The Problem with Religious People

The problem with “religious people” – like us – is that we can become judgmental. We value our belief in and relationship with God. We treasure the forms of worship and service which we believe have nurtured that relationship. And we just can’t understand why those “other people” don’t join us in all that.

Now that’s OK as long as it simply becomes a motivation to share our faith with others and even seek to persuade them that there is something unique in the Christian faith which might be good for them and make their lives richer and fuller and help them face the difficulties of living (and dying) with greater courage and comfort.

The problem is, our zeal can become judgmental, if we are not careful. And we can pretty quickly turn into people like those Pharisees and scribes in today’s Gospel who criticize Jesus for hanging around with some of those “other people” by saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and (even) eats with them!” (Luke 15)

Or we can find ourselves – like the Psalmist today – calling those “other people” who do not share our faith names. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”—says today’s Psalm…”Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one!” (Psalm 14).  Well, that’s seems a little strong! EVERY ONE is faithless? NO ONE does good? Come now!

Jeremiah can even find a way to put words like that on God’s lips in our First Lesson today. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.” (Jeremiah 4)  Does that sound like the God you have come to know in Jesus Christ?  I don’t think so. And here’s why:

Because Jesus answers those judgmental Pharisees and scribes by telling a little story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

No judgmentalism there, is there? Not even any apparent anger or frustration about that little lamb which wandered off and probably endangered the others when the shepherd went off to look for him. Just joy that what had been lost was now found!

Well, we know at least one person in the earliest days of the Church’s life who knew just exactly how that little lamb must have felt. His name was Saul. And he had been chief among the Pharisees and the scribes and the “holier than thou” religious types so quick to find fault with those who disagreed with him.

So ready was he to condemn the outcasts and sinners with whom Jesus ate that he held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen to death for trying to follow this same Jesus.  So quick was Saul to agree with the Psalmist that those who didn’t seem to believe in God the way he did were “fools” that he dragged Christians out of their house churches and had them arrested.

So ready was he to assume these new Christians were “stupid children” who had no understanding that he was riding toward the city of Damascus to continue his murderous rampage when he was knocked off his horse by a vision of the Risen Christ who said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked ‘who are you, Lord’ and the reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:4-6)

Decades later, this same man, now known as Paul was given credit for these words, “I am (so) grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

“ But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.  But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, make me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (I Timothy1:12 ff)

Dear friends, that is the attitude, the perspective, the self-image Christians are to have! Not to criticize others. Not to call them names and assume the worst in them. Not to be so sure that we are absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong in everything. But – like Paul – to be “grateful.” Grateful that God cared enough about us to leave the ninety-nine, to find us, and to bring us home!

Grateful that he has called us – no matter who we are, or what we may have done in this life – to be disciples and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  Grateful that even though we are sinners (perhaps even, in the words of Paul, “foremost among them”) God is merciful…and patient…and infinitely forgiving. Because “gratitude” is the strongest motivator in the world for a life of genuine commitment and perfect service to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

And just in case you’re having a hard time today thinking of anything to be grateful for, I’d like to close with one of my favorite contemporary prayers right out of our Book of Common Prayer. In fact, I’d like to have you pray it with me. Please turn to page 836 in the Prayer Book…stand…and let’s pray together

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us.  We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

5 Responses to “The Problem with Religious People”

  1. rwk Says:

    I do not concur with you dismissal of the words of Jeremiah. You seem to be picking and choosing that which God called Jeremiah to speak and that which Jeremiah did not speak prophetically. The actions of Jeremiah and the words of Jesus Christ are not mutually exclusive and well within the roles of each. Jeremiah was sent to proclaim to the nation of Israel their folly. The message was clear…and ignored. The message was as much for our benefit as theirs. Jesus spoke God’s words of redemption and had plenty of harsh words. To focus on just the lost sheep would be to take from God the completeness of His word.

  2. Christopher Epting Says:

    I’m not dismissing the “words of Jeremiah.” I just don’t agree that they are words God “spoke.” Nor do I dismiss the frustration even the Holy One must feel for our disobedience (see sermon on “The Wrath of God”). I just don’t think God calls his children “stupid” even if Jeremiah does.

  3. JB Says:

    If wisdom is following the Lord and His instruction, then Jeremiah and the Psalmist are both right to call us fools and full of folly for chasing after our own ways rather than His. Jesus’ instruction to the Pharisees is about the response of God to the “fool” who returns to the Lord (and displays true wisdom) and their obligations (at which they have failed miserably) as His appointed shepherds. Rather than isolating themselves and patting themselves on the back for their holiness, they should have been reminding Israel to love its neighbor as itself and to help the widow and orphan.
    I am always dubious as to those who claim to be able to pick and choose what God meant to say, though I do credit you the logical consistency of thought (being able to discern what God said and what is filler) which allows those in the Episcopal church to bless remarriage (and in some cases divorce), to accept as clergy men and women who reject the Resurrection or to repent of cover-ups, to say nothing of the GLBT agenda in the church.
    If He had a hand in their composition, it seems reasonable to think He had a hand in their editing and preservation. Plus, we have those pesky problems where Jesus uses the same word when describing the man who tore down his barns and built bigger ones to provide for His future when His life is demanded that night, the man who builds His house on sand rather than rock, the foolish virgins, and the like in the New Testament as well as the Old. The judgment being pronounced by a prophet of God should have shocked those who initially heard it and caused them to repent. Similarly, it ought to shock us as well and cause us to consider whether we are acting as wise men and women or foolish men and women in our lives when the prophets and the messiah use such words to describe people like us and behaviors which we ourselves tolerate as acceptable but He rejects.

  4. Christopher Epting Says:

    Yes, well Jesus also says, “…but whosoever shall say, Thou fool,shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22c) but that’s the problem with proof texting our sacred texts. It doesn’t get us anywhere.
    You and I are in agreement that our God and his prophets have every right and responsibility to challenge, and even judge us, for our foolish ways. I was simply trying to make the point that we must be ever vigilent not to think we are the judges of others. You might give that a little thought, given your comments about my church.

  5. JB Says:

    You are correct, we are told not to judge the eternal state of one’s soul. That is a job left to Him or to Him and His angels, and in no place did I say that you or anyone else in your church is condemned to hell or heaven for that matter. We are instructed, however, in how to tell false prophets and teachers from those whom He has sent. But the text that you cited further illustrates my point and is not an example of prooftexting. When He judges souls, He does so incapable of error, just as when He speaks, He speaks truth, whether we want or choose to hear it. If He calls us fools or enemies or any other “names” in Scripture, churches and individuals ought to be very careful in rejecting that holy judgment.

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