Sunday, May 24, 2015

Momentum: The Heart of Religion

I recently read a blog post by a man named Ronnie Christian. Ronnie, appropriately named, is a Christian and a minister at a local church. He set out to describe the many activities of church:
Churches typically have such a full menu of programs and activities that would make the average cruise ship activities director envious. There are men’s groups, women’s groups, singles groups, college groups, newly married groups, coffee shops, concerts, parents ministry, senior citizens ministry, counseling ministry, recovery ministry, midweek services, Sunday night services, classes, field trips, small groups, softball teams, outreach events, and the list goes on.
The question for me is: Do we even know why we are doing them? Do they serve a real purpose–say, towards making disciples–or are we doing them because someone somewhere decided that’s how church is supposed to be done?
Do you think that sometimes we make religion too complicated?

Just reading this long list of ministries and activities in which so many congregations are involved, it makes me tired! And it’s not just about the programs. There are other aspects of religion that scream too complicated! Most of you know that I am of that rare breed often categorized in scientific journals as “academic nerd.” Believe it or not, I actually enjoy sitting down to read a long, religious treatise. I could (and have) spent hours reading about the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. I will read biblical commentaries in my spare time! But even my propensity toward religious minutia was pushed to the limit several years ago. When I was a student at Emory, there was a visiting professor that offered a lecture. He actually was auditioning for a spot on the faculty. As students, we were required to attend the lecture. This guy proceeded to speak to us for one-and-a-half hours on the word “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer.

  • What kind of bread did Jesus have in mind?
  • What was bread like in the ancient near east?
  • What was daily bread?
  • What are all of the possible hidden things Jesus could have meant by this phrase?

Come to find out, he had spent the last decade of his life researching and writing about this fascinating subject! I left that lecture hall that afternoon and drove across Atlanta to our home. I had a long talk with my new wife about that lecture. No, I didn’t make her listen to all of the fascinating implications of “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer. I told her very simply: “If this is what getting a PhD in religion looks like, I’m out!” I told her that I didn’t want to spend my life researching and writing about something that wouldn’t make a bit of difference in the life of people. That was the day I made the decision to enter congregational ministry because I wanted to be a part of something that could have real impact on the world. Something that really could make a difference in the lives of people.

But here is what is interesting about my journey. I found that it doesn’t take long to make religion complicated in other ways. If we don’t get bogged down in the academic world with the word “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer, then, we get bogged down with busyness of church, meetings, ministries, Worship Orders, sermon preparation, Vacation Bible School, potluck dinners (OK, not everything is bad)… I had such good intentions! We all have such good intentions, don’t we? But it is so easy to get caught in the trap of overly complicated religion!

Do you ever think we make religion too complicated?

Sometimes, we get so busy doing religion, or thinking about religion, that we forget what is at the heart of religion. God said something to Amos about that one time…
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:21–24 The Message)
Apparently, God also noticed that we have a propensity toward making religion too complicated, and sometimes missing the point.

Let me ask you something… Suppose we were able to remove the complexity from religion. Suppose we were able to boil religion down to it simplest, purest form. What would be left? In other words, what is at the heart of religion? This isn’t like peeling back the layers of an onion. When you peel back the layers of an onion, you finally see that there is nothing inside. Not so with religion, at the heart of religion is something beautiful, powerful, and revolutionary. But what is it? There are a handful of places in the Bible when folks ask that exact question. And we would do well to camp out on those passages on a regular basis. Just listen to these words of God:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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 good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14)
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
At the heart of religion is justice and service and kindness and love. You could say this another way… At the heart of religion is the giving nature of God. Our God is a giving God. God gives us forgiveness. God gives us mercy. God gives us love. And those of us made in the image of a God like that, we are called to become more and more like Him. That desire, that effort to become more like the Giving God should be at the heart of our religion. One of the ways we measure our spiritual growth in this family is by measuring ourselves by this statement:

Are We Aligning Our Giving with the Heart of God?

The most obvious way that we align our giving with God’s heart is through our financial giving. But that isn’t the only way we give, that is not the only way God gives! One of the ways we align our giving with God’s heart is through our service. We are called to serve like God serves. We are called to give of our energy and time and gifts. So, what does that look like?

There are many examples of this family embodying the heart of religion. I want to call your attention to only one of them this morning and I want to invite some folks to help me do that.

Barbara Gilbreath is a long-time member of Glenwood and a board member at Gateway to Hope Day Resource Center in Tyler. Barbara will tell us a little bit about the history of Gateway to Hope and it's partnership with HiWay 80 Rescue Mission of Longview. Another one of our members, Lawrence Hodges, has recently taken a position at Gateway to Hope. Congratulations, Lawrence! We also want to recognize the many Glenwood members who have volunteered at Gateway to Hope and HiWay 80. Dewayne Manning was honored with the Good Samaritan award recently at the annual banquet, and his wife Cynthia received the same award last year. Also at the banquet this year, Gary Crim, head of the Tyler Outreach Team at HiWay 80, presented the 2015 Great Commission Award to Glenwood Church of Christ. Greg Grubb accepted the award on behalf of Glenwood.

Thanks again to all those who have given their time, energy and money to bless others through these exceptional ministries.

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