Sunday, August 08, 2010

What does the Lord require?

J. Barry Vaughn. Aug 8, 2010

Someone once said that if the people of India are the most religious people in the world and Swedes are the most secular people in the world, then America is a country of Indians run by Swedes. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but I’m pretty sure that India is the world’s most religious country. As I’ve said, there are millions of gods and goddesses; there are probably even more temples in India than there are Baptist churches in Alabama; and every home, office, and public space has a shrine in it.

In Calcutta we visited two Hindu holy places. The first was the Sri Ramakrishnan monastery. It is a beautiful, peaceful, prayerful place. The meditation hall is set in a beautifully landscaped garden. It is well back from the street so traffic noises do not interfere with meditation. The meditation hall itself is spacious and airy. When I was there, there were perhaps 50 people meditating. People simply sat down on the floor wherever there was space. It was very appealing, and I suspect that the rest of the group felt as I did that it would be nice to stay for a while and pray or meditate.

Just down the street from the monastery was a very large temple dedicated to Kali, the mother goddess and wife of Shiva. The contrast could not have been greater. The temple was noisy, crowded, dirty, smelly. There were hundreds of people lined up, waiting to give their pujas or offerings to the priest to place before Kali. They were seeking the goddess’s help for employment or healing or whatever. After a person got to the head of the line, they handed their gift to the priest, and then exited on the other side of the temple. Except for waiting in line, the entire transaction took less than a minute.

I had a strongly negative reaction to the temple. The monastery had been serene and spiritual; the temple seemed just the opposite. And then I had an insight: I realized that what I had seen at the temple was probably much like St. Paul saw in the first century. When Paul visited Corinth or Ephesus, he would have seen people bringing offerings to the temples of Apollo or Zeus or Diana and giving them to the priests, who then would kill and sacrifice the animal or throw the incense on the altar.

This sort of religion is about a transaction. You offer the god or goddess flowers or incense or money or a sacrificial animal or some combination of these things in the hope that the god or goddess will then get you a job or heal you or your loved one or allow you to conceive and bear a child. In Paul’s world there was one additional aspect to religion: you had to keep making sacrifices to the gods to avert their anger. On almost every page of Homer’s Odyssey there are references to the importance of averting the anger of the gods; it was one of the most important parts of Greek religion.

Now, with that in mind, look again at today’s reading from Isaiah:

Hear the word of the LORD,

Listen to the teaching of our God,

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams…

I do not delight in the blood of bulls…

…who asked this from your hand?

…bringing offerings is futile;

incense is an abomination to me.

…I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

…even though you make many prayers,

I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

It is almost unimaginable that a priest of Diana or Kali would ever say, “Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.” Bringing offerings and burning incense is mostly what the worship of Diana was all about it and worshiping Kali is still about but it is not what the worship of Israel’s God is about. The prophets tell us that Israel’s God has a different set of priorities. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not desire burnt offerings, the blood of bulls, and incense. Isaiah tells us that Israel’s God wants us to

cease to do evil

learn to do good;

seek justice,

rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

It seems obvious to us: The worship of God and living an ethical life are inseparable but it was a new idea when Isaiah wrote these words in the 8th century BC. It signaled a revolution in religious understanding. Israel’s prophets called for a radical reorientation of Israel’s religion. Ritual and sacrifice were to become secondary and justice and righteousness were to become primary. Or to use Isaiah’s words again, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals have become a burden to me… but cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow… “

The Protestant Reformers sometimes used the phrase negotium cum Deo – “business with God.” All of us have business with God and God has business with us, but the kind of business we have with God is not a commercial transaction. This was the great insight of Israel’s prophets. Our business with God is the kind of business a child has with her parent, not the kind of business that a customer has with a sales clerk. Or to borrow Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s great paradigm, we relate to God as a “Thou”, a person, not as an “It”, a thing. We do not make our offerings to God in an effort to bribe God into giving us what we want. The very idea is absurd.

Doesn’t it follow, then, that our worship of God should consist primarily of living ethical lives? Why don’t we dispense with the vestments and hymns and even communion and just help Habitat for Humanity build houses for the poor? But that’s not quite right, either.

One of my colleagues during the India trip made a striking observation when he noted that all the religions we encountered – Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians – used beads in some way. He was right; the Catholic rosary is only one example of the use of beads, but Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs also use beads as a way of focusing the mind and heart in prayer and meditation.

However, I think there is something more significant about the use of beads. I think their significance is that they are tangible, something that can be touched.

Unlike the angels, humans are not pure spirit. We are a compound, an alloy. We are amphibious. We are part spirit, part matter. We live in both the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh. We need something tangible to anchor our spiritual lives, and the beads that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Roman Catholics hold in their hands are signs of this.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that in Jesus of Nazareth God became tangible. In Jesus, God became something we can touch and see and taste and smell and hear. And every Sunday Christ becomes tangible again as we bless and break and share the bread and wine that he gave his disciples so long ago.

Anglicans are right to “worship God in the beauty of holiness.” Isaiah does notn condemn ritual per se; he condemns ritual that is divorced from justice. He condemns our worship only if it serves to make us forget the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan. We need ritual because we are human and we need the sights and sounds of worship to awaken, encourage, and inspire us once again to “do justice and love mercy”. We need worship to remind us that the God who became tangible in Jesus of Nazareth makes common cause with the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan, and when we touch those whom the world despises, we are touching Christ himself.