August 29, 2021 “Worthless Religion” Rev. Patrick Mecham
James 1:17-27 ———– Mark 7:1-23 ———-14th Sunday after Pentecost
In 1859, a French tight-rope walker by the name of Charles Blondin decided to pull a stunt that would guarantee him great fame. He walked 1100 feet on a highwire that was strung 160’ above Niagra Falls! Over the next few years, he returned to Niagra to repeat his feat, with further difficulties thrown in—crossing it blindfolded, manacled, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow. Blondin was quite a showman, and he once told the crowd that he was going to cross the Falls while carrying someone on his back! “Do you believe I can do this?!” he asked the crowd. “We believe!” they responded, “We believe!”
Then he looked at the crowd and asked, “Who among you will ride on my back?” The silence was deafening. Apparently all those folks who believed he could certainly carry someone across Niagra Falls were just not confident that he would safely carry them across! Fortunately, his manager (Harry Colcord) had already agreed in advance that he would be the passenger on the dangerous journey, and he climbed onto Blondin’s back. They made it across—but just barely!
I am telling you this story to get you to think about the difference between belief and faith, between religion and a relationship with God. I want you to see the connection between what you know and what you do. That’s what our scripture readings for today are all about.
In Vain Do They Worship Me
In our reading from Mark, Jesus says to some critical Pharisees and Scribes, “Isaiah had it right about you hypocrites! ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition!” (Jesus was referring to the ceremonial washing of hands, cups, pots, kettles which had, in many ways, become their religion!)
Then he said to the other people who were there, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” He went on to explain what he meant: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”
Then he lists some of these evil intentions: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” It is from within that all these evils come!
<Jesus knows what evil lurks in the hearts of human beings.>
And Jesus knew the Pharisees and Scribes were stained with evil DESPITE their fastidious traditions which they practiced religiously. They needed to hear the warning from Isaiah that it is vain to worship God if human traditions are taught in place of God’s word! Human traditions are NOT God’s word.
Be Doers of the Word, Not Merely Hearers
As we turn to the reading from James, we hear him say “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.” For James, people who heard the word but did not DO it were deceiving themselves. He says they are like people who look in the mirror (and see a dirty face), then walk away without doing something about the dirt on their face. Once they walk away, they can say to themselves, “I don’t see any dirty face!”
A contemporary example of this is found in people who say, “O, yes, Jesus is Lord of my life!” but they don’t obey Jesus. They never stop to ask themselves, “What would Jesus have me do?” They just give him “lip service,” the very thing Isaiah and Jesus warned about!
James confidently says that those who look into the perfect law (the law of love) and persevere are surely DOERS who act (rather than just hearers who forget). They will be blessed in their doing!
People have been wrestling with religion for millennia. Jesus labored every day to help correct people’s wrong ideas about what it means to be in relationship with God. And the process has continued. A priest in the early 16th Century, Martin Luther, was wrestling with this whole question. He tried doing what the church taught, but he found evidence in the Scriptures that pointed in other directions! He was teaching a class on Romans, and encountered these passages:
- Romans 1:17 “The righteous will live by faith”
- 3:24 “We are justified freely by his grace”
- 3:28 “A person is justified by faith apart from observing the law”
(Small wonder that Luther was not fond of the book of James!)
But James promoted a very practical religion. He never proposed works instead of faith—he just believed that people of faith would naturally be engaged in loving works in response to the Love of God! He would have been unhappy with the Pharisees who expected their behavior to somehow earn them a reward from God. Indeed, Jesus was upset that their behavior was selfish and twisted—not flowing out of gratitude for God’s love, but stemming from their desire to be better than everyone else.
James says “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” Our actions flow from God’s action—we can be generous because God is generous to us! He goes on to describe “good religion” by saying, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
[Note: caring for orphans and widows means actively engaging in the welfare of anyone not able to care for themselves. Keeping oneself unstained is a reference to the Pharisees who were stained on the inside but fastidiously clean on the outside so that they might have the praise of other people—and might even fool God!]
I’ll finish today by putting all this in a nutshell: Bad religion hurts; good religion heals. I occasionally hear well-meaning people say something like, “It doesn’t really matter what religion a person is, as long as they practice it sincerely.” Well, I would disagree with that sentiment! Bad religion is harmful!
Some examples: Several years ago, the leader of the Fundamentalist LDS church was arrested for forcing young girls (aged 13 and up) to marry grown men. On top of the whole polygamy thing, this was child abuse. The girls were doing their best to be obedient, to be faithful to the religion they had been brought up in. But they were abused. Bad religion hurts.
Traditional Hindu teaching is that there are different classes of people in the world. The bottom group (often called “untouchables”) were designed to be slaves to all the rest, treated with utter contempt so that they might be purified in this rotten life and then be reincarnated in a higher class next time! Bad religion hurts.
Islam, the religion whose very name means peace, has many adherents to Sharia Law—a force that violently represses women, and, in many cases, celebrates the killing of those who refuse to convert. All in the name of God. Bad religion hurts.
I’m certain that you have seen plenty of people whose lives have been diminished because they or their loved-ones have bought into some kind of bad religion—some of which claim the name “Christian.” You can picture their faces, and your heart aches for them. I read this quote a few days ago, and it applies to this subject:
Many people reject Jesus because of bad experiences
with religious people. But here’s the thing…Jesus had
bad experiences with religious people, too. In fact,
they killed him. People will let you down. Jesus won’t.
Friends, Jesus Christ is offering us life—LIFE—and his desire is that we have it abundantly. We can’t earn his grace—we can only accept it, live it, share it. Because of God’s mercy and generosity, and God’s desire to be in relationship with us, we are invited into a wonderful adventure of faith!
We proclaim that Christ died for us and was raised for us. Good religion heals. Good religion gives life. Choose life. Be doers of the word, and not just hearers!