Monday, September 27, 2010

true religion

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

I’d like to begin today’s sermon by asking you a question: What is our religion? Now, this sounds like a foolish question, right? After all, we sing Christian hymns. We recite Christian creeds. We break bread in the name of Jesus Christ. But if my question surprises you, know that it’s anything but foolish to dare to sincerely name our religion. Allow me to explain. The word religion is derived from the Latin verb ligare – which means to bind or connect. Our religion, simply put, is what we rely on, whatever we trust to make us feel secure. To practice the right religion is to root ourselves in reality. To practice the wrong religion is to chase after something that isn’t even real. And so when I ask “what is our religion?” I’m really asking “what do we rely on? What have we bound or connected our hearts to?”

I spent the summer of 2006 working as a hospital chaplain. I’m forever haunted by the memory of the first patient I ever visited, a 91-year-old woman named Mary. I want to read you an excerpt from the report I was asked to write on my impression of Mary: “She is bitter, alone, and she trusts no one. Mary believes she has been hospitalized so that her family may spend her savings. Mary is intent upon the idea that she is an exploited victim of a greedy family. There is no person on earth that she loves or trusts. Not one.” If these words give you chills, listen to the words of Mary herself. “I hate my family. They mean nothing to me. I am here because they want my money. They want everything I’ve worked for. For themselves. They are dead to me.” Mary was deluded. Her heart was so bound and so connected to her stockpile of wealth that she was unable to cope with reality. Money was what Mary relied on, what she trusted to make her feel secure. Mary practiced the wrong religion.

Today’s story about Lazarus and the rich man was first addressed to the practitioners of a wrong religion. Jesus tells this parable to the Pharisees, who Luke tells us are “lovers of money.” Perhaps you recall how last week’s parable ended: “you cannot serve God and money.” The Pharisees’ response to this was to ridicule Jesus. The Pharisees mock Jesus’ words. You can’t serve God and money? Of course you can! You see for the Pharisees, money was the sure sign of God’s favor. People get rich when God is pleased with them, which means that poverty is a punishment –at least that is what they believed. And so when the Pharisees saw someone like Lazarus – starving for food, covered in sores, freezing and alone – they naturally assumed that God’s justice was at work. If Lazarus isn’t a sinner then his parents sure were! You see, the Pharisees sang all the right hymns, they recited all the right creeds, and they went through all the right rituals. But according to Jesus, they didn’t practice the right religion.

And so we have to wonder, what went wrong with the Pharisees? Well, the answer is simple. The Pharisees forgot their story. You see, God chose Israel because they were the smallest, the poorest, and the weakest. God chose Israel because they were slaves. God chose Israel because they longed to satisfy their hunger with the food that fell from Pharaoh’s table – who feasted sumptuously every day while they starved to death. For this reason God chose Israel and brought them to the land of Canaan, where God tells them in Deuteronomy: “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” In other words, I chose you because you were poor, and so you must love the poor. I chose you because you were needy, so you must love the needy. You see, the Pharisee’s problem was not with how they saw the poor, but with how they saw themselves. Forgetting that God chooses the poor, the Pharisees naturally lost sight of how poor they really were.

Now, the Pharisees don’t have the market cornered on being “lovers of money.” We live in a world that teaches us to rely, or to find security, in things with no power to save us. There is so much pressure to make our life a race in pursuit of something superficial – money just being the most obvious example. Is money bad? No. But to rely on money, to trust in money as the basis of our security – it’s the root of all evil. You see, for the rich, money provides the illusion that we are secure. For the poor, money creates the illusion that we could be secure if we just had more money. And let’s be honest – from time to time all of us are runners in society’s race to seek security outside the promises of God. We can all practice the wrong religion.

And so we have to wonder – when this does happen, what goes wrong with us? The answer is simple. We forget our story. The apostle Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, God himself, the Source of all wealth, became poor. God himself, the Source of all life, tasted death. The God of our hymns, the God of our creeds, the God revealed in the bread we break was Himself broken, stripped naked, covered in sores, and starving for food. For us. You see our problem is not with how we see the poor, but with how we see ourselves. Do we honestly believe that we’re any better than the homeless man we’ll pass on our way to class tomorrow? If so, we’re not yet seeing the world through the lens of the cross. If so, we haven’t yet considered how far God had to go to reach us. If so, we do not understand how poor we really are.

The truth is there is not one person among us who can identify with Lazarus, and I thank God for that. There are many Lazarus’ in our world, and God cares deeply about every single one of them. On the other hand, we are not the rich man. No, as this parable comes to an end we have to realize that every single one of us stands in the place of his five brothers. Each of us has to write our own ending to this parable. But unlike the brothers, we have more than Moses and the prophets. Someone in fact has risen from the dead, and that Someone of our hymns, our creeds, and our communion invites us to step into reality, to practice true religion, to bind our hearts and to connect our souls to the Kingdom he came to proclaim.

So once again, what is our religion? Christianity is a religion of the cross. We cannot seek security in the cross of Christ and ignore the crosses of others. We cannot seek security in the God who became poor and ignore the poverty of others. We cannot seek security in Jesus and at the same time ignore Lazarus, for what we do to the least of Jesus’ brothers we do also to him. We practice the right religion when we root ourselves in the reality of the cross.

I’d like to end tonight’s sermon with a story. This story is about greyhounds, the kind that race around the track after that mechanical rabbit. The following is a conversation between a reporter and a successful greyhound that quits racing at the height of his career. Anyway, the conversation goes something like this:

The reporter says to the dog, Uh, you still racing any?
No, no, no, I don’t race anymore.
I bet you miss the glitter and the excitement of the track?
He said, no, not really.
So you got too old?
No, no, I still had some race in me.
So you must have not won enough races?
He said no, I won over a million dollars for my owner.
So, they treated you badly, that’s why you quit?
God no! They treated us like kings, as long as we were racing.
Then what, did you get injured?
He said, no, no.
I said, then what?
I quit.
You quit? Why on earth would you quit at the height of your career?

He said, I quit the day that I found out that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit. That’s when I quit. All that running, running, running, running, running, and that thing I was chasing, it wasn’t even real.

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