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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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.”

true-religion-label

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.

A Den of Robbers – Monday in Holy Week

As hard as it is to believe, Holy Week is upon us.  In just a few short days, we’ll be in the midst of the Paschal Triduum, remembering those final acts of love and devotion that brought salvation to the world.  At Saint Paul’s, we remember this week by walking with Jesus day by day through the Gospel of Mark.  As such, I’ll be reflecting on those daily lessons here at Draughting Theology.  Today’s lesson is Mark 11:12-19: Jesus Clears the Temple.

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I’ve always been interested in the fit that Jesus throws in the Temple.  In the Synoptics, it happens (roughly) on Monday in Holy Week, while in John it comes right at the beginning of his ministry.  John’s version has Jesus upset that the Temple has become an emporium, while the Synoptics all have Jesus quoting Isaiah 56:7 in his admonition: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

The word translated as “robbers” comes from the word for “to plunder.”  As in, the Temple has become a place where people who don’t belong are taking what is the rightful possession of someone else.  The money changers, the sacrifice salesmen, even the priests themselves have forcibly removed the God of all creation from his holy Temple and are taking the religious devotion of the people as profit for themselves.

This point was brought home to me in the Psalm appointed for Morning Prayer today:

Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *
but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51 is read on Ash Wednesday, and to read it again today makes for a nice bookend to Lent, but it also strikes as a harsh reminder for church leaders that God desires much more than our going through the motions.  As we encourage our people to walk the Way of the Cross, it isn’t about what they might get out of it. it isn’t about having good numbers to write in our service books.  Instead, it is about the opportunity to contemplate on those might acts, by which we have been given immortality through Jesus Christ.  By meditating on the love of God that took Jesus to the cross, we might find within ourselves something stronger than burnt-offerings: a broken and contrite heart.

True Religion?

This Sunday, as with every Proper 17 Sunday, we will pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  Three years ago, when this collect happened to also join the lessons appointed for Proper 17 in Year B, I took the opportunity to preach on the subject of true religion with some help from my friend and professor, Diana Butler Bass, asking the question, “what is true religion?”

I’m pretty sure we aren’t praying for more expensive jeans

Three years later, I still find myself asking that question, especially in light of the lesson from James, which ends with these words that seem to capture the yin and the yang of religion, “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.”

Scholars are uncertain about the etymology of the word “religion.”  The more popular understanding says that it comes from the Latin, religare, which means to tie or to bind.  That is, true religion means to be bound to a way of life.  In the Christian expression, that means to follow the Way set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in his life, death, and resurrection.  Others, however, follow Cicero and suggest that religion comes from relegere, which means to read over again.  Again, from a Christian point of view, this means that true religion is found in the practices of Christianity: prayer, scripture reading, fasting, and even attendance in worship.

The word translated as religion in James is equally troublesome, however it probably carries a connotation that fits more with Cicero than with common understanding.  Robertson suggests it comes from thermoai, which means to mutter forms of prayer, and that the author is using it ironically.  True religion, then, isn’t merely showing up at Church, saying the right things, and going through the motions, but rather, true religion is following in the Way of Jesus.  This doesn’t preclude prayer, study, and regular church attendance, but it means sharing the fruit the grows from those practices: love, compassion, charity, and self-control being chief among them.

So this Sunday, as we pray that God might increase in us true religion, keep in mind what you are really praying for: the chance to listen for God’s will in prayer, Biblical study, and worship AND the opportunity to live out God’s will in acts of love and kindness throughout the week.  True religion is a 24/7 job that can only be done with God’s help.

[Don’t] Add it to the List

SWH and I use the Grocery IQ app to keep track of our every-growing grocery list.  Our phones are synced so that each time one of us updates by either adding or subtracting an item, it is updated, in real time, on the other persons phone.  Most days you’ll hear one or the other of us say, “Add it to the list” about some ingredient, household cleaning product, or snack item, the need for which came up in conversation. This sort of addition is presumably OK in God’s eyes, but we hear in both the Track 2 Old Testament and the Gospel lesson that God isn’t too keen on our adding things to his list of commandments.

As Moses prepares the people to receive the 10 Commandments that God has provided for their life in the Promised Land, he warns them not only that they shouldn’t forget what the Lord is requiring of them, but also that they mustn’t “add anything to what I command you.”  As Jesus is getting flack from the religious authorities for his disciples’ poor personal hygiene, Jesus reiterates this point, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

To be fair, the tendency to add rules to God’s law is a natural one.  We need to have more rules for a couple of reasons.  First, it is almost impossible to believe that God requires so little of us.  Jesus sums up the Law in two commandments.  Two.  TWO!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is one, and love your neighbor as yourself is the other.  Never mind that these two laws are impossibly to live up to all the time, it is in our human nature to make things even more difficult.  We’ve got to know what God thinks about dancing, drinking, card playing, and sex, and if we have time, we’ll maybe consider the hundreds of times God talks about money.  So we pile things on and make things harder than they need to be.

Which leads me to the second reason we add rules to God’s list: we need to know who’s in and who’s out.  Never mind that God has already been clear that he loves his whole creation, we can’t imagine that God would love them, so we make rules to exclude.  Have you noticed that we rarely make new rules for ourselves to live up to, but they always for someone else.  Which means we violate Commandment #2 in our pursuit of more rules.  Oops.

Maybe this week’s Lectionary offers us an opportunity to get back to the basics of discipleship.  Maybe we’d do well to remember that the two Commandments of Jesus require a lifetime of work to accomplish.  Maybe we should offer our neighbors (and ourselves) just a bit more grace and refuse to add anything else to the list.

Origin Story – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge is seeking out the stories of how you came to be a Christian and an Episcopalian.  The fun, or perhaps quirky, twist being that the 120 word abstract should sound like a superhero origin story.  You can find out more by clicking the link at the bottom of this post.  Without any further ado, I offer you my origin story.

I was a senior in High School and it was Young Life Banquet time.  My YL leader, Flecth, had asked several of us to share our testimonies at the tables of some of YL Lancaster’s biggest donors.  I remember feeling some strange mixture of trepidation and relief as I prepared my story.  I was terrified because my story of how God found me is pretty boring.  I was relieved because I didn’t have to tell my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends about the day I woke up in the middle of a corn field with a needle sticking out of my arm and saw Jesus standing in front of me.  I feel a similar strange mixture today.

I grew up as the quintessential first child.  To this day, I am a ruler follower ad nauseam.  When I was 16, I spent three weeks in Germany with my high school German class.  There is no legal drinking age in Germany, but I still only drank once while I was there, and I still feel guilty about it.  The Church and the moral life to which she calls us has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  After the youth group at Saint Thomas crashed and burned as I entered into high school, I spent several years bouncing between the CMA church’s youth group and Young Life.  I remember pulling my Saturn over on Manheim Pike one Friday morning to write down the date and time I had invited Jesus into my life, but the truth is, he had always been there.

My entrance into The Episcopal Church happened when I was three years old.  My dad had been transferred from R.R. Donnelly’s home base in Chicago, IL to a brand new plant built to produce TV Guides in scenic Lancaster, PA.  As the story goes, the Realtor my parents used to find a new house was a saintly woman named Jeanne Ritter.  After selling them the perfect house for a family with two small children, Jeanne said something like, “I go to Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church.  You should try it out.”  They tried it out, and it stuck.

Though I attended an Episcopal Church with my family from early on, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an Episcopalian, to be imbued with the rhythm of life and the words of the Book of Common Prayer really until I entered the discernment process.  It was there that I learned what all those words I could say by heart: from the opening acclamation to the dismissal; really meant.  I guess that’s why I have such a passion for liturgics, Church history, and general church-nerdery these days.  I want everyone to know how these words that seem rote to the outside observer can be living, active, and offer so much more than the rules and guilt that are so often associated with Christianity.

My origin story doesn’t have superhero qualities to it, but I’ve come to realize that that’s OK.  God enters our lives in all sorts of different ways, but most often, it is by way of a simple invitation.  Thanks be to God.

How Much Should I Make The Check Out For?

As I noted on Tuesday, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a bit sticky for Episcopalians, especially those who hold Episcopal Office and like the color purple, but as I’ve reflected on this text this week, I’ve come to realize a group for which this lesson is even more difficult to hear and preach.

The ELCA has Bishops too!

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Lutheran Bishop are the group most likely to find difficulty with the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Not only to they like that purple-ish color their Episcopal brethren and sisteren are so fond of, but the guy who got the whole thing started, Martin Luther, was the guy who coined the phrase of “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia,” Only Scripture, Only Faith, and Only Grace.  With a clear nod to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (2.8) which reads, “we are saved by grace, through faith.”

If you read the lesson carefully, it sort of sounds like Father Abraham is espousing some sort of works righteousness.  As in, Lazarus suffered and that suffering earned him passage to the bosom of Abraham, but Dives ignored the poor, which earned him a ticket straight to Hades.  The observant listener will quickly pull out their checkbook and ask, “how much do I need to give to get to heaven?”

The challenge grows when coupled with the tail end of the lesson from First Timothy, which reads, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

The savvy preacher will figure out how to allow their parishioners the time to write their checks before reminding them that Luther was, in fact, right; that we are saved by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ; that nothing we can do (i.e. no matter how big the check), we cannot earn our way into heaven.  Still, it is a tricky lectionary this week, full of chances to slip down the slope of good old fashioned Medieval Popery.  Good luck preachers.  I’ll be praying for you.