Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
What is pure and undefiled religion? What is religion? You might be surprised to know that this latter question is one that is much debated among contemporary scholars of religion. There’s an overwhelming consensus that what we in the west call “religion” and which we distinguish from other areas of life and culture, is very much a modern western concept that has been imposed on other cultures and peoples. So, for example, there is no term for religion in the languages of India, and when the British Empire came to the subcontinent, it categorized a certain number of activities and practices as religious and defined Hinduism as a religion.
No doubt you find it odd that I might begin a sermon by questioning the term religion. It very likely is, but as many of you know I was a professor of Religious Studies for fifteen years before becoming a full-time parish priest, and as a teacher and scholar, I was very much interested in the way scholars and ordinary people thought about the material I was teaching and studying How we as a culture define religion has an enormous impact on how we organize society and its institutions, how we negotiate among competing claims and values (think “church and state” for example, and how we regulate individual and community behavior. As individuals, how we define religion for ourselves, shapes not only our self-understanding, but helps to shape our identity as individuals and members of larger groups, and where we place our ultimate trust and value.
When I taught Intro to Religion, I would usually begin the first day by distributing to the students a handout with around 15 definitions of religion, derived from theologians and scholars of religion, anthropology, and sociology. It was an exercise intended to get students thinking about this cultural activity we call religion, and to challenge the way they thought about it. So, for example, the image posted above, the scene outside the church today, where we have a shrine erected to Wisconsin’s true religion.
I know this sounds all terribly abstract, but let me point out something important. The word “religion” in the verse I quoted a few minutes ago actually means devotion or worship. That puts a rather different spin on things, doesn’t it? “Worship that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for widow and orphans, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
That translation may be more puzzling than clarifying, because to us in the 21stcentury, none of that, caring for widows and orphans, or maintaining purity from the world, sounds like worship to us. Ethics, morality, maybe, derived from prior religious beliefs, but certainly not worship. I’d wager that when most of you heard that verse the first time, you got all excited, because James confirms the views of most progressive Christians. What matters is justice, outreach, advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, challenging new immigration policies, all of that.
The terms pure and undefiled, even unstained strike us strangely in our contemporary world, even if in the case of their appearance in the Letter of James, we can easily interpret them in ways that make them less, indeed even support our own personal preferences and commitments. When we see the same English word in the verses from the gospel of Mark that we heard this morning, we may have a slightly different reaction.
After all these weeks, we’re back in the gospel of Mark, where we will remain for the rest of the liturgical year, until the end of November. To recap a bit, so far in Jesus’ public ministry, we have seen him heal a number of people of their diseases and infirmities, cast out demons, walk on water, calm storms, and feed five thousand people. We haven’t been introduced to much of his teaching or preaching, one or two parables and that’s about it. As fast-paced as Mark is, the gospel will pick up in speed and intensity as we move inexorably toward Jesus’ final confrontation with the Roman authorities and their Jewish sycophants in Jerusalem. And in today’s reading, we see another aspect of the conflict between Jesus and other Jewish communities and leaders.
What’s at stake here, as it almost always is when Jesus is in conflict with other Jews in the gospels, is the interpretation and authority of Torah, Jewish law. The Pharisees were a group within Judaism that sought to extend the role of Torah to the daily life of ordinary people. Their interpretation of Torah was intended to offer guidance in what to do so that the central precepts of Torah were maintained. They called this “building a wall around Torah.” Take the 10 commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Well, that’s great, but what does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy? The Pharisees explained that by offering guidance on what constituted work, and how much work one could do on the Sabbath.
In today’s gospel, the issue at hand is hand-washing. The Pharisees understood ritual hand-washing as keeping oneself ritually clean before eating; other Jewish groups saw things differently and Jesus’ disciples, apparently, couldn’t be bothered. It’s worth pointing out that the word translated as “defiled” here is a different word than the one used in James. Here, the word literally means “common” as distinguished from “sacred” or set apart.
Jesus’ answer, as it so often does, changes the terms of the debate. The issue is no longer whether or not to maintain ritual cleanliness, but the deeper meaning of defilement, or being “set apart.” Jesus points out that what matters is what is in the heart, not the particular ritual action, and here he lists all the ways in which we might defile ourselves by our thoughts.
And that may be where we come back to the letter of James and to our own context. In addition to the two funerals that played out in front of mass audiences over the last two days, religion has been very much in the news the past few weeks. There was the spectacle of a White House dinner for key evangelical supporters of the president early in the week; and the ongoing and deepening crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.
In the former case, many people question the political choices of many Evangelical leaders. In the latter case, that of the Roman Catholic Church, with the crisis and cover-up extending to the highest levels of the Church, the institution is shaking to its very foundations, and the faith of many ordinary Catholics is wavering.
We might think that none of this matters to us here. But it does. All of it affects the general perception of Christianity in America and attitudes toward the institutional church. And we in the Episcopal Church are not immune either from the sin of sexual misconduct and cover-up or the temptation to cozy up to power and privilege.
The world is watching. As we struggle to make sense of what’s happening in this nation and around the world, as we struggle to find our own way in these difficult times, James offers us some simple advice. He reminds us where our focus should be and what the pitfalls are. It’s easy to look in a mirror, he says, to focus on ourselves, instead of looking to God. We should avoid criticizing others. He says that unbridled speech is worthless religion: good advice in the face of the noise, hate, and anger all around us now, that too often escalates from rhetoric to hateful action.
And he reminds us of our duty to care for the marginalized: widows and orphans, yes; but also all those who our society despises, rejects, and leaves behind. And finally, he admonishes us to keep ourselves unstained by the world. It may be unfamiliar, troubling language, but it’s worth exploring whether even this might provide us with guidance. Can we, by our actions, our words, our disposition, bear witness to the love, grace, and mercy of Christ, to a world that too often sees Christians and Christianity in very different terms. Can we, by our actions and words, change our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces for the better?