30th August: 13th Sunday of Trinity.
Readings: James 1, 17-end & Mark 7: 1-8, 14,15, 21-23
Just think for a second if you will and call to mind a word or phrase that really gets you going: okay, here are mine: Leicester Tigers (and increasingly Saracens). You see I am a massive rugby fan, Northampton Saints is my team, and I have convinced myself that Leicester and Saracens are somehow the antipathy of everything that is good and noble about my beloved Saints. It’s nonsense of course, but there you go.
But I suspect that if we were to identify one word that set peoples teeth on edge, or provoked the most intense forms of reaction it would be ‘religion.’ Many people claim that religion has been the cause of more wars than any other phenomenon. Not true in modern history according to the Institute of Peace Studies at Bradford University. The biggest political killers of the 20th century Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Amin, Obotoe and so on paid scant regard to the claims of religion. But, with the rise of Isis we have to be honest and say, yes, religion badly practiced causes untold harm to so many people. Bad religion, practiced by any faith, denomination or sect is a scary thing.
And, today’s readings contrast the practice of good and bad religion. Jesus knew a thing or two about the abuse of religious and political power: the toxic combination of these two ingredients put him on the cross. So Christianity cannot therefore be about anything other than religion at its best! But what is religion?
Well James gives us the answer in the only New Testament definition of the word religion: ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself untainted by the world.’
Good religion involves the exercise of compassion; compassion directed to the marginalised; the outsider, those who without the exercise of good religion would be isolated, cut off from healthy human relationships. Healthy religion includes, or re-ligatures.
And, as Jesus reminds us good religion isn’t too bothered with external form, or even how it looks when judged by the standards of the world. The practice of true Christian virtue cannot involve ‘vanity,’ or the ‘teaching of human precepts as doctrine.’
Good religion gets down and dirty and we, as Christians, must be prepared to get some muck under our finger nails and to wear out a bit of shoe leather in the service of the gospel. And, we must pay close attention to the state of our hearts, because what we carry in our hearts will overflow into our treatment of neighbour. Just as evil intentions come from the heart so do good intentions.
So we must pray and allow the Holy Spirit to form us. Yes, we must enjoy and be fed by the traditions of the Church, but we must also remember that they are means and not ends, and if we confuse the two we are in trouble, for you see the really frightening point about today’s readings is this: ‘bad religion’ is presented in it’s less violent and benign form. But here is the problem; bad religion just like good religion is viral. Both take root and grow.
The answer to bad religion is not, whatever secularists say, no religion but, instead good and better religion. Jesus knew that, so did the apostle James. Our job is to cultivate virtue, to act with compassion, to love, include, affirm, re-ligature and to reject anything that gets in the way. We must never ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ Instead we must care for the lost and grieving and keep ourselves ‘unstained by the world.’
Then, at the end of the day, Jesus might just call us Christian! Amen
Rev. Andrew Lightbown