Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series – #2: Religion

This is the second in a series looking at words associated with Christianity that have taken on a negative meaning in the larger culture.

SCRIPTURE – James 1: 19-27 – My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Dirty Words sermon series
Sermon #2 – “Religion”
Jan. 11, 2015

Are you religious? If someone were to come up to you on the street and ask you that question, how would you answer it? I bet most of us would shy away from being identified with that label. I probably would. I might substitute other words for it. “Well, I’m a Christian, and I go to church, I’m spiritual, but I don’t know if I would call myself that.”

Why not? As we continue our sermon series on Christianity’s dirty words, we start with the one that is probably most maligned in our culture. Today, it is usually a bad thing to be called religious. But is that fair? Webster’s defines “religious” as “pious or devout; scrupulously faithful; conscientious.” I think we’d all like to be thought of in those ways, right? But when we hear the word “religious” used today, it is rarely said in such noble terms.

So how is “religion” and “religious” used in our larger culture today? When it’s used in casual conversation, it usually means a devoted faithfulness to something.  “I work out religiously.” “I root for my sports team religiously.” Can an atheist be religious in his unbelief? Of course. To do something religiously can have nothing to do with the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had a minor surgical procedure done, and during the pre-op visit the doctor asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he hemmed and hawed a bit and said that he and his wife didn’t attend church, but they tried to do a lot of good things for people. Then he said, “That’s a kind of religion, isn’t it?” And I wanted to say, “Um, no!” but I didn’t want to contradict the man who would soon be holding a scalpel.

So the word “religion” can be used to mean a devotedness to something, but more often than not, when you tack “religious” onto an activity, it means a level of dedication that borders on extremes. How often do we hear the words “religious” and “fanatic” paired together? To be religious about something means to be so committed to it that it takes over your life. Someone actually said to me once, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not all religious about it.”

Is it wrong for a believer to distance themselves from the people who claim to be religious? Jesus didn’t think so. If you read the gospels, the people of whom Jesus was most critical during his earthly ministry were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law – in other words, the religious leaders. He called them vipers, whitewashed tombs, and sons of the devil. You can imagine how they reacted. After all, they were the authority, the spokespeople for God! If you were on the wrong side of the chief priests, then you were on the wrong side of God. So the religious leaders killed the Son of God, and things only got worse from there.

Down through history, religion has been associated with two concepts that have doomed it. The first is organization or institutionalization. As soon as religion became organized, it began to move away from its biblical meaning. Why? Because it was organized by human beings, and we’re not great at getting along. “Where two or three are gathered, there will be four opinions.” Organized institutions are too susceptible to corruption, power struggles, and physical violence – and that’s just the bridge clubs.

The humor in this story hits a little too close to home. There was a man who was stranded on a desert island for many, many years. One day, while strolling along the beach, he spotted a ship in the distance. He jumped up and down and shouted and was thrilled to see the ship dispatch a small boat that was heading his way. When the boat landed, the sailors assessed the situation and then asked the man on the island how he had survived for so many years. He told them about how he was able to find food and build his own little community. He pointed toward a hill and the men saw three buildings. They asked them what they were and he said, ” That one there is my house. The one next to it is my church – I go there to worship on Sundays.” When asked about the third building, the man replied, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.” Like it or not, that’s how organized religion is known, a place of conflict and divisiveness.

Not only do we not get along with ourselves, we also are known for not playing well with others. We need to put on the table that the term “religious” carries with it a lot of negative and hurtful connotations because of what has been perpetrated throughout history in the name of religion. The Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “Humans never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Wars have been fought, nations have been trampled, tribes have been eliminated, people who are different have been persecuted – all in the name of religion. People not only disassociate themselves from the word “religious” because it is a bit extreme. People disassociate from it because they don’t want to be lumped in with a group of people who have been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities humankind has ever seen.

It was the church – organized religion – that put Muslims to death for not converting, that forced scientists to recant their findings, that named itself the final authority over who God did and didn’t love. No less a Christian icon than C.S. Lewis wrote, “If ever the book which I’m not going to write is written, it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery.” These days, the word “religion” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people. It’s connected to words like “ rules,” “order,” “dogma,” “structure,” “boundaries,” and “certainty.”

In her book “An Altar in the World,” pastor Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this about her growing disillusionment with the church: “Somewhere along the line we bought – or were sold – the idea that God is chiefly interested in religion. We believed that God’s home was in the church, that God’s people knew who they were, and that the world was a barren place full of lost souls in need of all the help they could get. The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in the churches, and part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.” In other words, religion has made the mistake of creating God in its own image instead of realizing it’s supposed to be the other way around.

That’s a far, far cry from the definition we read in the Bible, especially in James’ letter. Listen again to his definition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” What? No mention of Property Committees or pledge cards? What about converting “lost” souls and picketing against heathen groups? Not in there. James says pure religion takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves, and seeks not to conform to the world.

So, do you get the idea that it’s bad to be thought of as religious? It hasn’t always been this way. For centuries, the words “religious” and “spiritual” were used synonymously. It’s only in the last few decades that “religion” has taken on such a negative meaning. But to focus on that is to see only one side of the “religious” coin. Yes, organized religion has done some pretty horrible things, but it’s also done some pretty amazing things, as well. The Harvard psychologist William James wrote, “The best fruits of religious experience are the best things history has to show. The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, and bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals.”

Yes, religion can be bad. But it can be so, so good, too. Why? Because at its best, religion is not about an organization or an institution, it’s not about enforcing doctrine or defending dogma. At its best, religion represents a gathering of imperfect people who seek to do the will of God, and in so doing, give this world a glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth. When we strive to follow James’ definition, we religious folks can truly make a difference in God’s name. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, I remember reading an article written by an atheist that thanked local pastors and churches for their role in attempting to quell the violence. It’s through organized religion that people are fed, clothed, housed, and cared for. At its heart, religion – the church – is an extension of God’s grace and love in this world.

Maybe we need to remember what this word “religion” really means. It’s time to get etymological. The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which is a direct relative of “religare.” “Religare” can be broken down into “re,” which means “again,” and “ligare,” which means to connect, like a ligament connects bones. So, at its origin, “religion” means to reconnect. To reconnect what? How about Crestwood’s vision statement: To connect people with God and each other. To be religious is to be an agent of reconnection, helping people find themselves as they form and reform a relationship with God and with each other.

We’ve worked so hard to distance ourselves from being thought of as religious that we’ve forgotten that religion isn’t about buildings and budgets and boundaries. To be religious in the best sense of the word is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We need to own up to the abuses of religion in the past, but then move beyond them to show others that religion is not about an institution or exclusion or oppression. Religion isn’t a profession of doctrinal or dogmatic beliefs. Religion is a way of life, a way of living that reconnects us to what really matters in our faith, that seeks to live out imperfectly God’s call to love each other.

I love how the Bible translation The Message renders the last verse of our scripture. It says, “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” That’s a good place to start, isn’t it? To whom will you reach out today to show God’s love? To whom will you provide shelter or food or clothing or support? And what will you give up that is separating you from God, that is corrupting your commitment to your faith? Being religious is nothing to be ashamed of when we seek to live out God’s ministry of reconnecting and reaching out. My prayer is that we commit to being about God’s work in our lives, and that – in the best sense of the word – we are religious in that commitment.

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