Sunday, September 30, 2012

Didn't we already believe Jesus was human? (So what if he had a wife?)

"Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

It was clear at coffee hour last Sunday that the publication of the 4th Century Coptic papyrus with those words was a hot topic.

To me, the key question is not, "Was Jesus married?" That is a question we will never know the answer to definitively, because it is not answered by the four authoritative texts we have: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. None of the Gospels say directly that Jesus was married, and none of them say he was not married.

A better question would be "When we say we believe Jesus was fully human, what do we mean by that?" Since the third Century, the church has affirmed Jesus' fundamental humanity, as well as his divinity. Human beings form relationships, some of them intimate, some of them not. If Jesus was truly human, with human desires, relationships, and societal expectations, it is certain that Jesus as a man of his era would have felt pressure to marry, and may or may not have chosen to do so. It's something I believe we must have room for in our image of Jesus.

Imagining a married Jesus can unleash our creativity in wondering what turns his life took aside from the fairly narrow window we get through the Gospels-was the reason he suddenly bursts onto the scene at age 30 because that was when he was widowed? If Jesus had a wife, to whom he owed support and allegiance, did he abandon her to enter into his ministry, and if so did he feel guilty about that? Did she feel betrayed? Did he know the joy-and frustration-of raising children?

And if Jesus choose not to get married, why not? Was it because he knew his identity and calling would not allow him to offer the consistent support and allegiance that a husband was required to give? Did he just never find the right partner? Or did Jesus actually believe in the type of sexual purity projected on him by future centuries, and find himself untouched by lust and desire and consequently have no use for marriage?

When I was single and met a man I didn't know in a bar, and he found out what I did for a living the first question out of his mouth was usually, "Can you get married?" Now, I am quite certain that a first glimpse of me didn't send 90% of men into a fantasy of walking down the aisle. The real question they were asking was "Can you have sex?" (To which the answer was, "Not with you, and not tonight." That answer ended most of those conversations.)

Similarly, it strikes me that most of the media coverage is fueled less by whether Jesus lived in a state of matrimony and more by the question of "Did Jesus have sex?" because we still associate sex-even within marriage-with impurity, lust, and sin. The institutional church has much to answer for that. We do not believe that sex between loving, consensual, blessed partners is sinful, nor do we believe that sexual desire is something to be squelched and denied, as it is one of God’s many gifts. 

The papyrus in question is probably more interesting in how it describes Jesus relating to women in terms of their ministry: the phrases, "Mary is worthy of it...", "She will be my disciple...", and "..as for me, I dwell with her in order to.." hint at an elevated presence for women beyond what traditional Christianity has accorded them.

Now, you can go to many of the extra-canonical texts to find heightened roles for women-the Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Paul and Thekla are available online. But I don't think you need to look that far. Within the canon of our own New Testament, when you really study it and try to unburden it from 1900 years of interpretation specifically to diminish the authority and role of women, there emerges a picture of Jesus (and even Paul!) that places both men at the center of a movement of empowering, admiring, and engaging women as equals:

The Hebrew word "messiah," which is translated as "Christ" in the Greek, means "anointed one." The person who anoints Jesus and literally makes him the Messiah/Christ, is a woman in all four gospels. In all four gospels, it is the women who are at the cross, and who first encounter the empty tomb, and carry the message of the resurrection to the male disciples. Many of Paul's authentic letters are addressed to women, who were clearly among the leaders of the churches he founded.

If you'd like to learn more, a webinar on the papyrus with the Rev. Dr. Katherine Shaner and Dr. Deirdre Good of the General Theological Seminary will soon be available for replay at www.gts.edu. Dr. Shaner will be teaching two Sundays later this fall on the book of Revelation, so you can also ask her questions directly then. For more information on non-canonical gospels and the communities who wrote them, Dr. Karen King's The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle is available on Amazon, as is Dr. Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A capable Christian, who can find?

My sermon from September 23, 2012, on Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37

“A capable wife, who can find?”

I remember a particular dinner, early in our marriage, when I was cooking a new receipe, and managed to serve fish to Jonathan that was simultaneously burned on the outside, raw on the inside, and that I had also dropped on the floor on its way out of the oven. Jonathan wants me to note that his response was one of support, not anger or disappointment.  

But a capable wife, who can find? 

This passage from Proverbs today is fascinating. It is the end of the whole book, the last word, so to speak, and the list of characteristics that the capable wife possesses fascinate me because they go so far beyond what we might imagine an Ancient Near Eastern worldview of what a woman’s role was to be—you might imagine it would be an inwardly focused role, looking after family and domestic issues. But if you pick out the characteristics in the Proverbs text, you come up with a list that’s very outwardly focused—nothing specifically about fertility or motherhood or beauty—something like: trusted, financially saavy, a shrewd businesswoman and real estate developer, physically strong, hard working, a competent administrator, humble, generous, well dressed, optimistic, wise, kind, and beloved by all. She’s superwoman—and clearly overworked. It resonates for me as a person who feels a similar pressure to be a capable wife, capable mother and capable priest.  

And you don’t have to be a wife (or a mother, or a priest) to find that kind of list of virtues intimidating. Especially because the implication at the end of the passage is that all these wonderful qualities the capable wife possesses are rooted in her fear of the Lord. So when we fall short of being the capable fill-in-the-blank, is it our relationship with God that isn’t strong enough? 

What do we do with the expectations and aspirations that surround us, both as people who fulfill various roles of spouse, parent, professional, child, friend, etc, and as people of faith. One of the things that most religious traditions do is to set an ideal for how to live, but most of us are not capable of living up to the ideal. So there’s always a gap between the very good and genuine ideal and the pretty good and honest reality, both as people and as Christians. The hope is that the ideal inspires us to strive, to come closer than we would if the bar were not set so high… and to remind us that divine grace is necessary for all of us and so allow us to be gentle with ourselves and with others when we fall short. But that isn’t often true in my experience. Many of us are brutal to ourselves and brutal to others when we fail in meeting our ideals. 

Keeping that in mind, look then at the Gospel. The disciples are arguing with one another about who is the greatest—about their own ambition to be the best disciples they can be, to love Jesus the most, to follow him most closely. Everything Jesus has done and taught up till then has given them a picture of what the ideal disciple should be, and they have taken the ideal and turned it into an idol. 

A capable Christian, who can find? Not among these twelve guys, not today. 

Jesus recognizes the problem and sits down, right where he is, gathers them around and gives the lesson about how whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all. The capable Christian doesn’t expect perfection. Anytime you feel yourself being recognized as first, you have to remember that in God’s eyes, that puts you last. The capable Christian does the hard work, not the glamorous work. 

And the best example of that might be also in the Gospel today, in the confusion about Jesus’ passion predictions. Peter last week and the disciples this week are baffled by what they perceive as his fundamental failure: being betrayed and killed is not a successful outcome to his ministry. Just as each of the disciples want to be the greatest, they want the Messiah they are following to be the greatest Messiah; they want the capable messiah—not like the other, false Messiahs who ended their lives on Roman crosses or otherwise in ignominy—and there were other 1st Century messianic figures the people following Jesus would have known about. Jesus understands that as assured as he is of his identity as God’s Son, he will be brought low—very low—before the dramatic intervention of the resurrection. He will be the least of these on Calvary before he becomes the first fruits of the resurrection. 

Now, Christianity has sometimes made outdoing one another in humility and suffering an ill-advised offshoot of Jesus’ instructions today. You have only to look at some of the early Christian texts to hear an eagerness in some voices to experience martyrdom; to be proved to be faithful. Or in the stories of saints whose virtues are expounded upon and their spiritual and physical fortitude brought beyond any human endurance. Occasionally those extremes are instructive—I am reminded of St. Lawrence’s great action, when demanded to produce the treasures of the church, brought in the poor rather than the chests of gold the Roman authorities wanted. But sometimes they are dangerous… this summer we watched a movie about Joan of Arc and it struck me how unsympathetic the viewers found her—a girl, seemingly mentally ill, who rode into battle and—depending on whether you were cheering for the English or the French—exacerbated a dispute into a war and burned for it. This is not a faith most of us want for our children, or for ourselves.   

The big religious news of the popular press this week was of course the discovery of the Coptic 4th century papyrus in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” (By the way, Karen King, the Harvard Professor who has published the discovery, is an Episcopalian!) This is not an earthshattering revelation to me; I don’t think it matters to our faith whether Jesus was married or not, and there have certainly been arguments on both sides for centuries. But I hear an unspoken assumption in both the “Ha! Told you so!” response of non-religious voices and in the utter denial of conservative Roman Catholic voices that if Jesus was married he would be less perfect than heretofore believed. Maybe, if he was married he was really a human being, with human relationships, desires, and complexity? But we already believe that. Fully human. And fully divine. If Jesus knew what it was to struggle with the conflict over trying to simultaneously be a capable husband and a capable messiah, his life might have even more resonance for me today. 

God wants us to be capable Christians, to aspire to the ideals of the Gospel and Jesus own life. But not to idolize that ideal, not to idolize our own capability. I admit that I like it that I’m perceived as being capable as a priest, a wife, and a mother. I think it’s important to do things as well as I can, and I’m conscious that particularly in the church, when human beings in the church fail, the fallout can be pastorally and spiritually horrible—because sometimes it’s not perceived as a human failure, it’s perceived as a divine failure. But I’m not perfect—and sometimes in ways that are far more harmful than serving my husband burned, raw, dropped-on-the-floor-fish. I depend upon grace—grace from you, grace from God, and—this is the hardest part—grace from myself. 

We are not called to be the best Christians, or the best Church, or the best people. We are called by God to fear the Lord and be as good as we can be at what we do… a perfect Christian who can find? No one. No one can find a perfect Christian. None of those 12 guys—or the women disciples who were certainly surrounding Jesus as well—were perfect followers. None of them was the greatest. But many were great and faithful. And they improved over time. May God grant us a similar tenacity to let Jesus sit us down, teach us, and walk back into the world with our eyes open.





Sunday, September 16, 2012

The three chapters of the Messiah

My sermon from September 16, 2012

Every time Jesus asks the disciples a question in scripture, my heart goes out to them in sympathy. Because they never answer it correctly. The disciples are our stand-ins, and one of the narrative devices in the Gospel that allows Jesus to get his message across is to contrast it with the testimony of us poor mortals. Today is, perhaps, the rare exception, when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” A safe question—just repeating hearsay. Other people say Jesus is Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets… you don’t have to take a stand to respond to “Who do people say that I am?” 

But then Jesus gets personal. “But who do you say that I am?” Now it’s personal. Now you aren’t just providing information, you’re laying yourself out there. Who do you say that Jesus is? What word, what title comes to mind for you? What would you say if you were in Caesarea Phillipi that day with Jesus? 

When I imagine this scene in my mind, I imagine there is a very long pause after Jesus asks that question. I imagine them all looking around at each other… because of course, they’ve talked about this among themselves, when Jesus wasn’t present. They’ve debated if he’s the Messiah, or the Son of Man, or the Son of God, or a reincarnation of Elijah or another prophet. But now he’s asking them to go on the record. They’re hoping they know who Jesus is… but what if they’re wrong?

And so it’s into that void—that awkward, tense, silent void, where everyone is looking at everyone else and hoping that someone else will pipe up, that Peter takes the risk and speaks. “You are the Messiah.” And that affirmation turns into a gateway—it allows Jesus to move forward with a more in-depth explanation of why and where he is leading them.  

And then Jesus begins the first of several predictions in the next chapters of Mark’s gospel about what it means to be the Messiah: his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. And Peter, poor Peter, high on the excitement of finally, for once, answering a question correctly, descends into the seduction of rebuking Jesus and trying to redirect him away from suffering, away from the cross. Peter wants things to be easier, Peter wants to avoid conflict, Peter wants to find another way to the Kingdom of God. A way that doesn’t involved rejection and shame and death. Peter wants the type of Messiah he’s been dreaming of, not the type of Messiah Jesus will actually prove to be. But of course, Jesus doesn’t only prophesy his sufferings today, he also prophesies his resurrection. 

I know how sometimes when I’m listening to someone and they say something provocative I stop listening to what they’re continuing to say and get kind of stuck on the first or second thing they said. And so I wonder if Peter even heard Jesus say “and after three days rise again.” Did Peter get so hung up on Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death that he missed the resolution of the story? 

When Jesus comes to us and says “suffering and death are coming,” how do we respond? There will be suffering, there will be death in this mortal life. But Jesus is also, here, promising his resurrection, and if we get so hung up on the first things he says that we miss the end we are going to be like Peter and miss the point: resurrection follows death. Death does not have the last word, for Jesus, or for Peter, or for us. And so you can only understand the context of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering if you also understand that they don’t have the final word; perhaps the reason that Jesus cautions the disciples not to share his identity as the Messiah (and many other signs and healings throughout Mark’s gospel) is because there’s this arc to his story that doesn’t make sense if you only see one part of it. If you only know Jesus the healer and miracle worker, you can start thinking of him as almost a magician—he does the magic tricks with five loaves and two fish or healing the blind and the lame but it’s a very functionalist understanding of who Jesus is. And if you only see Jesus during his suffering and rejection and crucifixion, that is Good News for us when we are suffering and see ourselves in Christ’s passion and viceversa, but it doesn’t give us a complete picture of who Jesus is or who we are. And if you only encounter the Jesus of the resurrection, without the awareness of the cost he has borne to get to that point, and the teachings that guide the earthly life, then you’re only seeing a very simplified reduction of the Messiah. It’s like there are three chapters to Jesus’ identity, and Peter cannot comprehend the second and third chapters of Jesus as Messiah because he has only encountered the first chapter so far.  

Now as a parish this week we experienced a death. The death of a Peter, in fact—Peter Smith, to be exact, who lived a long and vivid and varied life before finding out just how hard it could be to have Jesus tell him to take up his cross. He was quite public about his story, sharing it with many of us at gatherings, including just last Saturday at our Stewardship Workshop. Peter encountered faith as a younger man in England through the Reverend John Stott, perhaps the greatest Anglican Evanglical of the late 20th Century, a big theologian, a committed evangelist for sharing the Gospel around the world, and the Anglican link to Billy Graham, whom he counted as a friend. Stott told Peter , in the midst of a young man’s life of privilege and debauchery, that he just needed to believe. So Peter tried to believe, and found a community that engaged and enlightened him. Years passed, and Peter came into our church’s life about a year ago after losing both his son and his wife in the past year. He had discovered what it was to suffer. A lot. He had taken up his cross—or had the cross thrust upon him, more accurately, and was looking for Jesus to follow.  

He spoke so openly and so eloquently about his desire to find his faith again. To really come back to believe that the very God who had let his wife and son die could be a loving God of resurrection. To believe in the whole Messiah, and not just the first chapter that he had encountered before. To find God in the suffering, not despite the suffering, and to really believe in that promise of resurrection and gaining your whole life. 

The central chapter in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is the cross. We look back from the cross to the teachings, and ahead to the resurrection, but it’s the cross that joins them. And if we find Simon Peters in our lives who try to put blinders on us to cover up the suffering that is in front of us, or who try to convince us to walk the safe path rather than the Christian path, we have to, like Jesus, reject that advice. But as we encounter suffering and death on our path, we cling to Jesus’ witness that it is not the final word in our lives or in our world. And I think Peter Smith found that here—from the outpouring of love and affection for him that I’ve heard in response to his death, I know he felt loved and knew there was a home for him here, in our community, to share our joy and make it is own.  

Peter’s spiritual mentor, John Stott, put it like this: “The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration, a eucharistic community, ceaselessly offering to God through Christ the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving. The Christian life is an unending festival. And the festival we keep, now that our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, is a joyful celebration of his sacrifice, together with a spiritual feasting upon it.”

Now Bishop Sisk, who firmly believes that only the words in the Prayer Book should be said at worship, and that if you deviate from them, you will be punished, always begins the Creed at our annual clergy renewal of vows with words that do not come from the prayer book, but they are so beautiful that I guess even Bishop Sisk knows they should be shared. John Stott told Peter to believe. Bishop Sisk tells us, “My brothers and sisters, it is only when we love one another that we can truly say… we believe…” and then goes into the Nicene Creed. It is only through love that we can believe. So I invite you today to stand up now. My brothers and sisters, it is only when we love one another that we can truly say, “We believe in one God….”





Sunday, September 9, 2012

Showing no partiality (aka, from Louboutin to Payless)

A sermon preached September 9, 2012

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

I’ve had two really great and interesting experiences this week and they’ve both touched on the issue of money that is brought up in both the Epistle of James and Proverbs today: the first was the chance to moderate a Google Hangout, which is like a video conference, for a “Faith Based Response” to President Obama’s speech for ABC News between a Sikh, a Muslim, an Evangelical Christian, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, and a Hindu. And what emerged from that for me particularly regarding the Proverbs text was the shared heritage of all the religions in their care for the poor and their acknowledgment that the appropriate response to encountering the divine is generosity. Whether it’s one of the five the pillars of Islam to give to charity, or the Torah’s commandments to give the first fruits of your harvest to God, or the perhaps more pragmatic cultural responsibility of Hindus to care for their elderly family members, every religious tradition records our obligation to care for one another and to share what we have with others.  

And the second was a Stewardship Workshop all day yesterday here at Epiphany with most of our Vestry and some other members of this church led by a consultant who guided us through looking at Epiphany’s core values, our aspirations for the future, and teaching us some best practices for stewardship and fundraising in the Church today. Thank you so much to those who were present—you inspired me. 

It was clear from our discussion of core values that this precise passage from James is one of the core values of Epiphany: the people present identified that one reason they love Epiphany is because it is so welcoming to everyone; and specifically that they don’t feel judged by the way they dress or how much money they have, or what they do in the same way that some people had experienced at other churches. Put another way, I have seen Christian Louboutin shoes in this church; and I know some of us get our shoes at Payless. We have people here who have very high-powered professional careers; and we have people who are unemployed and having a really tough financial time right now. And both are welcome here—and everyone in between—not just in the pew, but in leadership, on the Vestry, in the Sunday School… our goal is to show no partiality, and to make sure that every personal and every financial commitment at Epiphany is equally honored, whether you are giving out of an abundance or whether you are giving something like the widow’s mite—a gift that is small in dollars but big in significance to you. And I know we’re not perfect in the execution of that, but it’s the value that infuses what we do. 

Our consultant had us share stories of “transformational giving” yesterday; and they were wonderful—I’m so grateful for each of the people who were willing to tell a story of a gift they witnessed or gave sometime during their lives. The story I thought about sharing—but didn’t, yesterday, was the story of my first pledge of support to a church. I was 22, and was earning $30,000 per year as a teacher. It seemed like so much money. But I had no idea how much I could pledge—I knew I was supposed to tithe and give 10%, but I realized that wasn’t realistic. We didn’t talk about giving money away in my house growing up. We talked about saving money, and we talked about spending money—especially how you shouldn’t spend money because you should be saving money—but I had no idea how much my parents gave to the church. I still don’t. I think I settled on giving $100 per month. I felt very grown up as I wrote a check each month to the church, and put it in an offering envelope like I remembered my father doing every week when I was growing up. And I remember the next annual meeting seeing breakdown of pledge totals, and realizing that while I thought my pledge was really small, where I fit in a fairly large and affluent parish in terms of giving was near the middle. I didn’t think I had a lot of money, but I was capable of making a difference in that parish. Giving has been one of my ministries since then—just like singing, or teaching, or being a priest. 

 In terms of our financial Stewardship, two things have to happen at Epiphany for us to be a sustainable church: the people who are already here need to give more. And there’s good news on that front. Our Vestry has pledged to raise their 2012 pledges by an average of 15%. They are putting skin in the game and showing us the way forward by their own transformational and sacrificial giving. A number of you gave your time yesterday to learn more about the different generational giving patterns and different ideas of how to communicate information about our budget and our needs so that we can do this. We need to find that way to talk transparently—and more frequently—about money but not in such a way that people feel harassed and like people are always asking for money. And I think we can do that. 

And the second thing we need is to have more people in these pews. We need to actively invite people here—face to face, through signs and flyers, through media online and in print, every way we can think of. And our message must be consistent—my reduction of it would be this: Come to Epiphany and find community, find purpose, find God. We imagined yesterday what this church could be like in 10 years—I see full pews, a thriving Sunday School, even more music, and a stable budget, and a parish that still holds to that core value of welcoming all—of not showing partiality. What do you imagine? 

I sometimes feel a mix of frustration and gratitude that it’s comparatively easy to raise money for our Homeless feeding program and Carpenter’s Kids. They’re great programs that directly help people in tangible ways, so it’s good that we highlight them. The challenge before us as a parish is that our whole budget is necessary for our mission. Your gift that keeps the lights on and the heating oil in the tank means we can house the Homeless Feeding Program. Your gift that pays part of my salary ensures that someone who is in the hospital or having a crisis has the pastoral care they deserve. Your gift that pays for our administrative staff ensures that our funds are accounted for and utilized appropriately, and that every person who calls or rings our doorbell is greeted lovingly and welcomed. There is nothing in our budget that is not directly related to our mission of serving God and our neighbor. 

Finally, we need to learn two things from the gospel today. The first is to do what the disciples do and completely ignore what Jesus says about not telling anyone about the good things he has done. If you put your light under a bushel basket, what good is it? There is light all over this church—in our children and youth ministries, on our Vestry, in our visits to the hospitals, in the loving friendships and communities here that have grown over years and decades. We aren’t always very good at how we communicate what we do. And part of yesterday was learning some ways to change that.

And the other thing we need to take away from the Gospel today is the word, Ephphtha. Be opened. Not just our ears. Jesus wants us to open our ears and our eyes and our doors and our minds and our hearts and our wallets and our arms. Ephphtha. Be opened. Be opened to the spirit, to faith, to belief, to music, to joy, to gratitude, to the love of your neighbor. Be opened to the love of your priest. Because I do love you. And I do thank you, for being a church that is so easy to love.

We began the stewardship workshop with this beautiful prayer written by our Warden, Helen Goodkin, and I want to close with it today as we kick off the program year at this wonderful parish. 

Holy God, who calls us to do your work in the world,
We thank you for this opportunity to gather and to be together,
 For the multitude of talents and remarkable wisdom which we each bring.

We give thanks for the entire congregation, the young, the old, the middle aged,
                        Women and men, girls and boys,
                        Old timers and new faces,
                        Married and single,
                        Singers and non-singers,
                        Those who feed the homeless and those who teach the children,
                        Those who care for the altar and those who visit the sick.
                        8:30 ites, 11:00 ites, and 6 pmers.

Be with us today as we reflect on your call,
Be with us today as we discern and define our mission,
Be with us today as we seek to grow in understanding.
Be in our hearts and minds
      For listening and for speaking.
      For learning and for teaching.
      For working and for laughing.
      For hearing and for seeing.
      For doing and for sitting still.

Give us openness, respectfulness, and insight.
Give us wisdom to find the path and courage to complete the task.
Give us faith, hope, and love, and

May we always have on our lips the words of your Son. Amen.





Thursday, September 6, 2012

http://youtu.be/MrvO4-JfFuU

Link tonight to the Google + hangout for ABC News on a faithbased response to Obama's speech. 

Cheers!

Jennifer

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A defense of religion

A sermon from September 2, 2012

When I say the word, “religion,” what’s your gut reaction? It’s often a bad word these days—people like to be “spiritual but not religious” and our inherent distrust of institutions is—sometimes rightfully—aimed at religious institutions. Even religious people--you--might be a little nervous about the word.  Culturally today, “religion” implies “thou shalt nots”, rigidity, shame. Religion is worldly, spirituality is heavenly. Religion oppresses; spirituality liberates. Religion is for those who want to pretend they’re unstained by the world, but who are really just as sordid and sinful as everybody else. 

The etymology of the word is surprisingly unclear—coming from the Latin, probably meaning “respect for God,” but maybe also referring to re-reading—to considering things carefully. The word is only used in the New Testament 3 times, two of them in the passage from James; Jesus didn’t talk about “religion,” and a lot of ancient languages didn’t have a word for religion.    

But we get a wonderful definition of religion today in the Epistle of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” I suspect that most of the “spiritual but not religious” people in the world today would be surprised by that definition—at least the first part of it. James breaks it down to its simplest elements: religion is to care for the needy, and then the way I would interpret the second part of the verse about keeping oneself unstained by the world would be not to give in to what the world says is normal—war, violence, sin, cruelty, selfishness. We hear “unstained” and we might equate it with sexual purity or something… but I’d look at the bigger picture.  

Now how do you feel about that kind of religion?

The verse before this definition of religion in James’ epistle is also insightful: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” And that brings us right into the Gospel, where Jesus is confronting people who do the outward signs of a religion, but don’t have that respect for God deep in their hearts; they’ll wash their hands to become “pure,” but have no purity of soul or intention or loving aspect towards their neighbor. Jesus doesn’t use the word “religion” but defines it in terms of following human traditions vs. the true commandments of God. The challenge is that religion encompasses both—our religion includes some human traditions (some good, some bad) and some commandments of God. The trick is to know which is which.  

I and many Christians would boil down the commandment of God most simply to the Great Commandment of Jesus to love God and our neighbor, but that is shaded by the knowledge and familiarity with the other commandments in scripture and the narrative itself: what do these people we read about having encounters with God teach us about a Godly life? If people have a negative reaction to the word “religion” today, they probably have an even stronger negative reaction to the word, “commandment,” but it’s an important word. The purpose of the Law in the Torah was not to oppress the people of Israel but to liberate them—to ensure that their common life was peaceful and prosperous. When laws or commandments oppress, they need to be changed and rethought. But I need a guide—I need a roadmap—I need God to shape how I see the world, or else it becomes all about me. 

When reading scriptural commandments—or the human traditions that come out of them, I find myself asking, “What is the purpose of this commandment?” Is it to be pure—to distinguish the clean from the unclean, the saved from the damned? Or is the purpose of this commandment to aid our love of God and of neighbor? If it is to aid our love of God and neighbor, how can I—and we—observe it so that it actually does this. And when a commandment is broken, how can we address it lovingly so that that, too, aids our love of God and neighbor, instead of forcing people further apart from God and their neighbor?

Religion and commandments place expectations upon us and aspirations before us, and there is always a danger of a gap between what is on our tongues and what’s in our hearts. Jesus nails it today when he calls a group of people hypocrites for blindly following human traditions that make them feel good about themselves rather than following the actual commandment of God that would inform how they live their whole lives.  

Hypocrisy is, perhaps, the unforgiveable sin of the 21st Century, at least among people my age, and that’s part of the reason the church is challenged so frequently today: people see it as hypocritical. The pastor who preaches vehemently against homosexuality turns out to be gay; the church that preaches justice and caring for the poor has beautiful buildings and large endowments. The people who wash their hands obsessively before eating so that they can be pure turn out to have cruel and impure actions and hearts. We have to always be on guard against being self-delusional and either preaching a message we don’t believe or falling short and sinning and not owning up to it. 

One way of addressing how we discern the commandment of God from human traditions in religions is in the collect today: the prayer to graft into our hearts the love of your name, and increase in us “true religion”; true religion to me would be the goal of distilling God’s commandments from human traditions. True religion to me would be that relationship with God and our ancestors in faith that allows us to see what of the law, the commandments, the instructions in the Bible are able to guide us into the Love of God’s name. True religion is the community that helps to discern God’s commandments for us, as well as the community that holds us to account for them.  

It cannot be just our personal conscience that discerns what is God’s commandment and what is human tradition, first because our personal conscience is what leads to that list of sins Jesus describes today. Our personal conscience is capable of justifying anything that “comes from within” even if it defiles us, to use Jesus’ words. We need to listen to our conscience, but that cannot be our only guide. And we also can’t just leave it up to our individual conscience because a lot of the laws are about group stuff—they’re about how we live together as families and churches and societies. We need a community conscience not just to live the commandments but also to—I don’t want to use the word “enforce”, but you need a place among people you love where you can safely admit to breaking commandments and make amends. And where collectively, we can see where the commandments themselves, as they’ve been handed down to us, are in error—where we mistook human tradition for God’s command, and need to reform. 

One reason that this way of understanding God’s commandments appeals to me as a Christian is that it incorporates a very dynamic life of the Spirit, and it means that God is still speaking in ways that we can hear. The love of God’s name is grafted into our hearts; but it’s not from our hearts. It’s from God, and it counters the interior tendencies we have towards sin and setting our human issues ahead of God’s issues. It’s also something we have to nurture through prayer and study and sacraments. The spirit lives on in our hearts, growing and blossoming and revealing God’s eternal law to us, when we listen and pray. It’s not as easy as saying “The Bible said it. I believe it” which is a statement that makes no sense since the Bible contradicts itself so often. It asks more of us than that. It asks us to stay in relationship with God every day, to see God in scripture and in our neighbor and through revelation in prayer. And that’s religion. The “fruit of good works” in the words of the collect; more specific in the Epistle of James, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.” Persevere in our faith and wrestling with the commandments, and we will be blessed. Amen.