Sermon: 14th Sunday after Pentecost

September 2, 2012

I am very interested in people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  I want to understand what that means. I once asked a friend, who considers herself to belong to this group (along with the growing majority of people in this country) about the distinction. She said she thinks of religious as “obeying a set of rules of a particular religion.”  Spirituality, she said, is about pursuing oneness with God and neighbor. What do you make of that assessment?  As people who must be at least moderately religious—since you are sitting in worship right now—would you agree that being religious is simply obeying a set of rules?  If not, how would you describe being religious?  More specifically, how would you describe the Christian religion?  What makes it different from or similar to other religions?  And how would you characterize our spirituality?  Is there a difference? 

These are questions that are pivotal for the future of the Church, I think. Not for its survival as it has always been—I think we can all agree that ship has set sail. But for the sake of what the Christian Church is becoming and will be. The folks who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are our neighbors, and in order to serve them, we have to understand who they are and what they need. I know my friend is not alone in perceiving religion—and especially Christianity—as a confining tradition, one in which people are constricted and reigned in. In her mind and in the minds of many others, religious people are mandated to obey lots of rules to please God with the objective of making it into heaven. Is that what religion is, simply a way to keep us all in line?

Jesus was a religious man. He a devout Jew, who honored his father and mother, didn’t kill or steal or bear false witness against anyone. But in today’s texts we have a significant moment. In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are deliberately and actively breaking the rules of their religion. Among other rules, the Jewish faith has a number of restrictions about cleanliness and purity, especially related to eating. Obviously these rules made practical sense for a desert culture that had very little in the way of preservatives or disinfectants. But they were also considered holy. They are, in fact, in the Bible. This very Bible from which we just heard a reading that says we are not to subtract or add any rules.

And yet, here are devout Jesus and his disciples ignore these very reasonable and long-held rules, eating with unclean hands. They are defiling their religion. And when some religious leaders confront them with their error, do Jesus and his followers say, “Ooops!  Forgot!  Sorry. We’ll get right on that”?  No. There is no confession and forgiveness. Jesus and his friends continue to deliberately ignore the rules, AND Jesus lectures the leaders about being hypocrites. Um. Who’s actually upholding the religious traditions here, and who’s not?  Who gets to call who a hypocrite?

Jesus says, “Listen to me!” (which might be the best rule of all). And then he proceeds to explain that not all rules are created equal. Some rules are expendable. Some are central to our spiritual well-being. This is the heart of most religious arguments, I think. What is central, and what is not?

I know there are people who think that the toughest issue facing the ELCA these days is our 2009 vote to fully welcome and embrace our LGBTQ neighbors. But I think that is a side issue. The heart of the struggle, I believe, is really how we read and the interpret the Bible. Which rules do we hold as central to our faith, and which are less significant?  I’ve mentioned before that Martin Luther described the Bible as “the cradle of Christ,” and that some parts of the cradle are more near the baby than others. Every verse does not carry equal weight. The tricky part, of course, is determining what parts are nearest the baby and what parts are peripheral.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark informs the way I read the Bible. Here Jesus takes a firm position, saying in both words and actions that Biblical teachings dealing with purity are less vital to our faith than rules about relationships with God and others. Deuteronomy and Leviticus contain a lot of the ritual purity laws like the one Jesus is breaking here, and they also have many rules about not wearing clothes made from two different kinds of fiber, not planting two kinds of seeds in one field, about men not cutting their beards, and so on. It seems Jesus is unconcerned with believers adhering to such rules. What he is concerned about is that faithful people refrain from slandering each other, or becoming envious or deceitful or greedy. In general, Jesus seems to advocate for a religion that is based on authentic and significant relationships with God and with others. Jesus argues not for purity but for mercy, not for the holiness of one group, but for the inclusion of all. If we err, I think this story of Jesus suggests that we err on the side of encouraging love and compassion, not guilt or shame or fear.

When there is fear in a relationship or a religion, it tends to cast out love. If we do whatever we do out of a sense of obligation or fear, we are slaves to expectations. Maybe they are our own expectations of who God is and what God demands, or maybe they are the expectations we or others have for what Christian conduct looks like. If we worry too much about following all the rules, we lose track of the main thing. And the main thing is loving relationships—loving relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with all of creation. God created us in God’s own image—and that means we are designed to create, to care, to share and to serve. That kind of conduct reveals our Christ-like nature. We are not created to trudge through doing what we think is required to keep us from outer darkness forever. In James’ letter to the twelve churches he served—the letter from which our second lesson today comes—James prescribes in great detail what a Christian life ought to look like. Take note that the law he claims is the highest of the laws—in fact, the one he calls “the perfect law”—is the “law of liberty.”  In another church letter, St. Paul writes to the Galatian Christians: “For freedom Christ has set you free.”

So that’s kind of nice, huh?  It’s not all about the rules. It’s about Jesus loosing the ties that keep us bound, liberating us to be creative and joyful in our living out the things that make for true religion. Counter to what my friend says religion is about, James’ letter says that true religion is revealed in how we care for the widows and orphans—the most vulnerable people in society. And it is shown in keeping ourselves unstained by the evil forces that keep us from being compassionate followers of Jesus. That is what it means to be religious, and I would say, also spiritual. It isn’t about the rules. It’s about love in action.

I still think its a good idea wash your hands before you eat though.

While it is liberating to hear that we are free, it’s also kind of scary. Look what happened to Jesus when he let people have their freedom!  They killed him!  There is something about strict parameters that suggests safety, which is why a rigid leader like Hitler or Idi Amin or Rev. Fred Phelps could rise to power. Yes/no, right/wrong, in/out are all mandated with such conviction that no one has to risk making choices. With severe rules, we don’t have to figure out how to use our freedom or confront the terror of deciding about something for ourselves and then dealing with the consequences. It’s safe, but it’s not God’s idea for us.

God’s idea about freedom is much more dangerous. Living by the law of liberty does not mean we will always be free in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, the line “For freedom Christ has set you free,” was written by that jailbird St. Paul. Even Jesus himself did time in jail. What the law of liberty insists is that we don’t need to listen to people who tell us that we have to do and think such and such (or not do or think such and such) to be considered a Christian.”  God, the Great Liberator, has set us free to be who we are. As baptized Christians, we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever. We’re in.

So now what?  Now, without the threat of hell hanging over us if we don’t abide perfectly by the rules, how do we live Christian lives? I think some of it comes as a natural response to being set free. When we experience the joy of being loved and trusted, we find we want to show our gratitude. And we may want others to feel liberated and uplifted too. We express that best by treating others the way God has treated us—by respecting and honoring ourselves, God, and God’s world.

Maybe when we abide by the teachings of the Scripture because that is where we see God’s hope for creation expressed is what we call religion. But maybe doing so with thanksgiving, not in a grudging, required way, is what we call spirituality. I can’t say for sure. I just know that grace leaks across whatever distinctions I try to make.

The law of liberty, the living out of Jesus’ promise that the truth will set us free, empowers us to live rich, abundant lives, not because we are afraid, but because we are beloved. We don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to stop doing anything. We really are free. The only question is, what are we going to do with all that freedom?

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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