Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pure Religion

Exodus 22:21-27
James 1:22-27
John 14:15-21

“The most terrible poverty is the loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”  Mother Teresa

Remembering what was perhaps one of the most shocking sermons I had ever heard, the priest said, “Let it be known here and now that The Lord does not favor Catholics!”  That we were momentarily stunned is an understatement!  Here we were being all “religious” during worship while celebrating Christ as Lord of the Church and Savior of the world, and this priest tells us we’re not doing it right!

This was his first Sunday in the parish, and he was following a series of priests most of whom could easily be described as gentle shepherds.  They were kind-hearted and soft-spoken, they smiled and laughed easily, and they soothed us with their words of encouragement even as they faithfully taught Catholic doctrine.  I do not remember any real outcry as they stood firm in the Church’s teachings which, then and now, go against cultural trends. 

And bear this in mind.  This was the 70’s when the nation – and the Church! - was so enthralled with the so-called Sexual Revolution, abortion, and birth control that we became much more aware of and concerned with what we could get away with in the privacy of our homes than we were about the “least among us” (Matthew 25:40).

Well, according to this new guy (who clearly did not know what he was talking about {tongue in cheek} since we did not agree with him), we were as wrong as wrong can possibly be!  Then he started quoting the Bible.  The point the priest was making was not, as we might suspect, that no one is favored of The Lord since our Father “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). 

This was not what the priest was saying at all.  He maintained there are indeed those who are favored by our God, those to whom our heavenly Father is indeed partial: it is those who are mistreated, marginalized, oppressed, and never given a chance to come into their own.  The Lord favors victims of humanity’s worst.

The Lord favors the “poor”, but not necessarily the “poor” we often think of only in economic terms.  Rather, the priest was referring to the “poor in spirit” to whom Jesus referred in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3).  He was talking about folks who, lacking in social affluence, get beaten down by society in general – or worse, are ignored outright even in their greatest hour of need … because … they just don’t seem to matter so much – not nearly as much as our own pursuit of personal happiness.

The Bible often makes reference to “widows and orphans” who have direct access to The Lord’s ear … and heart (Exodus 22:23-24).  If they cry out to The Lord as a result of any sort of abuse or neglect and find themselves without any measure of hope, The Lord says, “My wrath will burn”; and those guilty of such abuse will soon suffer the fate of widows and orphans.  In the Jewish Talmud, the Bible is interpreted as saying caring for widows and orphans is on an equal plane with caring for our own wives and children.  In the teachings of the rabbis, our own families do not come first if we are aware of others in distress.  They deserve our equal consideration.

So as the priest pointed out to us, do we really think Christians (even Catholics!!) who are guilty of such abuse or neglect will be spared this “burning wrath” only because we call ourselves “saved”?  Have we become so “religious” that we somehow think only our worship practices – or to merely believe in Jesus - help us to find favor with The Lord?  Or have we fallen victim to the idea that “church life” and “real life” are mutually exclusive, that one has nothing to do with the other?

To be sure, “widows and orphans” in the Bible does literally mean those who are widowed and those who are orphaned, but there is much more to the context than that they only suffered the loss and continue to mourn the pain of living without their loved ones.  There was – and still is - a cultural loss of identity, a social stigma that goes much deeper than financial uncertainty, a stigma that will haunt “widows and orphans” in the dominant culture unless or until The Lord’s counter-cultural people intervene.  In the “real world”, widows and orphans are all but deemed to be “non-persons”.  They have no clout, no usefulness, no meaning.  They are burdens rather than our brethren.

Given that cultural narrative, then, this may be the reason Jesus very deliberately used the term “orphaned” (John 14:18) toward His disciples who would soon be without His physical presence.  In that cultural narrative, one who is “orphaned” would be one without hope, one without any real sense of identity, one who would become lost in the shuffle of humanity, one without a home to call one’s own, one whose life has no real social value or even sacred worth.

In Jesus’ entire discourse (John 13-16), He was preparing His disciples for the day when He would no longer be with them.  And while there was the promise of the “Advocate”, the Holy Spirit (14:16, 26), there is much more to what Jesus was asking of His disciples – then and now.  “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; John 15:12).  And make no mistake; Jesus was not talking about “fondness”.  He was talking the Cross.

The community of fellowship we more often refer to as “The Church” is an important component of what Jesus was talking about in which a “members only” state of mind can be a comfort when we know we are not alone, when we have friends and a sense of belonging, when help comes to us when we’re at our worst; but that “members only” attitude can also be a curse when “love one another” is misconstrued to mean only those who are useful to us personally.  Remembering Jesus as The Word which became Flesh, our Lord affirmed the Levitical law of “love your neighbor as yourself” in His Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37). 

Recall in the parable that a priest and a Levite, those who would be considered “members”, bypassed the man in distress.  It was the Samaritan, the outsider, the foreigner who stopped to help.  The Good Samaritan considered nothing but the level of distress he encountered and his own ability to answer to that distress.  It was a moment in which “sacred value” was affirmed while caring only for one’s own was all but dismissed.  This is the abiding principle of “loving one’s neighbor”.

Our sense of sacred worth is, biblically and religiously speaking, directly related to the sacred worth we assign to others.  We are no better than the worst among us.  There are those who can do absolutely nothing for us socially, but what we can do for them can change their whole world and their entire outlook on life.  It is in these sacred moments when our religion is at its purest, according to St. James, and Jesus becomes for them more than what our atheist friends call a “fairy tale”.  It is in these sacred moments when The Word which became Flesh remains in the flesh … in our hearts and in our deeds.

In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he writes of the “elect”.  Often in terms of a grossly misunderstood doctrine of “predestination” which is largely self-centered, it seems more likely Paul was referring to the “elect” as those called forth for “extraordinary” purposes as the Hebrews called forth as The Chosen of The Lord, meant to serve as a nation of priests to be a light to all the nations.  Yet those who do not fall into the “elect” category are of no less value in the sight of The Lord, for even “ordinary” acts of kindness and charity – acts of true sacrificial love - can transform hearts and change lives … and turn our culture and society around.

Mother Teresa taught that there is no level of distress greater than of the utter loneliness of being unloved, and she was surely speaking in terms of what the Gospel of our Lord teaches of what it means to be truly engaged in “pure religion”.  It is not enough to pray for those in distress and wait for Jesus – or someone else - to handle it.  Our Lord said very clearly in speaking to God’s people, “YOU are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   

So we must pray that The Lord will show us the way of “pure religion”, that form of religion which will always involve “the least among us” and will always favor those in distress; for our religion is a matter of justice and mercy for all.  We must pray diligently that The Lord will reveal to US what WE must do in His Holy Name – and then in faith, act upon what is revealed to us. 

In that Sacred Moment at Calvary, our Lord set us free for this very purpose: to do and to care for those who cannot do and care for themselves, to restore to them their dignity and identity as persons of sacred worth, and to remind them that our Lord and Savior is very real … to them and to us.  This isn’t about our own “personal” salvation … it is entirely about theirs.  Amen.

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