Sunday, August 17, 2014

True Religion

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 17, 2014

Year A, Proper 15: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
Romans: 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 10-28

True Religion
            One of the developments here at St. Paul’s that makes me happiest is that we are deepening our connections to the surrounding community. We’re meeting more people in the neighborhood. And more people in the neighborhood are noticing us and want to get to know what makes us tick.
            Our neighbors want to know: What’s our faith all about? What do we believe? Why do we give up our valuable time and come here week after week?
            Maybe people ask you questions like that when they find out that you go to St. Paul’s.
            They certainly ask me.
            In fact, over the past few months I’ve had several pretty lengthy conversations with people in the neighborhood sincerely curious about our church, what we believe and how we live out our faith.
            Unfortunately, nearly always these people come to these conversations with very negative views of the church and of the clergy.
            They are what Chris called in his sermon a couple of weeks ago the “nones.” These are people unaffiliated – and usually want to stay unaffiliated - with any organized religion.
            Often these “spiritual but not religious” people assume we’re small-minded, petty and judgmental and, frankly, irrelevant in today’s modern, messed-up world.
            I try to explain and show that not all religious people are judgmental.  I try to explain that we do care about our community and the world. I try to convince them that there’s another way to be religious.
            I try to explain that we genuinely love one another, that we pray for each other especially the sick and the suffering week after week, sometimes for years as we did for our dear brother Ken who was at the top of our prayer list for so long. And we rally around each other, hold up each other up, during times of loss and sadness as we have this past week since Ken died.
            We do this not because we’re some selective club but because we really love one another, just like Jesus told us to.
            What do you think? Am I giving an honest and accurate picture of how we practice our religion here at St. Paul’s? I think so.
            But, it’s a tough sell to people so turned off by the church, by organized religion.
            Today’s gospel passage is a little complicated – there’s a lot going on here - but it gives us a very powerful contrast of two very different ways to be religious.
            On the one hand, we have the Pharisees who are in a dispute with Jesus about religious rules.
            On the other hand, there’s the Canaanite woman who desperately wants Jesus to heal her sick daughter.
            Let’s start with the Pharisees.
            Just like today, back in the first century there was a lot of diversity in Judaism. Then as now there were different Jewish groups that emphasized certain traditions – groups who had their own ideas on how God should be worshiped and obeyed, their own ideas on what it meant to be part of God’s chosen people.
            The Pharisees are the Jewish group that gets the most attention in the gospels. Unfortunately, almost all of that attention is negative.
            That negativity probably reflects real historical tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. And it almost certainly reflects competition between the Pharisees and the first followers of Jesus.
            Probably one of the reasons those first followers of Jesus and the Pharisees competed so fiercely was because in at least some ways they were alike. For example, unlike most Jews, both the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus believed in life after death.
            The Pharisees also wanted to make everyday life holy. Actually, that sounds like a pretty good thing, right? The Pharisees wanted to make everyday life holy by encouraging everybody to follow traditions that went above and beyond the Law – practices that before had only been required of religious professionals, like the priests.
            Apparently, one of those practices was ritually washing one’s hands before eating.
            In the passage just before what I read today, we’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes ask Jesus why his disciples don’t ritually wash their hands before eating.
            This rather accusatory question gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about true religion.
            Like the prophets before him, Jesus doesn’t criticize the Law and religious practices. But, Jesus insists that following the rules – eating the right foods, washing our hands according to some tradition – is not what’s most important.
            Jesus teaches that what’s most important is what’s going on in our hearts.
            Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. Far out of the heart come evil intentions…”
            True religion is all about a loving heart.
            After Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, we’re told he went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon, non-Jewish lands.
            And there – or near there – Jesus encounters one of the most vivid characters in the entire gospel, this unnamed but so loving and so determined Canaanite woman.
            This loving – desperately loving – mother cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
            But, Jesus – acting very un-Jesus-like – ignores her. And the disciples are just annoyed by her.
            But, she doesn’t give up. She loves her daughter and even though she’s not Jewish she trusts this Jewish holy man – or more than a holy man - named Jesus.
            “Lord, help me.”
            But, Jesus, sounding even less like himself, seems to insult her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            Insulted by Jesus. That would’ve shut up most of us.
            But, not this woman.
            She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
            Jesus finally relents and heals her daughter.
            “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
            It’s quite a story.
            This persistent, loving Canaanite woman – a stranger – a foreigner! – shows that true religion is all about a loving heart.
            We know she loves her daughter – and like every parent here she’d do any thing for her child. But. make no mistake, she’s religious.
            She worships Jesus, calling him “Lord” three times.
            And she has faith in Jesus. In fact, she’s the only person in the gospel who is said to have “great faith.” She’s quite a contrast with Jesus’ own disciples like Peter who over and over reveal they have only little faith.
            This woman trusts that even when Jesus seems to insult her and refuse her plea, ultimately Jesus will offer salvation for daughter and for herself.
            True religion is all about a loving heart.
            So, our neighbors want to know: what kind of religion do we practice here at St. Paul’s?
            Are we like the Pharisees as presented in today’s gospel, quick to judge and too focused on rules and regulations?
            Or are we like the Canaanite woman, loving each other and faithful to Jesus no matter what?
            Do we remember – do we demonstrate to our neighbors and to the world – that true religion is all about a loving heart?