Beware Religious People
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

November 11, 2012

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

In 1965, when Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City, he laid out the ways in which religious life in the United States was on the decline. The hundreds that packed each church on Sunday were dwindling; shared religious cultural understandings were on the way out.

I think the public prominence of religion today would astound him. From business to politics, religion is center stage. It is hard to imagine an election cycle without religion being paraded through or presented as a political credential. And for many, it is not enough to be religious, or to be Christian, you have to be the right kind of Christian. This is nothing new in American politics, but it is as prominent now as it has ever been. Recently the church received a business phone book of Christian businesses. The implication was, if you are really Christian, you should really only buy stuff or services from others who are really Christian.

Please don’t misunderstand. I love religion. I love religious people. But Mark’s Gospel warns us about how we do our religion, how we practice our faith, how we follow Jesus.

It is clear that the story about the scribes is set against the widow’s offering at the temple. The scribe likes the best clothes, the best seats, the admiration of others, making long prayers so that people will notice just how religious he is.

The widow, otherwise unseen, goes and makes an offering at the temple, and walks away.

One does it to be seen doing it, the other does it simply to do it. And so doing, does all that is necessary.

Doing things to be seen has added degrees of difficulty. Pretty soon the being seen part takes up more and more of our time and energy and attention. In Getting to Yes, the classic book on negotiating, one of the first things about honest negotiations is that it rarely happens when we play to the audience. Put another way, if my mind is preoccupied with how I am seen, how much is really on what I am doing.

There is a story about Albert Schweitzer, the great medical doctor and humanitarian. One day he was coming to town, and people went to meet the train. They wanted to get a look at this great man. But they could not find him. There were some young men, several families, and one older gentleman helping a woman with her luggage, but no world renowned scholar and doctor. They returned home disappointed. And when Dr. Schweitzer finished helping a stranger with her luggage, he walked to his hotel.

Religion done for the sake of being seen means we start to look for it in the wrong places. We look for it with triumphal processions, not calmly and quietly helping out those in need. We look for it in the halls of power, rather than offering an alternative vision of how life might yet be, or speaking truth to those in power.

Another problem with religion done in order to be seen is how quickly it becomes an obsession with perfectionism. Soon we must deny anything less than pure and holy and faithful, rather than being honest about our lives.

One of the most amazing things about the Bible is how imperfect the people who carry the covenant forward are. I would recommend reading the whole of the book of Ruth. You can do it in one sitting. Ruth is one of those foreign girls who marries into the faith. When Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law Naomi tells he to go back to her own people, to her own family, because Naomi has no way to provide for her, no way to support her. Her sister-in-law agrees and goes back home, but Ruth famously says, “Where you go, I will go; your people will be my people; your God will be my God.”

Then we come to today’s reading. Naomi says, “Okay, if we are to survive, I need to get you a husband. Over there is Boaz. He’s good people. When he is tired from threshing and he lays down to sleep, put on your best dress, and put on your best perfume, and go in there and get you a man.”

Lest you think the Bible would not be so crass, it is actually a little more explicit. It says she should go and lie down next to him and uncover his feet. Please understand, when it says feet here, it does not mean feet. You get the idea.

And Ruth does, and they do, and she gets pregnant and they get married. Not something that a modern political candidate would want in their history. But the Bible is full of such difficult and dangerous stories that do not stand up to the scrutiny of perfectionism.

And who is Ruth? A Moabite; one of the people who are sworn enemies of Israel. Not just a foreigner; she’s one of the bad kind of foreigners.

And even with all of this, she is one of the women who get mentioned in the family tree of Jesus. They don’t list the perfect ones, the ones who live up to public expectations, the most religious ones. The lineage of Jesus lists the messy ones, the ones with a history, the ones with a troubled past and difficult decisions to make.

Practicing our faith, following Jesus, is about just that: practicing our faith and following Jesus. Along with all the other messy people with a history and a troubled past and difficult decisions to make: people like you and me.

Thanks be to God.