A new Vicar began her ministry in a small, rural parish on bright Sunday morning. The hymns were glorious, and she preached a wonderful sermon. During communion, there were so many people that they almost ran out of bread and wine, but the Lord provides, and all were fed from the bounties of Christ’s grace. She went home exhausted, but excited for what the future held. The next morning, she headed to the office where she was met by an older parishioner who was clearly troubled. “What’s the matter?” the Vicar asked. “Well, I’m afraid you didn’t do communion right yesterday,” the parishioner responded, “It just didn’t feel like church.” “Oh?” she replied, “It wasn’t right? How so?” “Well, before each pass down the altar rail, our old Vicar would always stop and pray for every person kneeling at the rail to receive. It was so good to know our priest cared for us and prayed for us each by name. It just felt like you rushed through it, like you didn’t care.” An accusation like this would shake any good priest to their core, and the young Vicar took it quite seriously. She decided to call her predecessor to see what she could learn about his habit of prayer for the congregation. He was an older gentleman, whose mobility issues had finally caused him to retire. She explained the situation to him, and he laughed as he replied, “I wasn’t praying. I stopped each time to touch the radiator. I had to discharge static electricity, so I didn’t shock the daylights out of the first person at the rail.”
This anecdote, or one like it, has been shared in seminary liturgy classes for decades. It is an important reminder that human beings, especially those of us who take our faith seriously, make meaning out of all kinds of things, even things that maybe weren’t intended to have meaning. This story comes to mind every summer when Proper 17 rolls around. In the Collect of the Day we pray that God might increase in us “true religion.” I’m reminded that religion is a powerful word, filled with all kinds of meaning, and that even though all of us might call ourselves Episcopalians, each of us has our own understanding of what our religion truly is. Every one of us has developed our own system of religious actions, those things that are important to our life of faith. For some, church isn’t church without music. For others, they can’t imagine church without communion. There are even a few of you who wish we used incense every Sunday. I know you’re out there. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our religious habits and to adapt them based on what we think is and isn’t safe. Beyond the intensity of the last 17 months, the reality is that all of us are constantly updating our understanding of our own religion based on the circumstances of our lives, whether it is raising children, a job that requires work on Sunday, or our taste in music. Heck, even the word religion itself has changed meaning considerably over the years.
Its use in this week’s Collect is emblematic of that shift. The first written edition of this prayer is found the Gelasian Sacramentary, a prayer book compiled around the year 750. Some form of this prayer has been in use for almost thirteen hundred years! When it was first written, the prayer simply asked that God might increase religion in us, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clearer about what kind of religion we were praying for. Rather than the bad religious practices of the Roman Church, Cranmer thought we ought to pray for the true religion that he was in the process of creating. This change can be seen as an early step in a long evolution for the word religion away from what it had meant in 750, which religious scholar William Cantwell Smith defines as “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; … or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.” Since the Reformation and the rise of modernity, religion has become a more cerebral exercise. At its most extreme, religious practice has the danger of becoming nothing more than seeking some kind of pure theological ideology. Today, when we pray for an increase in true religion, it can feel more like we’re praying for our particular set of ideas to be better than those of the Baptists or Presbyterians, when, in truth, when this prayer was written, it was a prayer asking God to increase in each of us an awe for creation, wonderous and joyful worship, and trust in the God who calls us to see and feel the world in a particular way.
That particular way of seeing and feeling the world is summed up nicely in all three of our lessons this morning. In Deuteronomy, the whole premise of the book is that wandering Hebrews were nearing the Promised Land as Moses was nearing the end of his life. Before they entered the land, Moses had one last chance to impart all the wisdom he had received from God. He’ll spend the next twenty-six chapters reminding them of how God hoped they’d live their lives, but before he started, his advice was simple. Remember. Remember that the Lord calls you to a particular way of living in this world. Remember that you didn’t get here all on your own, but that the Lord has brought you to this place. Remember to teach this to your children, lest they forget. As disciples of Jesus, we may not be called to live by the full law of Deuteronomy, but in the exchange between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that no matter how we live out our religion, we’re called to do it not so that our actions might be seen by others, not to puff ourselves up, and not to burden those around us, but rather, everything we do should be a response to the love that God has shown us.
It can be hard to know how we should live out our faith; hard to know exactly how it is that God would like us to see and feel the world around us, but thankfully, we have James. The Letter of James never minces words. It is a series of admonitions to disciples and church leaders alike on how the life of faith might be lived out day to day. The Bible is rarely as clear as it is in James 1:27, “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.” Our primary call as disciples of Jesus is to care for the needs of the world and to keep ourselves away from sin. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter if you genuflect or not, if you like Bach or not, if you watch church in your pajamas or dress in your finest and get here by 8. No, the true religion to which we are all called is, once again, summed up in this way – show your love of God by putting God’s will first, and show your love of neighbor by caring for their needs. That’s a true religion I think we can all get behind, and one that I will gladly pray for more and more of. Increase in us true religion, o Lord, for the honor of your name. Amen.
 Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97