Sunday, August 30, 2015

Give Me That Pure Religion

James 1:17-27
August 30, 2015
William G. Carter

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.

I grew up in a time when preachers started popping up on television. Before my era, a preacher talked to the people who were sitting right there, in front of the pulpit. They had to show up to hear the Word of God preached. But when TV infiltrated the Christian faith, suddenly there was the phenomenon of a preacher talking to people that he or she would never meet. Ever think how strange that it?

One Sunday morning before we left for worship, I distinctly remember flipping through the channels. How old was I – six or seven? And there was this preacher, I think he was from Oklahoma. His show started with some snappy music, his charming wife stood by his side, the camera zoomed in on his enormous smile, and he declared, “Something good is going to happen to you today!”

He said it to me. He said it to thousands of TV viewers at once. He didn’t know any of our names, but there he was, this Oklahoma preacher whose hairdo defied gravity, announcing we would all be receiving miracles. Something good was going to happen! And I knew he wasn’t talking to me. I had to sit between my parents for a very long hour in church, and then come home to eat pot roast. Didn’t seem very good to me.

Years later, when my Grandma Margaret was in the nursing home, I went out for a visit. To my surprise, she was watching that very same preacher and loving every minute. She commented on the huge choir. She hummed along with the traditional hymns. She smiled as glistening preacher spoke of hope and optimism. For a moment, I thought she was going to reach for her checkbook when he mentioned his brand-new book and tape series, available for $29.95. “I just love this,” she said. “It’s pure religion.” It’s pure religion.

In his letter that circulated around the early church, Brother James speaks about pure religion. It’s an appealing notion . . . like a Bible with gold-tipped pages, floating down on a cloud. You don’t have to read it, just revere it. You don’t have to know anything about how the words actually got on the page. No, you can declare the book is holy, wave it around, and expect the miracles to come. For some people, for a lot of people, that is pure religion.   

What is pure religion? When somebody says, “Give me that pure religion,” what do they want?

You can go to that big church with the marketing budget, get caught up in the big production, drink the Kool-Aid for a while, and maybe you discover they avoid anything controversial. If the youth worker’s son gets arrested for drugs, the youth worker and his family disappear. There might be a sermon series on “You Too Can Have a Happy Marriage,” which never mentions the multiple wives of King David and conveniently ignores that passage where Jesus says, “I have come to divide families, a man against his father, a woman against his mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-39). Oh no, you’re never going to hear about anything unpleasant. You can’t grow a church that way.

For the people who love that stuff, they regard it as “pure religion.” And they might quote James, chapter one: it’s staying “unstained by the world.”

Since my father died last month, I’ve reflected on some of our conversations. We talked a lot about faith and church. I remember one time, when I was studying to become a minister, he came to visit for a couple of days. One night, as we walked the streets of Princeton, he told me about a movement to expel one of our church’s pastors. What was the man’s crime? He had marched with Martin Luther King in Selma for voting rights and then came back to our little town in upstate New York and talked about it just a little too much.

“Many got tired of hearing about it from the pulpit,” Dad said, “and a lot of people thought it was time to make a change.” For some people, that is pure religion. Read the Bible, but not the newspaper. You can live in a little bubble and avoid the world. 

And whatever you do, don't talk about money, sex, or politics. Especially politics. On the surface, that may sound like good advice. Anybody here want me to tell you how to vote? “No, preacher, just stick to the pure religion.” 

Yet as William Sloane Coffin Jr. once noted, if Moses had never talked politics, Pharoah would still have God’s people enslaved. So maybe it’s not that simple.

In all fairness, “pure religion” would focus on the relationship between God and people. God creates us and says, “Go flourish.” We go out and create one mess after another. God goes out for a walk and says, “Where are you?” Ever since Adam and Eve, we’ve replied, “We heard you coming and we were afraid” (Genesis 3:9-10). There are no new plots in the Bible; that book reads us perfectly. It points out none of us are all that pure.

And it is curious that Brother James would use the word “purity.” Katharos  is the Greek word. It means “clean” or “unstained.” As if that’s possible. Do you really think that’s possible?

The Pharisees went to Jesus to complain. They were the guardians of purity, the advocates for a holy life. They believed that all of life should be defined by God’s Torah, a very noble belief. So they went to complain to Jesus, our Lord, and they said, “The people around you aren’t very pure.” It’s not a new comment.

“The people around you don’t wash their hands.” That was the religious imperative that all of them kept: wash your hands, wash your food, for you wish the outer cleanliness to match the inward desire. And Jesus groaned, and he reminded them of what the prophet said: they say the right words, but their heart is not in it. 

Ever wonder why religious people complain so much? It’s like the bumper sticker that I saw on a rabbi’s car: “The longer I complain, the longer God lets me live.” That man knew the Psalms!

Do you really think purity is possible, all the nasty stuff that spews out of our hearts? And here we are, talking about “pure religion.” What in the world is pure religion?

Let me go on record to say I don’t know. I really don’t. Given the lies that people tell or the stories about ourselves that we distort, given what James calls “the growth of wickedness” and the capacity for self-deception, given the elaborate ways that people push forgiveness and reconciliation away, it is hard to tell. James says it: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (1:26). And in the next verse, he talks about “pure religion.” What is that?

At this point in the sermon, you might expect me to pull a rabbit out of my hat and give you the answer. But I’m about to make it worse. Did you that Jesus never mentions “religion”? He never uses that word. In fact, in all of the New Testament, “religion” is mentioned only four times, and two of those times are here in this passage. One time in Acts, when the apostle Paul is talking to somebody who doesn’t understand him (26:5), and another in a throwaway verse in Colossians (2:18), when the writer downplays the term. A case can be made easily that “religion” is not a big deal in the New Testament.

In all of his teaching, Jesus is not interested in religion. Rather he’s interested in two things: our love for God and our love for neighbor. And when love of God and love of neighbor intersect, we have the rule of God – the kingdom of God. That’s what matters.

In fact, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time in a Nazi prison, he began to reflect on something he called “religionless Christianity.” He was in prison, like the apostle Paul, and had some time on his hands. He saw how the whole religious system of his country had gone off the rails and led to the hatred of the Jews. And he saw the day was coming when most people wouldn’t think of themselves as “religious” at all. They wouldn’t use big theological words, they wouldn’t set their clocks by the time of worship services.

What would make it “Christianity” is that would be all about following Jesus, and hearing him say anew, “Love God, love neighbor.” Bonhoeffer said it’s all about praying for other people – putting yourself in their situation and suffering with them – and it’s also about righteous action, defined as doing what it right for both God and neighbor.

You don’t need candlesticks and incense for that. You don’t need elaborate committee structures and lists of appropriate duties and behaviors. Either you love God and love neighbor, or you don’t. That, my friends, is what points to “pure religion.” It is not a religion of those who purport to be pure. No, James tells the truth: a pure, undefiled religion not only remains unstained by the world – it cares for the widows and orphans.

“Widows and orphans” - that’s Bible Talk for those in greatest need. In Bible times, the widow or the orphan had no income, no security system, no guarantee that they would eat, no promise that they could ever flourish. James, like Jesus, stands in the great tradition that says you care for those around you who are most vulnerable. You show your love for God by showing love to the neighbor in the greatest need. That’s the only religion that really matters.

Or to put it another way, any religion that doesn’t care for those in need is not a religion at all. “You shall love the Lord your God, you shall love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” And when the two loves are held together, you have the kingdom of God.

It’s hard to keep this clear because the world does stain us. James speaks of the “world” as a symbol of what’s wrong with our planet and the people on it. “World” is a system of great selfishness. “World” is where people deceive and tell lies (3:6-8). “World” is the location of self-indulgence (4:1-4). “World” is where neighbors are sorted by their bank accounts, and sidelined if they are poor (2:1-10). It is so easy to catch the world’s germs, and to get infected by the poison of “me first.”

So James says keep clear. You can’t be purer than God; that is self-deception. And you can’t ignore your neighbors, especially if they have needs; that would be evil. Instead, pursue the purest religion: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep yourself unstained by the world.”

This is what we are called to do, as Jesus himself has done. Jesus got his fingernails dirty by caring for other people. That is how he remained unstained by the world. And even when the world put him on the cross for living a God-centered, neighbor-directed life, one of the very last things Jesus ever said was this: “Take care of my mother” (John 19:26-27).

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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