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.