August 11, 2013, Pentecost 12 – Relationship, not Religion

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Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About four thousand years ago, God struck up a conversation with a man named Abraham. Abraham lived in Mesopotamia; he was a respectable, comfortably well-off citizen of a place called Ur. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had never been able to have children of their own, but they had taken in Abraham’s nephew Lot when his parents passed away. And one day, by some means – we aren’t told exactly how – God came to this man Abraham and called him to take his small household, and to leave his homeland and his community behind and to head off to a new country. And God promised Abraham, childless though he certainly was, that he was going to be a father – and not just the father of A son or daughter, but the forebear of whole nations. God promised that he, Abraham, would be the first in the line of a people that were more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky (and if you have ever gone camping and been out in the middle of nowhere at night, you know how many stars Abraham saw when he looked up into the sky, and how truly un-countable they were).

And Moses, recording the history of his people as it was passed down from generation to generation, tells us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness.” What God required of his relationship with Abraham was this – that Abraham would respond to his offer of blessing in faith, trusting in his goodness, and believing his promises. The call to Abraham marks the beginning of God’s chosen people; it was the nation of Israel that would literally be born to Abraham and his children, and his children’s children. But spiritually, the call to Abraham was the invitation of God to all his creatures, to every man and woman and child that would come to believe his promises and to put their faith in him. God told Abraham, “I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

What the call to Abraham was NOT, was the beginning of a new religion. Even in the time of Abraham, back in Ur of the Chaldeas, every little town and region had its own god and its own religions. Religion, of one kind and another, is as old as mankind. Religion is a very human institution, and it’s all pretty much alike. Our word “religion” comes from the Latin word meaning “to bind or tie up”. Religions grow out of man’s fear of the unknown, and of his desire to have a little control over this life that is terrifyingly unpredictable. Religions seek to keep the gods pacified by doing deals with them, by offering little gifts or promising sacrifices in exchange for favors. Religions like rules and codes of behavior, the stricter the better, because it helps us to be sure we are worthy, that we measure up to the expectations of the gods who are just watching for us to step out of line and are always ready to come down on us in well-deserved condemnation.

That’s religion, and we all slip into it. Who hasn’t tried to buy God’s favor by promising to be extra good, or to give up something we want, if only he will help us? Is there any one of us who has never felt the fear of condemnation when we know we have done something we ought not to have done, so that we cringe like the puppy who chewed up the master’s shoes, expecting to be smacked by the rolled-up newspaper? Is there any one of us who has not been guilty of comparing ourselves to those whose lives seem to be a complete mess; can any of us say we have never felt pride in our moral purity, as short-lived and imperfect as it surely is? That is all part of being descendants of Adam and Eve, who bit into the fruit so that they could know good and evil on their own terms. We broken human beings are naturally religious.

But being descendants of Abraham is nothing like that. Abraham didn’t make a deal with God. He didn’t curry God’s favor with his good behavior. He simply believed God’s promises. He put his trust in God’s lovingkindness; and God counted that as righteousness. We are not called to be a religious people, we are called to be people of faith; we are called to be people who put our trust in the goodness of our heavenly Father. We are not called into fear. Paul wrote, in his letter to the Romans, “you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” When we adopted as the sons and daughters of God, we are born into the countless generations of the blessing of Abraham.

In the very same chapter of Luke that we read from today, just a few verses earlier, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the fear of God. He tells his disciples, who are coming increasingly under the condemnation of the religious authorities, “There are people who have the power to kill the body, but afterward they have no power over you. Don’t be afraid of them. The ONLY one you need to fear is the one who has both the power to kill the body AND the authority to send you to hell. Yes, he is the one to fear!” And then Jesus goes on, “Look at these little sparrows – you pay a penny for two of them in the market. Do you know that God remembers every single one of these little creatures? And do you know that God knows even the number of the hairs on your head? So don’t be afraid at all – you are worth more than many sparrows.” Religion fears God because it cannot trust him; faith trusts because it believes in his goodness.

In so many ways, it is easier to be religious than it is to have faith. Rules and regulations and rituals are all things we can keep track of. We are never able to fulfill even our own laws perfectly, but we can keep score. We like to know where we stand; we can measure ourselves against others – and we can always find someone who makes us feel better about ourselves. But faith happens within a day-to-day relationship. When we wake in the morning, we don’t have any idea what the new day will bring. We have no written contract that promises that this day will be free from loss, or illness, or pain, or anxiety. All we have is the promise that our Father is with us, that he loves us, and that no matter what happens he will bring good into our lives through it. Faith has to relinquish control. But that is the very reason that faith is the only real solid comfort in this broken world – because the control we try so hard to maintain through our “religion” and our morality – our confidence that basically we are pretty good people who deserve good things – that kind of control is utter vanity, and it will be blown to smithereens by the first real gusts of adversity and fear and temptation.

Faith, on the other hand, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the assurance – the only solid and real basis of our hope because faith is based on who God is. And we know who he is, because he has revealed himself to us – in creation, in the Scriptures, but most of all, and most completely in the person of Jesus Christ. In the letter to the Colossians Paul wrote: “He – Jesus – is the image of the invisible God.” Jesus took on human form and lived a solid, human life, so that when we look at him we see the Father. That’s what he told his disciple Philip, “How can you ask me to show you the Father – don’t you understand that if you’ve seen me you have seen the Father?” People like to draw lines between the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of the Almighty God, but that robs them of the very thing Jesus came to give us, which was a tangible connection to God – the one and only God. That’s what John got all excited about in his first letter to the churches, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—  the life was made manifest, and we have seen it…”

And so in the gospel passage we read today, when Jesus tells his disciples to be ready at all times, he tells them, “…be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.” If that sounds an awful lot like Jesus, when he wrapped a towel around himself and washed the feet of his friends, that is no accident. Jesus as he is revealed in the gospels – Jesus who is all wisdom and compassion, Jesus who emptied himself and came to serve those whom he loves – he is the image of the invisible God. Jesus who was born in a stable, who took the little children into his arms and blessed them, who wept at the grave of his friend – he is the image of the invisible God. Our heavenly Father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is revealed in Jesus Christ as the One who loves us beyond all that we could imagine. Ours is a God that no human religion could have or would ever have invented: all glory and majesty and power, clothed in gentleness and humility. This, and this alone, is the God in whom we can rest all our hopes.

Fear not, little flock. The Father who delights to give you the kingdom doesn’t call you to be religious; he calls you to believe the promises he has made to you. He is a God who keeps his promises to all those who live by faith, who trust that it is our heavenly Father’s good will and pleasure to give all good things to his beloved children. He will never leave you or forsake you.

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