BOTH RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL

I am a religious Christian.  It’s not so cool, today, to say you’re religious.  It’s much more trendy to call yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’.  But let me make a claim for religion, and I gather it’s not one you’ve often heard.

The root of the word, religion, has to do with binding.  People who are religious, by definition, participate in something that’s not necessarily theirs in a private and personal sense, and it’s hard to pinpoint just who came up with those symbols and those traditions – bread as body, wine as blood, water as new life?  Religion is limiting where spirituality is free.  For those very reasons, religion is  less appealing than spirituality.  And yet, for those same reasons, I am religious and encounter no contradiction between my religion and my spiritual outlook.

You see, the longer I live with Jesus – the longer I live into the Christian story and get shaped by these symbols and stories and words – the more aware I become that I am participating, through Christ, in a small slice of a great mystery: the mystery that I am a part of a creation, not a disordered jumble of stuff, and that this created order is being loved into a greater wholeness and transformation.  Christianity is the home through which I seek to understand and, even when I don’t fully understand, nonetheless follow the God who is at work transforming this new order.  Those who have been married for a long time know what this is like: the longer you’ve been married to your partner, the more at peace you are with all those other people you didn’t marry.  Or the longer you live in your vocation or career, the more at peace you become with all the things you didn’t – and will never – get around to doing.  The longer you live the life you are living, fully and proudly, the less you worry about what other things you should or could or needed to be doing, and the more at peace you are.  Religion binds us to a story and, ironically, at the same time keeps us open to the reality that our narrative is not necessarily the story; rather it’s one lens on the whole.

The more one reads the bible – a pretty religious thing, after all – the clearer this becomes.  The Old Testament book of Ruth is a good case-in-point.  Here’s the story: Naomi is a Jewish woman from the town of Bethlehem who, in a tragic sweeping accident, loses her husband and her two sons while the family is living in Moab.  She prepares to return home and  her two foreign daughters-in-law also prepare to go back with her.  Naomi tells them to turn back and stay with their people, instead, and one of them (Orpah) agrees but the other (Ruth) refuses.

Ruth and Naomi, then, go to Bethlehem, and the rest of the drama confirms why this story is so appealing – astonishing in that it not only features as main characters ancient Near Eastern women, but two very determined and plucky and savvy women, at that. Naomi plays the matchmaker between Ruth and a Jewish guy named Boaz, and Ruth does her part to secure her future, and that of Naomi’s family name.  The final, final result is that Naomi via Ruth via Boaz becomes the great-great-grandmother of David, and Ruth becomes, then, the foreigner great-grandmother of Israel’s most laudable kind.  A foreign, plucky, determined woman, the ancestor of Israel’s great Messianic figure.

If religion were pure and of small vision, stories such as Ruth’s would not have been included.  If this were about purity and small-mindedness no right thinking Jewish editor would have tolerated having a savvy foreign woman as the great-grandmother of their great King.  All religions struggle with inclusivity versus exclusion.  This struggle has always been, for religions are very much human-made systems of understanding, but human-made systems of trying to understand a great and profound mystery, let’s not forget.  And, in every religious tradition, there are those personalities and symbols which point beyond human conceptions and towards the expansiveness of God’s emergent, radically inclusive Kingdom.  The story of Ruth and the very fact that it’s a part of this so-called Holy Bible highlights, once again, that the God we follow is profoundly expansive.  If I want some small measure of peace in keeping up with that dynamic God, I’d better find a religious home, a place in which I can find comfort when challenged and challenge when comfortable.

Whereas the world sees religious folks as small-minded, judgmental, and myopic in their viewpoints and opinions, most religious folks I’ve met are quite broad-minded and expansive and at peace with the various stuff of life, its ups and downs, and the ways in which conventional human traditions might give way to new understandings, and how God might very well be in all of that.  Religious people or, I should say, religious people who are also spiritual are the folks who can straddle that line between utter mystery and simple comprehension, between the passing nature of our ideas and the eternal substance of God’s wisdom, between the gift of welcoming an outsider and the need to delineate group norms, between being transformed and being at peace.

And that, in itself, is probably the reason for which I am a religious Christian.  Religion helps give peace and the Christian religion gives me a profound peace, and it’s not the peace which the world gives; not at all.

It’s the peace Jesus modeled and taught.  Summarizing the commandments into two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus actually pointed beyond the commandments, the words and pointed us to the heart of the life of faith: love.  In particular, He named three loves: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

If in pursuing peace you want to find it, if in seeking meaning you wish to uncover it, you would do well to re-invert those three loves and start to work at them as a spiritual practice.  First, start by loving yourself.  Look, this isn’t an invitation to vanity, but a call to truly know yourself as God’s beloved: know your goodness and your wickedness; know that you’re sometimes screwed up but altogether redeemable; know how deeply you’re loved, and know in your heart that God thinks of you as His beloved.  And that depth of knowledge — knowing something by heart — is what Jesus calls ‘love’.  Love yourself, that unique and marvelous person whom God has made.  Love yourself and you will be at peace as you love your neighbor and even, as Jesus also commanded, love your enemy and, ultimately, love God.  If, in turn, you cannot love yourself, you’ll never love your neighbor and, in fact, you’ll only blame your neighbor and scapegoat your god and find every fault possible with your enemy.  You’ll always be looking beyond and to others for their faults.  And life, then, will not be life-giving, not to you nor for others.  And you, then, will not ever find peace.

But be at peace with yourself, with your understanding of the world, as limited as it may be, and you will, in turn, know God.  And, even more so, you will find yourself at peace with God while God goes about doing what God does – loving those whom you and I might rather not like; redeeming those whom some of us might see as enemies; bringing into his Kingdom those whom we might rather exclude and keep out.  But if your religion is true and your spirit refreshed, that won’t mean a thing, for you will keep following the God who is changing you, at that very moment, from the inside out.

 

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Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 4 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

WHAT WE’VE HEARD ABOUT THE ROAD TO HELL, AND WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE WAY OF LIFE

The timing couldn’t be better.  In 1 Kings 3, Solomon ascends Israel’s throne after his father, David.  He goes to worship the Lord and asks for wisdom, for the gift to discern between what is right and what is wrong.

The timing couldn’t be better, for if you think it’s bad now it’s gonna to get worse.  In just a few weeks, it’ll get even noisier.  The Republicans are going to meet in some city and the Democrats in another.  They’ll have a great big rallying cry, and we’ll be overwhelmed with campaign promises, attack ads, and reasons to vilify one and love the other.  It’s going to get worse, much worse. That’s why it’s particularly nice to think about Solomon’s wisdom.  Would that more public servants appeal to God for wisdom.  Would that more who enter the fray of politics pursue humility, grace, and a desire to serve the common good, above all else.  The timing is quite perfect, indeed. 

Let’s look for a moment at Solomon.  He shows wisdom with that whole baby-splitting episode, so good for him.  Yet it should be noted that when he asked for wisdom he was already king, so it’s not like he needed more wealth or power.  And Solomon has an interesting track record as king.  Whereas his father, David, was a charismatic builder – the one who gathered the formerly tribal-minded people into one nation, expanded the kingdom, and was beloved by all, even in spite of his less-than stellar behavior – Solomon didn’t have his father’s grace and statesman’s touch.  Over the course of his rule, Solomon built the grand things David didn’t: that magnificent and costly Temple, for one.  Solomon expanded Israel’s power even more than his father, marrying countless women as part of his international relations with local kings and princes, pursuing wealth and prestige beyond the borders of Israel.  Solomon taxed the people heavily, forced them to work unceasingly, and nearly broke their backs.  By the time Solomon died, the divide and animosity in the kingdom was so great that he was the last monarch of the unified country – thus was Solomon’s inability to remain wise, humble, and gentle.

Even the one who humbly prays for wisdom doesn’t wind up having it.  I don’t mean to say that seeking wisdom is not good practice; rather, it is.  I’m suggesting that that’s not enough.  I suspect that once you enter that world and get seduced by power and privilege and wealth and prestige it’s really hard to look back and remember those other values of humility and grace, the care for the common good and looking out for the little man.  This happened, no doubt, to Solomon as he was entertained in the courts of his day.  This happens in every state capital and in our nation’s capitol, today, as fresh-faced lawmakers, intent on doing good, also get led down a rosy path.  Desire to serve and intent to remain wise is just not enough.

God saw all of this, in time, and God grew frustrated.  God gave us everything – minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve; resources and opportunities and desire; all the right tools and perfect moments to make His kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.  And we squandered it and messed it up, time and again.  So God grew frustrated, but also remembered He’d never again destroy this creation, hence the rainbow in the clouds.

So God determined to re-write history, and re-order the path of human life.  God did a most unexpected and radical thing, and came upon earth as one of us.

God gathered followers and friends, and one day after they fed thousands of people with just a few loaves He told them about real bread, the bread of life, the bread that keeps on giving.  He told them they needed to eat that bread, and drink the cup of life.  He went on to say that they needed to eat His flesh, and drink His blood.  Some others were standing nearby and they heard Him and thought, “Now what is this craziness?  Not only is that contrary to the Torah, to drink the life-source which is blood, but it’s just downright gross.  What is he talking about?”  To which God responded, looking into the eyes of his followers and friends: “Don’t pay attention to them, to those cynics and doubters.  They don’t understand what I’m talking about because they keep looking beyond themselves to someone else who will fix their problems.  They’ll never get around to looking at God – who is the closest, most intimate one you know and already know, the One who already knows you, from the inside out.  They’ll never get around to looking within, where God is already dwelling.”

And that’s what they remembered, years after He was gone.  They remembered how close they were to Him and how close He was to them; how intimately He knew them.  They knew that they wanted to do nothing more than root their lives in Him, and feed on him and drink from his life so that they may have the only thing worthy of being called real life.

God lived as one of us and became human so that humans can become divine.  God re-oriented the whole of human history and rooted Himself in the world so we would root ourselves in Him, and cease to look beyond or outside or to another for answers again, but within — in that deepest, holiest place where the Kingdom dwells already, made sacred when He became and thus blessed our nature.  That’s the lesson in its fullest truth:  that when God become human, redemption already happened.  And the path to new life is to be rooted in Him, the one who became rooted in our experience, as well.

Now, pause.  And return with me to the world beyond the Body of Christ.

As those Republicans meet in Tampa and while the Democrats meet in Charlotte in the weeks ahead, the danger is that you and I will come to believe their messages – that you and I might start believing, somewhere in our heart, that so-and-so has the right idea, and that good intentions lead to good results and, subsequently, that the opponent is a nasty person with awful, no good ideas that will tear down this nation and everything we value.  And you might not only believe those things but you’ll let it infect your lifestyle and your relationships, and you’ll get opinionated and cranky and stop getting invited to cocktail parties.

Don’t let that happen, to you or your life or your heart or your relationships.  Don’t let that happen for it’s a losing game.  The answers are not outside.  The answers are not in another’s good intentions, and the fault isn’t that other one’s bad intentions.  Rather, root yourself where God chose to be planted – in our very flesh and blood, where there is already the food and drink of real, unending, worthwhile life.  It’s within you already, which is where the promise is already offered … in you.

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From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 19 August 2012, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary).  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

PUTTING BACK TOGETHER A ONCE-SHATTERED WORLD

Take apart the word ‘remember’ and it literally means to put back together, to re – member.  It implies that something is broken.  It carries with it associations of gentleness, tenderness; that which was once destroyed is re – assembled, re – membered.

            Mark spends nearly 400 of the 11,000 words in his terse gospel describing the violent death of John the baptizer.  The events are eerily similar to Jesus’: both are executed by officers of the state who would like to let them live; both are killed for reasons which are downright silly and, for that reason, all the more awful; both are brutally murdered because of the assaults of mad people.  Also, in both stories, the followers do not retaliate; instead, they take the bodies, wrap them in cloths, and lay them in a proper burial.  The followers re – member their beloved leader – returning love for love once shown, and demonstrating to the authorities through acts of gentleness that those in power have already brought judgment upon themselves. 

            The similarity also carried into the lives of those first century Christians who received this story called ‘good news.’  They, too, were suffering their own passion-tides simply because they practiced unconditional communitarian love, worshipped a universal God, and followed the Way of Jesus.  They, too, are victims of violent people who exact dehumanizing torture and death in a sick, mad world.  You know very well what it means to live – and strive to live well and whole – in a violent world run by deranged people.

            We cannot control this world, or stop violence.  We re – member, the gospel tells us, so the better angels of our nature will grow.  We re – member, as well, so the nastier demons of our nature will not take root, lest we, too, become yet another fatality to the starving madness of this broken and sinful world.  That is why we remember.

            I’ve had two experiences which remind me of this truth. 

MATTHEW SHEPARD
Dec. 1, 1976 – Oct. 12, 1998

            In 2002, I helped lead a group of high school Episcopalians to the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE), held that summer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.  Four years earlier, Matthew Shephard, a young gay student at the university, was tortured and murdered by two local Laramie men.  They robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured Matthew, tying his near-lifeless body to a fence in a remote field.  A cyclist found his blood-soaked body 18 hours later, thinking at first it was a scarecrow tied to the fence.  This horrifying case brought national and international attention to hate crimes, and continues to be a sobering example of the violence we can do to one another.

            There is no memorial in Laramie to Matthew Shepard.  In town, one afternoon, one of those with us got a cold shoulder when she asked a local man where the farm was where Matthew lay dying.  I’ve learned that that struggle is ongoing: yes, in 1998, community leaders expressed appropriate sadness and disgust about the murder, but the town has resisted establishing a memorial.  Local residents successfully petitioned the city to change the street names leading to the field where Matthew was beaten, hoping that people would go away.  The summer I was there, a local man pointed out to us the general area of the field.  All I remember seeing was a long stretch of fields and a fence line in the vast distance.  Laramie did not feel, to me, like a healed place.  Our nation, likewise, isn’t healed, and I honestly fear that vicious hate crimes against gay and lesbian people will be met, in some cases, with some people, by indifference, ignorance or, worse, endorsement and support.

            How have we re – membered Matthew Shepard?  How have we, as a people, looked upon something that is truly horrible and taken the body down from that fence, wrapped it in love, and shown to a world which feeds on violence that, according to our good news, love defeats hatred, gentleness trumps ignorance, and care establishes justice?  The answer, in this case, is we have not.

            My second experience was a time in which I saw my father cry.  When I was 15 years old, I came out East for a family wedding.  The day after the wedding, we visited some of the memorials in Washington, DC, in particular the Vietnam Memorial.  At the deepest part of the wall, I was next to my father, running my hand over some of the names, thinking about who they were, when I turned to continue down the line and saw tears on his face.  It is a powerful memorial.  It was good for my dad to cry, as countless others have at that wall, because these were his friends and promising young men from his generation.  I’ll bet they were also tears of exhaustion, of being given the opportunity at long last to grieve a particularly painful moment in his adult formation, for at the very moment he was becoming an adult – getting a job, getting married, starting a family – this country was being torn apart, relationships chosen or broken on the basis of ideological stances, a people ripped apart from its insides.  There has been much healing since the Vietnam Conflict, evidenced by the ways in which we unambiguously support our troops in the current conflicts.  I would suspect that that wall has had a lot to do with that healing.

            Terrible events happen in the world, and we are powerless over systemic hatred, bigotry, and injustice.  But we are not powerless over the ways in which we respond, and in that response lies the only hope of an emergent, profound Kingdom that is not of this world but is, rather, God’s.  And that is why we remember.  That is why we take the body that was abused, pistol-whipped, beheaded, suffocated on a cross, or broken by words or threats and wrap it gently and lay it in a place we will remember and visit again, even if it is a memory we don’t like to face, especially because it is.

            On a night seething with violence, He did it himself, after all – washing feet, embodying servanthood, expressing kindness, demonstrating love, taking bread, pouring wine and saying “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Put back together that which was broken, or soon will be, and He will be there, mending those once-shattered shards, healing the world from within.

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Taken from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 15 July 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be downloaded here.