February 2, 2020: "True Religion"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 2, 2020
The English author Os Guiness tells a story about a furniture factory in communist Russia. It seemed that the employees of the factory were stealing so much that the factory manager placed guards at every exit to search each worker at the end of their shift. One day, a worker exited the factory with a wheelbarrow full of sawdust and shavings. The guard stopped him and said, “What do you have in that wheelbarrow, comrade?” to which the worker replied, “There’s nothing in here but sawdust and shavings.” “OK,’ the guard said, ‘dump it out.” Sure enough, there was nothing in there but sawdust and shavings. Well, this went on day after day with the same routine, the same questions and answers, and the same dumping out of sawdust on the floor. Finally, the guard became frustrated that he’s couldn’t stand it any longer. He said to the worker, “Look, I know you’re stealing. And you know you’re stealing. If you tell me what you’re stealing, I promise I won’t arrest you.” The worker with a sly grin leaned in and said, “Wheelbarrows, my friends, I’m stealing the wheelbarrows.”
I heard Guiness tell this story a few years ago in an NPR interview and I remember it hitting me right between the eyes. And it still hits me between the eyes today. So often, I am that factory guard, looking so closely at something, so carefully at a person or an issue or situation, that I completely miss what is going on. Is there anyone else here today who misses the forest because of the trees? It’s easy to do, even as people of faith. Just step into my office and I’ll show you a book on just about every small and minute detail of the Bible, of faith, of the being of God, of every moment of Jesus’ life. Someone poured their heart and soul into each of those books, but really so much of it just complicates what we know about the simple way of God and it muddies the water as we search for the way God would have us go.
I had to sit back again this week after reading a news story and ask, “Is that really what religion is all about?” The news story was about how a prominent pastor in a large city made a public statement that if Jesus were alive today, he would probably start throwing hands at those who sit in the hallowed halls of our government. And he was entirely serious. He honestly believes, deep down in his bones, that the Jesus of the Bible who told Peter on the night of his arrest that if he lives by sword he would die by sword, that this Jesus would put a hurting on our elected leaders. This pastor then said that, since Jesus isn’t here, that maybe we ought to consider acting on his behalf. Its perfect material for a show called “Did The Pastor Really Say That?” Sadly the pastor did, and he got news coverage for it, and I read about it and just had to hang my head in shame that there might be someone out there whose only contact with the church is reading about a pastor who thinks violence is the way of Jesus.
Is that really what religion is all about? Of course its not and the prophet Micah offers us a beautiful reminder today about what true religion really is. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah asks. What is it God really wants from me and from us? Is it adherence to religious ritual? Is it observance of elaborate ceremony? It is self-denial and self-sacrifice? The answer is that God requires justice, kindness, and a desire to walk humbly with God.
God desires justice from us like the justice we see in the Old Testament story of Ruth. Ruth became a widow at an early age and her only hope for survival was to stay close to her mother-in-law. When her mother-in-law also became a widow, and even after Ruth’s chances for a better life had faded away, Ruth continued to hold on tight to her mother-in-law. She never abandoned her, and when they settled in a land that was not their own, a rich land owner named Boaz allowed Ruth to collect the leftover grain left around the perimeter of his fields. Ruth and her mother-in-law were foreigners in Boaz’s land, and yet he kept watch over their welfare. God’s justice is companionship even when nothing good is on the horizon. God’s justice is generosity, even to outsiders. God’s justice is holding tight to one another and seeking each other’s welfare because we are each other’s keeper and our lives are inextricable connected to one another.
God desires kindness from us, kindness like what we see in Jesus in one of the most powerful stories in all of the gospels. They called him to cast judgment on a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. The men in Jerusalem dragged this woman out into the public square and asked Jesus what they ought to do. Actually, they didn’t ask Jesus what do to—they asked him if he thought it was right that the laws of Moses allowed them to stone the woman to death for her sins. In a shocking moment of silence, when Jesus could have said so much, our Lord bent down and wrote something in the sand. What he wrote has been lost, but what he said cuts us to this day: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The gospel of John says that, one by one, all of the men of the city dropped their stones and walked away. “Woman, where are they?” Jesus asked, “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” the terrified woman replied. Then Jesus said, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
It is a stunning reversal from so much of what we know about biblical law and religion. Jesus’ own faith tradition allowed the men of a village to stone anyone, particularly a women, to death after being found guilty of a sin. The men of Jerusalem were probably expecting Jesus to go along with their plan, especially since so many had called him Rabbi and Teacher. But Jesus’ way not only puts violence to death, Jesus’ way calls for us to live in the gray areas that exist all around us. Was the woman guilty of adultery? Maybe—there were some who said they were witnesses to the act. Is adultery worthy of death? Yes, it was according to the laws of Moses. But is this the way of God? Jesus says no and he shows us that kindness, which could also be described as mercy, is the true way of God. Jesus is not inviting us to give up laws and rules and order. Instead, he invites us to consider what is kind and merciful before we act on or do anything. God desires, finally, a humble walk with God.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to give out business cards to the hordes of tourists who would swarm her whenever she left her convent. The cards said this:
“The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
Mother Teresa understood faith to be about action as much as it was about contemplation and meditation. God is more than a philosophical construct. God is a living reality, an eternal vow, who invites us to worship, commands our obedience, and offers us access to a deep and life-transforming relationship with God. Without this relationship we, the Church, are nothing more than just another in a long list of non-profit groups and charities. But with this relationship, as we walk humbly with God, we see something more, we experience something more, we become something more, and we have the chance to change the world.
This is the true religion of God: justice, kindness, and a deep relationship with God. If this true religion is to become our way of life—and I believe that we all have that desire or we would not be here today—we must undergo constant conversion. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians fled to the Syrian and Egyptian deserts to learn and practice the religion Micah describes. They are often called the desert mothers and fathers and they wrote a lot about the patterns of behavior that keep us from loving God and loving our neighbor. They describe them as the passions. For them, the passions were those actions and attitudes that are the result of the way we are raised, the choices we make, and even the powers of demonic forces. What the desert mothers and fathers teach us, though, is that while these passions are so complicated and hurt us and the world so deeply, the grace of Jesus is more powerful than they can ever be. We might will to live better lives. We might try positive thinking to do better. But it is ultimately Christ, the love of God, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit that can change us to Micah people of faith.
So today I invite you once again to ask for Christ to work in you and through you and to convert your heart, mind, and soul to the true religion of God. I invite you to practice your faith as your heart, mind, and soul are changed. Look at everyone you meet as Christ looks at them and filter everything you say through the loving voice of Jesus. Seek the welfare of your neighbor, the neighbor that lives next door and the neighbor that lives across the street and the neighbor that lives across the globe. Offer kindness to someone—hold the door, offer to return their shopping cart, stand up for them when they are being beaten down. Show mercy even and especially when it hurts to do so. Take God’s hand and walk through this world confident that nothing you do and nothing you experience is by coincidence or chance. Talk to God. Ask what God wants you to do. Listen to God and follow even if it makes you a little uncomfortable. Step back and look at the forest and try not to focus so much on the trees. Breath and be at peace. My brothers and sisters in Christ, its just that simple and its just that hard. May God give us strength to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Amen.