Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Only Good Religion is a Dead Religion

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C)
Preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37
This was the Sunday closest to the 190th Anniversary of the Foudning fo St. Luke's Church

One hundred and ninety years ago, a group of men (my apologies to the women in the congregation, but that’s how it was in those days) met and officially began an Episcopal Church in what was then the new village of Rochesterville.

Colonel Nathaniel Rochester was among those men, an Episcopalian himself, although he had determined that his new village needed both a Presbyterian Church and an Episcopal Church, and he saw to the founding of both. To be honest, it was not solely a religious or spiritual decision. In those days the village would need churches in order to attract people and grow and provide for some social order. It was also good politics and good economics to build churches in those days.

Religion then was seen to be good for society. Very few if any people would have doubted the statement that religion—particularly the Christian religion—was the bedrock upon which to build a moral, orderly society, composed of men and women who knew right from wrong.

Of course, our ancestors did not always get “right and wrong” correct. Slavery was still legal in New York State in 1817, although that was the year a law was passed that all slaves in New York had to be freed by July 4, 1827. Nathaniel Rochester himself had owned slaves at one point in his life, and there is no reason to believe that other members of the new parish did not.

Women were excluded from any positions of leadership in the new parish—it would be 140 years before a woman would be elected to the Vestry of the parish. No one thought it was wrong to make anyone in the parish who could not afford the pew rent to sit in the back of the church in pews specially set aside for “paupers” was a “wrong” thing.

We dare not look back too smugly on those days or those people, however, for we are still trying to get “right and wrong” correct. Slavery is long gone, but racism still infects our institution. Women are in leadership in our church but it cannot be said that all vestiges of male privilege are gone from among us. And something about which our founding ancestors could not dream—homophobia—now threatens to tear our beloved Episcopal Church apart. We are still a work in progress where “right and wrong” are concerned.

But the bigger mistake our ancestors made in founding this church and others was about this motivation altogether—that the church should be at the center of upholding an ordered and moral society, perhaps that the church should be at the center of society at all. This, too, we are still working on, because even though it is painfully obvious that the church is not at the center of public life any longer, mostly we still believe it should be and we want desperately for it to be once again.

I wonder how many of you have noticed the quote I have had tagged on to my church e-mail the last few months? It is from a United Methodist bishop named William Willimon.

The most important ecclesial agenda for the twenty-first century is that the church that is pushed to the margins in North American life ought to wake up and see that the margin is a wonderful place to evangelize in the name of an implacably subversive Savior.[1]

It ends up, you see, that the Church really was made for the margins, not for the center, because we follow a marginal Savior with a marginal message.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan, for one, with the prophet Amos playing a supporting role.

A lawyer—someone very much from the center of society in Jesus’ day—has a conversation with Jesus. They agree on a very fundamental thing—the heart of the Jewish law.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

On this much they agree, but then immediately they start speaking different languages with very, very different assumptions. “But who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. He seeks a definition, further clarity. His question contains the assumption that the answer will tell him how to order his world. Who am I obliged to love? And the assumption is that there must be those I am not obliged to love, which probably has something to do with their behavior, or, at least, with God’s judgment of them.

Jesus does not answer the question in the language the lawyer expects him to use. Jesus does not speak the language of definition, or order. Jesus speaks the language of story. So, he tells one.

It is a familiar story to us, what we call “the Good Samaritan,” but its familiarity means that we miss its subversiveness and its radicalness.

The “villains” of the story are folks, like the lawyer, from the center of ordered, established life in Jesus’ day. They were also folks who knew who they were called to consider their “neighbor” and who they need not consider at all. To perform their societal obligations they needed to remain ritually clean, which meant avoiding things like blood and certainly dead people. They also, themselves, needed to remain alive. The road they were on was clearly a dangerous one and the thieves who had beaten this man quite possibly to death would clearly not mind finding another victim.

The “hero” of the story is a Samaritan. Samaritans were despised by Jewish society in Jesus’ day. They were heretics, blasphemers, outside the people of God, unclean to associate with. Nothing good could come of a Samaritan; the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.

In a way, that is just what Jesus gave them in the story—a dead Samaritan, or, at least, a Samaritan who risked his life. The hero of his story is a spiritually dead man who risks his life for the sake of another.

The lawyer is forced to say that it is that one who proved to be a neighbor to the man in the ditch. He had done “right” while those at the center of society had done “wrong.” Jesus had turned his societal convictions and his religion on its head, perhaps giving him pause to consider that, although it was not true that the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan, it was true that the only good religion was a dead one.

What do I mean by “religion?” I mean a system of order that, if followed, makes you right with the divine and teaches you how to behave rightly in this world.

It was Israel’s great struggle to try to turn the relationship with God that had been freely given to them into a religion that they could control. I believe one of Jesus’ great passions, as was the passion of his prophetic ancestors like Amos before him, to call people away from religion and back into grateful relationship with God and one another.

He was not particularly successful. The religious authorities were so frightened by him that they colluded with the secular authorities to have him eliminated. His resurrection should have left his followers to continue his work, and many of them did, so much so that they became known not as people who helped order the world, but as people who turned it upside down.

But, alas, the Church that bears his name too often has succumbed to the temptation of religion and, in doing so, has turned its back on the free gift of relationship that continues to be offered by God.

I hope that you can see that part of what our generation of Christians is trying to do in this place is to offer that free gift—you are loved just because God wants to love you. And we are also trying to learn to live in the world as if that were true, which is precisely what Jesus’ meant when he said, “Go and do likewise.”

If we truly believe that we are loved by the maker of the Universe, as is every neighbor who is given to us by God—especially those whom our gut tells us to despise or fear—then we will be people who continue not to order the world but to turn it upside down.

Thank God our ancestors founded this place and thank God that we have inherited it. Let us follow in their footsteps inasmuch as they were people of faith seeking to spread the Good News of God’s love. But let us be clear about our calling to do so not from the center of power and privilege, but from the margins of need and despair where the message of that love can truly be heard and the center of our world turned on its head, which is the only way it will ever know that God is love, love for all, and that we are called simply to love, love all. Let us risk our lives for this love, and this love alone.

[1] William H. Willimon, “Evangelism in the Twenty-First Century: Mainliners at the Margins,” Journal for Preachers 30:4, Pentecost 2007, p. 4.

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