What True Religion Looks Like – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon for Proper 17C on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it below.

I was visiting with a parishioner this week who is the proud owner of a Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian t-shirt.  The list was supposedly put together by the late comedian, Robin Williams, and it contains some great lines.  “Male and Female God created them; Male and Female we ordain them.”  “Free wine on Sundays.”  Perhaps the most important thing on that list is “No snake handling.”  One of the great things about the Episcopal Church is that if you asked 100 Episcopalians to list their top 10 favorite things about the church, you’d get 100 different lists.  My list, for example, would include some very nerdy things like the fact that on a fairly regular basis we get to say prayers that have been prayed by Christians for hundreds of years.  The Collect for Proper 17 happens to be one of those prayers.  It is first found in the Gelasian Sacramentary, a book of prayers compiled somewhere around the year 750.  That’s close to thirteen-hundred years ago!  It has, of course, been translated, edited, and updated through the years, but by and large, the prayer that was being used in 750AD is still being prayed to this day.

It is easy to tell that this prayer is old because it uses a word that is very unpopular these days; asking God to “increase in us true religion.”  The original version simply asked that God might increase in us religion, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clear that we weren’t praying for more of the bad religious practices of the Pope in Rome, but the true religion that he was in the process of creating.  Over the years, as the Reformation played out in ideological battles and actual wars, the idea that religion as a set of things you do gave way to the idea that religion as a set of things you believed. Religion these days means a systematic understanding of God and the Church, which doesn’t seem very exciting, honestly.  It is no wonder, then, that today we find a growing group of people who wish to call themselves spiritual, but definitely not religious.  Spirituality seems to be about the things we do, the prayers we pray, and the practices of faith, while religion has become associated with closed minded ideologies of right versus wrong, true versus false, and us versus them, and so, when we pray this day for an increase of “true religion” it can sound kind of silly.

I’d like to propose to you, however, that there is a reason that this prayer for an increase in religion has stuck around for more than twelve hundred years.  If we look at what the word religion meant in the year 750, what we are praying for is not so much a set of ideas to believe, but rather a relationship into which we enter.  According to religious scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, religion originally meant “faith [as a] living, subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust, a way of life, an attitude toward the divine or nature, or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”[1]  If we are praying this morning not for our particular set of ideas about God to be better than the ideas of the Baptists or the Lutherans, but instead for an increase in awe, worship, and trust in the God who calls us to a particular way of seeing and feeling the world, then this prayer makes a whole lot more sense.

If we are going to really pray for an increase in true religion, then we ought to understand what that particular way of seeing and feeling the world looks like.  Thankfully, this week’s Lectionary is rife with examples.  Beginning in the lesson from Sirach we hear that true religion means a life of humility.  To have too much pride is to walk away from God, the author notes, because pride was not created by God. To see the world the way God sees the world is to put ourselves in the proper perspective that God is God and we are not.  That lesson recurs in this morning’s Gospel passage, which reads like an Emily Post guide to table etiquette.

As Jesus looked around that dinner party, why do you suppose he felt the need to offer these correctives?  Every dinner party he had ever attended would have been the same.  The host would sit at the center of the head table, and as dinner was being served, guests would jockey their way to sit as close to the host as possible.  The closer you were at table, the closer you were in life.  It was while reclining at the dinner table that business deals were made, marriages were arraigned, and proverbial backs were scratched.  Maybe it was the fact that this dinner was at the home of a leading Pharisee and the guest list was full of religious people that made Jesus snap.  This jockeying for position isn’t the way to follow God.  Instead, Jesus tells the guests that they should take the lowest seat; suggesting the radical idea that in the kingdom of God humility is prized over power, prestige, and pride.  The same is true for his message to the host.  To invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind meant not only to invite those who could not invite you back, but it also meant to invite those who couldn’t scratch your back in business or politics.  When the table was surrounded by the least and the lost, there were no deals to be made and no political capital to invest.  Instead, the meal would be about fellowship, companionship, and a glimpse of the kingdom of God.  True religion means living with humility and caring for all of God’s children.

Finally, the lesson from Hebrews offers the most comprehensive teaching on what true religion really looks like.  As the letter comes to a close, the author lists all sorts of different ways to live out the life of faith: continue in mutual love; show hospitality to strangers; remember those imprisoned and tortured for their faith; keep your marriage vows; don’t fall in love with money; be content with what you have; follow the Godly example of your leaders; give praise to God; do good; and be generous.  The list can sound daunting, but it really all flows forth from the first word, “let mutual love continue.”  Instead of using agape, meaning self-sacrificing love and the usual word for love in the New Testament, the author chooses to call us to philadelpia, brotherly love.  As fellow disciples of Jesus, we are all adopted into the family of God as brothers and sisters.  We are a family, whether we like it or not.  Like any family, we will have our ups and down, but ultimately, we are created to love one another.  Sometimes, family is easy to get along with. Oftentimes, family is that long estranged cousin who finally comes to visit or that problematic nephew who can’t seem to stay out of jail, but no matter what, true religion means loving, caring, and supplying for the family of God.

It may be an old prayer.  It may even seem outdated, but the fact of the matter is that when we pray for an increase of true religion, we are praying to be more like Jesus; to see the world as God sees the world; to love our sisters and brothers the way God loves them; and to bring forth the kingdom of God right here and right now.  That’s a prayer I can say with integrity and I hope you can too. Take this prayer home with you, say it every day this week, maybe even twice a day, and keep your eyes open for where God might be inviting you to increase your true religion by sharing his love with a world that desperately needs it.

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: … increase in us true religion … and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

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