True Religion

+ A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on August 29, 2021 +

Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


This may not come as a huge surprise…but a lot of people these days are just done with organized religion.
It’s a pretty common opinion here in the heart of the “None Zone” where so many people report they have no religious affiliation.
It’s very prevalent among my own Millennial generation and Gen Z behind us who often have not even grown up going to church.
Often, they will cite all the negative things about religion—the rules, the exclusion, the hatred baked into our institutions.
‘Why would I want to be a part of something like that?’ they ask.

Now, as someone who has grown up in the church, who has trained and prepared to be a pastor, I often find myself defending organized religion—pointing out the good that we do, the lives we effect, the love and community we share.
But I must admit, at least twice in the past week alone, I too felt ready to chuck the whole religion thing out the window.

The first time was when I watched a CNN interview with people who were refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The reporter interviewed a woman who cited her faith in God to justify her decision not only to refuse the vaccine.
And she was convinced what her pastor had told her told her was true, that somehow her faith in Jesus would protect her not only from contracting this deadly virus, but from spreading it to her family and friends as well.
Which, by the way, corresponds with a slew of calls pastors and religious leaders have been getting this week, usually from people they don’t even know, asking for a religious exemption from vaccine mandates.

The second time was when a prominent leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke at Brigham Young University and decried LGBTQ+ students at that school.
He urged faculty and students to pick up their metaphorical muskets and defend the faith from those who are pushing for more inclusion and acceptance of the queer community.[1]
That they should fight to maintain the university’s distinctiveness in not accepting the changes and progress in the world around it.[2]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, queer BYU students noted a big uptick in hateful messages and actions following that speech.

After these two incidents this week, I have been left wondering: is this really what religion is about?
About being anti-queer, anti-science, and so focused on ourselves that we refuse to see the harm we are inflicting upon our neighbors?
What is the point of religion?

But really, this is nothing new, is it?
Throughout history, we humans have had a complicated relationship with religion.
We’ve used our religion as justification to colonize and enslave, to wage war and exclude, to force conversion and murder non-believers.
It can be easy to see religion as a detrimental force in our world.

But we also know that religion has inspired greatness and beauty in humanity.
We have healed, fed, housed, loved, and served each other.
We have created magnificent works of art, towering cathedrals, wonderful literature, and breathtaking music.
We continue to call for societal change, to save the earth from destruction, to bear hope that these things are even possible.

So perhaps we can say that religion is…complex.
In the words of theologian Debie Thomas,

“Religion has always had the power to elevate or ruin us. To make us compassionate and creative, or stingy and small-minded. To grant us peace, or stir us to war. If our past [or I would add, our present] teaches us anything, it is that we dare not treat our pursuit of God casually; the stakes are too high. What we profess and practice when it comes to religion really, really matters.”[3]

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus confront a group of Pharisees and religious experts who have accused Jesus’ disciples of getting religion wrong.
They ask why some of the disciples eat with “defiled hands,” or hands that have not been washed before the meal.
Now, to our ears this may seem like an overreaction, right?
I mean, “defiled” means to take what is sacred and make it profane, to make it dirty.
Sure, we usually wash our hands before a meal.
We’ve even made whole handwashing songs to sing during this pandemic to make sure our hands are clean!
But defiled?
That seems a little harsh, right?
But I think the Pharisees are concerned by an underlying question, an unspoken concern—how they will maintain their religion, their distinctiveness, in a changing world.

Remember that these are people living as an oppressed minority under foreign occupation.
That there is a cultural diversity surrounding them that threatened their identity.
For generations, the Jewish people were promised through an everlasting covenant to be a blessing to the nations, set apart and distinguished by their special relationship with God.
But now it seemed like all that was being threatened, that they might lose their identity, their heritage, even their religion as their homeland is taken over.

So it seems that the Pharisees have found an answer to hold onto that identity, to maintain their distinctive cultural heritage.
They looked to their traditions that had been passed on through generations, which included ritual hand washing before a meal, and declared them sacred.
That in these religious traditions they found a pathway to the divine.
That they could continue to set themselves apart as God’s holy people and exclude those who do not follow the same set of traditions.

Well, Jesus calls them out for what this is: religious gatekeeping.
Religion as separation and division.
Religious tradition maintained for distinctiveness alone.
Because, while Jesus does not condemn the hand washing the Pharisees cling to—the text tells us that some of his disciples did wash their hands after all—he denounces maintaining tradition for its own sake and declaring that to be true religion.
He quotes the Prophet Isaiah and says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Again, Jesus doesn’t decry the tradition itself, he laments what he has witnessed, how these people had set up systems of legalism and exclusivism in the name of religion, in the name of God.
That they had taken the law, a pure gift from God meant for the life and blessing not only for Israel, but for all nations, and had added their own human customs to it to turn this gift into a measuring stick, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out.
To set up their own rules on what made someone worthy of God’s love.

Jesus is clear that tradition and distinctiveness are not inherently bad—he and his own disciples participate in the traditions and customs of their people—but when we use these human rules and institutions to exclude, to condemn, to declare others outside of God’s love, they become idols and supplant our true religion.
The true religion, which our reading from James describes as that which moves us from mere hearers of the word into doers of the word.
That calls us to care for orphans and widows, to comfort those who are mourning and reach out to those living on the margins, to use our life to spread the love of God which we have experienced with the same reckless abandon that included us.
This is the true religion.
This is the purpose of our calling.
Not to exclude or judge, but to share the love of God with everyone we meet and use our life and actions to care for those around us.

Now I fully know how easy it can be for me to judge right now.
How easy it is for me to look down on these Pharisees, to look down on that woman on CNN, to look down on that LDS leader with scorn and judgment.
But as soon as I do that, I have to wonder: am I any different?
Am I not deciding who’s in and who’s out of the true religion?
Isn’t my religion grounded primarily in attending worship every week?
In maintaining the traditions of our Lutheran heritage?
Am I not also sometimes guilty of honoring God with my lips, but worshiping, practicing my religion in vain hopes of being applauded by others?
Who am I to determine the people who are doing it right and those who are defiling the pure gift our God has given us?

It’s a piercing question Jesus lays before us all this morning.
And I know how easy it can be to take that question and point out someone else’s failings.
But when the question is pointing at us?
Do we not also allow our cherished traditions to define who we are?
As we cling to our songs and our liturgies and the ways we have always done things?
As we focus on the past to guide us forward?
Do we not sometimes conflate our religion with maintaining what we have?
With meeting and rules and structures taking priority over loving and caring for our neighbors?
Do we not create measuring sticks of our own to judge whether someone is truly welcome in this place?
Whether they think like us, vote like us, worship like us?
But do these measuring sticks really help us determine who God loves, or do they just keep us comfortable?

Church is not meant to be a game of who’s in and who’s out, of setting up systems to determine who’s loved and who’s not.
And while our traditions and customs are not inherently bad, Jesus tells us that we should examine them to see if they are good.
That we should look to the fruits that we are producing, to what comes out our church, out of our own hearts, to determine if our religion is true and life-giving.
Because if we are producing the sour fruits of hatred and pride, exclusion and selfishness, our hearts are not as God intends them to be.

But that’s exactly why we come to church, my friends, that’s why we cling to religion—we are meant to be transformed in this place.
Our hearts are meant to be changed.
And if we allow the seed of God’s word to be planted within our hearts, to water that good soil in at the font and nourish it with the bread and wine at this table, we can help produce the first fruits of God’s new creation.
Fruits of inclusion and love.
Fruits of compassion and service.
Fruits of joy at seeing what new and fresh thing God is doing in our midst.
Fruits of true religion which God has invited us to participate in.

Jesus invites us to consider the questions he has laid before us this morning.
To use this as an opportunity to ask ourselves why were are here, what the purpose of this congregation is.
Do we come to church because that’s our tradition? That’s just what we’ve always done? Or do we come seeking transformation and to glimpse the new thing God is doing in our midst?
Do we come to church to continue in the heritage that has been passed along to us? Or do we come hoping to find the strength and courage to continue the work, to be changed from mere listeners of the Word to doers of the Word, allowing the love of God to flow from our every action?
Do we come to church to be somehow distinctive in this None Zone? To proclaim with our time that we are not like the culture around us? Or do we come to have our hearts transformed within us from instruments of division and hatred into instruments of compassion and love and unity?

At our best, this is what religion could be.
This is what religion should be.
And though we may easily fall back into our human inclinations, though we may cling to the rules and structures and traditions at the cost of our true calling, we know that religion is not a one-time deal.
That the church is not a celebration of the perfect, but a welcoming space open to all who are seeking God’s heart-changing presence in our lives.
So we come—each week we come—not because that’s our tradition, but because that’s our need.
We come to seek God’s word, we come seeking transformation and new life, and we come to be sent out again, proclaiming the expansive love of God which knows no boundaries, which refuses to be bound by tradition, which we never possibly contain, and to let that love flow through our whole lives in compassion and service for those around us.
And in that love, in that compassion, in that service, we find the true religion to which God has called us and which we strive our whole lives to embody.

[1] Fletcher Stack, Peggy. “Apostle Jeffrey Holland to BYU: Stop Aiming ‘Friendly Fire’ at LDS Teachings” Salt Lake City Tribune, 23 August 2021 (

[2] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Elder Jeffrey R. Holland Urges BYU to Embrace Its Uniqueness, Stay True to the Savior,” 23 August 2021 (

[3] Thomas, Debie. “True Religion” on Journey with Jesus, 22 August 2021 (

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