Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Brooks Ramsey
Memphis, Tennessee
September 3, 2000
The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

When Religion Becomes Real
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey

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

The queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, and one day she put him to the test. She brought artificial flowers so perfectly formed that no human eye could detect them from real flowers. She put them in a vase on Solomon’s table, in his throne room next to his flowers. As he came in, the queen of Sheba is reported to have said, "Solomon, you are the wisest man in the world. Tell me without touching these flowers, which are real and which are artificial." It is said that Solomon studied the flowers for a long time and spoke nothing, until finally he said, "Open the windows and let the bees come in."

There are ways to tell the artificial from the real—let the bees come in, they will know where the real is. If we live with the authentic Jesus long enough, we will recognize the artificial when we see it.

You see this test of what is real religion and what is artificial religion is something we all have to deal with in our hearts every day. The challenge to Jesus came from his adversaries as they looked at his disciples and saw that they did not ceremoniously wash their hands before they ate. I’m sure the disciples came in hungry, and they probably forgot to go through the entire ceremony. I’m sure they washed their hands before they sat down to eat, but they just didn’t do it in the right way. The ceremony of the cleansing of hands had to be done perfectly. Everyone would raise his or her hands, fingers pointing heavenward, and someone would pour a basin of water on the fingers and the hands until it covered the wrists. To get that water off, one would form a fist with one hand to wipe the other hand off, and conversely. But this caused the fists to be contaminated by the impurities in the dirty water. So the person would have to turn their hands downward, fingers pointing toward the earth, and someone would go through the ceremony of pouring water all over the wrists and the hands again.

It had to be done in the right way, and so the form became more important than the content. To those criticizing his disciples, Jesus said, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God to follow your own traditions." What is real, and what is not real? That’s the test.

Paul Tillich, who has taught me as much about theology as anybody I know, spent part of his last years teaching in the Orient. While there, he compared the religions of the Orient with the philosophies of the Orient. His great burning question was, "What do all religions, all major religions, have in common that are essential to their being, without which they cannot be a true religion?" He thought about Buddhism and he thought about Zen; he thought about the philosophies of the East and compared that to Christianity. He came up with the conclusion that there are three things common to all religions.

First of all, there is a sense of reverence, awe and wonder; a sense that you’re living in a world where something bigger than yourself controls your life.

Secondly, there’s a prophetic challenge in all major religions. That is, we have to try to change the world and make it better. Every major religion is trying to make the world a better place to live.

The third thing common to all major religions of the world, according to Tillich, is an ethical understanding of life, a reverence and a prophetic challenge, unguarded by ethical teachings. With these three we have the basis of true religion.

Jesus, I think, would have echoed these words. I think the essence of Jesus’ teaching was really an expression of all of these things. First of all, he recognized that his adversaries were not standing under the authority of God. Their reverence for God was not the controlling part of their life. They were controlling God to maintain their religion. God was not there to be followed in His commandments. God was there for them to manipulate so that they could preserve their way of doing things, and so God was too small.

J. B. Phillips wrote a book many years ago, when I was a young minister, called Your God is Too Small. I think for many people their God is too small, and that controls the way they approach life. Someone once said, it doesn’t make any difference what you believe, just so long as you believe in God. I disagree with that. It depends on what kind of God you believe in. I know some people who believe in a God of vengeance so wrathful, that He’s out to destroy everyone who doesn’t fit a certain mold. He is not the God of love. He is the finger-pointing God, as Marcus Borg said. Our view of God determines how we view what is the heart of our religion. Do we have a God who stands above us and who has the power to control our lives?

Reinhold Nieber once gave the Gifford lectures in Scotland. The story is told – they say it’s a true story – that attending these lectures was a woman who made her living taking in washing. (The lay Scottish people have an extraordinary interest in theology.) She sat enthralled as he gave the lectures. At the conclusion, as they walked out of the church, someone asked her, "What did you think of Mr. Nieber’s lecture?" In her Scottish brogue she said, "I didn’t understand a word he said, but he surely has a big God."

You know, there are a lot of things we don’t understand, but is our God a big, big God? My conviction is this: Religion will not die on the day when it is refuted by the arguments of its adversaries. Religion will die on that day when it becomes dull and monotonous and insipid, when it loses the radiance to permeate our life with warmth and love, beauty, truth and joy. The heart of religion is that reverence for that God.

Prophetic challenge, Tillich’s second main tenet of major religions, was also very evident in Jesus’ teachings. If you worship tradition, if you do what the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to do, you would have locked God’s movements into the past. Traditions would have governed everything in present day reality and in all future years to come. Traditions would have been everything. Jesus said traditions are important, but they are not to be worshipped. If you use tradition as an escape from life, you will not challenge the world as it is. You will not see the hunger and the poverty. You will not see the bigotry. You will not see the fierce hatred that exists among
peoples and nations. You will not be out there working in that world to try to change it. The heart of religion is that we have something to do in the world. It is a dirty and needy world, and the person who is not willing to do that does not know the religion of Jesus.

Uncle Joe was a hundred years of age. This happened 30 years ago. There weren’t a lot of people were reaching a hundred then, but Uncle Joe had. His small-town newspaper sent a reporter out to interview him on his 100th birthday. After talking to him for a while, the reporter said, "Uncle Joe, you’re a hundred years of age. In your lifetime you must have seen a lot of changes." Uncle Joe looked at the reporter and said, "Yup, and I’ve been agin’ every one of them." There are some people who see religion as frozen in the past, not something that challenges us to face the problem of the day.

The third thing common to all major religions, according to Tillich, is ethical understanding. The moral code began with the Levitical books. In the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, you can ferret out 613 direct commandments telling you how you are to eat, what you are to do, how you are to walk, how far you can walk, how you are to worship. You can find a rule that covers everything in life. Only those rules don’t fit us very well today. They were panicky understandings of what religion was all about. If I followed all those rules, I would have to start an anti-catfish eating society today in Calvary Church, because that is forbidden food in the Levitical laws. You can’t eat catfish. That would change the Sunday menu for some of you, wouldn’t it?

Six hundred and thirteen laws, but the people began to say, "That’s not what God is interested in." We read today in the 15th Psalm, "O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?" Who shall dwell in the house of God? Who will stand there? That’s the question. And you will find that the psalmist had reduced those 613 laws into 11 guideposts telling us how to live, how we are to approach God, the essence of good religion.

But then, if you follow on to the Book of Micah, that wonderful prophet, he writes, "and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Those 613 laws and regulations have just been reduced to three simple commands—do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. But Jesus reduces it even further when asked, Which is the greatest commandment? (They must have been thinking about some of those 613.) Which is the greatest commandment? And you know what Jesus said? "You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength. You will love God as the first and the greatest commandment, and the second is like to it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself." All of those 613 laws have been reduced to just two—love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Paul the apostle caught an understanding of what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Love is the fulfilling of the law." You don’t have to worry about law if love fills your heart. The movement of God is always the movement toward love. God is love, and wherever you find God, you find love, and wherever you find love, there God is in the midst.

When two human hearts move closer together in love, God is always there. It’s a wonderful thought about marriage. It’s a wonderful thought about parenting. There is no authentic religion without compassionate love. That’s the heart of it.

Someone asked me after the 7:30 service this morning, "Tell us how to love." I said, "That will be my next sermon." But it all begins with an attitude—compassion. Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and do not care, do not care. . . It begins with an attitude of caring.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, was one of the great spirits of the Christian faith. The Roman Catholic Church banned his books for many years because they believed that his scientific studies contradicted Biblical teaching. They condemned his books and did not let some of them be published until after his death.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was also a great scientist, believed that every movement in the creation of the world was a movement toward love. It captures what Paul said. "The whole creation groans and travails waiting for the redemption." There’s something in life that’s moving toward redemption, toward redemptive love. Teilhard believed the spiritual movement was the spiritual movement toward love within our hearts, and if we follow God, we’re always going to move to that Omega point—the ultimate realization of the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of love.

Listen to these powerful words from Teilhard:

If we’re not paralyzed by the lack of faith and the lack of audacity, then the day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tide, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, human beings will have discovered fire.

Let us pray. Eternal Loving God, may the religion of Calvary Church and the religion of our hearts be that which will help ignite the fire of love in our world. Amen.


Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church


Psalm: 15
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach againsts their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved. NRSV

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees,
and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions."

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