Sunday, August 28, 2011

True Religion

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Millburn NJ
August 28, 2011

Year A: Proper 17 – The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

True Religion

In today’s collect we made several requests of God, but the one that really jumped out at me was asking God to “increase in us true religion.” I’ll admit that I don’t always pay as much attention to the collect as I should. Maybe you don’t either! But, over the past couple of days I’ve found myself wondering just what is “true religion” and what would it look like if “true religion” really did increase in us.

Right off the bat, we have to acknowledge that for many the very word “religion” carries a whole lot of baggage. I don’t know you at all, but since we’re here in church on the morning of a predicted major hurricane I suspect that all of us here this morning are to some extent “religious.”

But, because of all the religious baggage in our country and around the world, how many of us would admit to being “religious” to our colleagues at work, or on line in the supermarket, or with our classmates at school, or even with our own families and friends?

No, we know all too well what’s written on the tags hanging from religious baggage. One label reads “Closed-minded.” Another says, “Judgmental.” Another, “Ignorant” Still another says, “Bigoted.” And then there are the tags written in blood that say “Threatening” and “Violent.”

Now, I know that’s not what we want written on the tags of our religious baggage – and that’s not the kind of religion that we pray God increases in us – and, in fact, not the kind of religion that God would ever want to increase in us.

Obviously, religion doesn’t mean – or, shouldn’t mean – being closed-minded or judgmental or ignorant or bigoted and certainly not threatening or violent.

But, what does religion mean? What does it mean to be religious?

I think today’s lessons offer very powerful descriptions of religion and what it means to be religious.

In today’s gospel lesson we heard the first time Jesus predicts his fate: his arrest, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. It must have been a very shocking revelation for Jesus’ friends who had left behind their old lives to follow this rabbi who taught and healed like no one they had ever seen before.

I’m sure all the disciples were upset, and maybe none more than Peter.

I think most of us love Peter so much because we can relate to him. We can relate to his bumbling. We can relate to his usually trying to do the right thing but often coming up short. And we can relate to sometimes letting down the people we care about most.

But, like us, sometimes the very human Peter gets it right. Remember last week we heard Peter really getting it. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Peter must have felt like a million shekels – there’s nothing better than giving the right answer when the teacher asks a tough question!

Jesus tells Peter he is blessed. Peter isn’t blessed because he’s smarter or more insightful than the other disciples. Jesus tells Peter he is blessed, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Peter got the answer right not because he was smart or insightful but because he was open to God at work in him. Because Peter’s heart was open to God he recognized Jesus for who he really is.

Contrast last week’s scene with what we heard today. Peter is so shocked by what Jesus has just said that he’s closed to God working in and through him.

Peter is so consumed by fear and anxiety that he isn’t able to hear everything Jesus is saying. Peter seems to miss the big point: that Jesus would rise again on the third day. I imagine all Peter heard was Jesus saying, “undergo great suffering…and be killed.”

And so, motivated by shock and fear and anxiety and, yes, love for his teacher, Peter “rebukes” Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

For his part, Jesus reflects the seriousness of Peter’s error by speaking harshly to his disciple, calling him “Satan” and telling him that Peter the rock has become a stumbling block.

Like Peter, we too can be motivated by shock and fear and anxiety.

Certainly there’s plenty in the world to be shocked by, to be afraid of, and to be anxious about.

I’m sure most of us spent much of the past few days anxiously tracking Hurricane Irene as it made its destructive way up the East Coast.

We worry that we have damaged the planet so much that we look to a future filled with ever more destructive storms and extreme weather.

We are afraid that our political system and our economy are both broken beyond repair, threatening our children and grandchildren lives far less prosperous than our own.

And we have our own personal anxieties – that occasional pain in our chest, that we’ll be the next one in the department to be let go, that losing our keys is the first sign of impending dementia, and even that a new rector will change all the things we really love about St. Stephen’s.

But if we’re truly religious, then our eyes and our minds and our hearts are open to God.

So, asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our eyes to see God at work in the world around us.

Asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our minds to understand how God is at work in the world around us.

And asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our hearts so we can live lives inspired by love rather than lives motivated by shock, fear and anxiety.

I think that’s what St. Paul is getting at when he writes to the early church in Rome,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

That’s what “true religion” looks like.

“True religion” has its own baggage. But here’s what’s written on the tags hanging from true religious baggage: “love,” “mutual affection,” “show honor,” “ardent in spirit,” and “service to the Lord.”

We live in a time of fear and anxiety. Yet, the God who spoke to Moses long ago – the God was and is and will be – is still at work right now early 21st Century.

The God who raised Jesus on the third day – the God who was and is and will be – is still at work right here in us, and through us, and with us at St. Stephen’s

We pray that God will increase in us true religion so that, like Peter, our hearts will be open and we will recognize Jesus as Messiah, Son of the Living God.

We pray that God will increase in us true religion so that in a world filled with anxiety and bad religious baggage, our lives will be tagged by love, generosity and service.