Sunday, September 23, 2012

September 23, 2012 - Proper 20B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            God only wins if we lose. That’s the take home message for this sermon- God only wins if we lose. Now I don’t mean that there is a contest between you and God, but rather that in the life of discipleship, God’s victory is more important than our own. And paradoxically, if we lose ourselves so that God wins, we too will share in the victory. The rest of the sermon will expand upon that phrase- God only wins if we lose.
            Along the way, we’ll explore the themes of servant leadership and true wisdom. There is a wonderful word that is often used in the gospels to talk about Jesus’ walking from place to place- peripateu. In means to walk about in a literal sense, but metaphorically means to conduct your life or take advantage of the opportunities that you have in front of you. So this morning, I’d like to peripateu through this reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark.
            Remember last week, Jesus and the disciples were at Caesarea Phillipi, and Jesus tells them that the Messiah must die and be raised up in three days. Peter then tells Jesus that isn’t how it’s supposed to work, and Jesus responds “get behind me Satan.” Then Jesus talks about taking up the cross. The lectionary then skips the first part of chapter 9, which includes the Transfiguration, and then Jesus healing a boy whom the disciples were unable to heal of the demons that plagued him. Our passage today begins with the second of three predictions of the Passion.
            The text then says that the disciples were ignorant of what Jesus was saying to them, and they were afraid to ask him about it. Why do you think the disciples were afraid to ask him what he meant?
            Perhaps they didn’t want to consider death. Peter had already tried to ask Jesus about this new understanding of the Messiah and he got put in his place. No one wanted to be chastised by the teacher for not getting it. And the disciples loved Jesus. In the same way that sometimes family members go into denial when their loved ones get a terminal diagnosis, maybe the disciples didn’t want to think about the death of Jesus, so they didn’t ask about it.
            Or maybe they agreed with Peter, that Jesus was wrong about the Messiah. They rather liked the idea of a strong Messiah who would lead them against Rome. They weren’t very interested in this servant leadership stuff that Jesus seemed to be talking about. They were unwilling to see the world in a new way; they didn’t want the discomfort of changing their worldview. If this was God winning, they didn’t want it.
            And this is something that we all struggle with today. Once our minds are made up, we don’t really like to have to change our minds, or consider the fact that we might be wrong in our assumptions. I have a feeling that we’re going to see this played out from both sides in the upcoming presidential debates. Ronald Heifetz is the co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the JFK School of Government at Harvard. He is widely considered to be an expert on leadership, and in one of his books he writes that people and institutions fail because they refuse to change.
            This can be said of churches, of political parties, of nations, of universities, of businesses, or of you and me. St. James addresses this very point in the portion of the epistle we read today. He begins “Who is wise and learned among you?” I’m sure a lot of us think that we’re smart, that we’re well informed, so we’re tempted to raise our hands and respond “I’m fairly smart.” But he pushes us further and says “for where jealousy and selfishness are, there will be disorder and all bad things. But the wisdom from above is first pure.” Essentially, if we think we have a monopoly on wisdom or truth, then evil is sure to follow. We put our emphasis on winning, instead of making sure God wins.
            So we’ve considered why the disciples were afraid to ask. And in not asking, they missed a great opportunity. We need the questions in our lives of faith. Many a teacher has said that the questions are more than the answers. By not asking the question “Jesus, can you explain this?” the disciples stayed with their assumptions. By not asking the question, they avoided what could have been a very rich dialogue about what the Messiah is, about what it means to be betrayed, to be a servant leader, to be raised after death. But these questions went unasked. There is a great value in communities, whether it’s the twelve disciples or this church, when they work together to ask the questions and wrestle with responding to them.
            A great preacher I know often remarked that the reason why it’s so important to come to church is that in worshiping with others, we challenge our assumptions about God. But when we stay home or otherwise avoid conversation, all we’re doing is reaffirming our own suspicions about God. And it is exactly this wisdom that we need to reclaim as people. St. Francis, our nation, our community all need us to challenge our assumptions. In this divisive and toxic election climate, we need more listening, more candidates saying “you know, I learned something today and I’m going to have to rethink my stance on the issue of the day” instead of people digging their heels in and holding irrational and indefensible positions, simply because that’s where they started. They refuse to lose, and so they’ll do and say anything to win, even if that means preventing God’s winning.  But God only wins if we lose.
            One of the things that I love about the Episcopal Church is our diversity. A lot of churches tend to be rather homogenous in their views and makeup, but the Episcopal Church maintains that all are welcome and we struggle to remain a big tent. Doing so means we have some disagreements, but it’s worth the price. Martin Luther King once remarked that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; that is a tragedy, because without people who are different than us being here, we lose something- we lose the ability to challenge our suspicions about God. I love the fact that many of you are not going to vote for the same candidate that I will. Because, to be honest, if I knew that you all agreed with me 100%, I’d probably feel free to make some comments about things from the campaign trail this week. And you’d all agree with me, we’d all feel good about ourselves, and we’d be smug. And as James notes, we’d be damned for it. I hope that I challenge your assumptions, because you all challenge mine. And I thank you for that.
            I was recently talking to a friend’s parents about his return to church. They commented that they were so glad that he was finally going back to church, even though he left the church he grew up in for a much more evangelical church that lined up with his similarly conservative social views. I agreed that the renewed interest in spirituality is a wonderful thing, but I wasn’t so sure that going to church that simply reinforces what he already thought about God and world was such a good thing. Worship is good, but unchallenged faith isn’t. It’s not good for violent people to worship where they hear radical sermons. It’s not helpful when bigoted people attend churches that preach hate.
When I have Sundays off, I really enjoy going to other churches; churches that I’d never join in a million years. But every time I go, I learn something new about my assumptions. I have to think through my own beliefs and challenge my assumptions.
This is also why interfaith dialogue is so important. In college, I did a lot of coursework in world religions, talking to people that had very different understandings of God. And I didn’t always agree with them in conversation, but was always enriched by them.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip to Israel earlier this year was being in the minority. Christianity is the assumption in America, and especially in south. But in Israel, Christians make up about 2% of the population. Hearing the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day was a new experience, but I learned something about my prayer life in that experience.
There was a professor in seminary that, on the first day of theology classes, said “my job is not to teach the right theology, because only God knows that.” We all fall into the trap of reaffirming our own suspicions instead of challenging them. Let these readings be  an invitation to changes sides of the fence, knowing that losing for God is victory. Because if we’ve never changed our minds about anything, then we probably haven’t done much thinking.
So as our story continues, the disciples and Jesus arrive at a house and Jesus begins to interrogate them. He says “as we were walking, what were you debating?” And there was a dead silence, because they had been debating about who was the greatest. Jesus probably knew this, because he speaks right to it, but he gave them the chance to come clean first. I can’t help but wonder what that debate sounded like. Did it go “okay, listen, if Jesus is going to die, this is why I should replace him as leader”? Perhaps because they didn’t understand Jesus’ comments, because they didn’t ask questions, they were arguing about what he meant. They probably all were fighting over their own assumptions, trying to win, instead of listening to what Jesus had told them. Either way, they fought.
And this is exactly what James expects. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” We covet winning- whether it’s a game, an election, an argument, a lane change in traffic, we don’t like to lose. So we do whatever it takes to win; because we’re right, our assumptions are more correct than theirs. We’ll fight, we’ll sue, we’ll scratch and bite, we’ll lie, we’ll cheat, steal, murder. When we do these things to try to win, God loses, and our victory will seem rather shallow. God only wins if we lose.
Jesus then begins the object lesson with the disciples. He takes a child and places it among them and says “If anyone wishes to be first, they will be last of all and a servant of all. The one who receives or welcomes such a child in my name, I receive and welcome.” Or in other words, God only wins if we lose. And when we lose, God wins, and when God wins, we win. It’s simple logic, but not the sort of logic that governs our dog-eat-dog world.
In Jesus’ world, children were viewed differently than they are today. Children today are cute, sweet, and innocent, but 2,000 years ago they were seen as somewhat pitiful. Children were powerless, defenseless, and completely dependent on others. If someone was keeping score, children would lose. And it is exactly this sort of “loser” that Jesus calls us to welcome, or in Matthew’s version of this passage, to strive to be. Jesus realizes that these things are all illusion anyway. As much as we’d like to think we have power, we don’t. We can’t control the weather, we don’t control accidents, we don’t control stock market crashes. Power and security are illusions that become idols which prevent us from trusting in God. So Jesus says, receive the child- rejoice in not having to worry about everything.
Today, of course, children are viewed differently. We praise children for their questioning nature, for their lack of inhibitions in being themselves, for their innate sense of fairness, for their ability to play, for their sense of wonder. One of my favorite parts of my job is handing the Communion bread to children. I absolutely love the sheer joy and mystery on their faces. I am jealous of the way they grab for the bread like it’s their lifeline. I am inspired by the way they shout “I got God!” They don’t care much about winning, but they focus on living.
Jesus confronts the disciples with a very challenging lesson about betrayal and death. And the example that he gives on how to respond to death is to welcome and be like the child in their midst. In the face of death, be helpless, because that’s really all we can be. In the face of betrayal, be the servant.
Servant leadership is the way of discipleship. Instead of arguing about who the betrayer is and how to subdue them, instead of fighting with each other, instead of trying to win first place, Jesus says go to the back of the line and serve. CS Lewis, in a letter to a friend, wrote “we are not kings, we are not senators. Let us beware lest, while we torture ourselves in vain about the fate of Europe (and today you might change this to America or the economy), we neglect either Verona or Oxford (their hometowns and neighborhoods). In the poor man who knocks at my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks advice, the Lord himself is present: therefore let us wash his feet.” That is servant leadership, serving those in need instead of fighting over the answers about how to fix them.
We, of course, know the line from Isaiah, that in the Kingdom of God “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” The child will lead them not because they speak eloquently, or because they have been properly trained. The child will lead because they are lost in the mystery of God, because they aren’t concerning with winning.
As we go forth from this place today out into the world, let it be with the mind and heart of a servant. Let us remember the lessons from Jesus and the disciples: that community is important because it challenges our assumptions. May God give us the strength and grace to confront our assumptions. Let us welcome and receive the child and the child-like: the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, the abused. Society might call them the “losers,” but in their losing, they are blessed to be free from the game of trying to win at the cost of our soul and sanity. Before we seek to claim truth, or power, or prestige, may we heed this call towards servant leadership, remembering that we are entrusted to build the Kingdom of God, not our own kingdoms. Our world needs more losers, people who are willing to get lost in the wonder and grace of God. God only wins if we lose.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say...

Most of us attribute the old adage to our mothers- "if you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all." Sometimes our Sunday lectionary presents readings that fit current events perfectly, and this is one of those Sundays. I am not preaching this week, so this post will be a bit longer than normal to satiate that "preacherly" desire to respond to the events of this week. In our the Epistle from James we will read/hear on Sunday-
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.            -James 3:1-5
In the wake tragic news coming of out the Middle East (and most especially, Libya), this reading calls us to explore our speech. James writes that we should bridle our speech, as it is an extremely powerful instrument. In fact, I think it can easily be argued that our speech is the most important tool that we have at our disposal. This is likely why the founders of this nation added the First Amendment to the Constitution, realizing that in order "to form a more perfect union" free speech would be a necessity. But with any great power, comes great responsibility.

And this responsibility has been abused too often in the decade since 9/11. Whether it is Qur'an burning, cartoons of Muhammad, or just plain bigotry towards Muslims, free speech has led to evil- both on the part of the speaker, and in the inciting of retaliatory violence.

This is a classic case of virtue ethics. There are goods in conflict: free speech, on the one hand, and safety on the other. People talk about the importance of free speech and our inalienable rights to do whatever we wish and say whatever we like. But this is a rather childish and selfish (not to mention idiotic) position to hold. Free speech should not trump common sense; nor should it trump morality. In the same way that is is not legal to say "bomb" on a plane, threaten the President by saying "I'm going to kill you," or shout "fire" in a movie theater, hate speech should not be allowed when it creates a clear and present danger in the form of an anticipated and reasonable backlash. We are responsible for the words, and their repercussions. James makes this clear. As does Jesus when he says "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles." Or consider St. Paul's words in Ephesians-
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
We are responsible for loving at all times, and our words should be used for love and building up, not inciting violence. A particular wag of the finger must be directed at those who call themselves Christians and are guilty of this sort of speech and incitement to violence.

And for those who wish to instead argue this on a Constitutional basis, we do well to first consider the background to the First Amendment, which is a later addition to the document. First, in the Declaration of Independence, which will lay the groundwork for the Constitution we find the language that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all...are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This is a good in conflict with free speech. When the maker of this incendiary movie chose to exercise their right to free speech, they robbed the people in the Libyan Embassy of their right to life. To claim that the movie did not lead to the death of those in the Embassy is akin to arguing that the person who threw the grenade didn't cause the explosion, but rather that was simply an uncontrollable reaction on the part of the grenade. It doesn't make much sense.

Or consider the purpose of the Constitution, and all that follows (including the amendments). In the preamble it declares that the purpose of the document is "to promote general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Again, free speech can negate the very purpose of the Constitution when it robs people of liberty and posterity.

Perhaps you say -"Well, of course, the people behind this movie and other such hate speech are wrong." Perhaps you think they should be held accountable as well, and I'd agree wholeheartedly. But we shouldn't be too quick to pass the guilty verdict without considering ourselves first. I don't think any of you, dear readers, have done anything to spark a mass riot in the Middle East (at least, I hope not), but we have all said things that we shouldn't have.

People often like to say "you are the only person that can make yourself angry; it wasn't their fault for making you angry by insulting you," but the problem is that isn't true, nor should it be. As I preached a few weeks ago, anger is a good and proper response to things that are not just. And not everyone is able to control their anger, which sometimes turns to violence. Now I want to be clear, those who do violence are fully responsible for that violence and there is no excuse, justification, or condoning of such violence. But nor is there any condoning of, right to, or reason for speech that is meant to hurt and lead to violence. Intentionally causing someone to get angry is just as reprehensible of a sin as the manifestation of that anger in violence.

So whether we snap at a grocery clerk who is slow, a waiter who brings us the wrong food, a debate partner who says something to irk us, a supporter of the candidate whom you don't intend to vote for, or simply the person who delivers the straw that breaks the camel's back, our speech is a powerful tool. Our words do indeed guide our whole body, our speech does govern our relationships, we are what we say (and of course what we do too, but this is a post about speech).

With every sentence, every word, we have the opportunity to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. The question is: will you use the brick to lay the foundation, or will you throw it through the windows? Maybe if we don't have anything nice (or loving, or true, or Jesus-like) to say, then we shouldn't say anything at all.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September 2, 2012 - Proper 17B

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
             “But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” Moses says that to the Hebrew people in his farewell speech. And it sounds awfully important, “never forget these things.” But what things is he talking about?
            If you’ll think back to your studies of the Old Testament, recall that God first appears to Abram and calls him to move to a new land. From that time forward, through a name change to Abraham, through Isaac, through Jacob, and through Moses, God is revealing what we might call true religion. In the Epistle from James we find a discussion about living the true religion. And Jesus’ interaction with the Scribes and Pharisees centers on the intention of true religion. So I pose the question- what is true religion?
            In most circles, those are fighting words.  Christianity has a history of fights over true religion. Whether the debates are around the divinity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, access to Communion, or translations of the Bible, we Christians know how to have a good fight. And it continues today. Would Jesus vote Obama or Romney? What would Jesus say about abortion? Gun control? War? Universal healthcare? Tax reform? The pundits like to talk about the importance of swing votes and how candidates will fight over them. But no one fights harder than they do for Jesus’ vote. We all want to be a stakeholder in the true religion.
            It’s a trap we all fall into. As a theologian, I know that it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I have defined true religion. There are some things that I know that I don’t know; but there are other topics where I’m convinced that I have as close to a picture of true religion as anyone else. And that’s not always a bad thing. As Louisa May Alcott once said “strong convictions precede great actions.” Having convictions about true religion isn’t bad, so long as we realize that our convictions can also be our darkest blinders to the larger Truth. I’ve been blinded by my convictions, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one here to have done so.
            In our reading from James, he uses a great phrase in the middle. He says “be quick to listen.” Listen for the Holy Spirit, listen for the truth that others know, listen for what you have missed, listen for grace, listen so that you might love. But instead of coming to Church to reaffirm our own suspicions about what true religion is, let’s be quick to listen to Jesus this morning.
            As we start, Jesus, rather forcefully, rips off the blinders from the Scribes and Pharisees. In short, Jesus is saying “whatever you think of true religion, you’re wrong.” And he says this because as Jesus is defining it, true religion has nothing to do with what you think. Let’s start by considering the context of this passage from chapter 7 of Mark.
            So it seems pretty simple to us today, you wash your hands to avoid contamination and the spread of germs. We tell children all the time to “wash your hands before you eat.” So Jesus seems to be a bit off when he says that washing your hands before eating isn’t necessary. In the mind of a 1st century citizen, germs didn’t spread through dirty hands. No one thought it was necessary to wash your hands before grabbing a bite to eat. And here our translation really fails us. The text says that they disciples were charged with eating with “defiled” hands. But the word is literally translated as “common” or “profane.” The issue here is intention.
            Before eating a ritual meal, your hands needed to be clean, not because of hygiene, but because of the sacredness of the meal. So with this information, we can understand this interaction as Jesus and his follower did at the time. It’s a question about what following the law means.
            It’s worth pointing out that Mark notes that these Scribes and Pharisees came from Jerusalem- these are the big dogs. This isn’t the sheriff deputy coming to look in on them; it’s a special task force of the FBI. So Jesus knows he’s made the big leagues because the big time Pharisees have come to question him, and he’s ready for them. They come to him saying “who do you think you are? Do you think you’re above the law? You should know that you must wash your hands before eating a ritual meal. And yet your disciples don’t? What part of clean hands don’t you understand?” And Jesus responds by questioning the intent of having ritually clean hands when our hearts and minds are defiled. Jesus is talking about intentions; he is speaking about true religion. Religion not about what you think, but the religion of what you do.
            It should be pointed out that Jesus isn’t questioning the validity of the law, nor is he weakening it. If anything, he’s making a stronger case for it. Jesus says that it’s not enough to follow the letter of the law, anyone can do that. He is upholding the importance of the spirit of the law, suggesting that the intent of the law is more important than the law itself. As Moses notes in our first reading, the law will make us a great and discerning people, the law keeps us close in relationship to God; the law allows us to live in freedom. We should hear this as a question to the heart of the law. Does the law hold us back from building the Kingdom of God, or does it free us to do so?
Reinhold Niehbuhr once said that “it is humanity’s capacity for justice that makes law possible and humanity’s capacity for injustice that makes law necessary.” Jesus does not say that law and ritual do not matter, but rather Jesus is calling us towards true religion- a religion not of simply thinking that we’ve done what we should, but fully doing it with our heart, mind, and body.
            And this is challenging work. As St. James suggests, we ought to look in the mirror. What is it that you see? He suggests that those who claim to have true religion without living it are like those who look in the mirror and forget what they look like. That doesn’t make sense. If you look in the mirror, you know what you look like afterwards. James is saying that it makes about as much sense to hear the word but not do it. And in the same line of thinking as Moses and Jesus, James is offering us a definition of true religion, and it’s a definition of action, not of the mind.
            James says “if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Now those are harsh words, but why spare a telling blow if the telling blow will tell? James and Jesus are saying the same thing about true religion- faith without works doesn’t make sense. We can’t say that we’re Christian and think that’s enough. I can’t say that I was baptized and rest on those laurels. You can’t call yourself a person of faith if you don’t live faithfully. Don’t say that you’re welcoming, or loving, or forgiving, but be those things. As James exhorts us, be doers of the word. I know that our worship setup makes it look like you are the audience, but you’re not- you are the players. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Be doers of the word.
            What is the word that we should do, you might ask? In the Christian lexicon, word can mean, Bible or it can mean Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. In either way, we can read “word” as the work of God. To do the word is to live out the great commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might; and to love your neighbor as yourself.” To do the word is to live the prayer of St. Francis, being an instrument of peace. To do the word is to love like Jesus did.
            This is true religion- doing the word instead of speaking about the word. Theology and academia pales in the face of action. I’ve done a lot of thinking about theology and death. But when my grandmother died earlier this year, being with family helped more than that books I’ve read. Being a doer of love and a doer of family was better than being a hearer of words on a page. True religion isn’t about the Trinity or the doctrine of Original Sin. True religion is love, mercy, grace, hospitality, outreach, compassion. Jesus never really talked much about theological or academic sort of true religion because that’s not what it’s about.
            As you might recall, the four gospels weren’t written for at least 35 years after Jesus’ life on earth. So people wonder why it took so long to write this stuff down. It’s because the followers of Jesus saw that true religion, as Jesus defines it, is about being doers of the word. So their first priority was to also be doers of the word. They didn’t have the time to stop and write down the gospel, they were too busy living the Gospel.
            So I wonder if in our debates around true religion, what would happen if we focused more on doing instead of thinking and debating? What if we considered our intentions more and our arguments less? What if we emphasized what is important to God instead of what is important to us? What if we fought less over how to define true religion and united more in doing it? The fights of dogma in the Church and politics in Washington are distracting us from doing true religion. Perhaps we are being offered another way of doing the business of true religion.
            We say that Church is about dressing in our “Sunday best,” this excludes the homeless who haven’t had a shower in days. But what if we welcomed them with hospitality?
We roll our eyes and whisper “should children be allowed in worship?” when we hear a baby cry. But what if we offered a helping hand instead?
We debate about social welfare programs and how to pay for them. But what if we made sure that no child went to bed hungry and no senior was left without the medicines they need?
We forget about people in prison, claiming that the world is safer without them. But what if we loved all of our neighbors as ourselves?
We cover our wallets when the word “stewardship” comes up. But what if we realized that it all belongs to God?
We claim that God is the most important thing in our lives. But what if we prayed daily as if it were?
We say that we want our children to have faith, as Moses urges us to do in Deuteronomy. But what if we showed them what faithful living was like with daily family prayer and Bible study? What if we were the example that we wanted our children to follow?
We seek to define what marriage is in the eyes of God. But what if we encouraged and supported loving relationships between people of any sexual orientation?
We tell immigrants that this is our land. But what if we recognized it was really God’s land?
Conservatives tell liberals that they’ve gone down the slippery slope. Liberals tell conservatives that they’ve lost the big picture. But what if we agreed to serve and respect the God in each other before worrying about our agendas? Or what if we dropped our agendas altogether and discerned God’s agenda together?
True religion doesn’t need us to defend it. True religion needs us to do it. It has often been said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And I couldn’t disagree more. The road to the Kingdom is paved with good intentions, the sort of intentions that Jesus talks about. Instead, I would suggest that the road to hell is paved with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is derived from the Greek word for an actor, or one who pretends. We have enough people who masquerade around as the definers and defenders of true religion, but we need more people doing true religion. The vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, but when I look at the news, at politics, as our inner cities, our schools, our prisons, our television commercials, I don’t see much that looks Christian. We’ve got lots of pretenders out there, lots of people who hear the word and talk about it. But we need more doers.
Today is a fitting day to be talking about doing more, as its Labor Day weekend. We all need rest from our overly stressed lives, we do need more Sabbath, but that’s another sermon for another day. For today, there is much labor left to do. So I’ll leave you with two quick items for motivation in this seemingly endless task of doing the true religion. The first is to keep Moses’ words with you- for what other people has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call?” God is with us, God is working with us, God is the author and finisher of true religion. We are called to simply lend a helping hand. And secondly, as we look in the mirror as St. James mentions, know that the reflection you see is of the beloved child of God. God loves you, always and no matter what.
Jesus turns our expectations upside down when he encounters the Scribes and Pharisees and calls us to explore our intentions. It’s become too easy and commonplace to get distracted and drawn into fights over defining and owning true religion. But as Moses, James, and Jesus illustrate today, true religion is the religion of being doers; of taking care of the widow and the orphan; of loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly with our God. True religion isn’t about what we think, but it is about what we love. And our world needs a good bit more love, so let’s get to work.