“Increase in us true religion’: a sermon for August 31, 2020

Increase in us true religion

Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

August 30, 2020

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Increase in us true religion. 

I’m not sure if you caught that line from today’s collect–or if it caught you, as it were–but I am always hooked by this phrase each year when this particular Sunday comes round.  

Increase in us true religion.

Seeing as how last Sunday I reflected on my own resistance to a particular fundamentalist approach to the practice of faith–and the pesky tendency to fall into my own fundamentalist attitude toward certain things, I think it’s fascinating that today gives us an opportunity to reflect on this image of “true religion.”  What does this mean for us today, in our lives? 

The two texts we have this morning are incredible ones.  These two fascinating stories that invite us deeper into this reflection on what it means to increase in us true religion.

Notice first the story of Moses standing there on Mt. Horeb.  Remember that this was the same mountain where the text says Elijah hid in the cave, which we explored a few weeks ago.  As Elijah was hiding, he had this encounter with God in the sound of the still, small voice.  And now, Moses is here on this mountain, at which point the Angel of the Lord appears to him in a bush that burned but was not consumed.  

Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see…” At which point, God calls out to Moses from the bush.  When Moses paused and turned away from where he was looking and toward the sight, God speaks to him.  

God tells Moses that he will go back to Egypt and tell the Pharoah to release the Hebrew people, and Moses tells God that he needs to know God’s name.  Given that he is going to assert God’s power against the pantheon of Egyptian deities, Moses needs a name–he thinks.  

Instead of a name, God gives him a glimpse of reality.  YHWH, which is more of a verb than a noun in Hebrew, moving and alive.  “I am who I am,” God tells Moses.  Or, I will be who I will be.  Living, moving, dynamic, flowing.  With this insight into God’s very being, Moses returns to Egypt and leads his people out of bondage.  

It is a powerfully important story for us, in our practice of faith, as we explore what “true religion” means for us today.  

Next, we have the Gospel account from Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer greatly, that he will die, and that he will be raised from the dead.  Peter, the text says, “takes Jesus aside and rebukes him,” at which point Jesus responds to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan.  You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that this path will cost them greatly.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

These are remarkable texts, aren’t they?  Moses’ encounter with the dynamic reality of God’s presence, and Jesus’ teaching that a life of self-emptying and self-denial are the markers that best define the reality of discipleship.  So, what do they have to teach us about this prayer of increase in us true religion?

 It helps to look first at what we mean by “religion.”  There are, of course, many ways to approach this.  For many, there is a sense in which a religion has a certain cohesive factor within society.  It is a framework of beliefs and customs that give meaning to a group of people, families and larger communities, in relation both to God, or the deity or deities, and other people.  Indeed the whole created order.  Where did I come from?  How do I understand my existence?  Where am I going when I die?  This social cohesion and meaning making is very important, which we experience in times like this when so much in our lives is laden with tension, etc. 

The word “religion,” has its roots in re-ligio, which, you’ll notice has this segment “ligio,” the same root as the word ligament, which is the tissue that connects the skeletal structure within a body.  The ligaments hold together the bones, which support the body in its movement.  

This is helpful for us to imagine what “religion” means, because we can see how our religion connects the pieces of our lives, and connects us to one another and to God, in terms of our beliefs.  Ritual practices, doctrines or beliefs, and ethical behavior: all these are key components of religious practice.

Now, as we talked about last week, this fundamentalist orientation is always a temptation in religious systems.  We so easily slide into an absolutist claim that our particular interpretation of those essential questions of where did I come from, how do I understand my existence, and where am I going lead us to grasp so tightly on our framework that we forget the point of compassion and solidarity with all creation.  How many times in history has such a fundamentalist or grasping posture led to hatred and animosity–even violence–toward a group who imagined this meaning differently?  

Can’t we argue that ligaments must be the proper strength and flexible?  If they are not tight enough, we just flop all over the place and cannot stand up.  But if they are too tight, so rigid, our bodies are not flexible and we cannot walk.  We freeze up and fall over.  This is a problem, right?  

So, we have this image this morning of increase in us true religion and these remarkable stories which give us an opportunity to reflect more fully on our practice of faith.  

We have an important clue from Moses.  Notice that the angel of the Lord had caused the bush to burn, but the text describes how Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this,” and only after Moses turned aside from what he was looking at did God speak to him.  This is vitally important for us. 

Moses had a certain task that he wanted to do, a plan in place, and only after he turned aside from that agenda did God speak to him.  He was reoriented onto a new path.

This practice of self-denial is what Jesus picks up on in the Gospel text, of course, with the disciples.  When Jesus lays imagines a trajectory that deviates from Peter’s well-laid out agenda about what the Messiah should do, etc., Peter rebukes Jesus.  Peter cannot see beyond his own conception of how the world works, of what was supposed to happen.  

Jesus’ great lesson here is something that is deeply rooted in that encounter that Moses had on Mt. Horeb.  The authentic practice of faith is one that calls us outside of ourselves, our well-developed agendas and patterns, our grasping and desire for control.  

This is the danger in any fundamentalism, of course, that it is not really about an orientation toward God; rather, it is about maintaining our own sense of power and control.  At its heart, fundamentalism cannot tolerate a Spirit that “blows where it will,” because that Spirit may very well blow us somewhere outside our comfort zones, somewhere where our sense of safety and predictability, our sense of being in charge, of “knowing the truth,” might be expanded or challenged.  

Moses learned this all too well, didn’t he?  When he asked for God’s name, what he wanted was a name like any other name, something he could use to leverage for his own sense of power.  What he got was this glimpse of the dynamic reality of God’s own being.  

Peter also learned this lesson all too well.  When he tried to correct Jesus and bring things back within the confines of what was to be expected, Jesus calls out Peter’s adversarial position (remember that ha satan literally means “the adversary”) and challenges him to see a wider perspective.  Jesus’ invitation is definitely not comfortable, because it challenges us to see how we are called to lose our lives in order to gain the true life that Jesus offers.  

So, in the end we are still left with this image of increase in us true religion.  And we are challenged–again.  We are called to wonder how God is calling us to see something we have not seen.  We are convicted to recognize how our impulse to grasp and constrict chokes off the Spirit’s movement in our lives.  

I wonder this week if you might reflect on this question, letting this challenge of “true religion” continue to work on your heart:  what am I being called to turn away from, so that I might see more of God’s dynamic presence in my life?  What have I grasped onto too tightly, that may be choking off the potential for growth in my life?  What new horizon am I being called to see, with my vision expanded by the Spirit’s call?  What bushes are burning around me, waiting for me to see them?


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