John 12:1-8 ; Colossians 2:15-23
I know it sounds strange to talk about “repenting religion.” But being religious in the wrong way can be a very great sin indeed. The Bible knows this; the ten commandments place idolatry and other religious sins far above lying, stealing, and coveting. But we also realize this from our headlines: fervent believers from every faith daily commit crimes against humanity in the name of God. And then there is the problem of abusive clergy hiding behind their robes and being protected by the churches.
It all can make us want to give up on religion. Couldn’t we just repent of being religious altogether, and just strive to do good without worship? That’s the question I’d like to bring to our gospel reading for today. Mary is clearly a very religious person. She shows her deep, pious devotion to Jesus by pouring out a very expensive ointment to anoint his feet. Judas is disgusted by it. “We could have sold that big bottle of Chanel no. 5 and given it to the poor.” Now Judas is not a very reliable guide. But he is raising a legitimate question: How much is religious devotion worth, especially when it comes at the expense of deeds of kindness?
Every church deals with such issues: how much do we spend on our sanctuary, our minister, our organ, as opposed to our outreach, our charitable acts, on the poor? At the far extreme, I can certainly imagine someone wanting to chuck church altogether and just spend all our time and effort on good deeds. And I can respect that. Religion is a very ambiguous part of our human reality. We should stop assuming that whenever people do something religious, or when they spend money on worship itself, they are always doing something good.
So a further question is forced upon us: what is worship for? What makes worship worth doing? Now, each of us has a variety of reasons for why we show up to worship services on Sundays. We might like the music, the fellowship, the sense of belonging. We might prize the sense of peace we get from worship, or the stunning insights we gain from the sermons. But why do we need all of this (…) to worship God? Supposedly God doesn’t need our worship. Couldn’t we just disperse and get together to do some good things in our community? Couldn’t we sell the incense (the censor was free) and the building and the fine pews and give the money to the poor? It’s a good question that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask (even if Judas started the whole thing).
Well, do you think we would continue to do as much good for our community, for the poor, if we closed shop? I wonder. Actually, I doubt it. Not that we should be resting on our laurels. I think we could do much more in our community. But not without the inspiration of worship. Take away worship, and there’s very little left in our culture which stirs our conscience and calls us to loving service. No outside institutions encouraged us to sponsor Cathedral in the Night; no one gave us aid or accolades for doing so. If what I’ve been saying in recent weeks is fair, than our political life and our economic powers pretty much encourage us to look out for ourselves, not others. But reigning over these powers is God, calling us time and again to love our neighbor as ourselves. I’ve never heard that from any advertisement or politician.
But let’s set aside whether we would continue to be as dedicated to service if we no longer worshipped God. Because worship of God is not valuable only because of the side effects it happens to produce, like making people more charitable. Worship has to be something valuable and beautiful for its own sake. How can that be?
One clue from the gospel: Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you.” That might sound callous. But of course in all other respects Jesus’ ministry constantly brought good news, healing, respect, and liberation to the poor, and he challenged the wealthy to sell what they had and give to the poor. If we can’t write off Jesus’ words as callous, then maybe we should face the fact that his words were true. We will always have the poor with us. Perhaps we resist and think it callous to say so because we persist in modern, utopian thinking that places total confidence in human progress to wipe out all woes: poverty, disease, ignorance, war. To be sure, that confidence is well-intentioned and has born some impressive fruit. But human misery remains and in some cases has increased. Putting such absolute faith in human progress can so easily become another idol, another false religion.
Jesus’ words, “The poor will always be with you,” are a frank admission of the inevitable suffering and injustice that accompanies life. We must struggle constantly against suffering and injustice, more than we already do, but we mustn’t fall under the illusion that we will finally prevail.
It’s significant that Jesus points out this simple, realistic truth as he is being anointed in advance for burial, facing his tragic end in Jerusalem. He wants his friends to treasure the brief time they have left together, as Mary is doing—not to lose the present, and the presence of God, for worrying about future accomplishments . He is teaching us how to live in the face of death. We must live for the future, and make great plans. But not at the expense of living in the present. And not under rosy delusions about the future. We rightly work for this church, but we can’t imagine that this earthly church could be eternal; someday it will pass. The United States, likewise, will not always be the superpower that it is. You know this, right? “What do people gain from all their toil? … A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” Ecclesiastes expresses chillingly the limits of human effort. It resonates with the central Buddhist insight called dukkha: all things are touched by sorrow and limitation. Let’s not obsess about our mortal limits; but if we are not truthful about life and its limits, our delusions will inevitably come back to haunt us. You can’t work honestly for the good under false pretenses. Perhaps that is why we began Lent with a simple insight: “From dust you were created; to dust you shall return.” We start at Lent a long process of future transformation with honesty about what we can expect.
Jesus is modeling that honesty for us. He was not hugely successful in his day, not like the messiah was supposed to be. The messiah was supposed to reunite all of Israel and perhaps all the nations under the reign of God. What Jesus had to show for being the messiah was a small band of loyal followers and a modest crowd of hangers-on. The contemporary Roman histories of Jesus’ day don’t even record his existence. With a solemn Mary at his feet, surrounded by this cloud of mournful perfume, Jesus is confronting his own earthly failure: the cross. He was no dreamy-eyed optimist.
The amazing thing is that in Jesus, God is embracing this very human, earthly reality: this dust, these feet soon to be buried. And because God embraced our earthly limits and remained united to our flesh until the very end, and even beyond, triumphing over the cross with new life, we who are united to Christ have a sense of purpose and meaning even under the shadow of failure and limitation. We have faith that God has said yes to this state of ours, has reclaimed it for the realm of God’s rule, even as God points us beyond what is mortal. Even under the shadow of failure and death, we know our lives belong to God and participate in the eternal destiny and mystery of God. We remind ourselves of this and take comfort and courage in what we must face, in each act of worship. There is a joy, a liberation, a transcendence, that we should and do experience in worship that goes beyond any of our mortal efforts to make the world a better place, even as it upholds them. The joy arises from God’s yes to our mortal life, but it culminates in our yes to God, our affirmation that God’s eternal reality exceeds ours even as our world is embraced by God.
Now as inherently beautiful and meaningful as this yes of worship is, this yes that transports us far above every mortal limitation, it doesn’t mean that we have to to spend a whole lot of time and money on worship. Mary’s costly ointment is not a model for our worship budget; it is a symbol that really, there is no equivalency between earthly expenditures and spiritual ones. The reality which worship opens us to cannot be measured or calculated. Indeed, one true taste of the eternal in the midst of time is enough to overcome all mortal pain and sorrow.
So there’s no need to become super-religious, fanatical in our devotion. We shouldn’t need to sacrifice what is earthly for the sake of the heavenly. Nor should we feel the need, as some fundamentalists do, to absorb all things secular under direct religious authority. Here’s where we can appreciate the majesty of the cross. The cross as our center upholds the absolute importance of worship. It assures us that God embraces even failure and death, and sin: nothing earthly is beyond God’s grace. But the other side of the cross is equally important: it also liberates us from the frenzy of trying to obtain heaven on earth, which might drive us to be desperately religious.
That seems to be what Paul is dealing with in our passage from Colossians. It begins where we last left off in Colossians three weeks ago, with the startling claim that Jesus on the cross “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” At the time we applied this insight to the tyranny of self-interested politics.
What Paul is specifically dealing with in his own day is hard to discern, but it seems that the Colossians have gotten too deep into some peculiar religious trappings. Their particular region, called Phrygia (in modern day Turkey), was known for its love of things exotic. So the Colossians were likely under the thrall of an elaborate, new-agey mysticism that stressed exalted spiritual states which were the result of mystical visions, extreme discipline, and speculation about the angels. This is religion in overdrive.
Paul sees right through all of this. Elaborate, obsessive religious mystery, with its severe discipline and pretense of humility (recall last week’s discussion of pride and humility), can indeed provide, as Paul puts it, “an appearance of wisdom” but is “of no value in checking self-indulgence” (he means being ego-centric). What Paul is saying is that very “religious” people can easily fall into the trap of becoming spiritual elitists. They can use religion to show how superior they are to the hoi polloi, us ordinary religious clods. The truth of Paul’s verdict is remarkably easy to spot in current spiritualist literature, not that there isn’t real value there too. Indeed, Paul feels no need to deny the reality of angelic orders and visions—he himself had mystical visions. He simply says, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” All of that stuff, and the rules that come with it, could be fine, so long as we see it as “simply human commands and teachings,” as Paul says. Otherwise elaborate religious piety ends up puffing up our ego—even when it insists on the importance of humility. Sin can indeed do its thing even in the most religious of trappings.
Jesus Christ has overcome all the vanity of religion, as far as Paul is concerned, precisely because of the fact of Jesus crucified. I think Paul’s reasoning is like this: the best of the world’s religion, Israel under God’s Torah, was not able to accept the kingdom of God in its midst, and even conspired to kill the one at the center of that kingdom. Jesus thereby proved human religion to be utterly fallible at best and an enemy of God at worst. Religion is severely judged on the cross. And yet precisely on that cross was God’s infinite mercy disclosed. Paul isn’t putting down Judaism as an outsider; he speaks from his own horrible failure, as one who persecuted followers of Jesus out of his very misguided fervent piety as a Jew. He knows first hand what happens when religion goes wrong.
Paul, and the cross, remind us that religion is always human, meaning that it is always fallible, always subject to God’s judgment and grace. Some people forget that simple truth today, and look to religion to escape human limitations. They expect the Bible to be inerrant, or religious authority to be infallible. We crave power and invulnerability. And so yes, indeed, religion can go very wrong.
But we can’t just do without it. I’ve made a case today, in too brief a time, for why we need religion, and worship, if we are to be honest about life in all its shortcomings. But we need the right kind of worship, religion that remains aware of its human shortcomings. At the center of all of this stands the cross. It is a profound and bottomless mystery to grasp. I wish it were simple. Mostly we have probably misunderstood the cross, or have explained it badly. But I ask you to trust the cross. There is a good reason that this is the only purely religious symbol in our sanctuary. Though we can so easily misunderstand and misapply the cross, it remains our true fount of wisdom, for in it all of the mysteries of God come into a razor focus. And in the cross all true religion finds its measure.