Religion

Thank God!

Of course, I’m not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18: 9 – 14), thank God.

Imagine being contemptuous, opinionated, judgemental, competitive, discriminating, excluding and (self-)righteous, and then turning up to church to worship God. It would seem God was far from impressed. No wonder! Who does he think he is, standing there emphasising his goodness and worthiness to God? Imagine! It seems like he is another one of these hypocrites that fill religious places the world over.

Yet, to be fair, is this not the world we inhabit… one where we are taught from earliest days to judge others by their failings and weaknesses; one that makes me a success because I am not like that – poor, weak, uneducated, incompetent…

Success is often viewed in terms of worthiness, material gain and the capacity to separate ourselves from those lesser than us and whom we don’t like; and, because they are less and we don’t like them, we believe God doesn’t value them or like them either. Nevertheless, even while trying to be fair, thank God, I’m not like that there Pharisee! He is really into some serious finger pointing!

If I am honest, however, it is probably true to say, I am like him and he is like me! I might believe I am, and want to be, more like the tax collector, but I know I can be more like the Pharisee.

So, the issue isn’t just one of a misplaced pharisaic confidence before God; it is about how that competitive focus manifested itself in his relationships with others who shared his world but not necessarily his outlook. His way of worshipping allowed the Pharisee an excuse to exclude those who were not ‘pure’ like him and I can’t help but wonder if he would have thought he was doing God a favour by pointing out the failings in everyone else, and especially the tax collector.

The Pharisee was living according to his own culturally set and false standard of purity which served to justify his separation from those who failed in living to his sense of religious rigour. Sadly, while so focused on seeing and naming the failings of those around him, he seems to have lost sight of his own sin, and therefore God as well. The condemnation he thought he was helping to bring on others was the condemnation he brought on himself instead! Thus, in the end, he came to be standing alone; worshipping himself, by himself.

If true worship engages head, heart and hands in a constructive and creative synergy of faithful living; then perhaps the Pharisee could be considered guilty of a false worship. He may have engaged his head and hands but he seems to have misplaced his heart.

In viewing the world around me, and in particular those different to me who stand afar off the church, I need consistently to hear with my heart rather than judge with my head and exclude with my hands. God does not stand afar from them. His view of success involves repentance and compassion. Here the shocking thing is for me that not only does he like them but he loves them as well, equally; even in their difference and lives of other religious rigour.

But, at least as good, his mercy and love can release me from my captivity to any false standard of purity and religion of exclusion.  As God does not stand afar from his world, and all in it, neither does he stand afar from me.  Indeed, God can never stand any further away, and never stand any closer, than the vacant cross which is eternally standing and welcoming home my soul.

For this, I can truly say, Thank God!

Amen, Lord, have mercy…

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Found and Lost? Lost and Found!

While heaven rejoiced, the religious muttered (Luke 15: 1 – 10).

What a sad and telling indictment on those who had at one time been lost themselves and now considered themselves to be found. How easy it is to forget the bewilderment, uncertainty and anxiety caused by finding ourselves in the place of dark, aloneness and disorientation. If any should have been welcoming the sinners and tax collectors, it should have been those who themselves have been lost but now rejoice in being found, held and loved with mercy and compassion.

So comfortable had they become, it seems, in their traditional righteousness, Jesus left them alone to fend for themselves, while he searched for those who had become detached and lost. This is an important theme. This was not Jesus telling stories about going out after those who had never belonged but rather seeking out those who had at one time been part of the community and now had been detached, for whatever reason (traditions, structures and attitudes of the religious?), from the faith and supposedly beyond grace.

Jesus offers two remarkably poignant stories of himself and his mission. There is the image of the shepherd going out after the sheep which has been lost, with which we are all familiar. Then, in addition, there is the image of Jesus as a diligent woman (a tax collector’s wife or mother?) lighting lamps and sweeping floors; perhaps an image with which we are less familiar. In both instances, the issue is that, while what was left was valuable in itself, so also were the ones that had been lost. Perhaps a further challenge was being highlighted which indicated that the whole was not complete without the lost being counted, found and celebrated as well.

Could it be, then the real indictment was that those who had been found had lost their awareness of the value, before God, of those who had become detached and lost. The lost were not so lost that they were beyond grace. The religious had placed a higher value on their religious tradition and practice and were in danger of becoming lost again themselves because they failed to value those whom God valued so much that He sent his Son to find them… us… me!

In the stories, the credibility, integrity and trustworthiness of shepherd and housewife alike are dependent on finding what has been lost. Could it be said, the credibility, integrity and trustworthiness of Jesus is also dependant on His search for the world which is never beyond his grace and, therein, finding the lost? Yet what of the church, wherein lies our credibility, integrity and trustworthiness? In muttering or seeking?

Upon finding that which was lost, the woman and the shepherd each invites friends and neighbours to rejoice with them. Maybe we should note, the religious are not included here. Yet, if we want an example of a real church plant, a new fresh expression of missionary joyfulness, then do we need to look much further?

Lord, have mercy…