Thursday, January 31, 2013
LOSING MY RELIGION
Sermon preached on the occasion of my retirement from First English Lutheran Church, Faribault, Minnesota; and from full-time ministry.
I went to four years of college and four years of seminary, and then I came to University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis, and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Anchorage, and now, for 24 years, to First English Lutheran Church, to learn how to become a pastor.
As with all good education, what I learned most – at Augustana College and the University of Minnesota and Luther Seminary – was how to learn. So my life among you has been a sort of graduate school. You were my teachers (and you paid me!). If I throw into the mix thirty-six years of the siren song of good books new and old, a collection of tremendously smart and supportive and challenging colleagues (within and beyond these walls), and a good dose of life experience, I am happy to report that I have been and continue to be a life-long learner.
Of course the chief textbook in this great life class is the Bible, the chief teacher, the Holy Spirit. The lesson goes on. As Luther said about baptism we can say about our faith: We have enough to study and learn all our lives long. (And my view of heaven is that God will answer all our questions, solve all those perplexities, and then he’ll say, “Now, how about this one…?” And we’ll be off again – questing, learning!)
I add to this philosophy of life-long learning two other philosophies, learned from colleagues, that I have found to be true: The one is from my friend in Anchorage, Pastor JoAnn Post, who once said, as we gathered with others at a preachers’ text study, “I can’t preach on this text until I figure out how it changes me!” (Now, there is a reason for study and pondering and praying and talking with you and with colleagues: “How does this text change me!”) The other is similar, from another colleague: “Every time you open that book, expect to find something new.” Oh, and I do, and I pray you do, too.
Let me talk about a pastor’s adventures in finding something new, again and again.
I remember a time – just a few years ago – that the new thing I found – that dawned on me – when the assigned gospel was Jesus’ charge to remove the log from my own eye before the speck in my brother’s – was that this log-removing is a life-long project!
I have to confess that, as a good religious boy, I had sort of loosely assumed that somehow I could make quick work of getting this log out my eye and then I could turn and work on you. But then, I thought, “When, exactly – would that be? When, exactly, can I say, ‘OK, log gone; now I get to judge you!’” When indeed? Log-removing is a lifetime task. “Judge not lest ye be judged” is another way that someone – Oh, yes, Jesus – put it.
And that’s another thing, another thing that I have learned, another way in which I have been changed. The more I get to know Jesus, the less religious I am. The more I get to know the Bible, the less religious I am. The more my faith is deepened, the less religious I am. This is not as heretical as it sounds; for the truth that came to me – that has been there from the beginning – is that the Bible is not a book of religion, but of life. In fact, in a way, the Bible is a very anti-religious book -- Old Testament and New. (If you know someone who says, “I don’t go in for this religion stuff,” you might say, “Have I got a book for you!”) What does God say through the prophet Amos? “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, take away from me the noise of your songs; let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” So much for religion.
And Jesus: “You are sitting in church and there you remember that your brother has something against you? What are you doing sitting in church? Go – be reconciled to your brother!” So much for religion. Jesus’ harshest words were for the most religious people of his day: “You talk about my teachings with your mouth, you honor me with your lips, but you don't do the things I say to do. In vain you worship me, teaching human commandments as the doctrine of God.” So much for religion.
The word religion has an honorable meaning and background, but it is one of the most misunderstood and misused in our vocabulary. Rather than a set of rules, as Pastor Mike reminded us last week, reading in James: “Here is true religion – to take care of the widows and orphans.” James is echoing Jesus in today’s gospel: “Good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free…,” and Amos – true religion is “let justice roll down….”
And justice means that I am called to a life bigger than myself, I’ve been freed from a fearful, selfish concern for my own life, freed in Christ. Justice, righteousness (the rightness of things) means I am called to look out for the life of the widow, the orphan, the poor, the oppressed. As someone said at election time, the question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” is not a Christian question. (It's just selfishness.) The Christian question is, “Is my neighbor better off…? Are the poor better off?” Let justice roll down.
So if it’s not about religion – in fact if the Bible is an anti-religious book, and faith is something other than “religion” – then what is it about? Life. There is no intricate word play needed here; Jesus says it quite directly: “I have come that you may have life – life in all its abundance.” How dare we turn the richness of this faith into religious rules – especially rules that we can direct at other people? It is the wholeness of life itself that Jesus invites us – and all – into.
It is religious rules that drove the nails into the cross, but the tables are turned, for, as Paul says, the law itself is nailed to the cross with Christ. It is religious rules that drove the nails – the gift of resurrection is the gift of life. And, in Paul’s striking image, we see the law book fluttering in the breeze, nailed to the cross. No intricate wordplay, no twisted interpretation needed. Paul says quite directly, “Christ is the end of the law.”
Martin Luther had a liberating, life-changing experience when – lost in his own despair and sinfulness – he read, in Romans, that we are forgiven and saved as a free gift of God’s grace, and not by rules of repentance. My life and my revelation is not as dramatic as Luther’s, but I felt something similar when I read, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” that “Jesus didn’t come to make us religious – he came to give us life!” But it wasn’t new with Bonhoeffer – it’s what Jesus had told us all along.
One part of a “religious” life is a kind of base selfishness: I want to keep these rules so that I, personally, can live forever. But if God’s grace is enough, if my salvation is a free gift, then what becomes of a life of rule-keeping? Well, for one thing, as Mike said last week, “I can’t do it -- I cannot do it!” For another, I am called not to religion, but to life – life that is given away freely for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ and for the sake of others, in which I discover all that life can be. And more than that, in baptism I am born into the life of Christ. How I live is not a matter of rules, but identity. I’m a child of God! I’m a son of the king! Living this life is who I am!
As another of my mentors, Big Jeff Rohr of blessed memory, once said (in another post-graduate moment that taught me something new), “I trust God to his promises of the life to come, but living the Christian life is reward enough.”
Paul says that “Faith, Hope, and love abide,” and the greatest of these is love. I don’t see religion in that list.
And so, this is not a religious assembly. It is the “body of Christ.” It is an assembly of faith, hope, and love, where “nothing in my hand I bring simply to thy cross I cling.” Where we open-handedly and open-heartedly receive life – life in all its abundance – in the name of Jesus Christ, through whose Spirit we learn something new – are changed – every day.