Spirituality and Religion

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I don't know about you, but I spend an awful lot of time on social media these days. I check my Facebook feed several times a day,I keep up with Twitter and Instagram. I love this new site called Medium, where everyone posts snippets of writing. It is sort of like YouTube with words instead of videos. And I am getting married soon, so I am often on Pinterest, looking at fun, clever ways to do your hair or arrange flowers. I am one of those people who has fully embraced the Internet life. I love how easy it is to keep up with my family and friends, and to get to know other people all over the world - perfect strangers, except for our shared love of dogs, or fashion, or all church-related topics.

And I do see my social media presence as part of my ministry - I think of my Facebook, especially, as an extension of the pulpit. It is a chance for me to share the love of God and the Christian life with anyone who cares to look or listen, although of course that is not all I share. I am as guilty as anyone of posting cute pictures of my two dogs and random funny things that happen during my day.

And of course, I know I am not the only one out there sharing my religious views. In fact, lots of my friends post all kinds of religious things, often inspirational quotes from the Bible or the saints or some type of spiritual writer. Just this week, I have read things like: 'We cannot take a single step toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up.'

And this: 'Your life is your message. Be a light.'

And this: 'Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart.'

Most of these are inspirational sayings - small, positive thoughts to ponder or to brighten our days; invitations to consider living our best lives or being the people we are truly called to be. Which, is, of course, a lovely thing.

And in some ways, this sounds very much like what Paul is telling the Romans in the Epistle that we read this morning: 'Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.. live peaceably with all...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'

Religion as a set of positive affirmations. Remembering God's presence in our lives by looking to our blessings, and our ability to act on our most positive virtues and qualities. What if every day, all of us were patient and kind, generous and full of kindness? Isn't this the goal of religion - to believe in love and to live into that love, every day?

Well surprisingly enough, Jesus himself seems to answer 'no' to this question in our Gospel reading today. And in the process, refers to one of his beloved followers as 'Satan'. And talks about denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and dying, those of us who love God and wish to follow Jesus.

Inspirational this is not. It will never be quoted in a little frame with a picture of the sunrise behind it.

And with this Jesus exposes what today we would call 'spirituality vs. religion.' Lots of people, I might say most, especially in this country, would describe themselves as 'spiritual', which I take to mean believing in some sense of a benign higher power and the general idea that love and goodness are ideals we should strive for and practices that make our lives happier and more meaningful.

What Jesus is talking about in the Gospel, though, is religion: a specific, powerful story of God's dominion in the world, something so much larger than we are and so barely comprehensible that we are literally in awe of its mystery, and it is hard to really understand. And because of this, I think real religion is practiced by only a fraction of any population, which is one reason we find fewer and fewer people in our churches today than we have in decades past. As worship has become more of a personal choice than a social mandate, the increasing majority of those around us choose the soothing strains of spirituality over the wild ride of religion.

Of course they do. Just look at what poor Peter is going through, trying to figure out how to be a disciple. Just a paragraph ago in the Gospel of Matthew, in the section of Chapter 16 we just read last Sunday, he correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah and was rewarded with the keys to the kingdom. Now he reacts in horror at the idea of his beloved friend and teacher being led to a bloody death, and he is rebuked in the harshest of terms.

What is this all about? What kind of Messiah is this, who speaks of violence and rejects easy definition? And what is this about losing our lives?

It is absolutely no wonder to me, whenever I have asked people about their specific beliefs, that they have mostly said that they follow Jesus to be a better person, to learn to love their neighbor. To do good work in the world. And I want to be sure to say again that these are worthy goals, wonderful things. And they are spirituality, the comfort of religious thought. And they are not nearly what Jesus defines and embodies as religion.

'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,' Paul writes in Hebrews, and I think here he is moving along the spiritual life path he lays out in Romans today and getting to the heart of the matter. Learning to love and be loved, doing good, these are all good things on good days, ways to better our lives when they are already pretty comfortable to begin with.

But any concept of God or God's ways that make sense to us, that we can understand, is absolutely no match for the nonsensical tragedies of this world, will do nothing in the face of the kind of darkness at the core of war and brutality, systems of inequality that victimize the poor, diseases that kill young and innocent souls.

To take but one current example of the many that face us every day: how can spirituality save us from the complex evils of racism in this country? How can any of us, through our own efforts, as well-intentioned and loving as we can possibly be, dismantle a system that is so deep-rooted and complex, so hated by all of us and yet somehow so woven into our history? Can we make it better on our own? Only marginally, I believe.

This is why we need religion.

This is why we worship a God so large, so inscrutable, so indescribable, that even God's love for us can hurt sometimes, as Jesus surely hurt his beloved Peter by calling him 'Satan.' Religion is the practice of a faith that has at its center a God we can never hope to understand, but this is very good news if we want to know that there is a love that is truly larger than every evil, every darkness in this world.

Because by this love we can be saved, we can all be saved, by a Messiah who takes all suffering, all darkness upon himself, and does not fix it, but redeems it. Brings it past its darkest point and back to the light of resurrection.

And our job as religious people is not so much to learn to be better, but to learn to believe in this better, more complex love, which is the love of the cross, the love stronger than death. Which resists easy answers but is at the same time the best news we will ever get.

It's hard to remember sometimes, but we are no less clueless today that the very first disciples were. We have heard the stories, lived the centuries, since Jesus walked on earth, but we still ask: where is God in all this suffering? What do we do when everything goes wrong, when it all gets too hard, too much for us to fix or even make sense of?

We know that for many people, especially today, the answer is: there is no God. There never was. Or if there is, God has left us to our own devices, is not involved in our daily affairs. Or we cling to the outer edge of spiritual thought, the 'everything happens for a reason' sayings that can seem to add up to a God who would wish suffering on us.

But for those of us still here, those who come again to the table this week, as we do every week, there is an answer even more complete: Jesus, who describes for us again how he must take the suffering of the whole world upon his own shoulders, who reminds us that we still live in the time between 'Christ is risen' and 'Christ will come again', that all the darkness is being vanquished by the light that is overcoming it.

'Increase in us true religion', we pray in our collect today, and to me, this means increasing in us the ability to stand before the mystery of God, who loves us, for sure, but who sometimes scares and confuses us, as well.

Increase in us the desire to hold our broken places and the broken places of the world up to this amazing power that we can't really comprehend, but we know will heal us, even if we never know how. Increase in us the need to share not just the power of those things we CAN understand of God's ways - kindness and gentleness, generosity and forgiveness - but also the things we can't - the salvation of the cross, the resurrection.

Increase in us our love for the unknowable God, that we may lose our lives to the love that saves us.

 

--- The Rev. Canon Catherine A. Caimano. Preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Monroe, NC, August 31, 2014.