Thursday, February 19, 2015

18 February 2015 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 18 February 2015
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 pm & 7:00 pm

Joel 2:1-2,12-17   |   Psalm 103 or 103:8-14  |  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

In recent years there has been something of a new turn, at least in our society, about the way people talk about their faith journeys.  Part of this, I think, is related to the fact that over my lifetime (which is now getting to be quite a while!) the place of “church” in our society has shifted a bit.  It used to be taken for granted that most people were members of one or another church, even though their participation may have been pretty minimal, and even regular attendance was for many more a matter of social conformity than any deep commitment.  The fact that there seems to be less of that going around these days is perhaps not a bad thing, at least to the extent that it may represent a lessening of hypocrisy.  And what an increasing number of people are saying, according to studies by groups like the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, is that they would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” 

I’m not sure exactly what that means.  Or rather, I suspect it may mean a number of different things to different people who say that of themselves.  (And probably still more different things to people who, sometimes rather snottily, say that about other people.)  Generally – very generally – it seems refer to people who may well believe in God – in a variety of understandings of who or what God is – and who may well pray, or meditate, or reflect on transcendent reality, and have a strong moral sense – but who do not participate in or claim affiliation with “organized religion.”

Maybe there are some of you who would say of yourselves that you think of yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” in some sense or other.  Please be assured that it is not my intent to beat up on you from the pulpit today.  (Or any other day.) 

On the contrary, I would like to suggest, on this first day of the season of Lent in which we traditionally ramp up our attention to such things as prayer and meditation, that Jesus himself might well be described as “spiritual but not religious.”  And in that way, as in so many others, a model for us who claim and strive to follow him.
Okay, what do I mean when I suggest that Jesus might be described as “spiritual but not religious”?  Well, first of all, in this context, the word “spiritual,” and that Jesus was “spiritual,” probably isn’t a matter for much argument, although I think it has much deeper implications than is sometimes assumed.  But “religious”?  Jesus not “religious”?  Well, of course it depends on what you mean by “religious,” but, yes, I’ve been saying all my ministry that Jesus really isn’t very “religious.”  At least not in the sense that we often mean by that word. 

Now of course, I hope obviously, Jesus prayed.  The gospels note this many times, and he gave a model prayer to his disciples and to us, and we will be praying it (again) a little later.  The Gospel today suggests that Jesus was in favor of fasting, at least in appropriate circumstances, although he also says that while he, the bridegroom, is with his followers it is not yet time to fast.  And to the extent that “fasting” has to do not just with self-denial but with self-sharing, we can recall how when faced with five thousand hearers Jesus directed his followers to share the food they had.  And although Jesus doesn’t seem to have had any money to give alms with, he was a model of Peter’s later statement to the disabled man in the Temple, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you” [Acts 3:6], as Jesus healed many of their diseases and infirmities.  Further, it is clear in the Gospels that Jesus was a regular in the synagogues of Galilee, where he preached and taught.  And healed, even on the Sabbath Day, which was actually very irreligious of him!  And Jesus had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, which he often quoted – and  sometimes controverted. And in the Temple Jesus was something of a troublemaker!

The unmistakably “religious” people in the Gospel narratives are, after all, the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees, whose religiosity was well blended with power politics.  We know what Jesus thought of their “religion.”  The Gospel today recounts one of the instances of that.  Not that Jesus is against almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – the classic Lenten disciplines.  But they aren’t about being “religious,” and certainly not about being seen as “religious.”  But I think they are, or can be, about being “spiritual.”
Jesus’ mission in this world was not about making us human beings more “religious.”  We were already plenty religious, thank you very much.  Jesus came to proclaim, and to enact, the Reign of God in human life in this world.  Not just a promise about the sweet by and by, about which Jesus says relatively little (although eternity is the Kingdom’s horizon), but to enable us be what God in creation intended us to be in the divine image and likeness.

And that, I think, is our vocation and destiny, a lifelong task and goal to which we may pay special attention in Lent:  to grow further into the fullness of humanity, into the image of the God who is Love, the God of Justice, into the vision of the God whose glory we are meant to be.  [Cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. IV.20.7.]  Let us go forward, then, in these coming weeks, not that we may be more “religious,” whatever that means, but that by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit we may become as human persons more loving, more just, more “spiritual” – more real.