What a difficult week it has been.
The terrorist attack in Afghanistan on Thursday, tragically, resulted in the loss of almost 200 lives. The world watches anxiously as the evacuation continues, amid reports of possibly more attacks to come. This comes on the heels of a devastating earthquake in Haiti and deadly flash flooding in Tennessee. A hurricane is poised to pummel the Gulf Coast, while wildfires continue blazing in the west. The world is literally, and metaphorically, on fire. Meanwhile, there are countless other stressors weighing down upon us from the ongoing global pandemic.
Throughout my life, it is times like these – times when the world is on fire – when I have found myself most needing to go to church. These are the times, most of all, when I yearn to be with my religious community, gathered in worship. And I trust that, at some level, this is true for you, too – or you wouldn’t be here today. But this choice we’ve made to come to church today is, increasingly, a counter-cultural one. More and more, people in this country are deciding that organized religion has little to offer them. I think about this a lot, as you might imagine, but there’s a particular reason I have ‘religion’ on my mind today. Today is a rare instance when the word “religion” actually shows up in our worship. Perhaps it caught your attention. Moments ago, we prayed in our Collect of the Day:
Lord of all power and might…Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion.
What is ‘true religion’? Religion hold different meanings and connotations, depending on who you ask. I frequently meet people surprised to learn I’m a priest because they didn’t know religion could affirm LGBTQ people. The horrible violence of this past week was committed, ostensibly, in the name of religion. Clearly, religion means different things to different people. So when we pray for God to increase in us true religion, what does that mean for us?
One answer to that question is found in our reading from the Letter of James
– a book we’ll hear from each of the next four weeks in our worship. For the author of the Letter of James, the Christian religion is not a system of beliefs so much as it is a way of life. James is far less concerned with theological concepts and ideas, and much more concerned with action. Indeed, James says nothing in his letter at all about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He only mentions Jesus by name twice in the entire book, although, he draws heavily on Jesus’ teachings. In the gospels, Jesus often talks about the concept of two roads, or two paths: one that leads to life and one that leads to death. James grabs hold of this idea and gives us, as one writer says, “a guidebook for following the path to life, and avoiding the way that leads to death.” (Mark Allan Powell, Introduction to the New Testament, 445)
And, yes, the Book of James is one of the very few places in the Bible where we find the word “religion.” So let’s look at what James have to say about religion:
- James would object to the children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” To the contrary, he’s very concerned with the destructive power of speech. In his words, religious people should be “slow to speak, and slow to anger.” If they cannot “bridle their tongue,” he says, “their religion is worthless.”
- Second, caring for society’s most vulnerable members is the defining mark of ‘religion’ in James’ eyes. The wellbeing of “widows” and “orphans” is absolutely paramount. As I look around St. Paul’s, I’m encouraged to see this priority being lived out in our community. Our Loaves & Fishes ministry regularly bring meals to those who are hungry. Our ministry with EDWINS supports formerly incarcerated people as they seek to start a new chapter in their lives. Just this past week, I accompanied a St. Paul’s parishioner to the homeless shelter at 2100 Lakeside where, for years she has overseen a ministry providing greeting cards to residents so they can stay in touch with friends and family. Also this past week, thanks to your donations, we delivered several boxes of school supplies for students in need at Roxboro Elementary. And as Afghan refugees prepare to arrive in Cleveland, James would count efforts to welcome and care for them as another form of “pure religion.” For James, ministries like these are not optional church activities. They simply are religion in its purest, most unadulterated form.
- Finally, for James, true religion is synonymous with action. As we’ll hear in next week’s reading, James famously wrote that “faith without works is dead.” He beckons us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” If we hear the word and do not act on it, James says, we are like someone who looks at themselves in the mirror and then quickly walks away, forgetting entirely what they look like. By gathering as we have this morning for worship, we seek to avoid this sin of “spiritual forgetfulness.” Virtually everything we do in our liturgy this morning is an exercise in remembering, so we are formed to become the ‘doers of the word’ James calls us to be:
- We hear the words of scripture to remember the stories of our ancestors in the faith.
- We recite the Nicene Creed to remember what it is we believe about God.
- The Prayers of the People remind us of the needs and concerns of the world and the importance of responding to those needs.
- And, finally, we celebrate the Eucharist because Jesus says, “Do this to remember me.” In this sacred meal we will share in just a few moments, we remember what God has done for us in Christ and, in that act of remembering, Christ is somehow made present for us here and now. And after we have been nourished by the food of his Body, we are empowered to go out into the world to do the work he has given us to do.
It is true that religion according to James sets some very high standards. Simply heeding his call to be quick to listen and slow to speak…well, for me, that will be a life-long endeavor. And even our best efforts to care for our neighbor in need will fall short of James’ standard for “pure” and “undefiled” religion. But the good news for us is that, religion according to James is not an exercise in earning our salvation. That is a gift freely given to us – a gift we cannot earn. But if we strive for a faith of action, the faith to which James call us – if we work to a blessing to others – we will undoubtedly find that we ourselves are blessed. Over the next several weeks, as James speaks to us in the words of ancient scripture, I pray that we may have ears to listen. I pray that his words will take root in our hearts, so we can become hearers and doers of the word, bearing forth the fruit of good works. And may our gracious God increase in us ‘true religion,’…so that, together, we may choose the path that leads to life. Amen.