It is possibly the most arrogant act to preach a sermon at all because one is claiming in some sense to speak on behalf of an eternal and universal authority; claiming an inspiration that goes beyond the immediate and the visible. My only excuse for this arrogance will be that I learned it well from many teachers, that is, other preachers – especially my own father – himself a lifelong Pentecostal preacher.
Like many preachers, I am moved to speak today to condemn sin and evil, to protest immorality. While many today consider such terms themselves old-fashioned and even dangerous, I nevertheless will use them and expect that my listeners will be able to understand them. Even more than that, it is my mission to compel and persuade you that far too many today misunderstand what sin and evil truly are. Indeed, I hold that among the greatest problems we face is the misunderstanding of the meaning of evil and sin. And, I identify one of the fundamental sources of this Satanic confusion at the feet of the modern day Religious Right.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus lists five failures that will condemn nations to eternal destruction. These failures include not feeding the hungry, not giving drink to the thirsty, not welcoming strangers, not clothing the naked, not caring for the sick, and not visiting prisoners. From the mouth of the most revered religious authority on earth we have a set of judgments that are declared to be eternal. I would stress that these judgments are not posed against individuals, but against nations, the larger identities into which human societies are bonded. The judgment of Jesus is that a nation should be fundamentally concerned with compassion and care for all. This is very far from our usual experience in the world that a nation is fundamentally based upon power, politics, and military conquest and that its place in history is established by strength, not compassion.
So, what is wrong with the Religious Right? It’s really very simple; in their actions and doctrines they deny the very authority of the one many of them call Lord and Savior. If we listen to the Religious Right declare their judgments against the sins of this nation, we find that they do not speak about the suffering of the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, or imprisoned, but rather they are obsessed with passing laws against abortion and same-sex marriage. The Religious Right collaborates with economic conservatives to attack social programs that directly benefit the people that Jesus himself names. The gospel judgment goes so far as to say that whether one cares for the poor or not is equivalent to caring for Jesus himself or not. “Inasmuch as you did or did not do these things to the least of these, you did or did not do them unto me. The righteous are welcomed into eternal life, and the wicked into eternal punishment.” I therefore take up these words of Jesus and condemn the Religious Right and in his spirit I call them to repent of their unfaithfulness and wickedness. If you neglect the judgments of Jesus himself, how can anyone call themselves a faithful follower of his?
The Religious Right is not entirely original in their blasphemous infidelity to Jesus’s universal and eternal standard of compassion and care. Throughout history, religious leaders have corrupted and falsified the truth in order to strengthen their grip and control over society. These religious leaders have repeatedly colluded with the rich and powerful of their societies to reshape and suppress the eternal radical message of compassion and replace it with a message of fear, shame, and even outright hatred of the poor and weak. Enormous apparatuses of hierarchy, privilege, elitism, and indoctrination have grown up to obscure the authentic heart and soul of the gospel of compassion, justice, and peace.
As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I learned both the false gospel that pervades our religious culture with disastrous effects on our diverse modern society, as well as glimpsing in an almost secret corner of the religious world the real radical truth that compassion and justice were the universal and eternal standard, not the superficial life-denying morality of the Religious Right. I was indoctrinated thoroughly into the fear of liberals, homosexuals, feminists, and atheists. In my childish trust of those who were responsible to guide and nurture me, I learned to believe in an almighty god who created a planet full of human beings, amazing animals, vivacious living plants, majestic oceans, towering mountains, and endless starry galaxies, only to predestinate the overwhelming majority of people to an infinite duration of torment for the sin of not believing 10 impossible things before breakfast. The planet was to be pummeled by fiery judgment and flowing rivers of blood. This apocalyptic picture of this fearsome vindictive judge was also declared – with unironic absurdity – as the God of Love, indeed the only real manifestation of perfect love in the cosmos.
And yet, I saw something else beyond the terrifying finality of an eternal hell, beyond the moral insanity of a creator who everlastingly burns immortal souls for finite sins. I saw in the teachings of Jesus a limitless forgiving, compassionate love. Love your neighbor as yourself, love the poor, love the stranger, love your enemies. In my heart of hearts, this loving merciful spirit seemed to me to be the only eternal truth,
I discovered this truth early on in my childhood. Like many children, I was curious about the physical differences between boys and girls and had picked up some ideas about human sexual behavior. I made the naive mistake of trying to draw pictures of human genitalia and, one day, my father found them. His response was more relaxed and even amused than I expected. He took my crude drawings and began to explain to me how sexual intercourse actually worked, at the tender age of 7 or 8 years old. Then, after finishing a basic explanation of the sex act, he concluded by saying. “Charley, if you ever have sex before marriage and get a girl pregnant, God is going to kill you.”
I both deeply loved and was terrified of my father and his wrath. I knew without a doubt that he believed every word he said. He was a preacher, a man of God’s word, And yet, for the first time I knew with an intense undeniable certainty, that my father was wrong. That the wrath of God that he feared and preached so passionately was simply not true. I knew the deeper, eternal truth, Love was God itself. Jesus loved me and everyone with perfect forgiveness. And, in that instant a subversive religious passion took hold of my soul and began to undermine and overthrow the right-wing religious wickedness that could teach that a perfect loving God could endlessly immolate living spirits. That sort of “love” is entirely indistinguishable from hatred. We find here the diseased heart of the Religious Right, a doublethink doctrine of hatred disguised as love.
And so, I return to the eternal judgments of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus declared in the “Lord’s Prayer” that his disciples must pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The coming of that kingdom will be an eternal judgment that sweeps away the nations that fail to love, that fail to found themselves upon compassion. For the only way to fulfill the gospel of radical universal love is to create a world where there is no hunger or thirst, but rather a global satisfaction of basic human needs for everyone. To create a world where there is no homeless stranger, no deprived nakedness, no sickness, or imprisonment. The Religious Right is but one of the obstacles to this visionary goal, but in some ways it is the most wicked. May the Source of all Being and the Loving Judgment of Jesus have mercy on us.