This Sunday's Sermon
Message for Sunday, September 19th
WHEN RELIGION ISN’T ENOUGH
What do you do when you REALLY want to be heard? You turn up the volume – shout at the top of your lungs, or maybe speak in those short, clipped, well-punctuated sentences you heard way-back-when your mother scolded you: "I al-ready said it once and I am NOT going to say it a-gain and you had better not for-get it!” If, on the other hand, you’re trying to get across your point by way of texting, you use emojis – those little pictograms of smiley faces, grimaces, thumbs up, little red hearts, etcetera, etcetera. Or, finally, if you’re writing it out by hand or typing it on a Word document, you use italics, bold-face, underlining, capital letters, a large font, or ALL of the above.
When wrapping up his letter to the Church in the region of Galatia – in the north central part of modern day Turkey – Saint Paul did it with oversized print. "See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” he writes. Up until this point in the Book of Galatians, the readers of the apostle’s original letter were looking upon the fine script of a trained scribe to whom Paul was dictating his words. But beginning with chapter 6, verse 11, Paul grabbed a pen and wrote it himself with bold, capitalized letters that could NOT be missed! That’s because he wanted this particular part of his message to be burned into the brain of every believer who saw it or who heard it being read.
So what’s the point he’s trying to pound into the minds of the church crowd? THE MESSAGE version of the Bible paraphrases Paul’s thought in contemporary and colorful language, like this: "These people who are attempting to force the ways of [an old religious ritual] on you have only one motive: They want an easy way to look good before others, lacking the courage to live by a faith that shares Christ's suffering and death. All their talk about the law is gas. They themselves don't keep the law! And they are highly selective in the laws they do observe. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side. That is contemptible! For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. Can't you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do – [that is,] submit to circumcision, [or] reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and God is creating something totally new – a free life!
The scene in Galatia wasn’t unlike the predicament in our time, when people and preachers brag on how many new believers they’ve "converted’ and baptized. Don’t they realize that it’s the LORD GOD who does the work when it comes to Christian transformation and baptism?! And does anyone really think that we’re going to "Christianize” America by plastering the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls? It’s a huge distortion when we confuse "religion” with faith. An American story-teller [Garrison Keillor] got it right by putting in the mouth of a story-character the observation that "You don’t become a Christian by sitting in a church any more than you become a car by sitting in a garage.” Faith doesn’t come by way of the religious doctrine that you know or the religious traditions that you embrace! Faith happens by way of WHO you trust! Faith is an up-close relationship with the One who loves you to death – that is, Christ crucified and risen. THAT is Paul’s Message!
Religion is NEVER enough! Marking your body with a sign of belief – as in the ancient Jewish mandate for circumcision – means nothing, says Saint Paul; and not being outwardly marked means nothing either. Rituals and traditions, doctrine and beliefs are not the beginning and end of Christianity. The book of James sounds the warning on any kind of religion that doesn’t include a trusting relationship with the Most High: "You say you have faith,” he writes, "for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror” (James 2:19, NEW LIVING TRANSLATION).
Mere religious doctrine comes up short – WAY short. "What counts,” says Saint Paul, "is whether we have been transformed into a new creation” by the renewing Power, the forgiving Grace, and the Living Presence of Christ crucified and risen. Indeed, says Paul, "I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the sentences leading up to Paul’s final, hand-written big print counsel, he warns the Galatians off from looking down on each other based on who it is that’s knowing best and keeping best the rituals, rules, doctrines, and dogma of "religion.” Don’t tear each other down, he says. Lovingly forgive and humbly restore the sinners among you, he says, lest you likewise be found needing forgiveness, restoration, and healing, as you surely will, he continues. "Share each other’s burdens,” is how he says it; "and in this way obey the law of Christ.”
My thoughts were drawn this week to something I’d peached some years ago about Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender individuals. Ms. Jenner was – you may know – one amongst many candidates vying to replace California’s governor in a failed recall effort. But news organizations were a few ago reporting on the provocative preacher who had prayed that God should rip Ms. Jenner’s heart right out of her chest. Now, of course, I’ve never known Caitlyn Jenner or, for that matter, Bruce Jenner. I did, however, have in another time and place a lengthy conversation with a woman named Terri – Terri, that is, spelled with an "i.” Now Terry, spelled with a "y,” is the name by which the same person had been called when living in the body of a man – a body that, even as we spoke, was in transition by way of hormone therapy from male toward female. Most folks in the church I was serving at the time had noticed early on that Terri’s complexion was a bit rough for someone obviously presenting herself as a woman. Cosmetics could not hide her "five o’clock shadow” of facial hair. A few of the people in the pews were laughing, jeering, or ranting – assuming that Terri was a cross-dressing man. But no! She wanted to talk to a pastor, and it ended up being yours truly.
What I noticed more than anything else about Terri was her deep loneliness and pain; her isolation and confusion. She hadn’t felt as though she hadn’t fit in with any particular community of people. She struggled mightily to live with her decision in a culture that can’t understand what it’s like to live in a body with which you feel so uncomfortable. Nor did she assume that what she’d done was the right thing. And what I found most notable about Terri was her recollection of a time years ago when – as a young man – when she’d seen horrible and violent things that no human being should ever have to witness. Terri, you see, was a Vietnam War combat veteran; and who’s to say what effect the carnage of war might have on a soul? Truth be told, Terri had, at least, chosen a different life over and against no life. There’ve been in America a frightful number of combat veteran suicides in the decades since Vietnam.
Other preachers might have thrown scripture at Terri, as a way of condemning her decision toward change of identity. Yet the thing that crossed my mind – as it does now – is the brokenness I witnessed in Terri’s life; and, beyond her, the brokenness that exists in ALL of God’s creation. Given what Saint Paul wrote in the Book of Romans, it’s evident that ALL of God’s world is broken – that ALL of God’s world requires healing and liberation. What does the apostle write in chapter 8, verses 20-22? – "With eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:20-22).
Now I don’t fully understand the dynamics or origins of gender dysphoria. But if such confusion of identity is evidence of a broken creation, then so too – according to Christian scripture – is envy and coveting evidence of a broken creation, as is jealousy and spite, division in the church and prejudice amongst colors and classes of people, drunkenness and addiction, infidelity and indifference to human need, pride of culture and self-righteousness, love of money and fear of commitment, and… well… you get the picture. "All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God,” is how Saint Paul puts it in the Book of Romans (3:23). We dare not go cherry-picking for sins to condemn. Caitlyn Jenner and Terri are as much in need of God’s Grace in Christ Jesus as any one of us!!
THE MESSAGE rendering of Luke 9: 52-55 recounts a story: "Jesus sent messengers on ahead,” it begins: "They came to a Samaritan village to make arrangements for Jesus’ hospitality. But when the Samaritans learned that Jesus’ destination was Jerusalem, they refused hospitality. When the disciples James and John learned of it, they said, ‘Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightning down out of the sky and incinerate them?’ Jesus turned on them. ‘Of course not!’ [he said].”
The knee-jerk response of James and John – to call down fire and brimstone – isn’t such a leap from praying that Caitlyn Jenner’s heart be ripped out, is it? Yet the Good Master, we’re told, "rebuked” James and John for embracing a strategy that is so incompatible with the Lord’s mission and message. Curiously, some ancient manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel include an expanded reply to James and John’s question. "Jesus turned on them,” it reads, "and said, ‘You don’t realize what your hearts are like. For the Son of Man has not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.”
Christians serve God’s Kingdom come on earth when we proclaim salvation, and not condemnation. Salvation and spiritual transformation are, after all, the gifts of God offered in Jesus and through Jesus. Indeed! The saving love and forgiveness of Christ have come to us as a gift undeserved. It’s been written, by Christian author, Frederick Buechner, that "A crucial [peculiarity] of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.” That, I say, is because Jesus of Nazareth has already done the heavy lifting on your behalf. "There’s only one catch,” continues Mr. Buechner: "Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it.”
Take it, then, from the Christ who offers it to you with his nail-scarred hands; and trust in the Good Master who offers the gift. To be counted amongst the beloved brothers and sisters of the Risen Master is, after all, so much more satisfying than taking hold of a mere "religion.” So let’s be found praying, with Saint Paul: "May I never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!”