Sermon: Spiritual vs. Religious

butterfly_greenFourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 30, 2015

Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9
Psalm 15
James 1:17–27
Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

I am very interested in people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I want to understand that distinction, and always make it a point to ask people who identify in this way what they mean (who, by the way, always seems eager to discuss this topic). Generally the answers fall along the lines of religious being adherence to a specific set of doctrines and rules, and spiritual being a general awareness of a non-specific holiness in the universe and a broad collection of values like “being kind to each other.”

Many people perceive religion—especially Christianity—as a confining tradition, one in which people are constricted and reigned in, required to obey lots of rules to please God with the objective of making it into heaven and escaping hell. My favorite answer so far is from Steven Charleston, a Native American Episcopal priest who says, “Spirituality encounters the self, religion encounters the other [as in the full humanity of others and all that entails], both encounter the wholeness of God.” I can’t fail to notice that one of these encounters is vertical and one in horizontal. Is it an accident that they form a cross?

As people who must be at least moderately religious—since you are sitting in a worship service right now—what would you say about the distinction between being spiritual and being religious? Or is there even a difference for you? More specifically, how would you describe the Christian religion? What makes it different from or similar to other religions? How would you characterize your spirituality?

Jesus was both spiritual and religious. He a devout Jew, who honored his father and mother, didn’t kill or steal or bear false witness. But today’s Gospel lesson describes a significant moment in which 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 1st century desert culture that had very little in the way of preservatives or disinfectants. But they were considered holy. They are, in fact, Biblical. 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 Jews, Jesus and his disciples, ignoring these very reasonable and long-held rules, eating with unclean hands. They are defiling their religion. And when religious leaders confront them with their error, do Jesus and his followers say, “Oops! Forgot! Sorry. We won’t do that again”? No! There is no confession, no forgiveness. Jesus and his friends continue to deliberately ignore the rules, AND Jesus lectures the religious leaders about being hypocrites. Um … who’s upholding the religious traditions here, and who’s not? Who gets to call whom a hypocrite?

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

I’ve mentioned before that Martin Luther described the Bible as “the cradle of Christ.” Although all Scripture informs our faith, some parts of the cradle are closer to the Baby than others. Not every Bible verse carries equal weight. Ever wonder why we stand up when the Gospel is being read? It’s because the Gospels touch the Baby directly—they depict the life of Christ. The tricky part, of course, is determining what other parts of Scripture are near the Baby and what parts are peripheral.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark informs the way I read the Bible. Here The Baby himself (all grown up now), Jesus, takes a firm position, announcing in both words and actions that Biblical teachings dealing with purity are less vital than 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 other rules about not wearing clothes made from two different kinds of fiber, not planting two kinds of seeds in one field, men not cutting their beards, and so on. It seems Jesus is unconcerned that believers adhere 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 spiritual religion or a religious spirituality. He encourages thoughts and actions 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 groups. 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.

For the record, I still think it’s a good idea wash your hands before you eat.

But the main thing is love. Cultivating loving relationships—with God, with ourselves, with others, and with all of creation—is what Jesus advocates. Created in God’s own image, 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 imagine 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 claims 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.” They make it clear that the Christian religion is not all about the rules. It’s about Jesus! Specifically, it is about Jesus loosing the ties that keep us bound, liberating us to be creative and joyful in our embodying the things that make for true religion.

Often when we experience the joy of being loved and trusted, we become loving and trustworthy. And then we find we want others to feel liberated and uplifted too. We express our faith best by treating others the way God has treated us—by respecting and honoring ourselves, God, and God’s world. James’ letter says that true religion is revealed in how we care for the widows and orphans—the most vulnerable people in society. 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.

If that is what it means to be religious, I’m in! Furthermore, what could be more spiritual than love in action? Therefore, let us be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.


~Pastor Susan Schneider

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