Matthew 21:23-23; Philippians 5:2-11
Religion is a rope that consists of three strands. Those strands are the spiritual, the institutional, and the moral. The spiritual strand includes the things like prayers, worship, rites and rituals that people associate with the divine, called by whatever name. The institutional strand encompasses all the structures, buildings, systems, hierarchies, rules and regulations, that maintain, regulate, and control the activities of the religion. The third component of the rope is morality: setting boundaries, mediating relationships among people, and differentiating between right and wrong behavior.
A perennial problem is that, no matter what the religion, folks tend to confuse these things. For example, those invested in the institution frequently equate loyalty to the institution with moral uprightness, with the result that those who are detached from institutional religion are seen as flawed, bad, wicked, or even evil. And sometimes those who have a moral passion for justice, for example, look down on those who withdraw to pray, imagining that they are less than they ought to be because instead of slogging it out for rights and liberties for the masses, they are busy going to masses, saying their prayers, and generally not very much helping to right the wrongs of the world. Likewise, those who think that religion is fundamentally personal and is about doing whatever one finds personally rewarding are quick to miss the very powerful force for social change that sometimes religious institutions can effect, change that can be quite difficult to make if one is disconnected from an organized, focused religious community.
Jesus ran into a good bit of this tendency to confuse one strand of religion with another. He appeared overturning apple carts all over the place, calling accepted behavioral standards and institutional practices into question. That did not go down very well with the religious establishment of his time any more than it would today. When he began to suggest that those who were outside the religious community, labeled immoral by the religious authorities, were actually more responsive to God than were the religious authorities themselves, he was inviting trouble—and he got into plenty of it. Today’s gospel lesson is a vignette from that conflict that very much defined Jesus’ ministry. “Who gave you the right….?” “By what or whose authority are you doing these things?” These are questions that come straight out of the heart of the institutional regulation dimension of religion. There is a good bit of evidence that Jesus was not unsympathetic to institutional religion in general—after all he was a rabbi teaching in the temple in this very story. But what seems to have driven him nuts, so to say, was that the institutional crowd had gotten morality all backwards. Hence his little parable about the two sons. One refused at first to do the will of his father and later changed his mind and complied. The second agreed to do what was asked and then reneged on his commitment. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” If you had to throw an insult into the teeth of the religious establishment, that would be the line you would use.
Most Christians, whatever their favorite strand of religion, imagine that they are doing exactly what Jesus would approve. But the question for us today is what is the new frontier to which Jesus’ power is pulling us? Into what new age is Jesus calling us? Not everyone will answer that question the same way. For some it will be immersing themselves in the battle for justice and equality. For others it will be helping people to find their center through prayer, meditation, bodywork, or mindfulness. For others it will be healing, or educating, or building, or art, or comedy, or parenting, or organizing. The list is endless and includes things that have to do with one, two, or all three strands of religion or maybe a dozen or a hundred things outside any of the elements of what we usually consider to be religious.
So what, then, is the Center? What pulls us together and holds us in community? I can think of few other places where the answer is better articulated or more obvious than the one you have already heard this morning. “Let the same mind in you,” wrote Paul to the Philippians, “that was in Christ Jesus. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
If there is anything that the Church needs today it is not to argue which strand of the rope is superior to the other strands, but to see what the rope itself is for. It is not God, but it is the thing that gets us into contact with the living God. Ironically, it is not holding on to the rope, and certainly not to just one or two strands of it, but letting go of our grip on the rope or any of its parts. Or at least holding it so lightly that we can follow where it leads rather than have our hands be blistered by gripping what we hold too tightly. It is, in short, following our Master, our model, our hero. It is having in us the mind that was his, that emptied himself and embraced physicality, acquiesced to death, because the most godlike thing he could do was in fact to be an honest human being, living life with integrity, even if it meant dying on a cross. That is why his name is above every name, and why at the name of Jesus every knee bows and every tongue confesses him Lord. Well, not every knee bows nor does every tongue confess. But the knees and tonguest that do belong to those who know that the center, the focus, and the whole purpose is in fact to come to the end of our rope—exactly what we are afraid of—where we will find ourselves totally surprised to be not tied to the rope, but tied to nothing, free as the God who made us.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014