Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sermon -- 22 August 2010

PROPER 16 / 13 PENTECOST — 22 August 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Psalm 71:1-6 | Hebrews 12:18-29 | Luke 13:10-17

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

We’ve heard a lot in recent years from folks (folks in the newspapers, and folks on TV, and folks on the Net, and all the various places where “folks” hang out) who say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

(Do any of you consider yourselves to be “spiritual but not religious”? Okay. Are there any of you who would consider yourselves “religious but not spiritual”? Ha. You might want to talk with Elizabeth next month!)

The problem is that we throw these words around without being very clear about what we mean by them. “Spiritual” may be a fairly clear notion, although it covers a range of meanings. Generally, it seems to me and perhaps you’d agree (or perhaps not), “spirituality” has to do with the conviction that our human life has some sort of transcendent dimension, however we might understand or define that. In some way, and there is a wide variety of ways of thinking or talking about it, there is “more to us” than “just this.” Healthy spirituality looks beyond ourselves, both horizontally and vertically. (There is also a so-called “spirituality” that is mostly just about me. You may recall that Robert Bellah a generation ago pointed to “Sheilaism” as tending in this direction. [Habits of the Heart, 1985, pages 221, 235])

“Religion” is a much trickier concept. It seems to include a variety of notions, generally having to do with how human beings are related to God, or the gods, or whatever. St. Augustine and others thought that the word religio was derived from religare, “to bind together.” (Cicero, on the other hand, thought the word came from the verb relegere, “to go over again,” but I don’t really see his point, so he must not be right about this!) We use “religion” in a variety of ways. One of its narrow senses, for instance — used more often among Roman Catholics than among us as some of you may remember, although we use it this way too occasionally, is to say a person is “a religious,” meaning he or she is a member of a monastic or other vowed community — monks, nuns, friars, sisters, for example. They are bound (religati) to their communities by their religious vows. This leads to a distinction — again more common among Roman Catholics than among us —between the “religious” clergy and the “secular” clergy — i. e., priests who are vowed members of religious orders, as apposed to priests who are diocesan parish clergy.

In a much wider and by far the more common context, of course, “religion” refers to systems of belief and/or behavior and/or ways-of-life that have to do with human relationships with and in reference to God (or the gods). Although there are, for instance, some traditions of Buddhism that seem not to have a place for a God. Whether therefore they are really a “religion” depends on how you define “religion.”

(“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.” [Through the Looking Glass] )

The Buddhists can speak for themselves on the issue of religion! Perhaps they might be willing to be the original “spiritual but not religious” folks! Although many forms of Buddhism have traditions and ways of life that many would consider “religious.”

I will confess that I have a great deal of sympathy with the “spiritual but not religious” stance. Critical, but sympathetic. The fact of the matter is, “religion” gets a lot of bad press these days, and a very great deal of it is fully deserved. And I am not just talking about “them,” I am talking about us too. It seems to me that a great deal of the fussing that is going on in the Anglican Communion, as well as in our Episcopal Church, is coming from folks who are, as I like to put it, “more religious than God.”

It’s really no wonder that “religion” isn’t doing very well these days. There’s so much “religion” going around, and a lot of it is pretty appalling. Especially those parts that focus on how some other people are going to hell.

(By the way, I am convinced that it is entirely possible to go to hell, if that’s what we really want. And I’m afraid some people really do want that — that is, they choose themselves over God. It’s an eternal choice, but it has its roots in now. But the criteria by which this judgment is revealed are I think very different from what some “religious” folks think.)

So I tend to be a little cautious about “religion.” What we call “religion” is
meant to be a means to our spiritual growth and maturity and fulfillment, with God and in community with all humankind and indeed with all creation. “Religion” is not an end in itself. Jesus did not say, “I have come that you may have religion and have it more abundantly.”

And I think this is one of the things that Jesus is getting at in the Gospel today. Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for many years. And the “religious” folks get their shorts in a twist because Jesus did this on the Sabbath Day, when the religious law prohibited anything that might be defined as “work.” And Jesus responds, in effect: “You people just do not have any clue at all, do you?” Jesus says, “You hypocrites!” I don’t think he means “You phonies!” exactly, which is what we usually mean by the word “hypocrite,” and in classical Greek the word can have the sense of a stage-actor or a dissembler. But the roots of the word carry something of the notion of “faulty judgment” — in that sense, “hypocrites” are folks who just don’t really understand what they’re talking about. “Hypocrite” is not too far from “clueless.”

Jesus says: Look here. Freeing this woman from her crippling bondage is much more what the Kingdom of God is about than keeping religious rules, whatever value those may have in their proper context.

And the proper context of all religion is just this: the Kingdom of God.

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