Sunday, November 26, 2017

What Matters Most (a sermon from Matthew 25:31-46)

This parable is not really a parable – it is but it isn’t. One scholar calls it an apocalyptic drama. Scholars who have studied Matthew in detail see the author’s hand all over this. Some argue that the author probably composed it. Of course, there is no way to prove that. What we can say for sure is that the teaching of this apocalyptic story strikes a theme that is dominant in Matthew’s Gospel, namely, doing the will of God, expressing mercy and justice, engaging in acts of lovingkindness. These are the things that Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes and these are the things that matter most.

I hope you know not to take this judgment scene literally. This is an apocalyptic story. Apocalyptic literature is full of symbolism, sometimes rather strange and bizarre symbolism, like the Beast with ten heads or the great red dragon in the book of Revelation. In apocalyptic symbolism everything is exaggerated; it’s full of hyperbole. And when you think about it, most of Jesus’ parable contain elements of exaggeration. This was his way of grabbing the attention of his listeners to make his point or points. The shocking element, the exaggerated element could be an astronomical debt that one could not have possibly accrued or an admonition to cut off one’s arm or pluck out one’s eye if such is prone to cause offense to a brother or sister. We don’t take that literally.

In this judgment scene all the “nations” stand before the King. Or we could say “all the peoples of the earth” or we might even say, “all the peoples of the earth who had never heard of Jesus,” because all those who are judged in this story give the appearance that they had never heard of Jesus. So, it could well be that “all the nations” here is a reference to all those outside the particular covenant arrangement that God made with Israel and the church.

It is important that I pause here and say something about that. The covenant that God enters with Israel first, then later with the church, doesn’t mean that Israel or the church are more special, more loved, or more blessed than everyone else. That idea has been the source behind much pain and damage inflicted upon the world in the name of God by religious people who think they have a corner on God. In Genesis 12 when we read of God’s choosing and calling of Abraham and his seed, his descendants, we read that God’s intention was for Abraham’s seed – the people that emerged from this relationship with God – would extend the blessing of God to all people. The covenant people were chosen, not to be blessed above or over against the peoples of the world, but to communicate God’s chosenness and blessing to all the peoples of the world. And the same thing can be said of the church.

I believe in inviting people to enter into a covenant relationship with Christ. I believe in inviting people to become disciples of Jesus. You can call that evangelism if you want to. I believe in it because I am a disciple of Jesus and I know first-hand through personal experience that one can know God and serve God, one can love God and love neighbor, by being a disciple of Jesus, by being faithful to a covenant relationship with God through Christ. But, and this is very important, I am not biased enough to assume that my way of knowing God is the only way to know God. I do not know enough to claim that my way of loving God through discipleship to Jesus is the only way to love God. It would be prejudicial and arrogant of me to dismiss and discount other religious traditions that I have never practiced. Who am I to claim exclusive possession of God? We of course, don’t possess God anyway. God possesses us. The earth is the Lord’s and all therein. I only know what I know, which is very little indeed. And the same goes for you too sisters and brothers. If you put all our understanding about God together, we really don’t know didlly squat. God will always be Mystery with a capital M.         

In this story the Christ identifies with the least of these in a very personal, intimate way. When those who gave the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, personal care, and health care – to these who are identified as the “least of these” the King says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” In other words, when these people who had never heard of Jesus showed mercy and extended hospitality and cared for the “Least of these” they did it to the Christ. The Christ stands in union and in solidarity with these unfortunate ones who are in such dire need.

Do you remember in Luke’s account of Paul’s encounter with the living Christ on the Damascus Road what Christ said to Paul? At the time Paul was a fierce persecutor of the followers of Jesus. His passion was to wipe them out, to rid the world of them. His religious zeal was so ainted and twisted by his hate and prejudice that he thought he was doing God’s will by ridding the world of disciples of Jesus. In that encounter the risen Christ says to him, “Saul (that was Paul’s Jewish name), Saul, why do you persecute me?” Not why do you persecute my followers. But rather, why do you persecute me?  The risen Christ so identified with the suffering ones and persecuted ones that he could say, “When you persecute them, you are persecuting me.”

Some scholars of Paul who accept the basic trustworthiness of Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion and calling believe this was the experience that set the tone for Paul’s whole theology that developed around this idea of being “in Christ.” Paul uses that phrase numerous times in his letters. We are one in Christ. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. This is why Paul can speak of the body of Christ. Paul calls a local church the body of Christ, he calls the universal church the body of Christ, and he even says that all people are in Christ and will be made alive in Christ in 1 Corinthians 15.

So according to this teaching whenever we do a deed of loving kindness to someone in need, we are doing it to the Christ. This teaching had a major impact on the ministry of Mother Teresa. She considered her work with the outcasts of Calcutta to be work done for, with, and to Jesus. She remarked once, “We serve Jesus in the neighbor, see him in the poor, nurse him in the sick; we comfort him in his afflicted brothers and sisters.” At her funeral she was eulogized for having exemplified this very passage in ministering to the needs of the outcasts and unfortunates. She could see Christ in the disfigured faces of the despised and rejected, the sick and destitute. In her book No Greater Love she writes, “Hungry for Love, He looks at you. Thirsty for kindness, He begs from you. Naked for loyalty, He hopes in you. Sick and imprisoned for friendship, He wants for you. Homeless for shelter in your heart, He asks of you. Will you be that one to Him?”  (88-89) 

Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated—his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby! 

Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby! Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. 

Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

When the mother’s child suffers, the mother suffers. When one of the least of these suffers, the Christ suffers. Frankly, most of us just don’t get how closely the Christ is connected to all of us, how the the Christ is at one with the creation. By the way, the least of these are only the least from the perspective of humankind, not from the perspective of God. In God’s mind and heart, there is no least or most – we are all God’s beloved daughters and sons. And those who are fortunate enough to experience something of the heart of God know that. And they know it, not because the Bible tells them so, but because the living Christ tells them so, and then they find confirmation in the Bible. It’s like the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know Christ lives, he lives within my heart.” We know that all people are God’s beloved children because we have experienced the love of the living Christ, not because of a written document no matter how sacred that document.

A few weeks ago I talked about Thomas Merton’s experience in downtown Louisville where he felt at one with all the people around him, though he did not know any of them personally. He knew from his encounter with God that all these people were his sisters and brothers. He says the walls of separateness came down and he felt he belonged to all these people and they to him. The kingdom of God is actually the kin-dom of God. The “least of these” are not charity cases, they are our sisters and brothers.

In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus reaching out to the poor and vulnerable, standing with the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifting up the downcast and downtrodden, healing their bodies and liberating their minds and setting their hearts free of fear and anxiety. What this story teaches is that of all things spiritual, social, moral, and religious this is what is most important of all. And to make the point stick the storywriter appeals to heaven and hell. Don’t take this literally. This is hyperbole. The symbols of eternal life and eternal punishment are employed here to point out how important this is, so no one will dismiss this teaching as irrelevant or insignificant. And yet it seems, when you consider the church at large, this is exactly what we have done. How many expressions of Christian faith are you familiar with where the emphasis is on religious beliefs or practices – where the push is on believing the right teachings or practicing the right rituals. This sacred story cuts through all of that by not saying a single word about religious beliefs or rituals. The people here who stand before the King never heard of Jesus. They couldn’t believe in Jesus because they never heard of Jesus. The indictment is not: Why did you not believe in Jesus? The indictment is: Why did you not care for your sisters and brothers when they were in need, when they were destitute, when they were defenseless, when they were the most vulnerable? Why did you not do for them and provide for them.  And notice too. They are not judged for the evil they did; they are judged for the good they did not do. Let that sink in for a moment brothers and sisters.  

If we take this story seriously, it says a lot to us about what we should be doing. Obviously we have our limits. We can’t give to everyone or every good and just cause. We have to be somewhat selective do we not? But clearly this story shows us where our focus needs to be and where we must channel our service. Serving “the least of these” at the very least means engaging in personal acts of loving kindness towards them. It means working in the trenches – in soup kitchens, women shelters, and food pantries. And it means supporting and advocating for public policies that are good for them. If serving them means anything surely it means this much.

This, by the way, is why being a follower of Jesus has political implications. I’m not talking about partisan politics. I’m talking about policy politics. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you take seriously this sacred story and what it teaches then you have to care about our legislators putting together, for example, a compassionate immigration policy that provides a clear path to citizenship. Surly that is part of what it means to welcome the stranger. If welcoming the stranger in our context means anything surely it means as much.

Now, sometimes it gets more complicated. How do we best address poverty, malnutrition, criminal justice reform, the huge economic disparity, just health care, fair tax reform, and so forth. There are no simple answers. If we care about the mistreated, the poor, the oppressed, the most vulnerable among us then we have to care about the laws or lack thereof that affect them. We may well disagree on the policies that will help them, but surely we can come to some consensus on doing some good for them. What would tax reform look like if we actually cared about “the least of these?” Here’s where both political parties get it wrong. We woudn’t be giving big tax breaks to the really well-off for sure. But we wouldn’t be giving tax breaks to the middle class either. If anything we would be paying more taxes so those disadvantaged and more vulnerable wouldn’t have to pay any.  

I like the way Philip Gulley puts it. He says, “The question is not whether we should mix Christianity and politics. To follow Jesus is to be political. The issue is whether our understanding of Christianity makes the world more gracious or less gracious. Do we work against injustice, oppression, greed, and self-absorption, or do we defend the status quo? Do we take seriously Jesus’ call to “bring good news to the poor, . . . proclaim release to the captives and . . . let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), or do we treat Jesus as our team mascot? Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives all face these temptations.” If caring for the “least of these” means anything, if loving our neighbor means anything, it surely means working for a just and equitable society in which every person is valued and respected.”    

Let me close with a word about judgment, because all of us will face the Divine Judge. All of us will stand before the Judge of all the peoples of the world. Will Willimon tells how his father-in-law, a Methodist pastor, attempted to comfort a grieving family whose son had just died while committing a crime. They were obviously in grief because their son had died, and the grief was intensified because of the way he died and what people were saying about him. This wise pastor says to the grieving family, “Just remember that when your son is judged neither I nor anyone else in this town will be making the judgment. The judge will be Christ, the one who is the embodiment of mercy.” You know sisters and brother, the Christ loves you more than you even love yourself. And I believe that God knows just what to do for each of us that will further transform us into the image of Christ.  

Our good God, help us to see that what really matters is how well we care for one another, and especially how well we care for the least of these, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us. Forgive us, O God, not just for the times we have reacted in anger or treated someone badly or selfishly hurt a brother or sister, but forgive us too, Lord, for our many failures, for all the times we have missed opportunities to show grace and kindness, or stand with and speak for those treated unfairly by others. May we come to realize that we are all family, we are all one kin, that regardless of how different we may be in so many ways, we are one in Christ. In whose name I pray. Amen. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Meeting God (a sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13)

The New Oxford Annotated Bible calls this an “apocalyptic parable” and Matthew probably intended it as such. However, in more recent times a growing number of biblical scholars and religious writers have rediscovered the ancient wisdom tradition that some of the early followers of Jesus embraced. These teachers, instead of putting all the focus on some future coming, would emphasize Christ’s coming to us right now, again and again and again.

The last couple of weeks I have talked about “knowing God” and “loving God.” Today I want to talk about “meeting God,” not in some future apocalyptic event, but right now. If you have been listening to what I have been saying this may seem like a paradox, which it is. I said last week that there is a sense in which we are all spiritual beings, because the Spirit of God, the Divine Presence is the reality in whom we live, move, and have our existence as Paul told the Athenians in the story in Act 17. The challenge for us is allowing the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ – to fill and pervade and direct our lives.

Now, today when I talk about meeting God I am talking about becoming aware of God, of being conscious of God and encounters or experiences of God. And sometimes these experiences of God are life changing and mind altering. The renowned Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, tells about an experience he had in 1958 that had a transformative impact upon his life. He had just been to Louisville to see a doctor. Then standing on a busy intersection at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street, in the center of the shopping district, Merton had something of an epiphany. He says, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” In describing this experience Merton says it was like waking from a dream of separateness. Through this experience he realized that all these people that he knew nothing about were his sisters and brothers, and that they, like himself, were all connected to the Divine Source that sustains all life.

William James, who was both a psychologist and a philosopher, wrote about such experiences in a now classic book titled, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Though published over a century ago, it is still in print, and some have argued that is one of the  most important nonfiction books published in English in the twentieth century. James  observed several things common to these experiences, which he called mystical experiences. He noted that they are extremely difficult to talk about, to try to explain or put in words. They are usually very brief. They involve a vivid sense of knowing and seeing reality, that is, seeing “what is” more clearly than one ever has previously. And one cannot make them happen. These experiences cannot be programmed or planned. They can only be received. They fall “upon” the recipient. Religious persons who have had these experiences often speak of people and things having a kind of radiance or luminosity. And they speak of feeling a sense of union with the Divine and a connection to everything. One might say something like, “I felt at one with the One.” It’s practically impossible to put into words.

I don’t know if you have had an experience or experiences like this. If you have you probably haven’t told anyone, simply because such experiences are so hard to explain and put into words. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone simply because of the many ways it could be misunderstood. Such experiences are hard to talk about. So then, we can’t make these happen. However, there are some things we can do, like the maidens in our parable, to prepare for, to be ready for such “meetings” or “comings.”  

One thing we can do is be watchful. The parable ends with this admonition: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” These meetings with God cannot be arranged, but we can be ready to receive them. Certainly spiritual practices help ready us. We are engaging in one right now – participating in community worship is one spiritual practice that most of us engage in on a regular basis. We can nurture an inner life. We can give observe times of silence and solitude, quieting the clamoring voices of our maddening culture so we can hear God’s voice, which actually is the voice of our true self. There are spiritual guides who can help us do that. The writings of Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr have guided me and helped me to hear the still, small voice in the midst of other voices.  

Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about a festive day in the early 1980’s, when Bernie Glassman Roshi, a Zen teacher who is known for his commitment to social justice, was being ordained as abbot of Greystone Mandala in New York. Zen teachers from far away had come for this sacred ritual. All sorts of holy symbols were on disiplay and filled the place. Between the chants that were part of the service there were times of sacred silence. Into this silence, suddenly a beeper went off. Steindl-Rast said he felt sorry for the one who had forgotten to turn off the alarm, because it seemed such an eruption into this holy service. But Bernie Glassman, the teacher being ordained spoke up and announced, “This was my alarm. I have taken a vow to interrupt whatever I am doing at high noon and think thoughts of peace.” He then invited all who were present to join him for a sacred moment of thinking about and praying for peace. He said, “Our world so needs it.” That’s a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices, spiritual disciplines keep us focused so that the mind and heart of Christ might be formed in us. 

Another thing we can do besides being watchful is wean ourselves of negative habits and patterns in our lives that cause us to be unloving, frustrated, preoccupied, and divided. Much of our growing and becoming and allowing the Christ image to be formed in us is connected to our “letting go.”  Other teachers describe this as dying to our ego, or renouncing the little self, or relinquishing our false attachments. Basically it involves a   letting go of our inner defense mechanisms that we use both consciously and unconsciously to protect our egos. These negative responses keep us bound to our fears, anxieties, and insecurities. It takes some inner work to do this: to first, recognized and confront our negative patterns and inner fears, and then second, to let them go.

What fear is holding us back? What frustration is controlling our thoughts? What are we  afraid of that keeps us from being the courageous truth tellers we are called to be? What is it that keeps us preoccupied with our little, ego dominated self? What causes us to be self-defensive, or angry, or feel so empty or bored or burdened? There are habits, attachments, ways of thinking, attitudes, and behaviors that we simply need to be weaned from, that we need to let go of so we can grow and become more God-like (which, paradoxically, means to become more fully human).  

The story is told about a country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

What we need to do is whittle away all those parts – all those attitudes and actions, all those prejudices and biases, all those ego centered patterns that don’t look like Jesus. Some of the questions I can ask: Am I unbiased like Jesus? Am I compassionate like Jesus? Do I love like Jesus? Do I have the courage to speak truth to power like Jesus? Do I care for the marginalized and disenfranchised like Jesus? If not, then what is hindering me from being more like Jesus – having his mind and heart? What is keeping me from participating in his dream for humanity and for the world? What do I need to be weaned from? Some of us may need help, particularly when we are unable to identify or see what it is that is keeping us bound. Some folks may need to join an AA group. For others it may mean being part of a faith community like ours. We may need to find a good spiritual guide or maybe a psychotherapist. We need to do whatever we can to identify the things that are hindering us from living the Christ life and let them go.                              

I love the way Paul or a disciple of Paul puts this in Ephesians: “Put away falsehood . . . put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice,” [because none of that looks like Jesus right?] rather, he says, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We take off the worst of our humanity, so we can cloth ourselves in the best of our humanity, and Jesus, is our definitive and quintessential example and guide. He is the Son of Man par excellent. The title Son of Man simply means the human one. He is the human archetype of what we are called to be and he represents what is possible for each of us to become.

So what can we do to ready ourselves? We can watch, we can wean ourselves of our fears and negative patterns, and one more thing we can do is engage in works of mercy and justice. Almost always one’s engagement with the world takes on new energy and vitality and zeal after an encounter with God. After Merton’s experience of God in downtown Louisville Merton began to pour himself into relationships with some of the leading peace activists of the day. Some, like Daniel Berrigan, would visit him in his hermitage. He corresponded with Martin Luther King, Jr. He also reached out to leaders of other religious traditions, such as Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. But even if we have never had an experience like Merton, or what William James calls a mystical experience, our calling as followers of Jesus is to act mercifully and graciously toward all people and pursue restorative and social justice for the most vulnerable. And when we engage in works of mercy and justice we are readying ourselves for such an encounter with God.
In colonial New England a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse, during which many of those present panicked and others moved to adjourn. But one of them said, “Mr Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought”

For disciples of Jesus, our duty is to love God and love others as we love ourselves. Our duty is to engage in deeds of mercy and kindness, and to pursue justice for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable. And that’s our duty regardless. Even if we cannot point to any experience of the transcendent or the ineffable, that is still our duty. And when we do our duty we ready ourselves for whatever God wants to show us.

So then, sisters and brothers, we cannot will or plan these special encounters with God. There is a great mystery to it all. But we can be ready and whether we have an encounter like Merton’s or not, we can still grow and allow the Christ image to be formed in us.

So first, let’s be watchful, let’s be awake and alert to the divine presence that fills all things. And we can do that by nurturing a life of prayer and by giving attention to our inner life. Let’s learn to listen to the still small voice of God, which calls to us out of our true self. Second, let’s wean ourselves of negative attitudes and habits and all those negative patterns in our lives and relationships that quench the Spirit and hinder the Spirit from completing the good work of conforming us to Christ. And third, let’s work the works of God – works of mercy and justice – trusting in the power of love.

In the parable the oil for the lamps is “the” important commodity. It’s the lack of oil that makes the unwise maidens unwise. The wise maidens brought extra oil, so they were prepared. I see the oil as a symbol for the energy, the inner power that that keeps us moving and engaging and serving others. It is the power of the Spirit, which is the power of love. The Spirit is always enlarging us, moving us beyond our little selves, and empowering us to love better – to love inclusively and unconditionally

I have no idea why some people have these unique encounters with God, these mystical moments, and others don’t. But I do know that if we will pay attention to how God is working all around us and in our world and give attention to developing an authentic inner life in Christ we will be ready to see God’s image in others, perhaps even in our enemies. If we will learn to let go of the negative biases and attitudes and behaviors that diminish rather than enrich life, then we will be ready to grow and mature and become more Christ like. If we will give ourselves to doing the compassionate and loving thing, the merciful and just thing, then we will be ready to be instruments of God’s peace and justice in the world. And these are the things that really matter.

Gracious God, create in our souls a thirst for the living water and a hunger for the bread that is life enriching and sustaining. May Christ be formed in us so completely that what we will is what you will. May we share your heart, O God, O living Christ and be ready for anything that you want to show us and teach us. As we eat the bread and drink the cup in both remembrance of love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus and in celebration of the Christ’s living presence among us and in us, may you fill our lives with the love of Christ that our lives might be a source of blessing and help to others. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lessons in Being Human (a sermon from Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12)

In her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott tells of her conversion to Christianity. After a number of years of self-destructive behavior and spiritually wandering about, she found herself attending a small Presbyterian church. She says, “I went back to St. Andrew about once a month. No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I didn’t want to be preached at about him.”

Her life at the time was a mess. Her dearest friend was dying of cancer. She was despondent following an abortion. She was addicted to alcohol and spent a number of days in a drugged and alcoholic stupor. And she was in the midst of a deep depression. It can’t get much lower than that. Nevertheless, she felt a presence. She says it was like a cat eyeing her, “I felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing with.”

One week later, Lamot was sitting in a pew at Saint Andrews and the singing touched a chord deep within her.  She says, “I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door of my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and I hung my head and said, ‘F*** it, I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’” That was the beginning of her faith journey.

Lamott was fortunate to find a little church that didn’t try to save her, that didn’t try to control her, that was patient and gracious and kind, and that gave her the freedom to find God when she was ready. They didn’t try to scare her or manipulate her by threat of punishment or promising the reward of heaven. And in surrendering to God she surrendered to a process that would enable her to claim her humanity.

I have no doubt that religious faith and expression is at its best when it helps us become more human. What do I mean? Some spiritual teachers suggest that we do not need to become more spiritual. They say we are already spiritual. We need to become more human. And that happens when we who are already spiritual beings allow the Spirit to work in our life to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, which is the very best of our humanity. That’s what I mean when I say that religion is at its best when it helps us become more human. Healthy, transformative religious faith and practices will help bring out the very best of our humanity by teaching us how to open our lives to the Spirit. It’s not religion that does it. It’s God at work in and through our humanity that does it. But healthy religion provides the mechanism, the means through which the Spirit works in our life to make us more loving, caring, compassionate, humble, and good.

The two texts we read today from Micah and Matthew are basically denunciations of religion gone awry. Micah denounces the priests and prophets in Israel who teach for a price and give oracles for money. If the price is right they will tell you what you want to hear. In the name of God “they abhor justice and pervert all equity.” Social justice and restorative equity are the fruits of the kingdom of God. Authentic religion always leads us there, false religion perverts and subverts what is right and just and good. Healthy religion promotes the common good; unhealthy religion cares nothing about it.

Matthew denounces religious leaders who lay heavy burdens on people and care mostly about their own place and power. They seek seats of honor and glory, while they bind up their people with burdensome rules and regulations that are nothing more than systems of meritocracy and worthiness

Micah and Matthew denounce religion that serves to diminish rather than enrich our humanity. They denounce religion that is used for selfish and egotistical ends rather that teach us how to love God with the totality of our being and love out neighbors as ourselves. They denounce religion that uses fear to control others, rather than in love serve others. I suspect to one degree or another all of us here have been part of religious systems that used fear and threat of punishment to elicit the sought after response.

James Mulholland who was serving as an American Baptist pastor at the time tells this story: A little girl, her mother, and grandmother were driving home from church one night, after watching a Christian movie about the end of the world. The movie threatened terrible consequences for all those who hadn’t accepted Jesus as their Savior. On the way home, 5 year old Stacie piped up from the backseat, “I want to ask Jesus into my heart.” Her mother and grandmother, instead of questioning why a five year old suddenly wanted to “accept Jesus,” especially just after seeing a film that portrayed the fires of hell, were nevertheless overjoyed. Without really asking if a five year old could actually understand what it means to commit one’s self to a religious faith, they led Stacie in a prayer to accept Jesus as her Savior.

I suspect most of us here understand why a parent and grandparent would do that. I suspect that many of us, maybe most of us grew up in religious traditions where the main point was to get people saved. I was fired from my first church because I wasn’t saving/baptizing enough people.  (I was able to negotiate a six month severance package and I felt pretty good about that). I pastored a mission of a larger church. Now, here’s the catch. Our numbers at the mission church were added to the numbers of the mother church. So our baptisms showed up on their records. The Senior pastor let on like he was so concerned about getting souls saved – you know, rescuing the perishing. To be honest I don’t think he even believed what he preached. But he wanted his church to be one of the top five churches in the state of Kentucky in baptisms. He wanted his name listed in the state paper and the honor and prestige of being a successful evangelistic minister. He coveted one of those “chief seats in the synagogue.”

So if you grow up in that kind of religious tradition like I did and probably most of you, you want to do anything you can to get your little one saved – to be assured they are going to heaven. So little Stacy’s mother and grandmother were delighted Stacie made this decision and they didn’t stop to inquire why she would want to ask Jesus into her heart. Mulholland says that the next day five year old Stacie, less somber and more mischievous misbehaved. Her mother said, “You know Stacie, a little girl who asked Jesus into her heart shouldn’t act that way.” Little Stacie shot back, “Well, I can ask him out too.”

Stacie’s grandmother interpreted that to mean that little Stacie had figured out the nature of the universe – one can choose to accept God or reject God. That’s some theological mind for a five year old isn’t it? You and I know what was behind Stacie’s decision and her reaction to her mother don’t we? As Mulholland suggests here was a little girl who simply was one, sensitive to fear and two, resistant to control. I love what he says, “We don’t need to accept Jesus into our hearts; we need to have the same heart as Jesus.” That’s really good. And that’s the difference between religion that seeks to control and religion that seeks to liberate. That’s the difference between religion where the goal is to get people into heaven, and religion that wants to see heaven come to earth and God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the difference between religion that is almost exclusively focused on our personal happiness and eternal destiny, and religion that while caring about our personal good is just as concerned about the common good.

A woman once asked a religious Teacher, “Which is the true religion?” The Teacher replied, “Once there was a magic ring that gave its hearer the gifts of grace, kindness, and generosity. When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his three sons came separately and asked him for the ring. The old man promised the ring to each of them.

“He then sent for the finest jeweler in the land and paid him to make two rings identical to the original. The jeweler did so, and before he died, the father gave each of his three sons a ring without telling him about the other two.

“Inevitably, the three sons discovered that each one had a ring, So they appeared before the local judge to ask his help in deciding who had the magic ring. The judge examined the rings and found them all to be alike. He then said, ‘Why must anyone decide now? We shall know who has the magic ring when we observe the direction your life takes’

“Each of the brothers than acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, honest, gracious, generous, and thoughtful. The Teacher concluded, ‘Religions are like the three brothers in the story. The moment their members cease striving for justice and love we will know that their religion is not the one God gave the world.”

One reader of this story has commented that authentic religion is not about a ring to possess, but a love to express. You know sisters and brothers, I don’t believe there are a hundred different paths to God and that one is just as good as another. Some expressions of religious faith diminish our humanity rather that enrich our humanity. Some religious teaching fosters hate rather than nurturing love. So all religious traditions do not lead to the same place. That’s just as true of the different versions of our own religion, Christianity.

Now, I don’t want to completely downplay belief and suggest that what we believe is unimportant. Beliefs are important because we do tend to live up or down to our beliefs. For example, if we believe that God tortures people, then we could easily believe that our nation is being an instrument of God when our nation tortures people. Bad beliefs can lead to bad actions. But this idea that God cares as much about what we believe about God as God cares about how we live for God and how we treat and love one another is simply not true. As the little book of James says, “Faith without works is dead.”

There’s a little story in our Gospels where a disciple comes to Jesus and says, “’Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you’” (Luke 9:49-50). Clearly Jesus did not care that the one the disciples wanted him to rebuke was not part of their group or may have believed some different things than his disciples believed. That did not bother Jesus. Jesus was the boundary breaker, not the boundary maker.

Why is it that we think that our church, our doctrine, our religion, our faith is the only right one? Once upon a time I used to go to Baptist conferences. I can just hear some denominational leader pointing to some place on a map saying, “Here’s where we need to plant a church, because there are no churches in a ten mile radius.” Well, if you drive around that ten mile radius you might find a whole slew of churches. What that religious leader meant was, “There’s no Baptist church in that ten mile radius. There’s no true church. There’s no evangelistic church. There’s no doctrinally correct church. There’s no right church. You know, sisters and brothers, I just don’t have time to listen to that kind of nonsense any more. Where did we ever get the idea that God cares about our being right anyway? What God cares about is our being righteous – about doing works of mercy and justice – doing what is right and just and loving and good.

I love that little judgment fable in Matthew 25 about the goats and the sheep. They end up in vastly different places don’t they? It’s because one group believed all the right things and the other group believed the wrong things right? Wrong. What mattered? It was all about giving food and clean water to the destitute. It was all about caring for the sick and the stranger (dare we say the undocumented person). It was all about attending to those put in prison (dare we say especially those who were victims of an unjust judicial system) I saw a statistic the other day I couldn’t believe – 70 percent of those in jail have not been convicted of a crime, they are simply folks who are too poor to pay their bale. And some say we are a Christian nation. That’s only because the word “Christian” doesn’t mean diddly squat these days.

Well, I could have read more in Matthew 23. These woes on the religious leaders goes on and on for 30 some odd verses. “Woe to you hypocrites, you lock people out of the kingdom of God, but you are not in yourselves . . . Woe to you blind guides, you hypocrites. You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. . .  Woe to you, you whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. . .” You would like to fire me for sure if I preached one of those kind of sermons. The scholars tell us that Matthew probably added a good deal of this, and he probably did, but he didn’t add all of it. Jesus clearly was not fond of any type of religion that diminishes our humanity.  

Religion at its best helps us to become more human. Religion at its best inspires, compels, empowers, and teaches us how to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and how to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the neighbor according to Jesus clearly includes everyone, even the one who is our enemy.

Is your faith making you a better person? A more loving, caring, kind, compassionate, empathetic, humble, authentic person? If it isn’t then what good is it? The writer of James says “it’s dead” – it’s barren and useless. Healthy religious faith, in our case, healthy Christian faith will bring out the best of our humanity.

Our good God, keep us from using our religious tradition in an arrogant or exclusive way. And may we, like Jesus, be willing to confront and challenge those parts of our tradition that are not helpful – that are more life diminishing than life enriching. May we constantly be growing, evolving, changing, and becoming more human – more kind and loving and gracious and good and willing to risk and stand with and for those that others may use as a scapegoat. Let us not think that we have the truth and others don’t, but let us be able to see just how little we actually know about you and how much we still need to learn. And most of all, enable us to trust in your unconditional love, even if we have never experienced that in our human relationships. May we intentionally desire and practice those things that will help the Christ image to be formed in us. Amen.