Father Nicholas Lang
The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The very first prayer we offered this morning—we call it the cóllect— includes a catch phrase that always gets my attention: true religion. We prayed today for an increase of it but just what are we asking for? What is that seemingly elusive commodity? There are a lot of religious leaders and televangelists who are more than willing to tell us what true religion is—some aggressively so. Two of the faith traditions to which I belonged before I became an Episcopalian were very clear that each was the only true religion.
Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College, writing several years ago in the Chicago Tribune, offers us an explanation, inspired by what he learned from two of his students who were comparing Hinduism and Christianity. Hindus believe in karma, they pointed out, so what one believes in this life matters for the next life. But what matters for Christians is mere belief in Jesus Christ. According to McElvaine, this style of Christianity “basically says that all you need to do is accept Jesus Christ and then you can do whatever the hell you want.” Is this true religion?
Well, in last week’s gospel, Peter took center stage with his bold proclamation in response to Jesus’ probing question “Who do you say that I am?” His answer: You are the Son of God. Good choice. But apparently that’s not enough. Peter’s reaction to Jesus letting him know that he would suffer and be put to death clearly indicates that Peter is still conformed to this world. Today Jesus tells him “You are a stumbling block to me.”
“True religion,” it seems, seen and lived through God’s eyes is radically different from the brand some would like to sell us. True religion is expressed in radical giving of self, radical welcome of the other, radical justice for the poor, the marginalized, and the lowly.
Remember, now, that Jesus did not get into trouble with the powers of his day by challenging his individual listeners. He challenged the very systems of society. Just as the values of Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Capital Hill can conflict with the Gospel, so too with Jesus and the institutions of his time: he took on the power structures of his own day, religious and civil alike. That’s what got him crucified.
Rabbit Abraham Heschel, Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in the 1970’s, was a gifted teacher and preacher. I think he pretty much nailed down the meaning of “true religion.” “The greatest task of our time,” he wrote, “is to help our fellow human beings out of the pit. God will return to us when we are willing to let God in—into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theatres. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the father of all people or none, concerned about everything or nothing. Only in God’s presence shall we learn that the glory of humankind is not in its will to power but in its power of compassion.”
If “true religion” has any litmus test is, it is transformation—transformation of our minds and hearts and wills to do what is good and acceptable and perfect—the power of compassion. To bring Gospel values as Jesus taught us to influence labor practices, decisions of the government, religious traditions and policies, and social justice is no more popular in the twenty-first century than it was in first-century Palestine.
Being a disciple—knowing and living “true religion”—has its cost. When we dare to bring the Gospel to bear on our life we soon find that out. Way back in 1970, I attended what is a long defunct event-The Liturgical Conference. It was a wonderful week I spent in Milwaukee experiencing both innovative liturgy and intense conversations about social justice issues and the Gospel. It was also fully ecumenical and the Eucharist was open to all. Not many weeks after, I received a letter from the priest who was in charge of this event. He had drawn fire from his religious superior. His letter was meant to encourage those who had attended not to lose hope. He concluded his letter by saying, “Jesus has promised that those who truly follow him will be unbelievably happy, never overcome by fear…and always in trouble.”
That sounds suspiciously like true religion to me.