Monday, September 01, 2014

#WeSpeakOutBecause | A Sermon for "True Religion Sunday"

August 31, 2014 | All Saints Church, Pasadena

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion …

Words we just prayed in the “Collect of the Day” –
the prayer which began our worship this morning
as it does every Sunday with words
intended to summarize the themes of the lessons
appointed for this particular day.

Let me just start by saying that “True Religion” –
(the thing we just prayed for God to increase in us)
is, I am convinced,
a whole lot easier to pray for
than it is either to recognize or to agree on.

Here’s my own “religion confession:”
I spent a number years
suffering from what I can only describe as a “religion allergy.”
That is maybe a weird admission from a priest,
but when I was a young adult
I spent a lot of time
explaining to people
that I didn’t need religion in order to be spiritual.

I also spent a lot time avoiding attending the church I grew up in
which was so full of rules and rituals,
do’s and don’ts, judgment, criticism
and cranky old people talking about the love of God and being mean to each other that there seemed to be no actual room for GOD –
which I was naïve enough to think
was supposed to be the POINT of this whole thing in the first place!

It got to the point
where religion became a roadblock in my spiritual journey –
and so I took a detour.
And because God works in mysterious ways,
my “spiritual GPS” led me back to the Episcopal Church of my birth
and to All Saints Church!

And eventually I looked up the word “religion” in the dictionary
and here’s what I found:
it turns out to have the same root as the word “ligament” –
that which “binds together” –
and one of its definitions is
“that which binds together people in their quest for the divine.”

• Not “that which insists that our way is the only way.”
• Not “that which gives people license to villainize, exclude and even kill in God’s name.”
• Not “that which creates enough rules and restrictions that everybody you disagree with has to stay out.”

No – in the Gospel According to Merriam Webster, the definition of religion is:
“That which binds together people in their quest for the divine.”

And if that’s true religion then that’s something I’m willing to pray for.
To work for.  To speak out for.
Because it turns out the allergy I had wasn’t to “religion” at all –
but to what it had become in the hands of those
who had taken what God intended as a means to draw all people TO God
and turned it into a system to hold everyone they found unacceptable
AWAY from God.

And it turns out the allergy I had was the same one Jesus had –
and acted on – throughout the gospels
whenever he was confronted by the rule makers,
gate keepers and power brokers of his generation.

People like those who complained that he was healing on the Sabbath –
who gossiped about his eating with tax collectors, sinners and outcasts –
who complained that his disciples didn’t wash their hands the right way …
and dozens of other examples all throughout the Bible.

“And what is the greatest commandment?”
(in other words “what IS “true religion?)
they will famously ask him later (trying to trap him)
And Jesus will tell them:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind – this is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it –love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang ALL the law and the prophets.

There you have it: the essence of true religion –
that which binds us together in our search for the divine –
turns out to be love:
love for God and for each other.

ANYTHING else that we manage to create –
even our most beloved rituals,
most comforting routines,
most cleverly designed systems –
can become religious roadblocks if they themselves
become more important to us that this walk in love,
this quest for the divine –
this journey to God.

Just like Peter in today’s gospel,
we risk abandoning the “heavenly things” – like love, justice and compassion -- and holding onto “earthly things” – like power, judgment and condemnation -- whenever we create a litmus test for inclusion
that is based on anything other
than these first and second commandments
Jesus calls us to honor above all others.

And nobody – including Jesus -- ever said it would be easy. And a great example is Peter -- AKA Saint One-Step-Forward-Two-Steps-Back. In the gospel last week we heard about his “go to the head of the class; A+ student” day – when in answer to Jesus’ questions “who do you say that I am?” he hit a grand slam.

“You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God.” And Jesus gave him a gold star, sent him to the head of the class and gave him the keys to the kingdom, declaring “you are the rock on whom I will build my church.” That was Matthew 16:20.

Today we get part two of that chapter – Matthew 16:21 … and Peter goes from “here are the keys to the kingdom” to “get behind me Satan” in sixty seconds – a great illustration of just what a challenge it is to stay true to true religion.

For the true religion we inherit is nothing less 
than that which equips us to be the Body of Christ
in a world in desperate need …
NOT in need of the church’s dogma and doctrine
but of Jesus’ love and compassion.

If we are indeed to be that Body of Christ in the World
we need ligaments of love
which will be limber enough to stretch
not only to include all who wish to be bound together in this community of faith
but to speak out whenever any member of the human family is
oppressed or marginalized
wounded or afraid
silenced or in danger.

Because the true religion we claim
the true religion Jesus threw down
is “love your neighbor as yourself.”
All your neighbors.
Not just the ones who live in your zip code or are part of your car pool.
Not just the ones who think like you or vote like you or worship like you.
ALL your neighbors.
Every. Single. One.


And yet true religion –
that which binds us together in our search for the divine –
seems to be in shorter supply in this strife torn world of ours
than water is in this drought plagued state of ours.

As we look at the world around us
on this last day of August in the year 2014
we do not have to look very far
to see example after example
of religion being hijacked and used as a weapon
of mass discrimination and of mass destruction.

The most current, flagrant and obvious example
is the decimation caused by the so-called “Islamic State” or ISIS.

Our friend and interfaith ally, Salam Al-Marayati –
leader of MPAC … the Muslim Public Affairs Council
… minced no words this week in speaking out against the atrocities being committed in the name of his religion.

“Though it uses Islam as a source of popularity and legitimacy, it is a forgery
... It has nothing to do with Islam. It is a mafia; it is a group of thugs.”

And yet the collateral damage of the actions of these unconscionable terrorists has been an upswing in anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic rhetoric.

In response, MPAC launched a social media campaign
called #ISpeakOutBecause
 to provide a platform for people of conscience
to speak out for human rights
because “speaking out in response
to escalating violence and extremism taking place all over the world
is a critical step to spreading awareness and creating change.”

So of course I “spoke out.” My contributions to the twitter feed included:
• #ISpeakOutBecause when Jesus said "love your neighbors" He meant ALL your neighbors.
• #ISpeakOutBecause thinking ISIS represents Islam is like thinking the KKK represents Christianity.
• #ISpeakOutBecause Maher Hathout is right: "God does not belong to on religion. All religions belong to God.

Which gives me a great excuse to tell my favorite Maher Hathout story.
Many of you know our great interfaith friend Dr. Maher Hathout
– founder of the MPAC and a true “giant of justice” here in Los Angeles.
We were honored to have Dr. Hathout
 in this pulpit in 2011 as part of an interfaith preaching series,
and he ended his homily that Sunday with these words:

"May each person walk out of these doors at the end of the service
feeling that he or she is more liberated and energized to do good for others
than sticking to the primitiveness of
'my religion is better than the other religion.'"

And we processed out down the aisle and out the front door –
only to confronted by a phalanx of protesters across the street –
with picket signs and megaphones and shouting the same kind of stuff
protesters usually shout when they show up at All Saints Church.

Only this bunch went one better –
they had a taller-than-me Bible-on-wheels …
complete with built in loudspeaker.
And … but wait it gets better …
on the front of the cover was written in gold letters:
The Holy Bible by Jesus.


I couldn’t make this up. Immediately after hearing Dr. Hathout’s challenge
for ALL of us to move beyond
the “primitiveness of my religion is better than yours”
we were confronted with our crazy Christian cousins
making the point of just how much work we have left to do.

Standing together on the steps of the north door, all I could do was apologize to Dr. Hathout -- and he patted my arm and gently said:

“There, there. We all have crazy cousins.
I will work on mine and I will pray for you while you work on yours.”

And that is why We Speak Out.

We Speak Out Because there are too many people who think they know enough about being a Christian not to want to be one because everything they know about Christians they heard from Pat Robertson blaming gay people for Hurricane Katrina … or people with loudspeakers who think Jesus wrote the Bible.

We Speak Out when Christianity gets hijacked by those who confuse their right to believe whatever they choose to believe about God with their right to write those beliefs into our Constitution.

We Speak Out Because the neighbors Jesus called us to love as ourselves are refugee children at our borders. And workers fighting wage theft. And unarmed teenagers shot in our streets. And women needing health care. And gay people being blamed for Katrina and a whole laundry list of other things. And Muslims being blamed for ISIS.

We Speak Out Because it is part of the DNA of All Saints Church
to not just pray for but to live out
the “true religion” of God’s love, justice and compassion.
To preach peace in season and out of season –
yes, even the election season.

We Speak Out Because as challenging as the present is
we know we have met challenges in the past.
• 1940’s – John Scott/Union Station/Manzanar
• 1960’s – John Burt/death threats/MLK
• And in the decades since … for women’s equality and marriage equality; for immigration justice and racial justice; against torture, the death penalty and the War in Iraq. The list goes on and on.

We Speak Out Because we Claim the Blessing of True Religion
as the gift God has given us
to enable us to do the work God has given us to do –
binding us together as we work to become a place of radical hospitality –
where all are received joyously:
even those we disagree with,
even those who wish we weren’t here;
even those who would prefer
we would keep someone else out.

We Speak Out because the truth of our religion
-- that which binds us together in our search for the divine –
is the thread that unites us all as mortals …
is the ligament of love.

And so I close this morning with a reading from the Gospel According to My Friend Joe Henry.
I found it on Facebook in his tribute to Robin Williams at the time of his death:

He ushered us through darkness, whistled us past the graveyard;
showed us that what is funny is what is true,
and what is true is the thread that unites all of us as mortals,
while we pretend not be. His message was pure, even when he couldn't live up to it.
And it was, simply,
"take heart: we are all lost pilgrims; and nothing but love will find us home."

We Speak Out Because our true religion is the truth
that nothing but love will find us home.

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