Benediction Online

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

True Religion

James 1:17-27

As most of you know, for the past month I have been working on my book. I wish I could tell you it was completely finished, but no, not quite, my deadline has been extended to the end of this week. I thank you all for your prayers and your patience as I complete this major effort which has been one of my goals for many years.
The book is really about the question that comes up in our reading from James this morning -- What is true religion? For the past 35 years the Episcopal Church has been debating whether true religion is following specific beliefs which result in a particular ethical code, or whether true religion is offering hospitality to all whom God sends us and seeing the Christ in them.
That doesn’t seem like an either/or question until we examine the particular beliefs. There are those who believe that the Bible is unequivocally opposed to homosexuality. They base this largely on seven passages, none o f which in my mind are talking about the kind of committed, loving, God-filled same-gender relationships we know today. But to them it is quite clear.
So for them, true religion is following the Bible which they think says that sexual behavior outside of heterosexual marriage is always sin. If someone is sinning in that way and stops, then they are welcome in the Church, but to ordain as priests and bishops, people who are living unrepentantly in sin is to deny the authority of the scriptures. We can certainly sympathize with that position. If someone who made their living as a thief came to the church, we would want them to change. And until they did so, we would not make them the church treasurer. Nor would we support them for ordination.
In the last thirty years we have seen a rise in fundamentalisms; an increase in groups across the world who think that they know God’s truth and hold on to it fiercely – in fact so fiercely that they contribute to violence and warfare.  My own limited understanding is that God’s truth is always more than I can manage to wrap my brain around.  As Anglicans, we say that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. Everything necessary for salvation but not everything there is that can be said.
Luther was a big Bible believer. It completely changed his life, and the life of Europe, when he and others began to realize that the Bible teaches that God’s gift to us is freely given, and not something we can deserve. We can’t work our way into God’s good graces – we are there already. This was a big change from the contemporary teaching of the Catholic Church which made everyone think that they had to keep trying to do the right thing and to be good in order to avoid spending eternity in hell. Luther said, no that’s completely wrong – Jesus has done it already, we just have to get on board with God’ s plan for salvation.
Luther did not like the epistle of James. Because it suggests that we need to do something.
True religion, James says, is not just reading scripture, but doing what it says.
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
“To care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Why orphans and widows? Because in that society orphans and widows had no way to survive without help from people who were not their family members. To be orphaned or widowed was to be outside the economic system.
The people who are outside the economic system today are the long-term unemployed, chronically disabled, the homeless, those who have recently left prison and the elderly trying to manage on insufficient income. There are people here this morning who live in the edge every day. And then there are those who live in other parts of the planet, people whose homes have been washed away in floods or who have lost everything, including their animals, in drought and famine.
So true religion, according to James, is to care for those living on the edge and to keep ourselves unstained by the world. It’s not just about social action. It’s not just about giving time and money and working to change the unjust structures of society. It’s also about How we do it. Unstained by the world.
And here we get back to the dispute over homosexuality. Is it a sinful thing which is the result of being stained by the world, or is it a gift from God? As a young woman I was sure it was sinful and the result of inadequate prayer and Bible study. Today I can say for sure that it is potentially a gift of God, though sexuality of any kind can be used for good or for ill.  That is now the majority opinion of the Episcopal Church. We have seen God blessing us through gay and lesbian leaders and members. We have seen God’s hand in their lives.
When we read scripture we see it not as a set of rules to be applied, not as certain truth claims which we must all obey but as a call to a radical change of heart. As a call to be Christ-like, as a call to be deeply compassionate. Compassionate to ourselves, compassionate to those we know and those we don’t know, compassionate to those living on the edge, compassionate to those who oppose us and those who harm us.
Jesus tells us that it is not what we put into our bodies that defiles us – in other words, it’s not about being ritually clean and keeping kosher – its the words and actions that come from us which defile us. If we can always operate from a place of deep compassion then all that comes from us will be pure and we will be unstained by the world, because the world is rather short on compassion.
Compassion always gives the other person the benefit of the doubt; Compassion is always forgiving but not sentimental; Compassion calls us to be the best we can be; compassion helps us treat others with dignity and work to overthrow unjust structures in society.
I don’t need to tell you that we have entered election season. From now until November we will be barraged with accusations and counter-accusations; statements and analysis; spin and counterspin. As you make up your mind how you will vote, not only for the candidates but also for the various propositions, I would like to suggest that you vote for a compassionate society. Whatever policies and plans seem to you to be the most compassionate, vote for those.
For that is, I think, true religion – to embody compassion.


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