Pentecost 26 Spiritual and Religious
Hebrews 10:19-25; Mark 13:1-8
I spent a few hours last week with a group of Episcopalians in a workshop on social enterprise. For those who aren’t aware, social enterprises are projects that combine business and social goals to improve financial, social and environmental well-being. Contemporary churches are using it to generate income in ways that go beyond systematic giving by members. It turns out that St. Athanasius isn’t alone in being a small congregation struggling to meet its financial obligations based on pledges alone. The church has always done this to some extent. The bake sale is a simple form of social enterprise. We just haven’t called it that. Our current rental to another church is a form of social enterprise.
In the course of the workshop our conversation went beyond social enterprise to discuss new forms that church itself must take. Churches are shrinking and dying, so people are imagining new forms the church might take as cultural realities change. Many forms proposed avoid the messiness of institutions, which require things like pledging and committees and buildings. One idea was to form a meetup group that would gather to go hiking and discuss spiritual things, but not have an institutional existence.
As I reflected on that conversation in light of today’s Scriptures, it made me wonder what we were failing to see. The Book of Hebrews calls us to not neglect meeting together. But Jesus describes how the place of meeting – the temple – would be destroyed. I couldn’t help but think about the popular phrase, “spiritual, not religious.” That sounds a lot like spiritual meetings that don’t take place in buildings. On some college campuses it is the dominant view. Meanwhile the fastest growing religious group in the country is the nones. The nones are people who, when asked if they are Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, or some other religion, answer none. They don’t claim adherence to any religion. I have a lot of sympathy for both groups:those who identify as spiritual but not religious, and the nones; in fact, I identify with them more than you might think is appropriate for a priest.
Perhaps today’s Scriptures can shed some light on this paradox. Is there a healthy way to be both religious and spiritual? What do we miss when we separate religion from spirituality. One writer put it bluntly: being against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals. Hospitals have many problems, just like churches. Nurses go on strike. Patients sue for malpractice. But what would we do without hospitals? So, once we get past the initial fantasy of eliminating institutions, we face the fact that every institution is subject to corruption and silliness, fraud and ineptitude, because they are comprised of real people.
In the Gospel Jesus is calling disciples to walk in a new way together and establish a new order. In today’s passage he describes in graphic terms the end of the old order: Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. The new way needs new wineskins. Interestingly, the disciples weren’t interested as much to know what was going to happen as when it was going to happen: “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Jesus then described what would happen while they were waiting rather than what the new order would look like.
He warned that saviors offering alternative kinds of salvation would come and lead many astray. He told them not to get side-tracked by wars or rumors of wars, earthquakes or famines. And we know how tempting that is in the midst of fires and hurricanes and floods that surpass anything experienced in our lifetime. In the past century we have experienced a crescendo of violence, genocide, and tyranny as well as more dramatic natural disasters. Today it’s not unreasonable to predict increased unrest with signs of trouble to come.
All kinds of movements will offer alternative ways to salvation:
- political solutions to intractable problems;
- scientific discoveries that offer ways to prevent illness or ecological disaster. The technologies we all love because they promise to make our lives more “connected” can easily connect us with evils we want to avoid.
- educational strategies that assure equal access to knowledge and its benefits; and
- theological explanations that say believers will not have to suffer like nonbelievers; preachers who manipulate us into actions that promise to postpone the apocalypse, or guarantee protection from it if we join their movement. If you have enough faith God will heal your diseases, solve your problems, and prosper your bank account.
- Career atheists argue that life in this world has no purpose but what we assign it. There are no values but those we invent, no purpose but what we dream, no God but what we make up.
But Jesus’ response to the fires, hurricanes and floods; the violence, genocide, and tyranny is: Do not be alarmed…these are but the beginnings of birth pangs. There’s a new world coming; in fact, it’s already here! The Son of God has come into this world of death and sin and bore it on shoulders. Death has been defeated, the grave is robbed of its power. The powers of evil, mighty though they seem, are doomed to destruction. Sin is forgiven, nailed to a cross. A new community of love and peace is forming all over the world; people filled with hope are humbly serving the world in the name of Jesus.
That’s where the Book of Hebrews comes in. As we experience the birth pangs and see the day approaching, we are to provoke one another to love and good deeds and continue to meet together and encourage one another. But what does that look like in a culture that prefers spirituality to religion? We might find clues in unexpected places. In the Orthodox tradition, church buildings are typically built with a huge dome above. And in that dome there is typically an icon of Christ Pantocrator, ruler of all. Each week, as worshippers come to church, they are entering the kingdom, joining the worship of heaven where they sing to the Lamb that was slain: Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!
Isn’t that what it means for Christians to continue to meet? We gather each week to enter the kingdom, to live into the future. We sing our songs of praise, we lament our losses and pains, our hearts are stirred by the Word of God, and we anticipate the wedding feast of the Lamb at the Eucharistic table. Then we are ready to go back into this dying world, this age of decay, to live as God’s redeemed people who are pilgrims, sojourners, and servants in this world of pain, while we are marching to Zion.
Could it be that the organized, institutional part of religion – the messy materiality of people and practices – is its beating heart? Oh, organized religion has gotten it wrong, and has contributed to its own unpopularity. It has taught doctrine as something to memorize rather than as the lived and living witness of a received tradition. It has taught the doctrine of creation as a proposition to be believed in against the backdrop of evolution, rather than a way of seeing all things in relation to God; a way of receiving, offering, loving, and living one’s life as sheer gift.
But when Hebrews exhorts us to meet together all the more as you see the day approaching it speaks to things like worship and prayer, gifts and offerings, cries, sighs, and tears – the messy materiality of corporate religion. Provoking one another to love and good deeds invites us into the inconvenient part of religion: like worshiping with other people, loving other people, doing good to other people, even if you don’t like them; even if you don’t feel like it.
I was reminded of this as I met the other day with a group of people planning a trip for political and religious leaders to the border to visit the caravans arriving there. As we looked at December 22 as the best date we discussed the disadvantages of doing it so close to Christmas. A rabbi friend said: ‘it’s also the last day of Chanukah. But we are living in crisis times. This is exactly the kind of thing we should be doing on Chanukah and Christmas.” He sounded like another rabbi we heard speaking outside the temple.
Finally, we have an example of being spiritual and religious in the person of Hannah in our first reading. Hannah was one of Elkahan’s two wives. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. God had closed her womb. Penninah used to provoke her year after year. Her life was in crisis because her future was in doubt. Hannah models a faithful response to the crisis: she weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the priests. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. Instead she presented herself to God. Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her, to remember her. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.
Maybe that’s what it looks like to be spiritual and religious. We don’t just pray in nature because that’s where we feel inspired. We pray in church, where all kinds of infighting and hypocrisy occur; where all kinds of stuffy doctrines are still taught; where they even ask us to make a pledge to support all of that. We pray within the frame of the old order as we ask God to do a new thing.