True Religion

A sermon preached at Grace Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas.

The lectionary readings for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost are here.

Today, we return to Mark’s telling of the Good News Story after hearing 5 sermons on Jesus’ one “I am the bread of life” sermon. That’s a lot of time spent on the foundation of the Good News of God’s Kingdom: God coming to us and offering his very life for us so we can be in reconciled relationship with our Loving Creator.

How have these past weeks deepened your understanding of God’s presence with us?

When we left off in Mark’s story, Jesus and his disciples had been traveling around the Sea of Galilee and are on the northwest shore in a town known as Gennesaret. The stories of Jesus’ ability to heal had gone viral and everyone began following him, bringing their sick and injured just to be able to touch even the edge of his clothes.

He had so many followers that the other wanna-be influencers of the day, the Pharisees, came looking for him, not to learn from him but to find a way to discredit him because if you can’t gain lot of followers yourself, you can at least try to undo the good the one with all the followers is doing. If you can’t go viral for for what you do perhaps you can be famous for undoing someone else.

And you thought this kind of behavior was invented with the internet! Our human nature hasn’t changed all that much in these past 2000 years, has it.

And so we join up with Jesus and his followers as the Pharisees gathered around him to question him, not about the healing and feeding he’s been doing but about hand washing. In a sense they were questioning the effectiveness and legitimacy of his feeding and caring for others because Jesus wasn’t worried about whether or not anyone’s hands were clean enough.

The Pharisees had taken God’s laws and twisted them to find the loop holes with thoughts like: I can get out of my obligation to love my neighbor if my neighbor isn’t clean enough.

What better way to distract from the real issue of Loving our Neighbor than to divert everyone’s attention to a minor issue.

But Jesus isn’t deterred. He zeros right in on the main issue. For Jesus, the heart of the matter is the heart. Our hearts, open and transformed by God. Being God’s people isn’t about the physical food we eat or the way we eat it. Being God’s people isn’t only about our outward behavior but our inward transformation that brings about the loving behavior of Kingdom People.

Being God’s people is about loving as God loves. And this kind of love doesn’t look for loop holes. This kind of love comes from the inward transformation of being in relationship with our loving God.

Now, partnered with this specific conversation of Jesus and the Pharisees, it almost sounds contradictory to say “what we consume determines our health” as we’ve been talking about. But Jesus’ point is to take our attention away from food and outward rituals and get us to look inwardly, at what we truly believe in our hearts, because our true belief is exposed by our outward behavior and words, even if we try to fake it some of the time.

The Pharisees used God’s laws to find people to exclude when the intent of God’s laws is to teach to us love and make everyone welcome into the Kingdom.

And as we said last week: Jesus words are intended to get us to do serious internal examinations so we understand our true motivations for what we do. We have to work on the inside of the dish, not just polish the outside.

It is important to ask ourselves how we spend our time and what we are consuming:
Who or what do we let shape our motivations?
Is our diet of life God based or world based?
What do we give our time to?
Do we intentionally make time for what we say we consider important or do we just hope to find the time if something else falls through?

How we spend our time does reveal the desire of our heart.

In his conversation with the Pharisees over what his followers do and don’t do, Jesus tells them that they’ve lost the plot. They are so concerned by the outward appearance that they’ve forgot the meaning of it all. Their outward behavior became all about excluding those who they didn’t deem worthy rather than inviting everyone into God’s love.

It was the Pharisees job in the synagogues and temple to ensure that those who came to worship God observed the rituals and rules intended to shape and form God’s people. But they had become more concerned about the rules than the people these rules are supposed to teach.

Jesus tells us that he came not to do away with God’s law but to fulfill it. All of the rules that God gave his people are intended to teach us how to live in love with God and each other. When we love God, we don’t have other gods, we don’t worship other things. When we love our neighbor and ourselves, we don’t desire to lie or steal or cheat or try to manipulate situations for our own benefit. We look out for the greater good of everyone involved. This is the way of living that the Ten Commandments teach us. And yet, throughout history, some folks have attempted to use these Love commands as a weapon against others rather than a transformative teaching as we grow in our relationship with God and each other.

True religion isn’t an outward display but a transformation of our hearts and minds in line with God’s will for God’s creation. Coming together in corporate worship is important and necessary to our Life with Jesus, but it definitely isn’t the goal or end game of Following Jesus. It is just one regular serving of a well-balanced and nutritious diet.

In his letter, James says that faith without works is dead. Did you know that the great Reformer and theologian Martin Luther wanted to remove James’ letter from the biblical canon because he thought it suggested we could earn God’s favor by doing good? An interesting tidbit of knowledge but not the point and not at all what James says. James says what Jesus said – that what we let shape our inside – our heart and mind, our soul – has an impact on what we do and more importantly, WHY we do what we do. True faith, a faith lived, will be seen by the good that we do.

Following Jesus in the Way of Love will bear loving fruit: kindness, empathy, respect, dignity, compassion, and justice in all areas of our life: home, work, play, and church.

As we follow Jesus every moment of every day, we are continuously transformed to be more like him. We examine ourselves up against the life of Jesus, our ultimate example of being fully human. We craft our life diet within the framework of God’s word and prayer. Sunday worship is just one spiritual practice and we need a steady diet of spiritual practices throughout the week.

What do you think and feel when you hear the term “Spiritual Practices?” Angst, fear, frustration?

Do you know why we call spiritual practices, practices? Because we are not supposed to be concerned about being perfect at them. That’s not the point of prayer and worship and scripture study. The point is to let God transform us through these activities. My spiritual director in seminary told me that the only way to fail at a spiritual practice is to not try it to begin with.

Jesus invites us on a life-long journey of continuous discovery of God’s Kingdom: discovering who God is and who we are in relationship with God, discovering the abundant life of love that God desires for us. This life takes intentionality and discipline.

Jesus doesn’t want to be our co-pilot. He invites us to follow him in a shared journey. Jesus doesn’t sit in the passenger seat waiting for us to sing “Jesus take the wheel”. He invites us to walk with him, to show us the Way of Love, a life that reflects the image of God to the world.

God is a God of life and he came to us, calls us toward himself so that we can live the life we are created to live.

The presiding Bishop of ECUSA, Michael Curry says, “God came into the world in the person of Jesus to show us The Way, the way of love, the way to change the world from the nightmare it often is to the dream that God intends.”

And when we follow Jesus, honoring God with both our lips and our lives, being doers of God’s Love, we do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

2 thoughts on “True Religion

  1. Thank you! True religion was a topic of conversation during our reflection of the collect. Your words bring clarity and confirmation! Looking forward to seeing you soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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