Monday Matters (September 4, 2023)


The Collect read in church on September 3

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

These days, Monday Matters offers reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.

True Religion

I suspect we have all heard people say that they are spiritual but not religious. The way I hear that comment is that being spiritual is a good thing. Being religious, not so much. There are all kinds of reasons why a negative view of religion might take hold.

On August 23, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the precipitous decline in religious observance in our country. He attributes that in part to the ways religious leaders have embraced a particular political agenda. I can think of other reasons, including the ways religious leaders have abused power for sake of sex or money. In parish ministry, I’ve met too many people who’ve been wounded in encounters with church life. I often wonder why any of them come back. There are people who sense that religion is not relevant, indeed that it is terminally boring. One person said they prefer Rotary Club to the church, as the people at Rotary were kinder. Another person said they preferred attending a Durham Bulls game, a more successfully integrated gathering than any church he’d ever attended. You may think of other reasons to explain the decline.

Reflection on being religious is prompted by the collect we heard yesterday in church, above. It asks that God might increase in us true religion. So what is that true religion? How can we distinguish it from false religion?

The word “religion” is rarely used in the Bible. In the few times when it’s used, it’s not necessarily a positive thing. Jesus spent a lot of time and energy in opposition to religious leaders (the clergy) of his day.

But there is one passage in the New Testament letter of James which casts religion in a more positive light: 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. Maybe that gives us a hint about what true religion looks like.

In a new book on the teaching of Jesus, specifically on the Sermon on the Mount, Richard Rohr compares religion and the gospel. He says that religion is all the things you normally go through to meet God. The Gospel is the way you will see and think after you have met God. The Gospel is the effect of the God-encounter. He says that religion is the invitation. The gospel is the banquet, and by the gospel I take Richard Rohr to mean the good news of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love.

In this vision of religion, religion is not an end in itself. We may need to be reminded that it is a means, an instrument, an introduction to an encounter with the living God. In the 1930’s, Evelyn Underhill wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, with critique of the state of the church, and especially the clergy who had lost focus. She sent this reminder to the Archbishop: God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God.

Andrew Root, a Lutheran theologian, has written lately about how the church is in decline because the church has lost a sense of a transcendent God. We have domesticated the deity to the point where God is manageable, containable, limited, and not particularly relevant. His point is that the church is not the star of the story. God is the star of the story. For our purposes this morning, we might say that religion is not the star of the story. The liturgy, the music, the buildings, the brilliant sermons may all be wonderful, but they only represent true religion when they lead to encounter with the living God.

Our Christian faith finds that encounter in the person of Jesus, present now to us in all kinds of ways, in the preaching of his word, in the bread blessed and broken and given, in ministry to people in need as we seek and serve Christ in all persons. If religion does not assist us in these kinds of encounters, it may have lost its way.

Reflect on the meaning of true religion for you. How are you experiencing true religion? Are there ways in which you are engaging in religion that is not true? Can you see your religious practice as invitation to an encounter with God? Think about where you’ve had that kind of encounter. And carry this prayer with you this week, as you ask God to increase in us true religion.

-Jay Sidebotham

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