ closest followers felt special and the resulting smugness made them feel as though they were God’s exclusive agents. When the apostles learned that people unknown to them were performing miracles it angered them. Could it be that another band of people could also miraculously invoke Jesus?

Unfortunately for the apostles, Jesus would not tolerate his apostles’ sour grapes, which is why he said that “[w]hoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). This implies that we should not make tight boundaries around who and what God can do (or even through whom God does it). But it is not always clear what makes a person “for us” rather than “against us.” Jesus seemed to be saying that anyone who sincerely invokes healing power cannot be denounced. That is, if people are doing good things, then they can claim to be doing it in Jesus’ name. This is a hard message to accept because each of us is tempted to embrace our chosen flavor of Christianity and exclude outsiders from our privileged inner circle.

Religious diversity hovers in the foreground of our discussion. There’s that bumper sticker that spells the word “COEXIST” using key symbols from world religions. Sure, it’s easy to invoke coexistence because it is better than, say, annihilation. Can we strive for anything more than a blithe toleration, which may not address how a toxic faith poisons humanity? What about something other than pushing coexistence? Should we intercede when religion imprisons people behind a veil of fear, ignorance and anger? These questions are meant to stimulate our thinking beyond an immobilizing passivity.

There is a process that many people experience while on their faith journey. People who shop for a religion often are happiest when they can find something that fits their style and biases. Sadly, more people than ever are not choosing any spiritual path. Instead, they have dropped-out and become hardened or disinterested. But for those persons who’ve found a faith, one of the key stages is a deepening of their participation through personal commitment to and defense of their brand of religion. Through a process of indoctrination and initiation, persons may commit to a church or other organization and form a new personal identity. All of this sounds innocent enough but there are dire consequences when a person supports something like ISIL/ISIS, an Islamist terror group. Here and in other fatal faiths it’s no longer a matter of fun and games. When people embrace an evil ideology all bets are off and we face institutionalized murder.

Religion is messy. Some folks lament that there isn’t just one proper explanation of God and all the other fluff and stuff we attach to heavenly beliefs. As tempting as it is to make us feel secure, it’s not a good idea to try and put God in either an overly simplistic or overly complicated box. Within Christianity for instance there are many variations of Jesus’ message. This causes problems because we cultivate different interpretations of who Jesus was, what he did, whether he was man or God, what is the nature of church, etc. Yet, we also know that other Christian sects with different beliefs potentially have merit. It is this admission of the possibility of other legitimate views of life and faith that prepares us for fair and rational thinking.

We are challenged to remain open and humble, and not jump to negative judgments about outsiders who, in some cases, my appear and act strangely. Unfortunately, even Jesus’ inner-circle didn’t follow this advice. Before we examine other faiths we need to weigh the evidence and not let raw prejudice control us. Openness to other faiths doesn’t mean blindness. We can seek evidence for what happens in other sects. We have both a right and a responsibility to help people who are trapped in bad religion, whether it is ours or someone else’s. The slogan “I’m okay, you’re okay so let’s just walk away” isn’t a solution. A disengaging, nonchalant attitude may seem polite and politically-correct but it isn’t best for problem-solving. We must navigate a more challenging path and call-out anyone and anything that imprisons and exploits people.

What are the signs that a certain faith or religion is positive and helpful? It is tough to make definitive distinctions without generating offense. Nonetheless, there are certain criteria which offer some insight about what’s going on in this or that religion. Are love and truth emanating from a group’s teachings and behavior? Are hope and joy generated and are people empowered to love and be loved? Are women relegated to sub-species status and are children sexually abused through a culture of denial and cover-up? Asking these and many similar questions will help us evaluate all forms of religion. We must be willing to admit that not all types of faith work well, and some are destructive. Yet we also know that God also works outside our church. We don’t always understand how things can be so different from our ways, but we can remain open and weigh the evidence before we dismiss outsiders who manifest God’s power. –Reverend Hoxey