Sermon: Superficial Religion by the Rev. Lee Woofenden


Sermon: Superficial Religion by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, June 6, 2004
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Genesis 19:30-38 Lot and his daughters

Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, "Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let's get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father."

That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

The next day the older daughter said to the younger, "Last night I lay with my father. Let's get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and lie with him so that we can preserve our family line through our father." So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went and lay with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father. The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; He is the father of the Moabites of today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Matthew 9:14-17 New wine in new wineskins

Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

Arcana Coelestia #2468 Superficial Religion

The form and nature of the religion meant by "Moab and the children of Ammon" becomes clear from the description given here of their origin, and also from many other places in the Bible, the historical as well as the prophetic, where they are mentioned. In general they are people whose worship is external, and to some extent appears holy, but is not internal. They are also people who accept whatever relates to external worship as good and true, but reject and regard as worthless everything that relates to inner worship.

This type of worship and religion exists with people who are naturally good, but who consider other people to be worthless compared to themselves. They are similar to fruit that is not unattractive on the outside, but that inwardly is moldy or rotten; or they are similar to marble vases whose contents are impure and even foul; or they are similar to women whose face, figure, and movements are rather pretty, but who inwardly are diseased and full of nasty impurities. For with them there is a general goodness that looks fairly attractive; but the particular elements that go into their goodness are impure.

It is not this way at first, but becomes so gradually. For people like this easily allow themselves to be impressed with whatever people call "good," and so with whatever false ideas they imagine to be true because they support that "good." This happens because these people scorn the deeper things of worship, since they are ruled by self-love. Such people live and get their being from those whose worship is purely external--who in this chapter are represented by Lot.

So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father. (Genesis 19:36)

This week, mercifully, we complete the sorry tale of Genesis 19. If the Bible skeptics want a chapter to turn to in casting doubt on the divine and spiritual nature of the Bible, this would be the one. It reads almost like a compendium of human sexual and behavioral corruption--not to mention the descriptions of destructive divine wrath. It is no wonder that even the Swedenborgian commentaries largely pass by this chapter in silence, or give it only the most cursory treatment.

Even Swedenborg himself seems to weary of the chapter as he enters into this final section. Yes, he does interpret it. But he does so in summary fashion, referring to earlier and later explanations for some of the details. In partial explanation of this, he mentions the obvious: these things "shock people's minds and offend their ears" (Arcana Coelestia #2466). And here I would mention once more that when we actually read the Bible, it turns out not to be a "nice book full of nice stories," but rather, a hard-hitting human book full of human stories, including the good, the bad, and the ugly of human life.

The Lord Jesus, while he was here on earth, also dealt with the good, the bad, and the ugly of human life. And if we follow this story in its deeper meaning, we find that it deals with the ugliness of those who think that religion is just a matter of external observance and ritual, without the deeper matters of love, understanding, justice, and kindness that form religion's inner core. In other words, the story of Lot and his daughters is symbolic of those who practice a superficial religion. Jesus was speaking of these when he said:

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead people's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to others as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

In our reading from Swedenborg, he gives descriptions almost as colorful of the nature of people who make a great outward show of religion, but inwardly are corrupt and foul.

Jesus encountered such people in the Scribes and Pharisees--those who studied and taught the religious law of ancient Judaism. Though they "knew their stuff," they did not practice it except in the most superficial way. Yes, they did all the proper tithes and ritual cleansings and sacrifices. But they were not only critical and condemnatory of everyone who didn't live the way they did (just as Swedenborg says!), but they also engaged in corruption and profiteering from their positions of religious authority. In other words, even though they looked religious, they were really in it for themselves. In Swedenborg's terms, they were "ruled by self-love." So everything that made up their "religion"--or perhaps we should call it their "religiosity," was impure because it was driven by selfish motives.

Swedenborg has often been accused of being anti-Jewish because of his many harsh statements about both ancient and contemporary Jews. And certainly there was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Swedenborg's culture, which could easily have affected Swedenborg's view of the Jewish people. However, I prefer to think of his descriptions of the superficial and corrupt nature of "the Jews" as a description of the human condition. When we look at the story of Lot, and how he was corrupted by his own apathy and his focus on saving his own skin, we see a reflection of all who take the easy, external way in their religion.

In the New Testament, the Jews also come in for heavy criticism by the Lord himself and by the various Biblical writers. That, I believe, is largely because from the Bible's point of view, the Jewish religion was the leading religion of the day--yet its followers, instead of being a leading light for the world, had corrupted their own religion, and given it a bad name because of their greedy and selfish lives.

Is it only Jews who do this to their religion? I don't think so! The history of Christianity right up to the present day is full of church leaders who have corrupted this beautiful religion in their pursuit of personal wealth, pleasure, and power. A decade ago it was the fundamentalist Christian televangelists who were the focus of the exposés of religious corruption, as the American public discovered that the same men and women who preached Jesus, Jesus, Jesus on TV were racking up enormous personal wealth and sleeping with prostitutes in hotel rooms. Today, the focus of the media's wrath is the Roman Catholic Church, with its terrible crimes not only of child abuse on the part of some of its priests, but of the cover-ups engaged in by bishops and archbishops going right up the church hierarchy.

And lest this become merely an exercise in finger-pointing, our own church has not been without its scandals, corruptions, and bitter battles over money and power--as we in the Massachusetts Association are now painfully aware.

Yes, superficial religion is not limited to the Jews. It is a universal human curse. And though we could spend time decrying the evils of all those churches, clergy, and leading lay people out there who have made a mockery of their religion, the real point of the Bible story is not to give us ammunition in pointing the finger at others, but rather to make us conscious of our own faults that need correcting. When Jesus confronted the corrupt religious authorities of his day with their hypocrisy, the point was not so much to fuel our righteous indignation at those who misuse their religion for personal power and gain, but to let it serve as an object lesson for each one of us when we are tempted to act similarly.

The Bible story is the story of each one of us. And if we can believe it, even the whole culture in which we live is the story of each one of us. If we find ourselves pointing fingers of blame at all those terrible, corrupt Scribes and Pharisees out there, we should be aware that our finger is also pointing squarely at our own soul. This is expressed another way in the classic words of John Donne: "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Donne understood, and expressed beautifully in his poetry, that the sickness and death of all is the sickness and death of each one of us.

Of course, this does not mean we should ignore corruption "out there" in our society. Televangelists, priests, and other church and society leaders, not to mention ordinary lay people, must be put on notice that if they engage in hypocritical and corrupt behavior, they will be brought to account for it; that if they use their positions of spiritual power to engage in practices of worldly greed and debauchery, they will pay the price.

Yet when we have confronted the corruption in our society, we have only waged half the battle--and not the most difficult half. Our greatest struggle is to confront the corrupt superficiality within our own selves. The message of Lot, and the message of the Lord to the Scribes and Pharisees, is a message to all who consider themselves to be religious, yet don't live up to the ideals of their own religion. Lot was a nephew of Abraham, who received the call of God; yet he lived among the corrupt people of Sodom. The Scribes and Pharisees were the called and chosen religious leaders of the ancient Jews; yet they used their position for personal power and privilege.

What do we, who are blessed with the incredible depths of an entirely new revelation of spiritual understanding, do with these spiritual treasures that have been entrusted to us? If outside observers were to compare the way we live to the way anyone else in our society lives, would they notice any difference? Does the fact that we belong to the New Jerusalem Church cause us to go beyond the ordinary ranks of our community, not in great shows of our religious piety, but in a life full of acts of care and compassion for the human beings who surround us on every side?

And looking at our church--both this congregation and the Association and denomination of which it is a part--what have we done, and what are we doing, with the great blessings of material and spiritual wealth that have been entrusted to us? In all our struggles to move the church forward, are we acting merely from a desire for self-preservation? To preserve the church that we and our families attend and benefit from? Or are we truly interested in serving the spiritual needs of the community, the state, and the continent where we as a church have our home?

These are ultimate questions of our own spiritual worth, and the spiritual worth of our church. These are questions even Jesus faced within himself, when he confronted the temptation to merely be right rather than to be compassionate. And the Lord gave us another metaphor to move us out of the curse of superficial religion: When we have experienced the new wine of deeper spiritual religion, we must put it into new wineskins of a changed life: a life of constant, growing understanding and compassion for our fellow human beings.

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No Right Click and
Color Scroll Bar Scripts  Courtesy of:

Artwork: Lot and His  Daughters
by Orazio Gentileschi (1622)

Music: So Far Away
© Bruce DeBoer

Used with Permission

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