Dirty hands, real God
Proper 18A 2014
A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard
About every year or so a new quiz seems to appear on the Internet claiming to tell you what religion you should be. The first one I remember was the Beliefnet Belief-O-Matic back in the late 90s, but there are many examples, and I’ll bet several of you have taken one.
If you haven’t, here’s how they work. You click through and the quiz begins with a message like “Let's figure out which religion, if any, best suits your beliefs.” Then it asks you a series of questions about what your current opinions are, for example, “what do you think happens after death?” and “Do you prefer a religion in which people participate in rituals?” and “should roles for women and men be the same or different?” And then it spits out the name of an organized religion that more or less reflects what you already think.
Now taking online tests like that is fun, and posting your results is fun, and it might give you good results for some kinds of faith groups, I’m not really sure. But the underlying assumptions of this kind of test are 180 degrees off from, certainly, any Christian way of approaching spiritual life, and more particularly any Anglican way of approaching spiritual life, and my guess is probably from the Jewish way as well, though I would want to let someone from their community make that call.
What underlying assumptions am I talking about? Number one, that religion is about ideas. About what you think. Your opinions. And number two, that the normal way to engage with religion is to find one whose ideas you already agree with.
I can’t speak for any other faith groups. But for Christians, these assumptions are so off base that once you make them, you probably can’t end up with a recognizably Christian conclusion. ....
If religion is about ideas and opinions, then it has no meaningful input to give to the majority of your daily experience. It can’t make a contribution to most of who you are, because you are not merely a collection of abstract ideas. You have a life, at least I hope you do.
And if whatever you worship just affirms everything you already think, and has no right to challenge or correct you, then you’re simply worshiping yourself. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we call that idolatry, and you may have noticed that it is extremely popular.
Why are these assumptions so off base from a Christian and Anglican point of view? Well, let’s start with our book, the Bible. Is it full of things we already think that encourage us to put our trust in our own opinions? Not at all. Every time we open up the scriptures, we encounter passages that clearly don’t reflect what we already think, but that seek to introduce us to a God with the right to challenge and correct anything and everything about us.
Well, what about ideas? Is this Bible of ours full of lists of concepts and principles? Again, not at all. Every time we open up the scriptures, we encounter over and over passages that are not about ideas, but about events and experiences. Every time we open up the scriptures, we encounter a way of approaching the world that, unlike bloodless ideas, does have a tremendous amount to contribute to the majority of our life and experience.
Look at today’s lesson from Exodus. One of the key, foundational moments in our history -- the Passover, God’s liberation of his people from bondage in Egypt and into a new life shaped by him. What does it sound like? A lamb recipe. A lamb recipe and a lot of stage directions. “On the tenth of the month, take a lamb for each family, a lamb without blemish. …. eat it roasted with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Over the fire, not boiled. Eat it with your sandals on your feet. Eat it in a hurry.”
It gets even weirder than that. God tells them after they kill the lamb to take the blood – the blood! Sticky and full of bacteria and a major risk for cross contamination – the blood! and swab it all over the doorposts of their houses. Now I want you to picture this process. Do they catch it in buckets? Hold a cloth under the animal’s neck and wipe the doors with that?
However they do it, it drips, of course, and gets on their clothes, and the family dog comes over and licks at the puddle near the doormat. The smell of lamb roasting is in the air and blood is everywhere and the kids are running around and Dad’s trying to find his sandals before the meal because apparently it is important to the Creator of the Universe that he be wearing them.
Now listen, if we’ve been a part of a church for awhile we can probably protect ourselves from all that real human complexity. We can protect ourselves from the experience by simply jumping to ideas: “oh, yes, that’s just the Passover story, yes, we read this same lesson at Maundy Thursday, it’s a symbol of the Lamb of God….” But don’t. Don’t jump yet. Stay with the actual text.
This text is strange. If you haven’t been part of a church growing up, as is increasingly common, that will be immediately obvious to you. If you have been, you may have conditioned yourself to ignore the fact. But look at what’s actually there. It’s strange. Much of the Bible is strange. Pretending it’s not strange, or picking out a few parts of it that sound like what we already thought before we picked it up, is not the best strategy here.
Unless you want to avoid God and avoid having him affect your life. In that case, it’s an excellent strategy.
See, this is how God gets at you, not through sanitized religious ideas but through the meal and the blood and the bitter herbs. And the stories we tell about them. Our experience of God, as Christians, is most supremely through the Incarnation, through the event in which God became flesh in Jesus -- and then as ripples out from that event, more broadly, the Christian experience is that the place God regularly acts is in real, ordinary, physical stuff in the midst of real bodily lives and experiences.
That’s where God gets at us. That’s why as Anglicans we have sacraments. It’s why we smear oil on people and ask everyone to drink and eat when they show up. It’s why we sometimes have incense and once a year have ashes. That’s why as Anglicans instead of just leaving people to what they already think, we teach spiritual practices that change how we approach time, and change how our families gather, and change what we do on our lunch hour or when we go to bed.
That’s why we have beautiful and complicated things to look at when we worship, why as Anglicans we might put an icon on our desk at work or carry prayer beads or set a timer on our smartphone to ring when it’s time for Noonday Prayer.
It’s why we’ve been known, as Anglicans, for things like getting all the members of our parishes together once a month to clean up neighborhoods, or for involving groups of laity in running urban community gardens. That was us, this past month, in the Washington Post; we were the ones in that article about the growing number of Episcopal parishes whose families are making time to spend evenings with the homeless in laundromats.
At our best, Anglicanism is the church where everyone regularly gets their hands dirty. Sometimes with oil and ashes, and sometimes with fertilizer or the laundry of some homeless guy. Why are Anglicans like that? Because we believe in the Incarnation. We’ve figured out that this is where God gets at us.
What we value isn’t principles abstracted from our sacred texts, it’s the action of God to give himself to us through these texts. What we value isn’t a list of ideas about God, but how God is acting in our habits and daily engagements. What we value isn’t reinforcing what we already thought before we knew Jesus, it’s letting his presence interactively show us what’s real and how to live.
Is this strange? Yes, it’s just about as strange as this text from Exodus. It’s not what most people think about when they think about religion. And an online test is certainly never going to spit it out for you as a result. But if you’re brave enough to try and let God get at you, I have no better strategy to recommend.
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