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Sunday October 31, 1999 ~ 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Matthew 23:1-12
Micah 3:5-12   *  1 Thessalonians 2:9-13  *  Psalm 43

Anatomy of a Spiritual Disaster
V. Abusive Religion Revealed

When religion is not rooted in the love of God, it is not only devoid of God -- it is dangerous.  Not only does it not serve people, it oppresses them.  Genuine spirituality, driven by God's love encourages and nourishes people's lives -- it can lift them to the heights of heaven.  Deceitful religion on the other hand, driven by self dominates and subjugates peoples lives -- it can drop them to the pits of hell!

History is littered with names like Jim Jones and his Jonestown -- David Koresh and his Waco. There are countless thousands of lives that have been damaged by abusive religion -- not as severe as Jonestown or Waco perhaps -- but wounded by toxic religion nevertheless.  It is unlikely that any of our churches does not have at least one family or friends of one our families that has been touched by abusive religion.

We have made some gains in our culture with respect to abuse.  Physical abuse, domestic violence and child neglect have all been the subject of legislative and practical reforms.  Emotional abuse of persons has received acknowledgment as an important problem.

Spiritual abuse or abusive religion on the other hand has a ways to go.  Except for a few high profile cases, spiritual abuse is not perceived as a major issue. The civil government rightly keeps "arms length" when it comes to church-state issues. Yet, spiritual abuse can be an extremely debilitating power in someone's life.

Some years ago, a woman who had just begun to attend our church asked if I would visit her daughter.  The 23 year old daughter had just returned home after three years in a cult.  She was under the care of a psychiatrist and on anti-anxiety drugs.  She agreed to see me, but was extremely fearful of religious leaders of any kind.  "Be sure not to bring a bible or even quote the bible," the mother pleaded with me -- almost apologetically -- " sends her into a panic."

Our initial visit was very low key.   "De-programming" was not an issue here.  The young woman's sanity was.  She was the picture of fragility.  She sipped a cup of coffee while holding on with two shaking hands, a cigarette pinched between two nicotine stained fingers.  Her eyes were windows into emptiness.  Without emotion, she described a bit of her life with people who came to her initially with such love and acceptance that she felt she had discovered a true home at last.  She moved in with the group and happily worked and turned over everything she made.  She was building up treasure in heaven that no one could ever take away from her.

Then the demands began to build and the teaching sessions went late into the night.  Contact with "outsiders" was displeasing to God.  Parents, pastors, teachers and friends would all try to lead them back into a life of sin and evil.  She would be cut off from God forever.

After three years, she grew suicidal and hopeless, called her brother and he found her and brought her home. The physical part of her bondage was over.  The spiritual part was deeply embedded in her soul.   Toward the end of this first visit, she finally gave a glance that could be loosely described as "at me" and spoke directly to me.

"I know that I have turned into something evil now -- and that God hates me!"


Not all negative religious experience has gone to this extreme, but wherever religion results in something toxic instead of nourishing for our spirits, there is abuse.


Spiritual abuse is not new.  It is something that angered Jesus himself and in today's gospel lesson he spells out for his followers; [1] Characteristics of abusive spiritual leaders and [2] Clues for avoiding abusive spiritual leaders.

[1] Characteristics of abusive spiritual leaders

In a few sentences, Jesus gives four characteristics of abusive religious leaders that cuts through their outer appearance and reveals inner corruption. These characteristics provide good diagnostic insight when we find ourselves wondering about religious leaders and systems we encounter.

These leaders were hypocritical: [Verse 2]  The scribes and Pharisees have the content right, but their behavior is not consistent with the content. They are experts in bible, but their behavior does not match their teaching. Rather than seeing themselves as servants of what they teach, they imagine that they are masters who are above their subject matter. The byword of this characteristic is so well known, any of us can finish the sentence, "His problem is that he does not practice what he ___________ ."

These leaders were oppressive: [Verse 4]  One of the critical failures of the leaders Jesus addressed was their approach to religion -- they saw religion as being about rules and regulations.  It was clear in Jesus' ministry, however, that true religion was about a relationship with God.  Jesus brought joy.  They brought judgment.  Jesus taught about a God who gave them love.  They taught about a God who gave them labor. Jesus said his yoke was "easy" and his burden "light."  They on the other hand would "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others..."  

These leaders were pretentious: [Verse 5]  Another key attribute in the life of abusive spiritual leaders is the fact that they are pretentious.  They are all about "show-biz."   The heart of this failure is that they are "other directed" instead of "God directed."  Their inner reward system is tuned into what others think and how others perceive them rather than by what God sees.  They sometimes can not help themselves, they are "on stage" in their religious living and are in need of an audience.

Key scripture for this flaw is 1 Samuel 16:7, "...the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."   When Jesus was alone, he was the same person he was when he was with others.  When he was with God, he was the same person he was all the time.  Question for reflection here is, "Am I the same person when I am alone as I am when I am with others?"  In other words, people who change when the "spot light" comes on -- are pretentious.

These leaders were arrogant[Verse 6]  This is the key to the other characteristics. The people Jesus collided with were people who were filled with self and self-importance.  When a soul is filled with self, there is no room for God.  This was the heart of the Edenic tragedy.   Whereas Adam once had a God-centered spirit, he wound up with a self-centered spirit.  Instead of fellowship with God and his soul-mate Eve, there was alienation and blame.  Adam and Adam's feelings became more important than persons and more important than God.  The arrogant heart which loves the "places of honor" and "the best seats" is a heart that has no place for God.

With these words, Jesus has presented his "closing argument" on the anatomy of a spiritual disaster.  Now he teaches his followers what characteristics they are to embrace.  Characteristics that will help them identify and avoid abusive spiritual leaders.

[2] Clues for avoiding abusive spiritual leaders

Three characteristics will insure the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Jesus' followers -- then and now!   Embrace and grow these qualities in your life and you will safeguard your spiritual life and build a safety shield against abusive spirituality in your own life.  These three spiritual gems belong to those who are:


The actual word Jesus used in describing his followers was "brothers."   You have one teacher and you are all brothers.  Christ is the only "Master" teacher.  There is an equality amongst the followers of Christ as all are learners and students.  One is not greater than the other and a sure clue of abusive spirituality is when this sense of mutuality in the community of faith is absent.

This does not eliminate the need for leaders in the community, but the model of leadership Jesus lived out and taught was that of the servant leader.  The person who helps care for the people of God is an "under-shepherd" -- not an "over-shepherd."  The First Epistle of Peter has it nailed,  "...tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it --not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock."  [1 Peter 5:2-3]

There is an openness, mutuality and approachability with those who are genuine spiritual leaders.


"Call no one your Father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven."  The sense here is not that we need to quit calling our earthly fathers "father," -- but that our ultimate dedication is to God alone.  This is a reiteration of the first commandment to "have no other God's before me."   Worship belongs to God alone.  When we have made God our first love, all else falls into its proper place. We do not ask or seek the allegiance of another's heart in any ultimate sense.

Genuine spiritual leaders who receive the love, allegiance and loyalty of others are anxious to have that love, allegiance and loyalty passed along to the Lord.  They do not keep it for themselves.


This is the capstone quality. "The greatest among you will be your servant."  This is the single most powerful diagnostic tool for evaluating spiritual leadership.  There is humility instead of arrogance.  Jesus himself set the example by emptying himself and taking the form of a servant. [Phil. 2:7] Genuine spirituality sacrifices self to lift up others.

Jesus clinches his point with the truth that God will do the "exalting" and "humbling."

And this is where the whole struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders who wanted him eliminated rests.  Abusive spiritual leadership finally wants the place of God.  They might not even be fully aware of it, but when self becomes central and God becomes peripheral, the spiritual disaster is all but sealed.

The model is in Isaiah 14:12-14 taken by many to be the prophets words of doom to the Evil One.

"How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon;  I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High."


These words spell out the bottom line in abusive religion and abusive spiritual leaders. The anatomy of a spiritual disaster which we have traced out over these last few weeks can be stated in a few simple words.

To become filled with self is to become emptied of God!

May God grant us grace to grow the qualities of openness, dedication and humility as we build a healthy family of faith.

Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

The texts from Matthew and Micah point to the amazing fact that those who are supposed to lead God's people have gotten themselves totally separated from God.  They use religion, abuse the people and turn the whole spiritual enterprise into a self-serving charade.

No darkness is greater than the darkness one experiences after having looked into the light.  The state of the religious leadership of Israel is worse than any pagan condition.  Micah 3:6 is a gem. "Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you without revelation."  Matthew and Micah point to a condition that has come upon those who are charged with caring for the truth and people of God -- a state we could call a genuine dark night of the soul.

When you read the prophet and the gospel, there is a sense of impending judgment.  Knowing ahead of time where Matthew is going, we know that just ahead lies the crucifixion which is at once the joy and the judgment of God.  Joy to those who earnestly seek for and desire truth of God and judgment to those who seek for and desire their own gain at the expense of others.

Some things never change.    We live in an incredibly different world than did Micah and Jesus.    Nevertheless -- how amazing the consistency in behavior of those who abuse their spiritual roles.  On a more personal level, we might challenge our own folk in terms of what they see as the heart of their spirituality -- their relationship with God.    The NRSV translation of the Micah text makes clear the point that God cares for the poor and things are not okay when some of God's people are hungry while others are well fed.  Our spirituality -- religion -- is challenged by our relationship with those who are in need.

Paul shows a refreshing difference.  A leader who care for the people more than he cares about power -- more about their spirit than about his situation.  His joy is not about himself, but rather about the success the word of God has in the lives of those who receive it.     Matthew and Micah talk about how not to do it while 1 Thessalonians talks about how to do it.


There is an important, if subtle, point in Jesus' comment about the Pharisees.  They "sit on Moses seat" and we should therefore not dismiss what they teach nor what they say is important to practice.  The words are right, but the behavior does not match the teaching.  They do not practice what they preach.

There is a veneration here for "Moses seat".  The teaching of Moses, the Torah is the word of God.    The word is true even when the people are not.  We are to value the word even when the behavior of those who bring the word does not match the word.  There is a warning here that goes to the old saying about,  "... throwing the baby out with the bath water."  I can recall very clearly the adamant statement of the woman who said to me, "I can not accept Christ after everything Christians did during the Crusades."   I guess this is why I never tire of using this line in the pulpit, "The reputation of Jesus Christ is on the line in the way we live our lives."

If I were to pursue this theme in a message, I would bring in Paul's joy over the fact that the people he ministered to received his word / message as "God's word".  It is this word which is "at work" in the believers.

Which leave's a wonderful question.  "What is it that is 'at work' in our midst?"

The remainder of the passage is the essence of our full text sermon.

The final verse in the gospel could also yield a homily on the theme of exaltation and humiliation.    The key is in the relationship between God and self.  Exalting self is to violate the very first commandment.  To "humble" self is to recognize that there is One who is above and before us.


There is a consistency in Micah with our observations about the Matthew text.  While the Pharisees and scribes are filled with "self", Micah is filled with the spirit of the Lord.  It is what is in us that determines what comes out of us.

The essential sin of the leadership of Israel was that fact that "the right" was for sale.  One could bribe the judge for a positive personal outcome.  The preacher (prophet) would mold the message around economic benefit.  If you want good news, you can have it for a price. The sin of corruption is compounded all the more because the false prophet claims the backing of the Lord.  "Surely the Lord is with us!"

Micah on the other hand, comes with the power of the Lord for "truth telling."  The true servant of the Lord is able to resist the whims and desires of the people for words of peace and light when there is no peace and light.  It is important to keep in mind that these are the children of God.  Children need to be led.  They need direction and guidance even when they don't want it.  The man or woman of God can see past the surface of "feel good" words and direct God's truth where it will about maturity and spiritual health. The truth will make God's children healthy, but it will can also make then angry.

There will be times when all of us who are in ministry come across a "Micah-like" situation.  "Be careful not to offend Mrs. Jones.  She gives 10% of our annual budget you know."    It can be subtle or it can be blatant, but whenever we are tempted to "hold back a bit" -- or put something differently to soothe someone's feelings -- we will experience that tension between faithfulness to the Lord's truth and the need to keep the Lord's people happy.

1 Thessalonians

Paul represents the other side of the coin here.  He has the heart of a pastor for these people and they on the other hand are the joy of a pastor's heart.  Namely...  they are open to and gladly receiving of the message Paul brings. They gladly receive the truth which brings them to maturity.

Paul's ministry in Thessalonica is a great model.  He is faithful in proclamation, authentic in encouragement and consistent in thankful prayer.  The result is that the truth of God is active and productive in the lives of God's people.

Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Adapted from Psalm 43

Leader:   We gather today, our God, to seek your guidance.
People:  Send out your truth and light that we might be led.
Leader:   May we discover the pure joy of knowing you.
People:  And the happiness of those who sing your praises.
Leader:   We place our hope and trust in the Lord at all times.
People:  With confidence that we shall rejoice forever!

A Prayer of Dedication

The light and truth you send upon us are the greatest gifts,
we can know.  How can we do less than rejoice, give thanks
and bring these gifts to you.  O call us to yourself once again
and renew our spirits.  Give us grace to reflect your glory in
our lives this coming week.  Amen.


Church Humor

To anyone who has ever had a lawn, cut the grass, or raked the leaves!!!!

"Winterize your lawn," the big sign outside the garden store
commanded. I've fed it, watered it, mowed it, raked it and watched a
lot of it die anyway.  Now I'm supposed to winterize it?  I hope
it's too late.  Grass lawns have to be the stupidest thing we've
come up with outside of thong swimsuits!  We constantly battle
dandelions, Queen Anne's lace, thistle, violets, chicory and clover
that thrive naturally, so we can grow grass that must be nursed
through an annual four-step chemical dependency.

Imagine the conversation The Creator might have with St. Francis
about this:

"Francis you know all about gardens and nature.  What in the world is
going on down there in the Midwest?  What happened to the
dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago?  I had a
perfect, no-maintenance garden plan.  Those plants grow in any type
of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon.  The nectar
from the long-lasting blossoms attracted butterflies, honey bees and
flocks of songbirds.  I expected to see a vast garden of colors by
now.  But all I see are these green rectangles."

"It's the tribes that settled there, Lord.  The Suburbanites.  They
started calling your flowers 'weeds' and went to great extent to
kill them and replace them with grass."

"Grass?  But it's so boring.  It's not colorful.  It doesn't attract
butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms.  It's
temperamental with temperatures.  Do these Suburbanites really want
all that grass growing there?"

"Apparently so, Lord.  They go to great pains to grow it and keep it
green.  They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning
any other plant that crops up in the lawn."

"The spring rains and cool weather probably make grass grow really
fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy."

"Apparently not, Lord.  As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -
sometimes twice a week."

"They cut it?  Do they then bale it like hay?"

"Not exactly, Lord.  Most of them rake it up and put it in bags."

"They bag it?  Why?  Is it a cash crop?  Do they sell it?"

"No, sir.  Just the opposite.  They pay to throw it away."

"Now let me get this straight.  They fertilize grass so it will
grow.  And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it

"Yes, sir."

"These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back
on the rain and turn up the heat.  That surely slows the growth and
saves them a lot of work."

"You aren't going believe this Lord.  When the grass stops growing
so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they
can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it."

"What nonsense!  At least they kept some of the trees.  That was a
sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself.  The trees grow
leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer.  In
the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to
keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes.  Plus,
as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil.  It's a
natural circle of life."

"You better sit down, Lord.  The Suburbanites have drawn a new
circle.  As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles
and have them hauled away."

"No!  What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the
winter and keep the soil moist and loose?"

"After throwing away your leaves, they go out and buy something they
call mulch.  They haul it home and spread it around in place of the

"And where do they get this mulch?"

"They cut down trees and grind them up."

"Enough!  I don't want to think about this anymore.  Saint
Catherine, you're in charge of the arts.  I understand you have scheduled
a movie for tonight.  What's the title of the movie?

"Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It's a real stupid movie about..."

"Never mind I think I just heard the whole story."