“True Religion”

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost – 8/29/2021 This sermon has been transcribed from a live video. To view a video of this sermon, please click here.

I speak to you today as a sinner to sinners, as the beloved of God to God’s beloved, as one called to bear witness to those called to bear witness. Amen.

A few weeks ago, I went with the staff and many of the youth of the parish to Cedar Point Amusement Park. And it was a wonderful day away. I don’t know if you’ve been to Cedar Point, but it is an enormous amusement park. There are many constellations of rides and total worlds that you could enter into. There’s a place called Planet Snoopy, for example, that you can inhabit. And it’s like walking into the strip by Charles Schulz. 

As I was walking through and seeing everything, I found myself remembering – I was transported in my mind to another trip to another amusement park when I was about eight years old. I was asked by my parents, or actually told by them that I was going to go with my father’s good friend, Eddie and his family to Riverside Amusement Park, which was in Agawam, Massachusetts. Riverside Amusement Park was about 1/100th of Cedar Point. It had one roller coaster of note and it had a few other rickety rides that were a little more dangerous than thrilling. But it was all we had in New England at that time. 

And so everybody wanted to go. I remember getting excited initially and then as I came in and saw Eddie’s family, when they pulled up in that incredibly large station wagon that every family seemed to have, the kind of station wagon in which the backseats, all of the seatbelts had completely disappeared into the creases. No one ever wore them. And there was Eddie kind of slumped over the wheel. There was his wife who was looking kind of tired and a little bit angry and bedraggled. There were their five kids who were all older than me and they looked just like they were animals. I decided I don’t care. I’m just going to get into the car. This is it. This is my chance to go to Riverside Amusement Park. 

I had $15 in my pocket, which seemed like a small fortune and I had a ticket. And so we got there and Eddie’s the family immediately just went in many directions. The kids went to run to get on rides and I was kind of left alone. I experienced that special thrill you have when you’re by yourself. I had no buddy. There was no safety involved. I went around, I looked at all of the booths. I rode a couple of rides. I was having the time of my life and then Eddie came and said to me, do you want to have a drink of something cold? I said, well, I’ve got some money, but I’ll sit with you. 

And so he and I went and he gave me a soda. He said to me, I want to let you know something, you are keeping me sober today. And at eight years old, I didn’t really understand alcoholism or addiction. I knew that my father was in Alcoholics Anonymous. I knew that our family was often a place, our kitchen was often a place where people would gather and talk and drink a lot of coffee. I knew that all of the people that would gather were trying to make some profound changes in their lives, but I didn’t know that it was connected to alcohol. I didn’t know what it was like to be part of that family. 

It was hidden in plain sight for me. And frankly, I didn’t quite understand what Eddie had said to me, but it was one of those things that you lock away in your heart. I’m grateful that he said something to me because it was like a Rosetta Stone had been given to me and I could finally understand the language that was being spoken all around me as a child. My father was someone who didn’t just join Alcoholics Anonymous. It became in a sense his religion and Eddie was his sponsor. And that was about as close as you can get to having a disciple. And they were an incredible pair – two men trying to come to terms with a disease and doing their best to recover. 

And recovery and sobriety for my father and for Eddie was always an uneven process. It was full of relapses. It was full of backsliding. It was full of times in which they would experience what people call a dry drunk, they would become angry, but they were committed to each other. They had a funny way of bringing out in some ways the best and the worst of each other as friends. When running became a thing, my father and Eddie would run three miles around the town track. And then as soon as they finished, they’d be kind of out of breath and then they both would pull out cigarettes and smoke. This was my childhood. And of course I was always brought along because that was the way my father liked to do things.

I think about Eddie when I think about this whole thing that he did with his recovery, because he was trying to somehow reconcile with his family after he had done too much damage. That trip to Agawam, to Riverside Amusement Park, that was Eddie’s attempt to somehow get his family through an event where he didn’t drink. The reason why I was sent along, I later learned, was that my father wanted Eddie to know that he had confidence in him. He knew that Eddie would get past the beer tents. He knew that Eddie would make it back home, safely driving his family. And so he sent me and I was the insurance that Eddie would not drink that day. And so that was what was meant, I later learned, when Eddie said you are keeping me sober today. Because as hard as that road was for him, it was helped by having me as a kind of presence and as a representative, I suppose, of my father’s love and friendship with him. 

Eddie was able to turn his life around. He had lost his job because of his drinking and he somehow got his job back and he was good at his job. His marriage did not survive, but he reconciled with his children and he was able to marry again. And then a few years later, when I was in college, Eddie died of cancer. And my father who would fall in the spiritual, but not religious category of life, told me about his last time meeting him. He hugged him and kissed his cheek and told him that he loved him because, my father said, that’s so important to say.

Now I raised this all for you today because I want to suggest that in the story of Eddie, there is something that is incredibly important for us to see. He did not meet much worldly success. He had to struggle with a disease that is incredibly difficult to control or manage. And yet Eddie found a way to thrive because even though his life ended a little bit early, and even though he had to go through some difficult passages in his first marriage, Eddie was not just a survivor. He was someone who was able to thrive.

And watching him develop the kind of resiliency that he developed, watching him try to make amends to his family, watching him slowly climb his way out of where he was. That to me was a great privilege and watching the relationship between he and my father was a great privilege and blessing. It’s something I think about again and again.

And thriving is something that we all have to do. It doesn’t matter if we have found success over the past couple of years. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been able to accumulate things or have been able to expand or found love or have cheated death, or have somehow been able to manage a disease. No matter what we’re doing, each of us is called to thrive and thriving has been difficult in this pandemic because to thrive, we tend to need others. We tend to need help. We tend to need a fellowship. We tend to need a goal and a reason and purpose and meaning in our life.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He has a concept that I think translates for thriving. It’s the Greek word arete, which means excellence. To be excellent, Aristotle writes, is to be perfectly who God has called you to be. Not anyone else, but the person that you in all of your particularities have been called to be. And this concept of excellence or thriving is at the root of the prayer today for true religion. Christianity exists not because we want to convey a set of rules, nor do we want to indoctrinate you in some kind of sacramental machinery. Christianity exists because we want to represent true religion. And true religion is the kind of transformation that happens when we thrive. True religion is a kind of promise that the key to thriving is having God at the center of our transformation. 

And all of this is what’s going on today in our reading, from the Gospel of Mark. As I was mentioning to someone earlier today, this is a beautiful passage because I love it when Jesus gets a little triggered and he gets a little triggered today. The Pharisees notice that Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands. They haven’t gone through the proper process of washing your hands, of baptizing your hands. And Jesus immediately says to this seemingly innocent question that any Jew would ask, you hypocrites, He just gets totally triggered. 

I love that. I can relate to that. That’s 2020 for me. I don’t know about you. Just waiting. And so then Jesus says it’s not what is happening outside of you. It’s what’s happening inside of you that matters. And from this, I see a direct correlation to the issue around addiction because there is nothing wrong with alcohol. It’s what alcohol did to Eddie. It’s what alcohol did to my father. That was what was wrong with alcohol. And we live in an addictive age so one philosopher writes, we are want to pick something external, whether it is success, whether it is status, whether it is a relationship, whether it’s anything outside of ourselves, we are want to see that as the sum total of who we are – to make it a God to us.

So there’s a sense which all of us have a tendency toward addiction, but Jesus wants us to give up on these externals and to focus on our own transformation because Jesus wants us to thrive. And this is why at the end He says, it is not from outside a person that we find defilement, but it’s what comes out of our heart that defiles. Now He’s being a bit negative here, but you find a positive statement of this in our reading from Philippians where Paul says the following, “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence,” arete, “ if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Paul here is making the same point as Jesus, that the purpose of religion is not defined in external confirmation, but to experience an inner transformation and a new relationship to God and others through it.

So I think there are two steps to thriving that I want to lift up today. Later, as we get into our program year, we’re going to be talking about what does it mean to thrive? Because I feel like thriving has been imperiled over the past year and a half, but there are two things I want to lift up today.

And the first is found in relation to the painting that I put on the bulletin and that you at home will see right next to me shortly. It was by Mark Rothko. And it was done in 1959. Rothko was commissioned to put a series of large scale paintings in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City. And he got about halfway done with it. And then he decided that he didn’t want to waste these paintings on people who ate at the Four Seasons restaurant. He said they’ll never get it. These people will never get what I’m trying to do. So he held onto him. He refused to get rid of them. 

And it wasn’t until a little bit later the Tate Museum in London created this special room in which these paintings are. And what Rothko was trying to articulate in the words of one interpreter, as he was trying to somehow construct a kind of tablet of commandments in which there were no commands written. He wanted to somehow express in these paintings, the desire we have for connection, the desire we have to belong, the desire we have to thrive, and he wanted to stay with that longing and not quite say that any of those things get us where we need to go. 

And so one step I think in thriving is learning to befriend that longing, learning to love that helplessness, learning to acquire the practice of surrendering every day in the hope that something greater will come along. The second thing I want you to see in thriving is that there is in thriving a next step. Kierkegaard calls it a leap of faith. It’s the decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understand God. It’s the decision to let go of the control we have, whether it’s something immediate and real, such as an addiction to alcohol or something else that claims us and has us by the throat.

It’s when we engage in that leap of faith that God shows up and reveals God’s love in a powerful way. And when I was walking in Cedar Point, I realized that my father had shown a leap of faith when he trusted Eddie with me. And that Eddie took a leap of faith when he took me on and he was determined to make it home safely.

May each of us take that leap. May each of us let go and let God. May each of us be transformed by the only thing that can transform us, which is God and Christ.