Texts: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27
I must begin with a confession: I find being religious – in the way described by our scripture text this morning – to be very difficult. James’ instruction to “bridle the tongue” is something I am convinced I need more practice to do well. Today, as we stand at the intersection of our society’s two major political conventions, the danger that loose words can inflict upon the soul of a people seems especially poignant. While the subtle half-truths and brazen lies of candidates and campaign organizers capture headlines, some of you may have followed a smaller, though not entirely insignificant, war of words that has taken place in our state during the past two weeks.
As preparations for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte got underway in August, billboards intended to ridicule Christianity and Mormonism — the faiths of the two major presidential candidates — were raised high in the city to greet convention workers and early arrivers. One of the billboards displayed an image of Jesus on burned toast alongside the accusation “Sadisitc God: Useless Savior. Promotes Hate, Calls it Love.” The other billboard design takes aim at a Mormon ritual by showing an enthusiastic man wearing glowing underwear, accompanied by the words: “God is a Space Alien. Baptizes Dead People. Big Money, Big Bigotry.” Both billboards include the ironically evangelical call to “Join American Atheists!” As you can expect, the billboards drew the ire of angry believers who threatened advertising company employees with violence, prompting workers to bring the signs down a few days ago, before the convention gets underway later this week.
I don’t mention this to suggest that God or religion need to be defended from ill conceived marketing campaigns. What was apparently missing from this situation, though, was a tempered voice to say that mocking the convictions and caricaturing the beliefs of any group of people never leads to a positive outcome. If the sponsors behind the billboards had really wanted to foster constructive dialogue around atheism, they could have designed advertisements lauding the very real and important accomplishments of individual atheists, or worked to build awareness around the serious problems that can happen — and have happened — when governments and sectarian religious ideology become too closely enmeshed.
Even though the signs came down before the majority of convention-goers arrive in Charlotte, the billboards drew plenty of attention and received national publicity, which is likely what the organization behind the message had hoped for anyways. The outraged mob of Christians forced the signs down before the convention, and will undoubtedly congratulate themselves on winning this skirmish in the so-called “war on religion.” Though how much good was really done, and how much integrity was sacrificed, when those who carry the name of the Prince of Peace resort to making violent threats against hourly workers and a minority political group? Both sides can claim a victory, if they so desire. The only real loser in this entire ordeal has been civilized speech and decent dialogue. The ultimate lie that was spread during the past week was not explicitly articulated on a billboard or rolled into a political speech, but in the undercurrents of all these events, it has been slowly reaching out from Tampa, Charlotte, Raleigh and elsewhere — with patience and care we must resist this false notion that men and women who hold different beliefs and different perspectives cannot engage each other respectfully, honestly, and earnestly in attempts to break down barriers which divide us so that we may work together to build a more just society.
I confess that culture wars such as this can leave me wringing my hands in frustration. The dishonest rhetoric and misrepresentation in public discourse is troubling. When greedy politics, hateful attitudes and violent threats try to cloak themselves with the garbs and language of Christianity, the disgust, for me at least, becomes nearly stomach churning. It is enough to make one wonder if jumping ship isn’t the best option. I don’t mean giving up on my faith convictions, my spirituality, or my love for God, but questioning what it means to be a Christian in 21st century America. Is it worth carrying around all of the negative baggage that seems to go along with the Church today? Wouldn’t it be easier to cut ourselves free from the institutional church and just join the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd?
Absolutely. Being a part of a religious tradition as diverse and broad as ours can be a challenge. Encountering God in community, with other people, is always going to be more of a struggle than simply trying to think deep thoughts all alone. But it is also a far richer, even provocative experience, trying to live faithfully into a tradition that is older and deeper and more colorful than anything I could invent on my own. I would even go so far as to say that, apart from a community to challenge us, stretch us and accept us, we cannot get to know ourselves at the truest level. So sloughing off my Christian identity is not an option. What are we to do then, when so many images of religion and church that we see today seem so unbearably wrong in the way they denigrate, exclude and fail to care for others? I suggest we dig deeper.
This is what Jesus does when confronted with a religious tradition that has failed to produce hospitality and compassion. He challenges his audience to let go of the surface distractions and to move deeper into their tradition, to get to the heart of God’s justice and peace. It is interesting to note that in the gospels, every time Jesus is called to defend his disciples before the religious authorities, food is involved. Food. Bread, fish, cool water and fresh wine — that most unspiritual, common thing which reminds us of our own neediness – our own mortality – is so often at the center of what Jesus is doing. Christian faith, at its very core, is not just about spirituality, but about religious practices that lead us to be just as concerned with bodies as we are with souls, with nurturing the hurting people in our neighborhoods at the same time we nurture the spirits and dreams of those within our own community of faith.
When we try to develop a private spirituality, we run the risk of becoming so inwardly focused that we lose touch with God’s vision for the world, and our own place in it. In fact, this inward-oriented sense of spirituality is partly to blame for leading the Christian Church so far off course, and giving outsiders so much space to rightly criticize. Catch phrases such as “personal lord and savior” and “it’s not about religion, it’s about relationship,” may have originated with the noble intent of emphasizing each person’s unique worth before God, but they also foster a dangerous sense of inward-oriented, individual spirituality that perpetuates the idea that everything, even God herself, is centered around “me.”
James gives us a rule of faith that is just the opposite: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, our Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, being religious, if we’re getting it right, should lead us to be more focused on others, and less on ourselves. It is about being an advocate for those who have had their voices stifled by society. In the patriarchal world of the ancient near east, widows and orphans were the ones who found themselves excluded. Without an adult male to conduct their public affairs, they could not own property or carry out business, and they found themselves pushed to the edges of the social and religious lives of their communities. These are the people the prophets and apostles call special attention to, and demand special care be provided for, when spelling out how things are to be different in a community that seeks to order life according to God’s justice. In 2012 we have begun to move away from the rigid patriarchy that shaped the world of the Bible, but we have no less need for God’s justice to pour out from our religious communities. There are perhaps even more situations in which we are called to give special attention to those who have been marginalized by our prejudices and institutional structures. Single-parents working full-time jobs at minimum wage earn barely $15,000 per year – less than the federal poverty level – and are utterly unable to provide better opportunities for education and success for their children. Undocumented migrant laborers flock to our state looking for work, traveling thousands of miles, sometimes on foot, in the hope of sending a few hundred dollars home each month to support their families. A working-class father is diagnosed with kidney failure and put on dialysis; Without health insurance, he cannot afford a transplant; Without a transplant, he is unable to return to work because of the dialysis schedule, so he counts the weeks as his family moves closer and closer to losing their home. A middle-aged working mother loses her spouse to cancer, and, after several months, friends don’t understand why she can’t just move on; deep, bone-shaking grief is something a pleasure-centric culture like ours simply can’t understand. A 17-year-old boy tells his parents he is gay and is pushed out of the house during his senior year of high school; He couch surfs among friends for a while, but eventually he drops out months before graduation and watches his dreams for the future fade away. These are a few of the people in our midst that James is calling us to pay attention to.
Being deeply rooted in a religious tradition always keeps us focused outward, moving beyond ourselves and our own concerns to look to the needs of others. One contemporary theologian describes the Christian tradition as “the crest of a wave always pushing beyond itself. Faithfulness to a tradition is not gained through treading water in repetition of some aspect of the past, but through swimming with the crest into fresh interpretations of God’s gracious presence with us. The tradition is a living, fluid thing.”1 And it should always be moving us to be more compassionate, more forgiving and more connected with the people around us. If your religion is not doing that for you, then it may need to be reassessed. Like a fig tree that has failed to bear fruit, sometimes our religious traditions need to be pruned back to make space for new avenues of grace, but we always stay connected to the deep roots that nurture us and keep us in touch with the wisdom of centuries past.
It can be intimidating to think of getting caught up in the swelling tide of this grand tradition that has, for centuries, been immersed in the gritty work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the marginalized and freeing the oppressed. There is a natural concern that if I become so involved in this community, and so focused outward on others, there will not be any of “me” left. James speaks another liberating word to us, though. It is, in fact, being in community with others and striving to join in God’s reconciling work, that we find ourselves. Living “the good life,” is an apprenticeship.2 We ultimately know what is right and just by paying attention to the people around us who do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly, and then we follow in their footsteps. In community with one another, we learn what gifts we have to offer, we find the courage to take risks, and we learn how to depend on others. We learn how to love, and how to be loved. We look into the mirror of another’s soul, and, for the first time, we see ourselves rightly.