Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Well…Today we have an extraordinary series of strong readings about the nature of religion, which is to say about our relationship – our connection – to God. That’s what the word, ‘religion’ literally means, you know. It comes from the Latin: re-ligio, meaning re – connect. Isn’t that instructive? Religion, most properly understood then, is a means through which we become able, more and more, to reconnect with God, with ourselves, and with each other.
Our first reading was from the Song of Solomon, one of the most beautiful and intimate books of the whole Bible — and this section in particular is gorgeous. Here God is ‘my beloved’ waiting behind the walls we ourselves have created, ‘gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice,’ beckoning us into new life, waiting patiently and endlessly for us – God’s own beloved -to ‘Arise my love, my fair one, and come away” into the beauty of the world outside those walls, where flowers and music and bird-song and fruits and vines are all in harmony through the glory of God’s own created world. Beautiful!
Next up is the psalm where, again, the beauty and the harmony of the world are clear and the heart of the author who perceives it sings their praise directly to God “with a noble song,” we are told, so that it becomes, for us, an almost literal response to the invitation from God we have just received in the Song of Solomon…
With these two readings we have religion as a work of intimacy, and union, and a world shaped by connection so deep there is little difference between the internal reality of love and the external reality of a world in harmony, come to life in light of that love with both beauty and delight.
The portion of the letter of James which follows is both more public and more practical in nature, but here again we start with generosity, and with gift, and with the firm but gentle guidance to be open and generous with each other. Be quick to listen, he tells us, and slow to condemn, and work towards welcoming “with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.” But then it turns – shifting first to a stern warning to follow through on what we hear, and to share what we receive, lest we fall into the trap of simply thinking we are “religious” and therefore good and right and true and leaving it at that, carrying on in our day to day lives without making time to listen to the other, or to care for them, as we ourselves have been listened to, and cared for. This is not real religion he says. Instead – ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this, to care for orphans and widows in their distress.’ It’s tough to get much clearer than that.
But that’s not all! We have more – and the timing of all this is extraordinary it seems to me, given the events of this past week, because our readings end today with a teaching on the nature of religion from Jesus himself. Not for the first time – and certainly not for the last – a group of religious professionals have approached Jesus to challenge him with his seeming absence of appropriate and acceptable religiosity: Why aren’t your followers acting as is prescribed by our religious leaders, and our religious rules and our religious customs, they demand to know. And in response, Jesus is very clear: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” he says. “As it is written: This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
Jesus is so riled up at this point, though, that even this brutal bit of scripture doesn’t seem to feel like enough, and he adds his own, piercing diagnosis of the situation at hand: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold instead to human tradition.” he says directly to these extremely religious people, as if all the rules that they follow, and all the care that they take to remain pure and safe and apart from the horror and the muck of the world has nothing to do with the commandment of God.
Religion, Jesus seems to be trying to remind us all, isn’t primarily about rule following, it seems, or about setting ourselves apart, or protecting ourselves from the potential perils of that which lies outside of our own small, known world. Instead – and again – it is about about opening ourselves up – opening, in the language of the Song of Solomon, the door in the walls our own too human traditions have created between ourselves and God, ourselves and our neighbors, ourselves and the battered and wounded truths of our own hearts. Opening, and then opening again, and again, until the truth of our connection to each other and to God compels us to act – not against, but with and through and for others, which is to say with and through and for God. This is the courage real religion births in us. How was it James put it in his letter again? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress….”
Today at least, none of this seems academic. In fact in light of the widows and orphans created by the explosion in Kabul on Thursday – it feels both pressing and urgent. Because of course the carnage in Afghanistan this past week – including, but certainly not starting with the man who strapped 25 pounds of explosives to himself and then blew himself up, killing more than 180 men, women and children — was created in the name of ‘religion’ — in the name of ‘God’. What a horror.
I need to be clear that my point here is not that Islam is bad or dangerous, any more than that the Jewish tradition of Jesus day was bad or dangerous, or that Christianity is bad or dangerous, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, for that matter. All of these are ancient, and powerful, and well-tested paths to reconnection and openness and wisdom and generosity and peace for their followers – each in their own way, each in their own place. The trouble comes only when the essential nature and purpose of religion – the re-connection of their practitioners to themselves, to their God, and to their neighbors near and far, gets replaced with a rigid kind of rules-based and exclusive certainty about what is true, and what is good, and what is right, and – right up alongside that, of course — what is not true, and what is bad, and what is wrong: I am good/ you are bad. I am saved/you are damned. I am worthy/you are worthless. I will attain life in paradise/you will be condemned for eternity.
Fundamentalism of every kind – and Christian fundamentalism not least among them – slams closed the door of universal connection in the name of exclusive salvation; turning our innate and God-given connectedness into this perhaps simpler kind of black and white, in and out thinking…. And what does it lead to? Peace, love, harmony, fruitfulness? Or fracture, separation, fear and violence?
We have an answer this week for sure – because this week distorted and deranged ‘religion’ led to the biggest, single suicide bombing we have ever seen. It’s hard to hear. And it’s hard to think about, and I know I have been tempted to turn off the TV and close the newspaper and think about something else – which is fine, to a degree of course, and necessary even sometimes.
But we are here, in this sacred space together this morning, in order to lean in to our own religion, which is to say, in order to lean in to our own connection with ourselves and our God and our neighbors – and so, strengthened by each other and by our God who is among us, let’s turn for just a few minutes towards the horror and the grief and the lost humanity this past week. Let’s sit together in a silence as open as we dare make it, and listen to the names of the 13 US service people who died, and make time to remember the lives of those Afghans who died as well, whose names we do not yet know. Does this sound ok?
When the people signal their acceptance we join together in silence. The the following is read by a member of the congregation who is a veteran:
Darin Hoover, 31
Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25
Nicole L. Gee, 23
Hunter Lopez, 22
Daegan W. Page, 23
Humberto A. Sanchez, 22
David L. Espinoza, 20
Jared M. Schmitz, 20
Rylee J. McCollum, 20
Dylan R. Merola, 20
Kareem M. Nikoui, 20
Maxton W. Soviak, 22
Ryan C. Knauss, 23
…and the more than 170 Afghan citizens, many of whom risked their lives to assist our troops with their mission these past twenty years. Men, women and children whose names we do not yet know, but whose value and sacredness we seek to uphold here
O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of these your servants, and grant them entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of all those who seek your will and serve your people.
Let’s turn back to our collect for today – on p5 of the bulletin – and pray it together again now:
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 work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. —- Amen.