Tag: refugees

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.

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Walking Together

Offertory prayer on Ruth and Naomi

Merciful God, you have told us to go the extra mile and to pledge to one another ‘Where you go, I will go.’ We pray today for all who seek safety and ask you to use these offerings to provide places of refuge. Bless us with the strength to walk with our neighbors and strangers in their journeys questing after you. Amen.

Entering Holy Space

Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Not a stone will be left on top of another.

Our buildings provide no security. Our buildings will not save. We saw this with the September 11th terrorist attacks. Buildings, which we thought immovable, crumbled to the ground. Planes we thought ever secure turned into weapons. Places we thought lasting… ended.

And our lives, our reality, was never the same.

Buildings do not save us.

So we cling to our institutions.

Institutions, structural ways of doing things — the government and the police, the firemen and women, nurses and doctors — rules and laws! – the rules that say who is a combatant and who is a civilian… our communities, our churches…

But institutions do not save us.

Civilians watched the marathon in Boston. Civilians were ripped to shreds. Civilians attend our movie theatres and civilians are shot, in the dark, unarmed.

The institution of our military is no more of a guarantee of security. This year we have seen soldiers shooting soldiers at base. We have seen civilians trying to encourage the enemy to murder our soldiers by posting the soldier’s own home addresses online… go and murder their wives, their sons, their husbands, their daughters.

Race crimes, religious hate crimes, sneak into our churches and shoot pastors – shoot them while they minister and preach. Shoot parishioners as they come and go. Set bombs in churches and murder little girls as they go to Sunday School just because they happen to have black skin.

No. Institutions do not save us.

Do we have any security at all?

Are we in the End Times?

I mean, are we?

Two nights ago, I watched the development in Paris with a group of friends. We tweeted and IM’d international friends. And for a moment, a miscommunication told us that suicide bombers were also attacking in Germany. I don’t know who said it, but I heard, “My God, we are next!”

Fear fell over the room and settled in my stomach. This wasn’t something happening ‘over there’ somewhere far away, this wasn’t any threat to me… this might be happening somewhere in America… what if it happened at midnight here, too?

A fear I hadn’t felt in… fourteen years… made my dinner sour.

I had forgotten that feeling.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I had. I am ashamed because I know that fear of ‘am I next?’ ‘where is safe?’ ‘where are my loved ones?’ ‘are they safe?’ is known daily in the countries many of these terrorists come from. For the refugees fleeing these counties in the Middle East, and Africa, are fleeing terrorists.

Just like you and me, they want their children to be fine. They want to be able to go to work, go out to eat, go see a movie and not worry someone is going to murder them randomly, just because they are standing there. Murder them regardless of their ethnicity, their religion, their citizenship, their institutions, or who they are… who they are leaving behind… what good or evil they have done… just purely random acts of utterly evil violence.

… And we’re causing some of this fear ourselves.

Dear God, forgive us! Forgive Americans. Our drones are not as accurate as we’d like to think, and our targets are not as well chosen. We Americans are terrorists too — in the effort to protect ourselves, we have murdered Middle Eastern people who are ‘too tall’ and so might choose to join the military, or who were related to someone we thought might harm us, or who had the misfortune of standing beside a school that secretly was a hide out of extremist fighters.

Fear, counter fear, secret attack and revenge secret attack, and caught between the warring nations are moms and dads, babies, grandma and grandpa… who all want the same thing: a peaceful, happy life.

I ask again, is this the end times? Is the apocalypse nigh?

As if the failure of our security systems, our buildings and governments, checkpoints and vigilance, wasn’t enough… as if the terrorists were not enough… the Cold War is returning, bit by bit… you may have seen how Russia is now showing their nuclear arms and warning America. You may have seen how America is testing missiles off the West Coast.

We have wars, rumors of war, nations rising and falling… Jesus also warned us of natural disasters.

Global climate change is so very real – the climate, all over the world, is changing. Our west, they are in a drought that seems to have no end. Around here, we’ve had such cold winters and hot summers — all over, when it rains, it rains harder and floods…

The sea has rose eight inches in the last one hundred years, which may not seem like much… until you look at a place like Vienna, or Florida, and realize these very flat places are slowly sinking into the ocean… and we have 8 less inches of drinkable ground water all over because the ocean is sneaking in. This week, with the glacier in Iceland sliding, we have no idea how many more inches we’ll gain this and next year– not in hundred of years — but in months…

And for the 30th year in a row, world Co2 levels, the chemical that works like a wool blanket over the earth, has grown. With each day, each minute, this thick blanket gets thicker… how thick can it get before we cannot breathe?

In places in the Middle East and India, it is already too thick… and temperatures there rose this summer to the level that the roads literally melted.

What can grow, what can survive, in 140 degree heat?

Are the end times here?

Jesus’ disciples wanted to know the same thing. The author of Hebrews was writing to the early Christians, who wanted to know the same thing. Look, look at how horrible things are — surely they cannot get worse! Surely these are portents, these are signs from God, these are telling us to prepare and get ready.

The audience of these old texts saw horrible things happening. Think: their country had been invaded, and their leadership replaced with pawns from the occupier. Their holiest place, the Holy of Holies, had been desecrated twice now… and by the time of Hebrews, it was desecrated a third and final time… the temple, the only place to go and worship God, to be in the presence of God who lived behind the veil which the most holy high priest approached only once a year — on the day of Atonement for the nation’s sins — that most sacred spot was destroyed. The priests murdered. The area used to make offerings to other gods. A statue of Caesar was scheduled to be erected there for the people to worship.

Because of their faith, or their rumored faith, or the supposed faith of their third cousin – people were being dragged out and murdered.

A Roman citizenship was the difference between instant death without a trial – as in the case of most of Jesus’ disciples – and death with at least a hearing… as in the case of Paul.

When the readers of Hebrews secretly gathered, illegally gathered, to speak about Jesus… they took their lives and the lives of their loved ones in hand.

And they retold the words of Jesus, “Do not be alarmed.” And they recited the words of Psalm 46, “Be still, and know I am God.” And they read pastoral letters, like the letter to the Hebrew Congregation which reads, (to paraphrase The Message) “Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps God’s word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping each other out, let’s keep worshiping together and not give up, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”

Instead of asking, “Is this the end?” and losing hope… the early Christians looked how to preach the gospel, and be the good news, and give their lives for God. They knew the covenant, the mutual promise, between them and God was wrote on their hearts.

And that covenant is God’s love for us, and our love for God.

As things got worse and worse, instead of hoarding up ammo and turning away strangers — lest they be spies, the enemy, or another bothersome mouth to feed — these Christians kept meeting together. Kept at their faith.

When Jesus’ disciples ask when the Temple would fall, Jesus didn’t answer. He didn’t give them a sign. Instead, he told them — you’ll frequently think this is it — the end is near. But it won’t be.

There will be wars.

There will be natural disasters.

There will be false prophets.

But this won’t be the end.

In fact, Jesus never tells them WHEN the end will be. He tells us his return will be like a thief in the night — something we never see coming. If we knew the thief was coming, we would have been home with some friends to scare him off. But we don’t know, and we cannot know. Jesus tells us that God alone knows. Not even angels. Not even those who have passed on before us. Only God knows.

For centuries, millennia, this has proved true. So many people believed the Black Death was the End Times. WWI was called the War to End All Wars — as in, after this, Christ’s peace would rule the world. With the A-Bomb, and the Doomsday Clock, we saw our end looking us in the face. We see this now — see how fragile our existence is. See how very mortal we are. See how nothing we build, nothing we create, nothing on this earth can fully protect and save us.

And Jesus’ advice for these centuries, these millennia, is to let God worry about when the end is. Our job is to encourage one another. To love one another. To forgive each other. To do loving deeds.

Be still… and know… I am God.

Be still… and trust… I am God.

Be loving… and do not be afraid… I am God.

Did you know the Bible says “do not be afraid” in some form or another more than any other phrase? Some count 365 times, others count 103. Followed by Jesus telling us 125 times in four books — just the Gospels — to love others.

Whether or not it is the End Times is not for us to know. We can’t know. If history is a teacher, this year is no more likely the end than 1346 when the Black Death swept Europe. It is no more likely the end than 2220 will be… but we can’t and we don’t know.

Our God tells us not to be alarmed, not to be scared, not to be thinking of all the possible ‘what ifs’ and to hide, to avoid others, to be scared of the stranger, to be scared of what tomorrow will bring…

No… our God says love me, and love each other.

Love carries us through… for God is love.

Let us end in the prayer of David in Psalm 56:

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

My brothers and sisters, what can a mere mortal do to us? We live IN holy space, we live in Jesus Christ.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 11-15-2015

Is There Worthless Religion?

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Do you dare to turn on the news lately? Do you dare to listen or read the stories coming out of Southern Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa?

There is a migrant crisis, so it is being called. These common words obscure the horror of what is actually going on. The civil war in Syria, now four years strong, has displaced millions and millions of people. Ten million, as an estimate in March, are fleeing ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State is associated with the horrors of Boko Haram, and chemical warfare, suicide bombers in the middle of mosques, churches, and temples, and public beheadings.

These ‘migrants’ are refugees. Every day people, Jews and Christians, Muslims and athiests, who are fleeing the take-over of the Islamic State. For those pushing the Islamic State are not normal Muslims – but a group teaching that the end of the world is nigh, and they must found a state under ancient Muslim laws since God is watching and soon to send the final prophets. Since the end is near, and this is God we are dealing with, life is valueless. Compromise is not wanted or needed. All must obey the super conservative particular form of Isalm they teach, or one must die.

This is a modern day crusade. Just like when Christians went out and did the same, in both cases anyone who speaks of tolerance, of caring for the weak, of making peace are branded as heretics and murdered. Just like when we had crusades, religious wording, religious after-death promises, and talk of the end of the world and return of God’s full reign on Earth fuel people into a frenzy where new levels of violence seem okay now.

It is so easy to conflate one militant religious group with a whole religion. But just as most Christians back in the dark ages didn’t go on Crusades, and most Christians today say the Crusaders killed a lot of innocent people… so too, most Muslims do not support the Islamic State. Most of our refugees are Muslims themselves, seeking freedom from war, from fanatical military extremists, seeking freedom from the Islamic State.

… More people are displaced and seeking safe harbor from this conflict than were displaced and fleeing Nazi Germany in WWII.

… let that sink in.

There are more people who need safety now than in WWII.

Are we going to be like our grandparents, our grandparents, or ourselves in WWII and ignore those who plea for help? America ignored the plight of those Nazi Germany was destroying and taking over until Pearl Harbor. We even turned away ships of fleeing Jews. And where was there help at all for the gypsy, the homosexual, or any other category sudden chosen to eradicate? Today there are people begging for help, any help, to get themselves, their children, away from another militaristic, fanatical group.

James, the little brother of Jesus, writes to other Christians about pure religion and worthless religion. He isn’t talking about comparing Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims… James is talking about comparing each person with themselves. In our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, in our actions… are we followers of a pure religion or a religion that is impure?

How to we measure if we are on the right path?

James says we must be quick to listen. Quick to hear the stories of other people. Ready with open ears to hear their perspective. So often when someone begins to say something we don’t like, we formulate, we think of, how to argue against them while they are still talking. This clogs up our ears so we can’t hear what they actually are saying. Instead, says James, just listen. Don’t think of a counter argument. Just listen deeply. For instance, today, when I mentioned refugees and migrants, and ISIS, you may have begun to close your ears. You already have thoughts and opinions on these issues. No need to hear more. James says listen anyways, for you may hear something new.

Then, after listening, think. It’s okay to take time to think, or formulate what you want to say. We don’t have to fill every silence with noise. Sometimes, in the pauses, in the silence, there is a moment for God’s soft voice to speak. In the pause, we can think about what we know of the topic at hand — what we already know about ISIS from the news — and compare it with what the person we’re listening to has just said. Do they match? Is there new information? In the pause, we can consider what we feel. What emotions does this topic bring up in me? What emotions does it bring up in the speaker? Are these emotions because of the topic, the speaker, or something else?

Today, talking about ISIS likely made some angry. Some uncomfortable. Others bored. Others scared. Others felt helpless, or overwhelmed, or confused. I think we each felt many different emotions. James advises we let anger be our slowest emotion. The one we hold back so we can consider all the others first.

“Your anger does not make God right.” James writes. In other words, you are not the one to judge. God knows right from wrong, God does as God will, without you putting your two cents into it. God doesn’t depend on us getting our noses out of joint for God to know about a situation.

So we can take a moment to think. To ponder. To try to understand. And we can take a risk in trying to understand someone who we think is not ‘right’ with God… because we don’t get to judge that. God does. We can set our fear and anger, judgments, aside, and be present now to the person before us.

… We don’t have to decide how God feels about Muslims.

No… says James… don’t worry about the judgment of others. Instead, focus on judging yourself. Go to a mirror and look at yourself. Study who you are.

How do I feel about Muslims?

How do I feel about people fleeing war?

Why do I feel angry?

Why do I feel scared?

Humbly look at yourself, says James. Humbly accept the Word of God and how it points out both how deeply we are loved, and how much sin we still carry. Look in the mirror. Look and don’t flinch. Look and don’t admire. Look and honestly see.

Each of us have good points and bad points.

It is not weakness to admit our bad parts.

It is not vanity to admit our good parts.

It is honesty.

When we know ourselves, it is much easier to know others. Especially those who are from different cultures, different countries, and/or different religions. When we know ourselves, we feel secure to interact with those who’s very existence, who’s very viewpoints and world-views, challenge our’s. When we feel secure in who we are — secure in the good things and bad things about ourselves — we are not threatened by those who are different.

So the sight of a woman wearing a head cloth, a hijab, chador, or other head covering doesn’t make us uneasy. Instead, we can respect for her having enough faith to keep to her religion even when it makes her stand out. We ought to respect that! We, too, teach that a faithful person is heavily pressured to blend with culture which often is at odds with being faithful to God. We are secure in who we are, and so not threatened by someone who is different than who we are.

Indeed, we may have more in common with that faithful woman than someone who isn’t wearing a sign of their faith. We both likely read holy scripture, attend worship services, and are concerned about being a good person. I can’t say that about most of the other people I see during the day.

So James, says, keep open ears. Be ready to listen.

Take reflective time. Thinking time.

Be slow to judge. Slow to respond in anger.

So that you are secure in who you are. We know who we are.

And with these, we are ready to take God’s word and get into action. If we did all this work and didn’t do anything, our faith would be worthless says James.

Worthless!

Now, I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to find something that is worthless. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Everything can be re-purposed. I have a friend who’s mother is the queen of re-purposing. For example, she took outdated refrigerator magnets, cut them into squares, put them into old square makeup cases, and now has a purse-sized sewing kit. The magnets hold the needles in place. Each one has a different color of thread for emergency clothes repairs. She’s incredibly good at re-purposing.

Yet James goes as far as to say that our religion is WORTHLESS if we work and work at it, do all these steps of self-reflection, of listening to others, of knowing the word of God… and do nothing.

Worthless… because although we know much, we have lied to our hearts. Worthless because although we looked at ourselves, we forgot who we are the moment we stopped looking. Worthless because all that work led to no action.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God,” writes James, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Religion that is worth something is religion that cares for people in need. Orphans and widows had no political power, no way to make a honest living, and were outcasts. Refugees have no political power, no way to make a honest living, and are outcasts. People who are weak, who are desperate, who are suffering are people who we, as Christians, as the followers of Christ, are supposed to care for. Supposed to look out for. Supposed to say, “We may be really different, but that’s okay. You need help. Let me help you.”

James ends this passage by saying we are to help without being stained by the world.

You don’t need to become Muslim to help Muslims.

You don’t need to think Islam is great to help Muslims.

You don’t even need to Islam is ‘okay’ to be neighborly, to be Christian, to be friendly and compassionate and loving.

A religion has worth when its message and its deeds match up. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” What we do tells people what our faith says. Our faith says what we do. When all of this matches up, aligns, we are testifying to the great goodness of God. We aren’t sending mixed signals. Aren’t preaching peace and then shooting death glares at strangers. Aren’t preaching welcoming in the outcast and then telling the outcast to go home and leave us be.

Jesus’ words in Mark are on the very same topic.

In this scene, some of those who follow Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Now, all conservative Jews to this day wash their hands before they eat. So the highly educated and the conservatives went to Jesus and said, ‘Hey, you, Mr. I’m So Holy- if you’re so holy, how come your followers aren’t washing their hands, like the faith elders told us to do in the past?’

Jesus answered, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” You teach human rules as if they were rules from God.

The commandment of God, as we know later, is to love God. The second is like it – to love one’s neighbor.

Neither of these is about washing hands. Washing hands, a very good thing to do, is still a human teaching. Sometimes, out of love, one can’t wash their hands.

Sometimes, out of love, we have to ignore the good teachings around us to do the best teaching – the commandment of God – to love. So… sometimes this means associating, being around, being nice to people different than us. It means being loving to refugees and immigrants, whether they are here legally or not. It means being loving to Muslims and Christians, whether they think like us or not. It means being loving, being neighborly, being kind to all.

Jesus tells the crowd about him — what you touch and are around outside of yourself does not contaminate, does not defile, your inside. Your core, your soul, your heart — that can defile its outside.

To tie this with James, then, Jesus is saying that if your soul is healthy and happy, other people can sense it. They see it in your deeds. You bless people just by being present. But if your inner core is unhealthy, unhappy, evil… then you defile people just by being present. You spread the deeds of theft, murder, breaking trust, being greedy, lying, being sleazy, speaking badly about others, acting stupidly, acting too prideful, and using your sexuality in a way that hurts yourself or others.

So one who has paused to know themselves, to be at peace with themselves, does not have to fear or be angry with those who are different. In their hearts in the commandment of God — to love. Their religion is pure because they know love, and act loving.

But those who don’t pause to know themselves, or don’t learn from that self-reflection, have a lot to fear from and be angry about with people who have different faiths and ways of doing things. They say their religion is love, but they don’t know love, and so they don’t act loving.

I ask today – does your religion have worth? Does it make you stop, think, ponder, reflect, and then take action? Does your religion challenge you to be better?

If Christianity has become easy, then we are deceiving ourselves. Acting loving is hard. Being Christian is hard. Every person has to work at following the examples of Jesus. Our reassurance is that we do not do this work alone. We’re all in it together. The Spirit is there, guiding us. Jesus is here, leading us. God is here, beckoning us.

“Every generous act of giving is from above,” to paraphrase James, Every generous act we receive is a gift from God. Every time we are generous and kind to others, people receive glimpses of God.

May we, in the words commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ in Baltimore, Ohio, 8-30-2015