Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pure Religion

Isaiah 1:1-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 2:23-28

“I will praise The Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long!”  Psalm 146:2

This past week at school – “preacher” school, I might add, for the point I hope to make - was wholly devoted to the study of Methodist history.  I have to say, though, I came away with much more than an immersion in church history.  For all the secondary issues we discussed, secondary issues which led the Church from one point to the next, secondary issues that constantly threatened the unity of the Church and led to more than one split, there was – and still is, I think – one primary issue ignored then and now.  And the reason we continue to struggle with so many secondary issues is that we are distracted from this primary issue that gives the people of the Covenant their true identity - and gives religion itself substance and meaning.

That issue the Church has taken for granted for so long – and struggles with still today – is Sabbath.  And we must not think it “no big deal” or only an “Old Testament” concept.  The Lord spoke to Judah while they were in captivity: “I gave [My people] My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Ezekiel 20:12).

What makes this essential component of religion so important, so integral to the total life of the Church – the whole Church, not only Methodism – is the life-giving, life-sustaining, life-nurturing substance this profound means of grace offers not only to The Lord’s people but to all who would draw near to know!

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is most often cited in the Methodist doctrine of sanctification as the way of “going on to perfection”.  Recall the author writes, “Let us go on to perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings about Christ” (Hebrews 6:1); but the text goes on to say, regarding the dangers of not progressing in practice, in faith, and in love, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away since, on their own, they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding Him up to public shame” (1:4-6 CEB). 

All this is done when we fail to observe fully this Practice of Sabbath, this wondrous Gift from Above.

I cannot say I’ve had much use for polls and surveys since those numbers can often be suspect.  Yet “surveys and other polls are a bit like running a series of tests during an annual physical. The scale, stethoscope, and blood tests don’t lie. There is no positive spin on your increased weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol (speaking of a church that has become largely sedentary).  Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape study … found that about 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  By 2015, that number had grown to 23%, almost one in four Americans.”  Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America”

Why?  In such a short period, a significant number of Americans who have pushed religion aside – and maybe more to the point, “organized religion” – has grown substantially.  This trend should disturb all Christians who have genuinely shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God”. 

Because it is no longer about “personal salvation”; not once we have “tasted” all that is good.  I question whether it ever was if “personal” comes to be translated as “exclusive”.  The “goodness” we taste in the Word and in the Spirit has everything to do with those who are not yet – or not quite – connected to The Body.

Sadly, this increasing number of those disconnected (probably including many seated in the pews today) seems to be only a small, annoying blip on the Church’s radar screen that the preacher brings up every now and then.  And when I say “church”, I mean the congregation, the community of the faithful, the ecclesia which claims to have once “tasted” all that is good in, and gives real substance to, religion.

This is not entirely about who does and who does not attend corporate worship, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the value or the worth of the preacher or the priest or the rabbi.  This is entirely about all who refuse to have any part in the Church altogether, and why they want no part of being the Church even if they attend worship once in a while.

Think for a moment about the Church as we know it.  What distinguishes the people of YHWH from the rest of society?  What is so unique about the Church that anyone would care to be a part of it in a way that will transform their lives, the lives of their families, and restore their marriages and strengthen their homes? 

Sadly, what predominantly defines the Church today is not a new phenomenon.  Civil religion – attaching Church to State (politics) - has been a component of the Church for a very long time, centuries in fact, and has wrought nothing but trouble and division.  It has been difficult for the Church to separate itself from the very government which, more often than not, regulates its practices not by the force of law but by the political beliefs and practices of its people.  There is no covenantal “sign” distinguishing the people of The Lord from everyone else.

When I was at school, we were going at it from 8:30am to 8:30pm (with breaks for meals, of course).  After that was more studying, more reading, more reviewing.  My classmates and I often stayed up beyond 11pm, and then rose early the next day for more study and prep time before class. 

It isn’t the hard work that got my attention, though.  It was the very fact that even Sunday, the Day of The Lord, was as intense as the day before and the day after.  We began at the usual time, but we then got a break long enough to go to church and have lunch.  The usual day resumed early in the afternoon.

We had plenty of prayer time and worship with one another, but there was no real Sabbath engagement.  You get that?  A bunch of preachers who should be preaching Sabbath were not practicing Sabbath!  Worship attendance was only a break in an otherwise rigid routine. 

On the way home, I began to think about how our own Sunday routines often go; and though our schedules may not be so rigid as a structured class, we have no fewer things to do.  The Day itself is not devoted to worship and prayer and Sacraments and study of the Scriptures.  Worship itself may not even be considered a time of devotion for many, but rather an interruption in what would more likely be just another day.  And we cannot live on that.

Sabbath involves much more than mere worship attendance.  Sabbath is a gift from the God who recognizes and even appreciates the busy-ness of life and what it takes to make a living and try to keep our heads above water.  After six hard days of making and creating and moving and maintaining, our God knows better than anyone how badly we need a break from that busy-ness. 

Make no mistake, however.  Sabbath is much more than a break from the work.  In the midst of that work, we must consider how easily we can become disconnected from our Holy Father AND from one another through the course of the work week.  This Gift, then, comes to us as much more than a break from our work; it comes to us as the primary means of reconnecting to the One who gives meaning to our work, however routine or mundane our work may often seem to be. 

The fullness of this reconnection gives meaning to our prayers and our gifts and tithes when we gather together as the Body of Christ.  Praying, on the fly while driving or otherwise engaged, may keep us mindful of The Lord’s presence in our daily business, but it is the focus of worship and Sabbath to reconnect us to that Presence in a meaningful way. 

More than merely being reminded of His Presence, Sabbath practice is intended to draw us to reconnect to that Presence rather than giving our Lord only a nod or honorable mention.  Instead of only being aware of His Presence, we are invited to engage in His Presence without distraction before AND after worship.  And as St. James points out, the fullness of that connection in our religion necessarily involves others.  There is no such thing as “private” religion within The Covenant of The One True and Living God.

As far as we are to be concerned, the busy-ness of the world is not going away.  But glory to His Good Name, neither is our God and His remarkable Gift.  Sabbath practice, then, is given to offer us rest from the past week and to prepare us for the week to come. 

It is our Father’s assurance that He goes before us always.  It is left to us as a Body to follow Him to the blessedness of His Glory because that is where He is taking us.  We must not merely admire the beautiful gift wrapping and fancy bow; we must RE-learn to open this Gift each and every week and receive it as it is offered: as a Gift of Love, a Gift of Grace, the Gift of Life itself.  Life in the Father, Grace in The Son, Love in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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