Sermon for The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 1999.
The Rector at St. Stephen's, Pittsfield.
My life has surely been culturally deprived in the more than two years in
which I have been without cable television. But I was dimly aware that a
former professional wrestler was elected as Governor of Minnesota, and
given some of the other clowns we've also elected to public office, I
didn't think too much of the matter.
It seems that Governor Ventura recently gave a long interview for
"Playboy" magazine, an interview in which he said that "organized
religion was a sham, a crutch for the weak-minded". My initial reactions
are that we should consider both the source of the article, and the nature
of the publication. Who in heaven's name cares what Jesse Ventura
thinks about religion? Who in heaven's name will take seriously an article
But the question has been raised, and the good people of Lake
Woebegone have had their religious feathers ruffled. What should we
say to them?
I can't resist the opportunity to be clever and to remind us that
professional wrestling is society's principal example of sham. But to be
serious, well of course much of organized religion is a sham. Religious
institutions which become obsessive about their own survival, which
tolerate corrupt leadership, which oppress the poor - these kinds of
religious institutions are indeed a sham.
History teaches us that religious institutions are in constant need of
reformation. And today's Gospel reminds not to take anything for
granted and that unless we are faithful stewards of the message of Jesus
the right to proclaim it may be taken away from us by God. God is not a
great fan of organized religion. God is a lover not an organizer.
But is religion a crutch for the weak minded? I must ask whether or not
the Governor has been in a mainline Church recently. Let me tell you why
I ask this. As I pondered whether or not religion is a crutch for the weak
minded, I remembered an encounter I had with Attorney George Crane
some ten years ago. He exploded with "the trouble with you preachers is
that you are always telling us that God loves us. We know that. When are
you going to tell us what to do about it!"
From that moment I resolved to try to never preach pablum, to try to
make sure that my sermons had a challenge, and were perhaps even
provocative. That resolution has gotten me into some hot water. I have
tried to challenge you as strong people, to call in to question prevailing
attitudes about women, about racial minorities, about the poor, about
lesbian and gay people. And I do not believe that my preaching is un-typical. You might have heard similar things in many of the mainline
Churches. Has the Governor been to any of these Churches, or even to
any Church at all? Does he not know that you want, and I want, a
religious message with a sting in its' tail, a message which moves us to
the actions which will bring God's mercy and God's justice into human
affairs? A message which is more a challenge to the strong than comfort
for the weak.
And furthermore the Governor's words are an insult to the Bishops of
South America who have faced down Dictatorships, to the tough, feisty,
never say die Nuns who serve the poor with incredible courage in many
parts of the world, to the Pastors who stay in crime ridden
neighborhoods, and with a strength that has nothing to do with the world
of sham wrestling, confront the gangs who terrorize old and poor people.
But there is also something insidious about the Governor's words. They
are rooted in what some call "social Darwinism". A crude understanding
of Darwin's theory is often expressed in the phrase "survival of the
That simplistic understanding can be dangerous when it affects social
policies. Let me explain what I mean. Is life like a wrestling ring in which
the strongest win? Are the winners the ones who die with the most
toys? The Gospel says a firm and clear "no". The human community is
made up of many who at one time or another are weak in mind, body or
spirit. Are we to become a society which derides the weak who find
strength, courage and even challenge in their communion with the Holy
One? Are only the strong to be admired? Have we learned nothing from
the European experiment in social Darwinism, against which our young
men and women fought and gave their lives in the 1940's . That fight
was surely worthwhile Mr. Buchanan.
And life surely has its unfair share of burdens which lead us all from time
to time to experience weakness. There comes a time in all our lives
when indeed we need a helping hand, we need a crutch. And I believe
that it is strength, not weakness, which enables us to overcome our
hubris and cry "Help". It is a strength born in humility, a value of which
Governor Ventura appears to know nothing.
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