091921 Pentecost 17 When Religion Becomes an Excuse

The video begins at minute 17:55 of the video

James 3:13-17, 4:8-9; Mark 9:30-37

        In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples were using their newfound faith in Jesus as an excuse for arguing who was the greatest. Once they became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah in last week’s Gospel – and their kind of Messiah, not Jesus’ kind of Messiah – they started thinking about what positions they might get in the new government Jesus would form: which of us will occupy the seats closest to the throne? The Gospel writers saw this as a major problem for Jesus’ followers. History proved that it indeed was a problem. In today’s text, all the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest. In other texts, it was James and John who asked Jesus to let them sit on his right and left. In Matthew, their mother asked Jesus for her sons to be granted places of authority in his kingdom.

       We all know that religion shouldn’t be used as an excuse. But in these days of protests over vaccines and masks, we see religion being used often as an excuse. One way it appears is in requests for religious exemptions to mandates. Last week it was reported that over 3,000 LAPD employees have requested religious exemptions for the vaccine. Who knew that the LAPD was that religious?

      Jesus’ response to the disciples’ use of religion as an excuse to argue about who would be the greatest makes clear that using religion as an excuse is never a substitute for genuine discipleship. In true religion and real life, he said, whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, he took a little child and put it among them; taking it in his arms, he said to them, whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. When Jesus was teaching in Galilee, children literally had no standing; no power or influence to change peoples’ opinions. But Jesus gave them standing. He made them the center of attention precisely to change peoples’ opinions.

       When I read the first part of the passage from James early in the week, my finger was ready to point to the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers: if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, don’t be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. Aha, I thought! What a perfect description of anti-vaxxers. They were definitely being false to the truth, unspiritual, and downright devilish. And just as James said, that has led to disorder and wickedness of every kind in society.

       But then I read further in James: the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Damn. I had to stop pointing my finger. That was Tuesday. Then it got to be Wednesday evening, and I was at Nefesh’s Erev Yom Kippur service. Rabbi Susan had us turn to the person next to us and say what inner conflict we were wrestling with this Yom Kippur. The first thing that came to mind was defensiveness: the habit of immediately arguing back when someone attacks or criticizes me. It’s like a kneejerk reaction. I should have listened to James about the wisdom [that] is willing to yield. It turns out that wisdom is not always about being right. It may be shown best by yielding to the other person and establishing peace.

       So, how do we keep ourselves from using religion as an excuse, and at the same time avoid pointing the finger at those who are blatantly doing so? Or, as James put it, how do we balance not being false to the truth with being willing to yield? I keep insisting that one of the greatest challenges of discipleship is to grow into a both/and view of life. Both not being false to the truth and being willing to yield at the same time; to hold freedom and sacrifice, rights and solidarity, benefits and costs, love for self and love for others. Those who most loudly take one side or the other are usually the most resistant to growth. They know they aren’t taking everything into account; but they either believe they can’t, or don’t want to, hold both sides.

       When we refuse to grow toward the both/and view of life, we set ourselves up for the conflicts and disputes that James describes. The conflicts in our intimate relationships and in our communities come from within: those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war within you? We project our inner conflicts and cravings onto others. This is, of course, evident in the anti-science posture of many anti-vaxxers. There have always been religious people who rejected science because they believed it was opposed to their faith. But today many religious people use faith as an excuse to flaunt their rejection of science, and their insistence on their right to religious freedom. James calls it, selfish ambition.

       What provokes this flaunting? James says it’s rooted in cravings that are at war within you. What do they crave? One thing they crave is belonging. Richard Rohr pointed out last week what happens when we believe we need to belong to the right group to go to heaven: heaven isn’t about belonging to the right group or following the correct rituals. It’s about having the right attitude toward existence. That’s what James is saying. But it’s the opposite of what many Evangelical sisters and brothers believe. For many, the price of belonging is adhering to a set of beliefs that seem crazy. We humans are good at convincing ourselves that crazy is acceptable if my community believes them.

       It’s easy for us to see how anti-vaxxers project their inner conflicts and cravings onto others. But how do we do it? I was reminded at the Yom Kippur services how universal sin is, and how important it is to start with myself when facing sin. Many of us pride our-selves on believing in science. We’ve been very vocal about that to distinguish ourselves from anti-vaxxers . It’s sad that we even need to say it, but we do. That may be a good place to look to discern what kind of wisdom we are using. Remember, for James, wisdom isn’t primarily about intelligence and science, but about human relations. Paul said the same thing when he wrote to the Romans, be transformed by the renewal of your minds. We don’t renew our minds by reading books. We do it by allowing our thought patterns to be replaced by patterns that better describe the truth of our experience in light of God’s word. We must get down to the roots of what produces conflict if we’re ever going to find room for the wisdom that is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

     James writes, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Jesus says, whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Nobody wants to be in a lower position than the next person. So very few are willing to yield, be pure, pacific, or kind when their pride is threatened. That’s why drawing near to God is more than a pretty sentiment expressed in songs. It is the most practical step we can take toward better relationships. Only when the internal spiritual landscape of our lives is transformed by submitting to God will be able to engage in healthy relationships of mutual submission. Then we will move beyond seeing others and ourselves as good or bad, right or wrong. Sometimes the bad or irritating parts are the most superficial, the lightest. The wind blows them away. Spirituality transforms them

       Another way to absorb wisdom from above is to welcome the child in Jesus’ name. Receiving a child touches something in the human heart. If Jesus were responding to disciples in our age, he might have taken a homeless person, an immigrant, an abused woman, or even an anti-vaxxer, to put in our midst. When we get close to them and receive them into our circle, something is transformed in us. Envy, wrong desires begin to shrink because we no longer need what our neighbor has. By putting ourselves closer to the ground – the humus – we find the humility that characterizes abundant life. A spirituality that draws us closer to God and to the little ones is how we will transform communities; not using religion as an excuse.