“As If” Religion

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Carl, Spitzwig, Ash Wednesday

Our church calendar follows the rhythms of life and helps keep us focused and grounded in our faith. We don’t need to follow it slavish in order to appreciate its gentle, cyclical, rhythm. We’re creatures of habit and it’s good to develop habits of the heart that inform our lives and our relationships.

The season of Lent is a time of recognizing our personal failures to love and care for others as well as the injustice we’re part of as American and global citizens. Our adult Sunday school class was recently struggling with how we’re complicit in things like the global arms trade and drone strikes. Our tax dollars help support such things and we need to recognize that we benefit in some ways even as we suffer from them in other ways.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German church leader who was killed by the Nazis, especially recognized that we’re all guilty simply by being part of the larger society in which such atrocities and injustices take place. His succinctly made the point by saying, “All of us have dirty hands.”

The problem arises when we try to bury all this stuff and pretend it’s not there. The prophet Isaiah addresses that head on (Isaiah 58: 1-12). He says it’s time to raise a ruckus. Shout! Don’t hold back! You can go to church on Sunday, give to your favorite charities, and even be involved in civic religious events. None of it will amount to anything if it’s an exercise in “as if” religion that pretends we’re being spiritual even while we oppress others.

Isaiah contrasts such religiosity with authentic spirituality rooted in God’s purposes. He uses the Hebrew word mispat, which is best translated as “covenant peace and justice.” The purpose is having the whole creation restored to its divinely intended wholeness. It’s not an idealism that slips into religious abstractions. Instead, it’s grounded in the intimacy of personal relationships.

In case we miss the point, Isaiah provides a whole list of examples: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

So how are we doing? Is our church practicing authentic spirituality or “as if” religion? Are we practicing a little bit of both? Sure, we fall short and there’s always room for spiritual growth. The season of Lent is a reminder of that. But if all we do is confess our sins it becomes another form of “as if” religion. Lent is ultimately about our commitment to follow Jesus in the way of sacrificial love and compassionate peace and justice.

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