Why be religious? Why do anything religiously? Why sit on a wooden bench with folks you see for a handful of hours every week? Why recite an ancient hymn of praise to the monarch of a conquered people as if it were the pledge of allegiance? Why listen to an otherwise perfectly respectable looking woman in a white robe say words like “avarice,” “licentiousness,” and “fornication” right out loud in broad daylight? I know many of you quite well. You’re not all religious people. You’re not all very pious. You’re not even necessarily that faithful all the time. What are you doing here? I’m genuinely interested in the answer to this question, of course, but I also have a few hunches. You’re religious because your parents were, or you were as a child. You’re religious because belonging in community has it’s rewards even if they must be won at a certain cost. You’re religious because there’s something mystical about the recitation of the same, sacred words, over and over and over again across one’s lifetime which drenches a self in something which is outside of it. You’re religious because you’re curious. You’re religious because you want your kids to grow up kind, or maybe you want to be more kind, yourself. I may not know, honestly. I only know you’re here. Religiously. Consistently. Faithfully.
Jesus had some words for religious people. One of them was “hypocrites.” One of them was “vain.” One speaks of “human precepts,” another of abandonment. In the words we hear from Jesus this morning he is speaking of a very specific sort of religious person. He is speaking to a very specific sort of religious leader. They are a particular kind of leader who turns their nose up when something isn’t done their way. A particular kind of religious leader who has mistaken the rules which they’ve invented for the rules of God. The kind of religious leader who operates with a splash more contempt than generosity. At the beginning of this story, the religious leaders ask, “why aren’t you following the rules we’ve always had?” Specifically they’re asking, “Why aren’t you washing your dishes the way we’ve always done it?” They are religiously interested in purity. They are religiously interested in a system which delineates their people by strata, some who do things right and are thereby closer to God, and many other nether layers of those who do things slightly wrong, and are thus further away. “You’re the one who’s wrong,” Jesus says. It’s not the way you think it is at all. This world isn’t some filthy thing which you must be protected from if you’re going to be pure enough to get right with God. It’s the world which needs protection from the filthy thing inside you. It’s not about remaining unstained by the world. It’s about the selfish human heart which leaves it’s mark on everything.
Why be religious?
I don’t think anybody here is all that interested in purity. You’re not the kind of people who stop by for a blessing once a week so the rest of what you do might not appear before the Lord as being all that bad. You’re not the kind of people who want to get away with being very pious for the sake of ignoring the reality of our deeds. But I do think we’re sometimes interested in protection. Who wouldn’t be? The world is a terrifying place and gets more so every day. I am a terrifying person, sometimes, too, not always sure of why I do the things I do or feel the things I feel or how best to proceed. Sometimes I think I use religion to construct a story about my life that makes everything a little more OK than it really is. Brene Brown had a great promo piece in Oprah Magazine about this recently. It’s called, “How to Reckon with Emotion and Change Your Narrative.” Lately, she’s been talking a lot about the kinds of stories we tell about our lives, the kind of stories we default to, like “so-&-so is attacking me again,” or “I’m never good enough,” or “of course I screwed this up because I always do.” She addresses folks who tell destructive stories about their lives and the lives of those around them. Her goal is to empower people to claim their own ability to begin telling a story which is full of more generosity and clear-eyed truth. Religious people know all about telling those kinds of stories. Religious people are great at constructing grand narratives that stick us with cosmic beginnings and triumphalist ends which can make all the mundane bits in the middle shimmer with an otherworldly light. Sometimes, I think this story can protect me a little too well. Sometimes I can grow comfortable in this story. Sometimes I fear that my religious sensibility affords me an easy pass from trying any harder than I have to.
Why be religious?
Only if you’re going to do something about it, James says. In the letter which we read from James today to all twelve of the tribes dispersed from Jerusalem, he says “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.” In other words, religion is what you do, not what you talk about all the time. It’s one thing to talk about developing a fitness plan. It’s another thing to show up at the gym at 6:30 on a weekday when the rest of your schedule is booked till evening. As someone whose chief specialty is in telling stories, I’m mostly guilty of the former. I could talk poetically for hours about orphans and widows. I could deftly weave a story of our common life which is sure to include the care of widows and orphans within it. But here’s what I’m not as good at: I’m still not sure what the best way is to address the fact that we’ve had more folks than usual camping out on our property lately, and that it’s begun to affect the teachers and children of our preschool here. I’m not as good about engaging the world the way James wants me to. The way Pope Francis asks us to engage when he says, “First you pray for the hungry, then you go feed them, that’s how prayer works.” Perhaps I am defiled. Perhaps I am stained by the world, the one which encourages me to think of myself first before anyone else, the one which would love to keep me slightly insecure, slightly afraid, all of the time, in need of constant consumption to assuage my dissatisfaction.
Why be religious? Why do anything religiously? Why, but to imitate a God who is religiously in pursuit of us, consistently present, faithful to the work begun in us. God is religiously generous, James says. God from whom all gifts arise, all good things, each act of kindness, each gesture towards another which yearns for good and grace and hope. The goodness of the progenitor of light itself keeps showing up, despite our relentless tendency to leave a stain or shadow of something less than our best, whole self behind us. Why be religious but to keep tending to this miracle, to carry the words fresh with us each day we turn to the world, where they may have the chance to be more than words, acts of care, strange contradictions to the world as we know it.
Why pass beyond the lattice? Why stand at the wall, like the Beloved does in the Song of Songs, gazing in at the windows? He is flirting with his lover in this passage, in this bawdy love poem which has somehow made it’s way into the canon of our sacred texts, he wants to be seen by her, but only slightly. He has bounded, all this way, over hillsides, over mountains, only to pause at the woodwork just beyond her door, where she can glimpse the image of his body only in the most suggestive part. The Patristics took this image of a beloved standing just beyond the window screen, just where he could be barely seen, as a metaphor, for how much time God takes to show God’s self to us. And yet the goal is not flirtation. The goal is to rise up and come away. The goal is for the beloved to rise up from Winter’s bed, to hear the call of all which blossoms in the spring and go and smell and see and taste and touch it all. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
Why be religious? Why do anything religiously? Not for poetry. Not for pretty words. Not for ideas about the way things should be done or for any well-knit story which can set a beginning with it’s end and call it good. Be religious for the seed it plants of anything against the will of general prosperity. Be religious for the life which is against this world, against its standards of timelines and goodliness and appropriateness to some situation where we’ve been called to respond. Be religious for the wealth it grows of something else beyond us. Be religious for the sake of standing in the face of all which greeeds, which is self-interested, defensive and vain, be religious for the sake of planting a seed which can care for life regardless the needs immediate before it. Not for the purity of what goes in, but the purity of what comes out: the human heart a babbling stream of a million brackish particles of self-concern, yes; and also, all contained within a crystal stream of human kindness, selflessness, and charitable regard.