Religious Extremism?: 32nd Sunday OT

You can have too much of a good thing. Everybody knows that. Ice cream is good, but if you eat a pint every day you make the good thing bad. That’s extreme. Likewise, concern for safety is good, but if you let it cripple you and never leave your house, you’ve made it bad by taking it to the extreme. Basic principle, right? Extremism is bad.

Well, we can also talk about religious extremism, and religion as one of those things that are good in proportion but bad when taken overboard. We can talk about how for billions of people in history and today, religion has brought many good things into the world and inspired many noble movements. But when we see people of different religions persecuting each other and spilling rivers of blood over religion, then we can start to talk about too much of a good thing. A good thing taken to an unhealthy extreme. So, religion good; religious extremism bad.

We could talk that way. In fact you can hear this view being said by someone on any given day. But it’s dead wrong.

Because while you can have too much of some good things, like ice cream and safety, there are other good things that you cannot have too much of. How about love? And love is the beginning and end of our religion. Love for God and for our neighbor; Jesus taught that every single commandment is an application of these two.

So if religious extremism has caused acts of homicidal insanity, like flying airplanes into buildings, that doesn’t mean that too much religion is a bad thing. It means something was horribly wrong with the religion of those men. I’m not commenting on Islam as a whole here, whether it’s a peaceful religion that they misunderstood or an evil religion that they represented, we’re not going there in this sermon. I’m talking about those individual men. Their problem wasn’t too much of a good religion, it was that their religion was bad.You could say the same about Christian terrorists, who, though comparatively rare in our day, certainly exist.

Please don’t buy the talking points about “religious extremism,” suggesting that a little religion is okay, but you don’t want to take it too seriously. Think it through. Have you ever heard anything from this pulpit that, if you really took it seriously, would compel you to go kill people? Have you ever heard anything from the Pope, or read anything in the Catechism, that if you really took it seriously, would lead to genocide?

If the answer is yes, we really need to talk. But I’m guessing it’s no. Probably, hopefully, you aren’t the sort of person who goes in for terrorism. But if you were, our religion would stop you, not encourage you. This whole idea, blaming “religious extremism” for terrorism or genocide or whatever, is a lie. Because you know what? If you aren’t extreme about it, you’re doing it wrong. If you aren’t extreme about it, I’m not even sure we should call it religion. Maybe a hobby.

Who are the extreme Christians? Terrorists? No! Any Christian terrorists who are around suffer not from excessive Christianity, but deficient Christianity. They aren’t too Christian, they aren’t Christian enough. So who are the people who take Christianity to the extreme? That’s easy, you know this one. They’re the Saints! Francis of Assisi took Christianity to the extreme, and the world has never forgotten it. St. Maria Goretti took Christianity to the extreme. All the Saints, our patrons Mary, Joseph, Kateri, Patrick… these are our religious extremists.

Our first reading from Maccabees paints a vivid picture of a group of brothers who are extreme in their faithfulness. This is one of the parts of the Bible that is not PG-rated. It is truly horrifying. And why are these terrible things done to them? Because they refuse to eat pork. This is the Old Testament, before Christ, and pork is forbidden by the Law of Moses. They can save their lives by taking a single bite of pork. They would rather die. Their mother is forced to look on. Does she say, “please, my beloved sons, God will understand, it’s just a minor religious observance, God wouldn’t want you to die for something so trivial, think of me your poor mother, you know God will forgive you, just take a bite!” 

Nope. She says, “Don’t you do it. Don’t you touch it. I’ll see you in Heaven.”

Wait a minute, now. Is that right? Are we expected to nod in approval? Isn’t this kind of crazy? We live in the real world, and sometimes you have to compromise. It’s not like they were being told to strap on a suicide-bomber vest. It was a bite of food.

St. John Henry Newman didn’t think it was crazy. He wrote, ”The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

Newman meant for that to be shocking. He meant for us to be taken aback, cock our head and think, “seriously?” Because he knew how easily we submit to compromise with evil. How quickly those little compromises build and grow and leave the door open for bigger compromises, and bigger. He knew how easily we lose our horror at sin. But the Saints never did. They saw the truth of things, the horror, the cosmic impossibility of a little part of God’s creation looking back at him and saying, “not Your will, but mine.” That is like the stars falling from the sky.

There are no insignificant sins. St. Francis of Assisi, amazing as he was, had lots of sins to repent of. But Francis said that if he’d only committed one single venial sin, that would be enough to repent of his whole life. We’d probably think that was pretty great, just one venial sin, that’s amazing, big blue ribbon for you! But that’s because we’re so used to compromise. This ties in to last week’s story of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector. Because if you think like Francis thought, if you took your own slightest sin that seriously, how could you ever judge another? Impossible!

This sermon will have gone horribly wrong if your take-away message is “wow, I’m really scum” or “God must be totally disgusted with me.” No. In fact, the opposite is true. God loves you way too much to abandon you to the power of sin and death. That’s really the whole point of what  we do here, week in and week out, we celebrate deliverance and redemption. We give thanks. The gratitude that fills our hearts bursts out into worship. We’re redeemed and forgiven. But if you don’t have a realistic horror of sin, you have no idea what that means. If you think there’s such a thing as an insignificant sin, you have no concept of what God’s mercy and salvation really mean.

They’ll tell you that a little religion is okay, but you don’t want to go overboard. Hogwash. It’s true that faith should always be reasonable, but sometimes the reasonable thing is to be radical. The world doesn’t need more compromise. We need more Saints.


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