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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nichlas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – September 4, 2011

The very first prayer we would have prayed last Sunday were it not for Irene—we call it the collect— includes a catch phrase that always gets my attention: true religion. The prayer asks for an increase of it—of true religion. Just what are we asking for when we pray that? There are a lot of religious leaders and televangelists who are more than willing to tell us what true religion is—some aggressively so.

Evangelist Pat Robertson sparked controversy in a broadcast of his 700 Club program by saying that the East Coast earthquake in August was God’s revenge on people “who act kind of gay.”

“All across the Eastern seaboard, there are men who get manicures, wear designer eyewear and know about thread counts,” said Rev. Robertson.  “God finds this somewhat gay-like behavior confusing, and He responded by getting mildly peeved.” The televangelist warned that if Americans persist in their “seemingly sort-of-gay behavior,” the country should brace itself for additional ambiguous acts of retaliation from the Almighty.

There are people who believe that this is true religion—and they give lots of money to Robertson and others like him to perpetuate that kind of rubbish.

I wonder how people react to this kind of odious rhetoric from someone who proclaims to know and teach true religion. Is it the brand of religion that will appeal to them? It is a religion based in fear and hatred. When it comes to religion, the people who get into pulpits and preach and, thereby, have influence over others and their spiritual life, better get it right.

We’d better be clear about that thing called true religion and what we teach about it. Jesus is listening…very carefully. I have a magnet on my refrigerator that portrays a man in a business suit retrieving messages and the caption reads, “Jesus called. He wants his religion back.” Be careful, Pat.

Robert McElvaine of Millsaps College, writing in the Chicago Tribune, several years ago offers us an explanation, inspired by what he learned from two of his students who were comparing Hinduism and Christianity. Hindus believe in karma, they pointed out, so what one believes in this life matters for the next life. But what matters for Christians is mere belief in Jesus Christ.  According to McElvaine, this style of Christianity “basically says that all you need to do is accept Jesus Christ and then you can do whatever the hell you want.” I think Jesus would be the first to protest that understanding of Christianity. Jesus didn’t give us true religion by preaching it. He gave it to us by his example—living a life of radical self giving, radical welcome of the other, radical justice for the poor, the marginalized, and the lowly.

In the Gospel of Matthew today Jesus focuses on what true religion means for the life of a community of believers. That would be us. We get a glimpse of how the earliest faith communities dealt with the difficult issues of determining when dissent becomes a disruption that requires action. The process described in this Gospel tells us that we need to do everything possible to maintain community, avoid divisions within our midst, and bring back those who have wandered off.

There are three simple steps: Be direct. The offended party should take the initiative to restore the severed relationship. Let’s face it, our human inclination is to avoid an intentional encounter with someone we have alienated but Jesus tells us that it is in that honest encounter that forgiveness and reconciliation begins.

Sometimes that might not work so the second step is to take one or two others as witnesses that the person offended has sought friendship. If the person still refuses to reconcile, the third step is to bring the matter before the entire community and, if the offender still refuses to listen, then the final alternative may be to exclude him or her from the community.

While this may seem like a very formal process and maybe a bit excessive, it drives home two important points for us: (1) Jesus sees the harmony and peace of the community as a very integral building block of our life in the church and (2) the primary work of the church community is about reconciliation and healing.

If “true religion” has any litmus test is, it is transformation—transformation of our minds and hearts and wills to do what is good —engaging the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. How do we live as people who seek true religion right here in this church and in the world? When we offend someone, how soon do we seek to reconcile with them?  When we are the one offended, how do we respond to overtures of reconciliation?

When we have a gripe with someone—maybe even with the rector or other clergy or staff or wardens—are we honest and direct with them or do we register our “winter of discontent” in angry, maybe even uncharitable and blaming language, perhaps in an anonymous fashion? Do we triangulate others by grousing to them in the expectation that they will be our messenger—even requesting that they carry our complaint to a higher authority? Or do we talk openly, honestly, and graciously in the hope of achieving reconciliation and even of finding a solution to our problem?

True religion is at its best healthy religion and the Gospel today is a lesson in the building and maintaining of a functional, hale and wholesome community. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in the 1970’s, was a gifted teacher and preacher. I think he pretty much nailed down the meaning of “true religion.”

“The greatest task of our time,” he wrote, “is to help our fellow human beings out of the pit. God will return to us when we are willing to let God in—into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theatres. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the father of all people or none, concerned about everything or nothing. Only in God’s presence shall we learn that the glory of humankind is not in its will to power but in its power of compassion.”

God’s presence will not be found in blaming or condemning others we don’t like or agree with and it certainly won’t be found in attributing earthquakes or hurricanes or other disasters to any group of already marginalized people as Pat Robertson and others who preach what they call “true religion” are wont to do.

However, our ability to help our fellow human beings out of the pit is largely dependent on how well we are able to be the agents of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing here with one another in our spiritual home and faith community—especially when we disagree with someone or have inadvertently or even intentionally offended someone or been the recipient of that hurtful happenstance. And that, my dear ones, is for me the essence of true religion. By God’s grace, may we all embrace it and make it our own.

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