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.