Proper 17 – Year B
One of the things a person faces when they move somewhere new—not speaking from personal experience, of course—is that she knows that her influences will change. For example, in North Carolina, I used to get up at 6 a.m. a few times a week to run with my dog, Ben, before heading to Morning Prayer and school. I loved the quiet time in the morning, it felt like I was alone with my university—no one was around when I would pound down Chapel Drive and I could enjoy the gothic towers by myself. I’d been living under the shadow of Duke for almost a decade and I could hardly imagine life without them. Knowing that I’d graduate soon and move somewhere—who knew it would be a move to other Gothic towers—the lonely runs were all the sweeter.
The first Saturday that we lived in our apartment, I hoped that keeping to my early running schedule would provide some familiarity and make the jarring transition a bit smoother. I eagerly woke up at 6 a.m. and laced my running shoes. I grabbed the leash and we were off. Except, as you well know, a 6 a.m. run on Wydown, even on a Saturday, is not a quiet, lonely, soulful experience. There are myriad other dogs, runners, bikers, and walkers—I wondered if I’d read the time-change wrong.
If you’ll allow me a bit of a stereotype, I think you’ll see my point: around the southern-cuisine-soaked North Carolina paths, I was a standout, I was bucking the norm. Around active Missourians, I was at most, the norm, and more likely, I was trailing the crowd. In the last months, my influences have changed.
In the same way, our relationships influence how we think, and how we talk, and how we behave. We not only pick up other peoples’ way of talking, but we pick up their habits, good and bad, and we pick up their perspective on life and belief. Some of it is peer pressure, and some of it is just how we humans work—we mimic those whom we like and with whom we spend a lot of time.
Jesus longs to spend a lot of time with us, he longs for us to be changed in our speaking and habits, and in our belief by spending time with him. He says, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Song of Solomon is a curious book in the Old Testament, and its original purpose was probably as love poems between two human lovers. It is still instructive to us in that meaning, but our God, author of all good things, provides more than one level of meaning in his Word to us, and today, he says to you in the words of this poem, get up from where you’re seated, stagnant, and move with me. Follow where I am leading you, hold my hand and let me be your companion—spend your life’s journey walking with me, and let me be the most significant influence in your life.
What God invites us to do in the Scripture reading this morning is the same exact thing that we prayed for in our opening collect this morning. We said, “graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” We’re echoing what God has already said to us; we are praying that our desires would be aligned with what God desires for us.
This prayer acknowledges that we need God’s grace even to accept the offer he gives us to arise and come away with him. We need God to develop in our hearts a love for him, we need God to plant and grow the seed of true religion, we need God to nurture goodness in us, and we need God to bring these changes to bear in a transformed life, evidenced in new God-centered perspectives and behavior and language.
So what does it look like when God is doing all this work on us? The collect calls it “true religion.” By implication, we’re only capable of false religion on our own—which might be another name for what the Pharisees were up to in the Gospel lesson, fastidiously washing their hands and their kettles, careful to not allow anyone, especially Jesus, to influence or change their well-defined religious practice.
“Religion” has become a touchy word in our culture, it carries baggage of intolerance and carries the whiff of meaningless but complicated rules and regulations. But if we think about the way that we use the word “religion” in our daily lives, another meaning, perhaps a more faithful one, emerges. Consider: “she religiously packs her lunch.” “He gets up at 5 a.m. religiously in order to run.” “That family does yard work every Saturday religiously.” These more everyday uses of the word refer to habits, and most often, to good ones, at that. Religion, then, must be about our habits and the things that we do that hold our lives together. So what makes our practices, our habits in our relationship with God, “true”?
Throughout the Bible, God reminds us that he desires obedience, not burnt offerings, and he wants us to be of the right mind and heart, not of the right clothing and mannerism. We humans continue to worship in ways that Christians and Jews have for centuries because we know that it is not all about what we think is trendy in 2012, but what Christians throughout all of history have discerned about how to be faithful through their own lives of prayer and habit. We are joining in the habits of the Church by worshipping this way on Sundays and throughout the week. Part of how we know what true religion is is from looking back at what faithful people who spent at least as much time, if not more than we do, in God’s presence, allowing themselves to be transformed by him. We know that there is wisdom in old generations, and we should listen, both to the voices in the Bible, and the voices of saints throughout the centuries. The Church is so much larger than just St. Michael and St. George, and larger than the Anglican Communion, and larger than all the Christians living in the world today. Our history tells us some of what true religion looks like.
As we’ve been considering passages throughout Scripture this morning, we’ve found that we can also see some of the shape of true religion through Scripture. The Pharisees are a cautionary tale, for example, and the disciples are sometimes shining examples and sometimes illustrations of mistakes we ought not make. The Old Testament shows us through the Hebrews how God communicates to his people, of whom we’ve become a part, and how we can best respond to God’s call. Scripture also details God’s ultimate call to us—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We are shown by example exactly how it is we can grow in true religion by mimicking and habitualizing Jesus’ words, attitudes, and behavior. We are invited into true religion by our Baptism following in the footsteps he trod to the river Jordan. We encourage and submit ourselves to God for growth as we seek the Eucharist every Sunday, just as Fr. Andrew & Fr. Jed have explicated in the past weeks.
Finally, God inspires our minds and pricks our consciences as he draws us to himself and continually makes his invitation. It is a lifestyle of habits that can be painful and difficult at times, and is almost always inconvenient to our lifestyles in this culture, but deep down, we know that it is the way of everlasting life—it is the true religion.
Perhaps a way of rephrasing God’s invitation to you this morning can be found in a modern-day love poem:
Baby, why don’t we just turn that TV off?
Three hundred fifteen channels
Of nothing but bad news on
Well, it might be me, but the way I see it
The whole wide world has gone crazy
So baby, why don’t we just dance?