Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: "Fed Up With Religion" (Luke 13:10-17)

In today’s story from the gospel of Luke, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue.
Jesus was familiar with formal houses of worship: synagogues and temples. As a child, his parents took him to the temple in Jerusalem every year for the festival of Passover. And growing up, Jesus went to the synagogue every week on the Sabbath.
On the other hand, a lot of Jesus’s teaching seems to have taken place outside formal houses of worship: beside a lake, on the road, or from a mountain. And as we read through Luke’s gospel, the formal houses of worship seem to become, for Jesus, a place of confrontation, rather than a place of prayer.
In today’s story, he’s teaching in a synagogue, on the Sabbath, when a woman who had been crippled for 18 years appears. Her body is so broken that she can’t even stand up straight.
When Jesus saw her, he knew she came seeking hope, seeking relief, seeking wholeness. Jesus knew that the synagogue was the right place for that. Religion, he knew, is supposed to restore the one who is broken to wholeness. Religion is supposed to heal the one who is sick. Religion is supposed to help people re-discover a life of wholeness, of meaning, of purpose.
Religion, Jesus knew, is meant to reconnect people to the One who is Love and Compassion, the Giver of Abundant Life. Religion, he knew, was about finding oneself in God, and finding the presence of God in oneself.
Jesus called the woman over, and said to her, “dear woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And she was restored to wholeness.
That is what religion does, when religion is done right.
Religion restores people to wholeness. It sets them free. It takes away whatever it is that pushes down on people’s shoulders and makes them unable to stand.
Religion, when it’s done right, helps people stand tall.
Unfortunately, some practiced their religion very differently.
As soon as this woman stood tall and started praising God, the leader of the synagogue marched over.
He was not happy.
For him, religion was about enforcing the rules.
For him, religion was about letting people know when they’ve made a mistake.
And this woman had obviously made some mistakes. She had obviously sinned. Why else would God have afflicted her with such a terrible ailment? Her ailment was God’s punishment for her sin, and yes, one could work to make her well, but not on the Sabbath.  That would be in violation of the rules.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done! Come on those days, woman, and be cured, but not on the Sabbath day!”
Jesus was, for the most part, an even-tempered kind of guy. When people like the woman in the temple approached him, they may have been in awe or even in fear of him, but with a soft smile and reassuring word, he put them at ease.
But the one thing that did get Jesus riled up, over and over again, were those who mis-used and mis-interpreted religion: People who made religion an obstacle to wholeness rather than the pathway to wholeness that it was meant to be.
And that kind of obstructionist, legalistic religion – religion that placed a weight on people’s shoulders rather than removing that weight – Jesus was completely fed up with.
“You hypocrites!” he exclaimed. “If your ox or your donkey is thirsty, do you make it wait until the Sabbath is over before you give it some water? No! You untie it and lead it to the water so it can drink.”
“Why then should this woman, who has been bent over like this for eighteen long years, be forced to wait a single extra day to be set free and restored to wholeness? Why shouldn’t she be set free on the Sabbath day? That’s what religion is all about!”
And all those who heard Jesus rejoiced. They, too, had become fed up with religion, and this new take on religion was a breath of fresh air.
Sadly, there are people today who are suffocating on religion, desperate for that same breath air that Jesus brought into the synagogue on that day. Because religion today is still used to push people down by adding burdensome weight to their shoulders, rather than lift them up to freedom and wholeness.
And so very many people today are becoming fed up with religion.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m one of them.
I’m fed up with religion that denies the goodness of each and every person’s identity and their expression of that identity.
I’m fed up with religion that claims to be pro-life, but actually makes it so very hard for people to live.
I’m fed up with religion that says some people are better than others, that some lives are worth more than others, because of race or sexual orientation or religion or their status as an immigrant or refugee.
I’m fed up with religion that supports violence against others, religion that supports armed resistance when Jesus said the use of weapons was not his way.
I’m fed up with religion that has sold itself to a political party, backing that party at all costs no matter how contrary to the way of Jesus that party or its leaders have become.
I’m fed up with people telling me they can no longer believe, that they have lost their faith, because all they have heard from religion are words that grind people into the ground rather than lifting them up to life.
I’m fed up with all this; and when I read the Bible, I see that Jesus is fed up, too.
It’s not just this story we heard today. Take a trip with me through Luke’s gospel…
In Luke chapter 5, Jesus eats with those who have been shunned by religion – tax collectors and sinners – and the religious leaders condemn him for it. He also heals a man on the Sabbath, and is condemned for it. Well, he’s fed up with religious leaders who stand in the way of healing and wholeness.
In Luke chapter 7, Jesus eats dinner at the home of a religious leader. A desperate woman, uninvited, enters and wipes his feet with her tears. His host grumbles at this, but Jesus knows that helping her find her way to wholeness is what religion is all about.
Our story today is from Luke chapter 13… In chapter 14, Jesus again eats dinner at the home of a religious leader, this time on the Sabbath. A man appears who is in need of healing, and the religious leaders grumble… but Jesus heals him.
In Luke chapter 15, Jesus is back to eating with those who have been shunned by religion. The religious leaders grumble about this, but Jesus is so fed up with them that he tells them not one, not two, but three stories about finding and welcoming what is lost, including a story about finding and welcoming back a lost son.
In Luke chapter 16, Jesus sees that the religious leaders are more concerned with the temple treasury than they are with restoring people to wholeness, which prompts him to declare: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” And the religious leaders, who are described as “money-lovers,” sneer.
In Luke 18, there is a parable about two people who go to the temple to pray: a religious leader who takes pride in his holiness, and a sinner who comes seeking wholeness. Jesus condemns the leader for his hypocrisy, and praises the sinner.
In Luke 19, Jesus goes to the home of Zacchaeus, a man considered a sinner by the religious leaders. They tell Jesus not to go, but Zacchaeus is seeking wholeness in his life, and as Jesus says to those religious leaders, his purpose is “to seek the lost and restore them to wholeness.”
By Luke 20, Jesus is really fed up with the religious leaders. By this point he’s explained to them over and over again what religion should be about, but they still don’t get it. So he tells his followers: “Watch out for the religious leaders. They seek honor for themselves and but cheat those who are vulnerable.”
Of course, the religious leaders aren’t happy with Jesus, either. In Luke 22, they have Jesus arrested. He refused to play by their rules, and they were determined to put an end to it. They had him arrested, and turned him over to Rome, which had its own concerns about Jesus. At the very least, he was stirring up excitement, inciting crowds among the Jewish population, and who knows where that would lead? So Rome had Jesus executed by crucifixion.
At that point, it seemed that things were over. His followers disappeared, went into hiding.
And since this whole conflict was over the role of religion, one wonders what God’s opinion on all this was… With Jesus dead, it appeared that God had sided with the religious leaders.
But then God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God showed whose version of religion was proper and good. In the resurrection, God showed his approval to Jesus and everything Jesus stood for.
Now, it needs to be said that all this disapproval of the religious leaders wasn’t because they were Jewish. Many Christians throughout the centuries have said that it was because they were Jewish.
But Jesus was Jewish, too. This wasn’t about one religion verses another religion. It wasn’t about Christianity being better than Judaism.
It was a conflict Jesus had with the leaders of his own religion, over the proper role of religion.  Judaism wasn’t the problem. The problem was the religious leaders who completely misunderstood what Judaism was about, and what it was supposed to do.
In the same way, what I’m fed up and what so many people are fed up with isn’t the Christian religion itself, but the way Christianity is presented by so many Christian leaders.
Because we know that the way of Jesus is about finding wholeness.
We know that the way of Jesus is about being set free and standing tall.
We know that the way of Jesus is about living the life you were meant to live.
And it is SO IMPORTANT that we proclaim this to the world. Don’t you think?
So many in our society only hear that religion is about rules and burdens and putting people in their place.
So many only hear that religion is about judgment and condemnation.
So many only hear that religion is about defending our way of life, without asking whether or not our way of life is in line with how Jesus would have us live.
To all those who are FED UP with religion, we say: that’s not what it’s supposed to be about.
You’d think that, after 2,000 years of following Jesus, the church would have a better understanding of this, that we’d be better at proclaiming Jesus’s message of wholeness and healing to the world.
But you know, there’s no better time than NOW to start proclaiming this message to the world.
So let’s do it.
In our conversations with others, when religion comes up, let’s be the first to say, THAT’s not what religion is about; THIS is what religion is about.
In the things we share online, let’s let the world know that our faith is about bringing wholeness to a fragmented world.
In the compassion we show to our community when we feed the hungry or collect clothing or talk with elected leaders about how to help the homeless, let’s show the world what TRUE religion is really about.
Because, like Jesus, we are FED UP with the way religion has been practiced and presented in our world. It’s time to show the world a new way. It’s time to practice our religion the way Jesus practiced his: with love and compassion for all people, lifting people up, removing from them the burdens that have been placed upon their shoulders, so that all people can stand tall and live their lives to the fullest, as God so deeply desires.

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