True Religion

Every year, at about this time, I feel compelled to preach the same sermon I’ve been preaching for fifteen years.  This prayer we pray on Proper 17 always manages to get stuck in my craw.  It is unlike anything else in our Book of Common Prayer.  Specifically, it is the petition that God of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things might increase in us “true religion.”  Every year, I wonder to myself, what exactly does that mean?  What are we praying for?

The word, religion, appears only eight times in the Prayer Book.  Two of those times are in the Rite I and Rite II versions of our Collect for today.  How is it that a word that gets so little airtime in our one-thousand-page statement of faith, can be a central request in a prayer we pray on an annual basis?  What does it mean to ask God for an increase of “true religion”?

       These questions are increasingly important, I believe, in a world that is becoming more and more secular.  According to Pew Research Center’s 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey on Religion, for the first time since their survey work began, more Americans said that religion had somewhat, little, or no importance in their lives than those who said religion was very important.[1]  Increasingly, religion, specifically Christian religion, carries all kinds of negative connotations.  In March, The Episcopal Church published a study that showed while most Christians see themselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful, a majority of non-religious Americans see us as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  A plurality of those in other religious traditions felt the same.[2]

       It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Christians, no matter their denomination, are failing to shine a positive light on our religion.  In 1549, when Thomas Cranmer was editing this Collect for inclusion in the first Book of Common Prayer, he had similar feelings about the religion of Roman Catholicism.  Rather than translating the original prayer, “increase in us religion,” he added in the word “true” to differentiate what he thought he and the other Reformers were creating from all that had come before.  True religion, as opposed to the impure religion of Rome, was what Cranmer hoped for the Church he would leave behind, but nearly 500 years later, it would seem we still have a long way to go.

       As we seek after true religion, the first question we have to ask is what exactly is religion?  In the year 750, when this Collect was first written, religion connoted “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; …”[3]  The lived experience of love.  Devotion.  Trust.  A way of life.  These are terms that defined religion, or what Thomas Cranmer might call “true religion” in its earliest form.  Nearly thirteen hundred years after this prayer was first written, religion has come to mean something entirely and, I believe, quite unhelpfully different.

       The first definition when you Google religion is “the belief in a worship of a superhuman controlling power,” which bears little resemblance to “lived experience of love, devotion, and trust.”  The late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, comparative religion scholar at McGill and Harvard universities, argued that religion underwent a significant change of meaning following the Reformation.  Christian writers began using the word “religion” more frequently during the seventeenth century to signify a system of ideas or beliefs about God.  Throughout the following centuries, Smith says, “in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true… In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorizes, organizes, objectifies, and divides people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them.’” [4]

Unfortunately, the modern understanding of religion is nowhere close to the meaning of religion that the original authors of this prayer had in mind.  If we are going to take our Collect for this week seriously, then how do we begin to reclaim some of that olde time true religion?  Conveniently, our lectionary helps us with the passage from Hebrews.  As the author of Hebrews brought this sermon series to an end, their goal was to leave the congregation with some practical and pastoral advice for living out this life of faith – that is how to be religious – and it all depends on love.  “Let mutual love continue,” the preacher writes, exhorting the congregation to care for one another as if they were members of the same family: showing philadelphia, love like a sibling, to each other by sharing resources, cooperating with each other, and showing compassion and ongoing commitment to our siblings in Christ Jesus.  True religion doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, however, nor does our call to love only include those with whom we share a community of faith. The preacher goes on to admonish the congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  That word, translated as hospitality is philonexia or “love of stranger,” and it was a foundational tenant in the religion that developed following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The preacher goes on to describe true religion as that which cares for those in prison and those who are being tortured for their faith.  True religion means maintaining a faithful commitment to one’s spouse if they have one.  True religion means not letting the love of money replace the love of God, love of neighbor, love of sibling, or love of stranger that is our true calling in Christ.  The sermon wraps with these words, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

This morning, our annual ministry fair is happening out in Surface Hall.  Through those doors, you’ll have the chance to hear about much of the good that is being done in the name of Jesus inside and outside of these walls.  Christ Church does a pretty good job of living into the true religion of Hebrews 13, but the hard truth is that none of the programs we do will matter to God if we do not have love underneath it all.  What is most important, at least as far as the preacher of Hebrews and the preacher of this sermon are concerned, is that the motivation for everything we do is love.  The Diocese of Ohio has taken on a slogan that I think sums this true religion thing up quite well.  “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the world.”  Increase in us true religion, O God, and teach us to love you, love our neighbors, love the stranger, and change the world.  Amen.



[3] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

[4] Ibid.


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

A collect for our times

On Sunday morning in Episcopal Churches around the world, celebrants, on behalf of their congregations, will ask God “the author and giver of all good things” to, of all things, “increase in us true religion.”


Religion is a rather unpopular word these days.  According to the good folks at Pew Research, “The phrase “spiritual but not religious” [SBNR] has become widely used in recent years by some Americans who are trying to describe their religious identity. While Pew Research Center does not categorize survey respondents in such a way, our surveys do find that the U.S. public overall appears to be growing a bit less religious – but also somewhat more spiritual.”  If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?

Marion Hatchett tells us that this Collect is first found in the Gelasian sacramentary from roughly 750.  During the English Reformation, it took on new life when Thomas Cranmer edited it to ask God not merely for an increase in religion, but an increase in true religion (Commentary, 191). This made all sorts of sense in the 1540s and 50s as the English Continent was at war because of the perceived flaws in the religious practices of the Bishop of Rome as opposed to the true religion of the Reformers.  As years went by, however, the tendency to associate religion with action waned, and as Diana Butler Bass notes in her Christianity After Religion, by the 17th century, religion was more about a system of ideas and beliefs about God, such that by “modern times, religion became indistinguishable from systematizing ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, “us” versus “them” (97).  If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?

Continuing with Butler Bass, I would like to suggest that this prayer is, in fact, not outdated, but rather a perfect collect for our times as we redefine what it means to be religious away from a  system of beliefs, but a way of living one’s life in devotion to God.  Drawing on the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his 1962 Book The Meaning and End of Relgion, Butler Bass suggests that in contrast to the modern understanding of religion, the Latin root, religio, actually refers to “faith – 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.”  If, on Sunday morning, we are praying not for our particular set of ideas to be better than the ideas of the Baptists or the Lutherans, but instead for an increase in awe, worship, and trust in God who calls us to a particular way of seeing and feeling the world, then sign me up.  In fact, I’d bet we could get a lot of SBNRs to join us in that prayer.  It is, I would argue, the perfect collect for our times.

Losing philadelphia


Stevie Williams in Philadelphia’s Love Park

“Let mutual love continue.”

In the Greek it is only three words long, but it might be the most powerful homiletical imperative ever written.  Scholars squabble quite a bit about the origins of the Letter to the Hebrews.  While it was initially attributed to Paul, by the turn of the third century, Origen was already questioning if Paul had actually written it.  While it is often called a letter it really reads more like a sermon or even a series of sermons.  It is thought to be addressed to Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, but even that can’t be known for sure.  Yet, despite all of the uncertainty over its authorship, style, and intended audience, it is still one of the most powerful texts in the New Testament Canon.

Unlike most of the other New Testament letters, the “Letter” to the “Hebrews” is written in a much more general style.  It speaks not so much to the particularities of a church in a time and place, but serves a theological backbone for the Church catholic that will continue to grow in the 1900 years since its writing. As the “Letter” comes to a close, the author begins to offer short reflections on the life of faith; exhorting his hearers to continue to live following The Way, despite the persecution that has been, is ongoing, and will continue to come, and it can all be summed up by this three word Greek sentence that opens our Epistle lesson this Sunday, “Let mutual love continue.”

That love that the author writes about is different from the love we hear about most often in the New Testament.  Instead of admonishing us to agape, self-sacrificial love, the author invites us to philadelphia, brotherly love.  We are to love our fellow disciples as if they are our sisters and brothers.  As Bryan Whitfield noted in a 2010 commentary on this text, “We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.”

In a world where there is a church designed to meet every possible whim and fancy of ecclesiastical taste on every street corner, this idea of treating our fellow disciples as brothers and sisters is fairly foreign.  Rather than seeing the church as a family with which we stick through thick and thin, more often than not these days, if something doesn’t tickle our fancy in our church anymore, we pick up and move.  Sometimes the reason for leaving is theological, but 99.9% of the time, it is adiaphora – things indifferent.  Whether you are no longer in love with the preaching style, the musical style, the choice of Tawny Port over Welch’s Grape, or the ongoing open question about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, our inability to “let mutual love continue” has created a culture in which there is no longer philadelphia in most churches.  Rather, we simply pick up our ball and go home.

The persecuted Church of the turn of the second century didn’t have that luxury, and, I would argue, neither should we.  Instead, let mutual love continue, learn to live in disagreement and find God in discomfort, and remember, that even when the music changes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The Invitation to Table Fellowship


The most oft ignored rubric in the Book of Common Prayer might also be the most important.  Unfortunately, it is mired deep in the “Additional Directions” of the Holy Eucharist portion of the Prayer Book, near the bottom of page 407.  “While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the sacrament in both kinds.  The bishops, priests, and deacons at the Holy Table then communicate, and after them the people.” (emphasis mine).  Whether I am in a seminary chapel, Diocesan liturgy, or Sunday morning worship, it is clear that neither celebrant nor the people know this particular rubric and the power of its intended imagery.

In order for the reception of the Eucharist to be a communal act, it must all be done together.  When the congregations watches as a single person, who has already spoken more than 90% of the words of our common prayer, receives a choice piece of bread and an unsullied sip of wine, something about the communal aspect of the Eucharist is lost.  the Holy Table is the place where we all gather as sinners redeemed to be nourished and blessed by the Body and Blood of our Savior.  We come to the Table whether we are 6 months or 106 years.  We commune next to this with whom we disagree politically and theologically.  We receive from those whom we have hurt and from those who have hurt us. We come, all of us, desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and blessing.  The act of Holy Communion is the living out of Jesus’ message to both guests and hosts in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

And it all starts with an invitation.  For all the liturgical variety now available to us in as a people of Common Prayer, there is but one singular authorized invitation to the Lord’s Table.  The words are the same in Rite I and Rite II, and there is no provision for anything different in Enriching our Worship.  Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, the Prayer Book directs the following action: “Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation The Gifts of God for the People of God. and may add Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

This is not to say that this is the only invitation you might hear in an Episcopal Church, the Iona Invitation is growing in popularity, and might actually do a better job acting as an invitation, motivating people to live out the rubric on page 407 by coming forward, making the reception of the Eucharist a communal act for all four orders of ministry.  It is a true invitation because it actually invites people to do something rather than to simply stare at the now consecrated elements of bread and wine.

This is the table, not of the Church but of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

It isn’t Prayer Book authorized, so I can’t suggest you use it this Sunday, but my Bishop uses it, so I’m thinking we can try it here.  A true invitation to the Lord’s banquet, where we gather as one to receive what we all need.  Y’all come.

A Complicated Teaching

By and large, Jesus tends to stay on message throughout the course of his three years of active ministry.  Whether in parable, teaching, argument, or aside, his message tends to be about the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the preparations one should make for its arrival.  There are times, however, when you dig down into the nuts and bolts of what Jesus is actually saying and things get complicated.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one such occasion as we hear Jesus flip flop a bit on the question of motivation.

In his teaching about table manners, Jesus suggests that guests choose a lower seat so that when we are invited higher, we might be honored in the sight of everyone.  Pausing only to turn his attention to the host of the dinner party, Jesus then tells him to not invite people who can invite you in return, but instead to invite those who are often left off the invite list.  Of course, anyone who has hung around religious circles much realizes that the question of motivation is ever present.  We shouldn’t follow Jesus to get out of hell, but there are plenty of churches that preach that message.  We shouldn’t do good works to earn God’s love, but there are plenty of sermons that imply that very thing.  We shouldn’t take pictures of people who don’t look like our congregation in order to make the website more diverse, but, well…

Read as a whole, the message of Jesus on the topic of motivation can be complicated.  Do we sit lower in order to be invited higher?  More often than not, we will find ourselves still seated in that lower place when the meal is all over.  Do we invite the poor who cannot repay us?  Absolutely, but that probably doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also invite the rich and the middle class who need to know the love of Jesus as well.  In the end, I find that balancing my motivations is of utmost importance.  As that great theologian Ice Cube once said, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”  Or in Rite I language:


If you are volunteering in that ministry because your mother told you to 50 years ago or because it is where there is power to be had or because it is the group in which to see and be seen; well, you probably ought to check your motivation and find something else to do.  If you are engage in ministry to make yourself feel better, to get your face in the newsletter, or to make your neighbor feel guilty; thou has already wrecked thyself.  If, however, your motivation is love of God and of neighbor, then it doesn’t much matter if you are the President of the Standing Committee or locking up after a parish potluck, your name has been honored where in matters – in the kingdom of God.