Religious (June 10, 2018)
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
We’re continuing today our sermon series on the spiritual but not religious. This is a group of people that we looked at last week who value the spiritual aspects of life, but they have rejected religion. So they value what we would call the personal aspects of Christianity, or of religion, that we believe would build up a relationship with Jesus Christ. They might say that they were finding themselves, or finding nature, or something like that. I think they are; I just think that is the image of God within them that they’re finding when they find themselves; but that’s another sermon. We also determined last week that these aspects of the faith, building a personal relationship with Jesus Christ for either ourselves or for others helping others with that, is actually the most important part of Christianity; and that all the rest of the stuff, the religious as they would call it, exist to help us do that for ourselves or for others.
I think that this text we read today shows in some sense that idea, and begins to talk about why the religious truly exists; why we do this thing called religion or Church. Paul says that we believe we are being renewed for a reason; that we are being renewed in preparation for eternal salvation and eternal life. This means that the spiritual things that you experience are real, they are legitimate, they are happening; but they are happening because they happen in heaven and we are being prepared for experiencing heaven. But furthermore we understand that the reality in heaven is a communal reality, that there is a communion of saints, and so we do this together here on earth with all our imperfections because we’re going to be doing it together in heaven. And you’re not really preparing for heaven if you doing it on your own because it’s not going to be just God and you when you get there. Religious activities and practices are what we do to try and make heaven a reality on earth. Or as Paul says here: to help Grace “extend more and more and more every day.”
So what am I talking about when I say religious practices? The author that helped me the last couple weeks is a woman by the name of Diana Butler Bass. And in her book “Christianity After Religion” she the talks about this concept and about some of the misconceptions of religious practices. She goes out and goes to conventions to talk to church leaders, usually, about this. And what she usually does is she’ll take a whiteboard and she will put up the word spiritual on one side, and the word religious on the other, and play word association: “what do you think of when you see the word religious? what do you think of when you see the word spiritual?”
And Bass tells the story of a relatively common thing she sees, particularly when she’s talking to church leadership, they want to start with the religious because they know about that. What practices or things do you think of when you think religion? And she recalled one story where a pastor quickly said when thinking about religion “Roberts rules of order.” Parliamentarian procedure. And she turned around expecting to see a smirk of a joke, but he was serious and the people around him were congratulating him on such a good answer. This is not a unique story. A lot of church leadership, talking about religious practices, would bring up the institutional aspects: the committees, the conferences, the conventions; and they would bring those up first.
Parliamentary procedure and committee meetings are not what I am talking about when I am talking about religious practices. Those are necessary things to keep a church going, but if the church is not doing religious practices then the church does not really need to keep going. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s reality. Those things we do in the administration have to be about keeping the faith aspects, the service aspects. They have to be about helping people experience their relationship with Jesus Christ, and how we can better do that. But they’re not religious aspects in and of themselves.
For instance I’m headed this week to annual conference. Annual conference is considered to be Holy Conference. And it is considered to be a religious idea. But it is not a religious practice when we are trying to decide whether or not it is an order to accept an amendment to the amendment to the motion to table the original motion (yes, that happened last year). That’s not religious. What’s religious is getting together and fellowshipping with pastors I haven’t seen from western Kansas all year. What’s religious is worshiping, as we do five times together during four days. And those business sessions are there to prop up the conference actions, as well as what we do throughout the rest of the year with our mission work in our disaster relief, and our internships, and our many, many great works being done by our camps and in an our facilities.
These are the types of practices and talking about: the things that you probably can list off on your own. The religious practices I’m talking about are the things that help us to build our relationship, or help others to build their relationship, with Jesus Christ. I think about things like prayer, like fasting, like giving to charities, like practicing Sabbath. I think about giving hospitality, particularly to prisoners, and strangers, and refugees, and friends, and visitors.
This is particularly important for us who build our identity off of John and Charles Wesley. Because John Wesley really focused on going and visiting the sick, going and visiting the imprisoned. Methodists were known for going into the prison and preaching and ministering to those in prison, even to the point where they would hop on the cart with the person headed to the gallows and be preaching to them as they headed for death if they hadn’t yet accepted Christ. Wesley started up one of the first religious hospitals in England, known as The Foundry. This was big to Wesley. It should be big to us.
Another thing that we can get from Wesley is asking your friends “how is it with your soul?” Wesley was big on these small groups that met during the week, and the first question everyone must answer at that small group was how is it with your soul? A religious practice you can do easily do is that when you get to church on Sunday morning, or when you see them in the world throughout the week, asking the person next to you in the pew “how is it with your soul?” and answering them when they ask you. That is about building each other up.
Perhaps the most common and most important religious practice that could help us build a relationship with Jesus Christ is the liturgy of the worship. These are the things we do every single week; the things that we come for again and again and again. There are people who report not feeling Jesus, not feeling like they are worshiping unless they are reciting the Lord’s Prayer. or reciting the creed, or singing the good ol’ hymns. Of course, what hymns those are change; the “good old hymns” means “the hymns I grew up with when I was a child.” Sometimes when we come in and we hear “Amazing Grace,” or “I Come to the Garden Alone,” or “How Great Thou Art,” or “A Mighty Fortress is our God;” when we hear these things it’s as if we I walked into the house and smelled grandma’s cookies. We remember back to the good times. And we remember the good, not the bad. And in the church we remember the good when God was there for us, when the church was there for us. And it helps to build our relationships with Christ and with each other. It fills our spirits.
But I can see now that some of you would come back next week and say “Pastor, I tried praying in the way you described right after church last Sunday, but it didn’t work. So what do you have for me now?” Ok, maybe not you all, but some people might do that in other churches. Because sometimes we treat religion like that when it’s not like that at all. Religion is a skill. Religious practice is called a practice because it needs to be practiced. Being quote, unquote “good at religion” is about practicing at something; you build it up. It is like playing an instrument. Del, I’m going to guess that you did not start playing with the kind of songs you play and bless us with every week before service. I’m going to guess you began playing something more along the lines of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” or “Chopsticks,” and it slowly and over the course of many hours of practice built up the ability to play what we hear now.
That’s the way religion has to work. You have to practice conversing with God. It is not going to come perfectly naturally, you have to start slowly and get more and more advanced as you go. When you start reading scripture, you’re not going to interpret scripture like someone who like me who has done this for eight years now. And I don’t do it as well as Pastor Scott does it, who’s been doing it for 30 something years. Because you have to build up your skill.
The problem is we don’t do delayed gratification that well in America anymore. And so we want it to be immediate and we wind up in one of two situations. Some start off small with they can do, but that’s all they ever do. They say “I don’t want to put in the time and effort to get better,” and so they start with the Upper Room back there and they read the scripture, maybe, and read that one little two paragraph long reaction, and that’s all they do. And that’s great for a beginner, but you need to get more to add to that as you go on. And God will direct you in ways to do it, in things to add to that as you go on. But some just stick with that, or they don’t do that all and stick only with one hour on Sunday morning. And that spiritual milk. When Paul is telling the church “look you’re still on milk, you should have weaned off that by now,” this is what he’s talking about.
To go back to the musical instrument analogy, it’s more like me when I played viola. I played viola in elementary school. And we were assigned three hours of practice every week, and I did those three hours of practice every week. But I didn’t like that I couldn’t play the new songs that the teacher was giving us; I didn’t like in my practice that I was screwing up. And so instead I would play the one I knew; and so for three hours I played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” over and over and over again (God bless my mother for listening to that). And you know what? I could play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” really, really well. But when it came time for the concert we weren’t playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” we were playing the new music. And I couldn’t play it. When you get to Heaven God wants more than a two paragraph relationship. You have to go further.
But of course there is always a flipside to those who stay in the shallows, and sometimes people will just jump right into the deep end; sink or swim. And the reality is that while some swim, most sink. And so instead of just sticking with the two paragraphs, they say “I’m going to study Scripture,” and they get online and buy the $300, 10 volume commentary I have in my office, and jump right into that. And they’re completely lost because you really have to build to that. You start with a simple Study Bible, like the Wesley Study Bible that you can get at Cokesbury, which gives you a little bit of information, and then you build to being able to understand when someone’s talking about the original Greek words for five paragraphs. You can’t stay in the shallow but you also can’t just jump into the deep end either. What you need is someone to sit there and help you, to walk with you out into a little bit deeper. You need a guide. Religion can help you get guidance.
Bass describes a little bit why we struggle so much with this idea. She describes the idea that there was a difference between knowing what we practice and knowing why we practice it. If we can’t bridge that gap then there’s a problem. And we can’t bridge that quite often.
I don’t know exactly when we lost the why for many of our practices, but we did. At some point, a while ago, the why for our practice became “because we’ve always done it that way,” or “because that’s what my mom did, and so therefore you’re going to do it too.” And we finally found a generation that will not accept that answer. We come to generation that says, “yes, you’ve done it that way. But if you could go back to the beginning and do it a different way, would you do it differently?” In other words, “yes we’ve always done it that way, but why should we keep doing it that way? I want to know why. I want to know a value. I want to know a purpose.”
So why do we do it? Why do we do this thing called religion? Why have I spent so much time and energy practicing religion? Why do we wake up early on Sunday morning to go listen to someone talk for a half hour, and sing a bunch of old songs, and pray a bunch of words? The reason we do this is because we seek to imitate the faith and life, and hopefully receive the same kind of faith and life, of the early disciples and Jesus himself.
Now I recognize that that is not an answer to the question that was asked, or at least not a complete answer because it begs the question “then why do I want to imitate those lives?” So I want to answer that one as well. We seek to imitate those lives because they seemed to have a very meaning-filled, purpose-filled, and joy-filled life in the face of incredible hardship. And I want that too; and so I do what they did in the hopes of receiving the life they did in the midst of my own hardships.
If I could go back and not do this church thing, not do this Christian thing, be able to live my life the way I want to live it, be able to sleep in on Sunday mornings, would I change anything I’m doing now? The answer is honestly no. Because I believe that the life that I have lived has not only benefited me now in many ways, but is preparing me to live my life both in the future of this life in a better way; to be a better husband, to be a better father, to be a better person; but also preparing me to live better in whatever comes next.
The trick with religion is that it must cease to be a program and rather become a passion. Too many churches are offering program after program after program. The people dip their toes into church without really experiencing religion. Especially at a church this size, we need to offer one or two passions; we have to find that passion, and we have to live into being the church that does that passion, make it central to our identity. This must be something that builds a relationship with Christ; that passion can’t be committee meetings, but a true study of Scripture that leads to living that scripture into the world and being changed by that study. Maybe that’s it, maybe it’s something different.
Spiritual practices are things that you can try and that you can fail. And if you try to give an honest effort, which is more than one or two times, to a spiritual practice and it fails, then that’s fine. That’s just not the practice for you. It doesn’t make it a bad practice. I don’t like horror movies; it doesn’t make horror movies bad movies, just means they’re not for me. God created multiple practices. and God speaks in multiple practices, and God created multiple denominations, because not everyone hears God in the same way. And that’s a good thing. But what I want you to do this week is to pick one of these practices we talked about, or maybe something completely different, that’s on your mind and you do it. I want you to know I prayed this week that God would emphasize one of the things that I’ve listed off in your mind, that something would just grab hold of your mind and that one would stick out to you. If that has happened, that’s what I want you to do this week. If you need help I’m open; there’s an email and a phone number on the bulletin. I want you to practice religion this week, because I guarantee you your spirit will be enriched by it. That’s the purpose after all. Amen.