Archive for August 24th, 2010

What Religion Is and What It Is Not

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Daniel J. Ott

One of the things that I like about living in the South is that there are lots of little churches with big signs.  Sometimes these signs are used as bulletin boards that announce upcoming events.  Sometimes they let us know what the sermon title is for Sunday.  Often, though, they become the bearer of slogans – they are the church’s bumper and folks come up with some interesting stickers to slap on that bumper.  You’ve probably seen some of the funny ones on the internet.  They range from the quite clever,  “Walmart Is Not the Only Saving Place” to the rather unfortunate, “Don’t Let Worries Kill You – Let the Church Help,” to the down right outrageous “Staying in Bed / Shouting, Oh God / Does Not Constitute Going to Church.”

But the one that I’ve seen a lot that really haunts me is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  On the one hand, I guess I know what this motto is supposed to mean.  Christian faith is not about reporting to church, going through the motions, and saying empty prayers.  Christian faith entails some sort of encounter with Christ. OK – I get it.  But on the other hand, I wonder what the implications of such a statement really are.  Does this slogan imply that religion is a bad thing?  Is it possible to have the ‘relationship’ that this slogan recommends without ‘religion?’  Should we bother coming here and involving ourselves with this religion – these symbols and rites and songs and this building – or could we just stay at home and foster a relationship with God?  These are the kinds of things that Religious Studies professors waste their time thinking about.

I guess the important thing would be to figure out what Jesus thought about religion.  In fact, the Gospels depict Jesus contending with folks over the matter of religion quite a bit.  Jesus seems to have a clear vision about what religion is and what it is not.

And the first thing that I think we can say is that Jesus concerned himself with religion.  He performed the rituals of the Jewish religion.  He observed the Sabbath, though he may have contended over what proper observance is.  He participated in the great feasts and festivals.  He made pilgrimage to the temple.  He knew the scriptures and the stories of the tradition.  He employed the symbols of the faith.  Jesus was religious.

And I should hurry to add that it seems that it was not necessary for Jesus to do these things.  He could have stayed in the countryside and preached and healed.  He did plenty of that to great effect.  He could have secluded himself in a garden and devoted himself to prayer.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  He could have avoided the matter of religion altogether and devoted himself completely to addressing the economic and political factors that caused the human suffering that he sought to relieve.

But Jesus was concerned with religion.  Jesus knew that if things were really going to change, then God would have to be involved in changing them.  And he knew that the way that we speak of God – the only way we can speak of the holy, the ultimate, the ineffable, the all-loving, most high, God is to engage in rituals, and symbols and traditions – the stuff of religion.  The only way to say anything true about God is to sing and dance, to light candles and whisper poems, to gather here and with stammering tongues and humble hearts try to name toward the un-namable together.  Yes – Christianity is about a relationship.  It is about an encounter with Christ, but the only way to encounter Christ, the only means we have to relate to God is religion.

So religion is what we use to have a relationship with God.  But we should hasten to add that while religion is a tool for our USE, we need to guard that religion does not become a tool for ABUSE.  Now we’re penetrating to the source of Jesus’ intense anger in our passage this morning.

The first half of this passage might seem at first blush to be a rather esoteric debate about keeping the Sabbath.  Those pesky Pharisees seem to be at it again, nitpicking about the ins and outs of Jewish law.  They find Jesus and his disciples making their way through some grain fields and picking some grain to eat as they go.  Now there are probably at least two violations of the prohibition against work on the Sabbath here.  The first problem is the traveling itself.  Jesus and his disciples should have been resting at home.  The second problem is the picking of grain.  While the implication of the passage only seems to be that the disciples are picking and eating a little as they go, the Pharisees could well interpret this as a violation of the injunction against harvesting and preparing food.

Now in order to understand what is really at stake here, we’ll need to shake off the well-worn caricatures that are too often passed on in Bible Studies and sermons.  They go as follows:  In this corner are the Pharisees – shallow hypocrites who prance about with their noses in the air pointing out various minor infractions of the Jewish holiness code.  In the other corner are Jesus and his disciples, heavenly minded, free spirited men who have no need of the trappings of religion because they always and everywhere penetrate beyond worldly concerns to the truly spiritual.  Unfortunately, armed with these caricatures we would be headed for a completely meaningless interpretation of the passage.

Let me recast the contenders:  In this corner are the Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite from Jerusalem.  The Pharisees together with the scribes and the priests have cornered the market on religion and are concerned with pressing their influence on the masses.  They do this not only because this elite status gives them prominence within the Jewish community, but also because the ability to control the masses is a valuable commodity to their Roman overlords.  In fact, this ability can and is sold to the Romans for cash.  The religious elite keep the masses in check and the Roman occupiers pay them for the service.

In the other corner is a band of poor Galileans.  They are fishermen and carpenters.  But they have given up even these humble professions in order to travel about and minister to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  They bring with them a message of hope and renewal.  They encourage the masses that if they renew their faith in God, God will deliver them from the evil powers – both spiritual and political – that bind them.  These itinerant ministers of God’s kingdom have no means.  They are always traveling from village to village, often through grain fields and they grow hungry.  So they are accustomed to employing the Jewish practice of gleaning – plucking a little grain to eat as they pass through the edges of a local farmer’s field.

Now perhaps we see what’s at stake.  Perhaps Jesus’ ire is raised because it is rather easy for these Pharisees to point out the speck in the disciples eyes.  After all, the Pharisees are probably right to say that the disciples have violated the rules about the Sabbath.  But is it just for a rich religious elite on a mission of self-aggrandizement to critique these poor, hungry traveling ministers on a mission to ease human suffering?  Now we can see just how incisive Jesus’ memorable saying is, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We might say, “Religion was made for humankind, and not humankind for Religion.”  All too often in our history religion has ceased to be a liberating tool used by the masses and become an abusive tool used by the elite.  Even in the brief history of our own nation we can give a humiliating litany.  Religion became a tool of the elite to prop up the practice of chattel slavery.  Millions of Africans were stripped of their humanity, while the elite perverted religion to justify the unjustifiable.  Religion was and is used to abuse women.  Elite and not-so-elite men have used religion to say that women are less than fully human, that they are rightly a subservient class, that they should keep their mouths shut and that they are too weak and unpredictable to be trusted with any power – in politics and even more in religion.  Today gay and lesbian men and women are abused by religion.  Even if we grant that monogamously devoted persons of the same sex commit a sin by any sex act they might share – a conviction that I think is wrongheaded and not scripturally justifiable – but even if we grant that gay and lesbian men and women sin, does this justify the use of religion to deny a person benefits and healthcare?  Can we justify the continued use of religion to relegate gay and lesbian men and women to an inferior class?  Can we stand by while religion is used to prop up a culture of intolerance that leads directly to gross and senseless violence against gay and lesbian men and women?   Will we continue to allow religion to be used for abuse?  When will we realize that true religion is for the flourishing of all humankind, not for stripping some of their humanity?

In the second story, Jesus really begins to press his case. Jesus goes to a public meeting that he knows the Pharisees will attend.  The Pharisees are strangely silent, but Jesus does enough talking for everybody.  Obviously planning to heal him, Jesus calls a man with a withered hand forward and he asks a direct and penetrating question of his opponents.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  With these words Jesus has raised the stakes and acknowledged the harsh truth that religion is a matter of life and death.  There is a decision to be made – is religion to be used to do good or harm, to save life or to kill?

This is a pressing question for us today as it was for Jesus in his time and as it has been throughout history.  In Jesus’ time his peaceful stand against abusive religion led to his own cruel torture and execution.  Jesus knew well that religion was a matter of life and death.  In the time that the Gospel According to Mark was written, Jewish revolutionaries were taking up arms to defend their homeland and their religious freedoms only to be put down viciously by the Roman general Titus – their homeland scorched – their Temple razed.  Soon the Christian religion would need to decide whether to follow in Jesus’ peaceful wake or to marry herself to the power politics of Rome and the violence that Empire necessarily entails.  Unfortunately, she chose power over peace.  This set the course for a Christian history riddled with power brokering, crusading, empire building and all the killing that these require.

Today, we, too, know that religion is a matter of life and death.  We have a choice to use religion to do good or to do harm – to save life or to kill.  All you need to do is to take a look at the news to know that many are choosing to do harm.  The Taliban and al-Qaeda are still wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are stuck in a cycle of violence as they vie for control of the country.  Of course, Israel continues to struggle with its neighbors and the Palestinian people – a struggle with a long and complex history that is often exacerbated by religion.  In each of these cases and many more around the globe, religion has become a source of and tool for power and violence.  Religion does harm and kills.  I can only imagine how hot Jesus’ anger might burn if he were witness to these perversions of religion.

I believe or text for today speaks to us about what religion is and what it is not.  Religion was made for humankind, not humankind for religion. Religion is about engaging deep mystery, not holding tight to cold doctrine.  Religion is for our use, not for abuse.  Religion is to do good, not to do harm.  Religion is a soft thing, not hard.  Religion is for peace; it is not for violence.  Religion is about beauty, not malice.  Religion is creativity, not destruction.  Religion is hope, not despair.  Religion mediates God, not evil.  Religion strives to save life, not to kill.

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