Sometime ago I was looking at my son’s reading list for his coming college year. Among the books he was required to read was the Islamic Koran (of all things), The Applets of Confucius, an ancient Chinese philosophy book and a book by Plato, the famous Ancient Greek philosopher. I happened to start thumbing through the book by Confucius, as I have always had an interest in far eastern thought. What I read sort of startled me because within the pages of Confucius there was revealed a number of truths that I already knew: things that are also in the Bible, about social justice, crime and punishment; and about religious rites and how they fit into the social fabric of community life. These were the teachings of moral ethics, which with the Tao, for nearly 3,000 years were the basic philosophy of Chinese thought on how the universe works and the way to enlightenment.
One of the insights of Confucius teaches that if a child is brought up to do right things by the example set by his parents and his parent’s religion, he will grow to do the right thing and seldom fall off the path of righteousness. And when his parents are gone, he will continue in his parent’s right thinking and instill in his own children the ways and means of living a happy and fulfilled life handed down from his family’s ancestors. This is the promise of a good life.
But if a child is brought up to have apathy for his community and to ignore its religion, his ways will be fraught with hardship and trouble. He will be dragged into the courts and into the prisons. His child, if he has one, will learn bitter lessons in a life of poverty and abuse. This is the promise of a cursed life which is also handed down from one’s own family.
When I read this, I thought, I have heard this somewhere before, perhaps in the Psalms or Proverbs; perhaps in the Book of Exodus or Leviticus. And I asked myself, why was this theme so familiar? And then it hit me . . . it was from a line in the movie Enemy Mine, where an alien in the show tries to explain the philosophy of religion to an American Space G.I. Joe and states simply that ‘Truth is Truth’ . . . no matter what the religion or the philosophy, no matter what the country of origin or the language spoken . . . Truth cannot be hidden because ‘truth is truth’.
I would tell you that I grew up in my parents shadow, I grew up with my parent’s faith that was once delivered by the saints, and today I continue to try to be what my parents tried so diligently to make me; and I suspect the same can be said for all of you as well. And being in the shadow of our parents love there is no way we would ever go too far astray. I know that I will never rob a bank, or beat anyone up, or do anything that could be conceived of as breaking the law. And why is that? Is it because there is a law that says I shouldn’t do that? No… it is because I had a mother who would have been totally destroyed in shame if I did something like that. I also have a Father in heaven who would be more than just a little disappointed. Love and truth are, in reality, the very things that keep good people on the straight and narrow.
Religion within a community was conceived originally as a way to control social behavior. Back in the by-gone years there were no police or sheriffs in numbers enough to control large populations. In fact, in our own day, there still aren’t enough police to control the entire population if we all decided to go out and murder each other. Just look at the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in recent weeks for proof of that. That’s why the government always calls in the national guard during riots.
But religion is different. Religion counts solely on the family to do the right thing. Religion teaches families, and particularly the head of the family, the rules. As you know, the rules in Christianity are the ten commandments handed down from God to Moses and to the children of Israel, and then to the church a very long time ago. They are referenced in today’s epistle by Paul to the Romans; but they are in fact, the same rules in all religions . . . as we heard this morning, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”. The point Paul is trying to make is, that if you break the rules, you’re out of the religion, and you are out of the community, and most importantly, you are out of the family. This is the way it has always been . . . until recently.
Many years ago, Barbara and I were invited to a Chinese wedding that was given for our friend’s son and his bride to be. There were about 200 guests and it was a very extravagant affair. But in looking around the room, one person . . . our friend’s second daughter wasn’t there. When we asked where she was, we got only blank stares. When we pressed the issue, we were told, by an older sister, that Anh Phoung had chosen a life outside the family, and that they could not talk about it. Anh Phoung, it seems, had been cut off, or ex-communicated, because of something she did. A similar thing had happened some years ago with the number one son. But he had repented and returned to the family and all was well with him again.
This is the way communities of human beings have controlled their own for thousands of years. Even today, in families, especially among the vocational religious like the Mennonites, and the Amish, there remains the practice of shunning as a way to control behavior. Shunning means literally ‘shutting out’ or ‘cutting off’ an individual from community and from family because of some offense. A person who has been shunned lives outside the community while still inside. No one talks to them, their friends, their family members, their pastor all regard them as non-existent (as if they never were born). In this way, though living, the person who has offended is sent to an early perdition. For those who have been shunned, life is literally hell on earth, and it is usually not long before forgiveness is asked and the shunned are returned to the community.
This all works very well when the leaders of the community have a hold on moral authority. The leaders of the Christian faith community, the pastors and priests, have been for thousands of years the repositories of this power to control behavior. They held this power by the will of the community, so long as they were seen as above reproach. But, as you know, in the last sixty years, this power has been eroded by certain wolves among the sheep. While in the 80’s religion had a very high approval rate for how we handled our function in the community, today we are at an all-time low due mostly to the sex scandals in the Roman Church.
As the moral authority of the mainline church continues to erode, so also does the hold that religion has on society. Today, there are over 4,000,000 Americans in jail and over 7,000,000 are under criminal supervision. That is nearly 3% of our entire population, and it will get worse as time goes on. The Christian Church in America and in England have both failed miserably to live up to its calling and its teaching and we, as a society, have paid dearly for it. Too often, over the past fifty years or so, the church has been seen to vacillate on social issues based on the effect on its numbers in the pew and its collection plates. The man in the street sees this and (rightly or wrongly), judges us all by it. And so, as the western church slowly puts itself out of business, the government steps in and tries to take on the moral high ground to teach what it believes is acceptable behavior. And that is where we are today.
But all is not lost quite yet. We are, together, the remnant of a once powerful and influential force in the world. Christianity started with only twelve. It will continue so long as the story remains in the hearts and minds of all true believers. Paul continues in his letter to the Romans to instruct us in the right way to social behavior.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Most Christians follow the law, and they try to follow it, in a word . . . religiously . . . yet in some ways we are unable to convince ourselves that even after abiding in and keeping the law, that we love Jesus Christ enough to still be acceptable to him.
If you want to convince Jesus Christ that you love him, there is really only one way to do so. It is neither to make protestations of our devotion, nor to work up feelings of affection toward him, nor to sing hymns of personal piety, nor even to give ourselves to the service of humanity. It is simply to obey the commandments. Jesus himself demonstrated his love for the Father by his obedience (‘I do as the Father has commanded me’, Jn. 14:31); and so must we demonstrate our love for Christ by obedience to the truth. Amen
This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition. If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .
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