Religion Becomes Real
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 Solomons 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 reallet 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. Im sure the disciples came in hungry, and they probably forgot to go through the entire ceremony. Im sure they washed their hands before they sat down to eat, but they just didnt 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? Thats 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 youre living in a world where something bigger than yourself controls your life.
Secondly, theres 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 doesnt 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 Hes out to destroy everyone who doesnt 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 its 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. Niebers lecture?" In her Scottish brogue she said, "I didnt understand a word he said, but he surely has a big God."
You know, there are a lot of things we dont 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.
challenge, Tillichs 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
Gods 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
Uncle Joe was a hundred years of age. This happened 30 years ago. There werent 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, youre 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 Ive 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 dont 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 cant eat catfish. That would change the Sunday menu for some of you, wouldnt it?
Six hundred and thirteen laws, but the people began to say, "Thats 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? Thats 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 commandsdo 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 twolove 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 dont 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. Its a wonderful thought about marriage. Its a wonderful thought about parenting. There is no authentic religion without compassionate love. Thats 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 attitudecompassion. 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." Theres something in life thats 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, were always going to move to that Omega pointthe ultimate realization of the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of love.
Listen to these powerful words from Teilhard:
Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church