August 29, 2021
Our scripture reading this morning comes from the beginning of James. James is wonderfully straightforward… if we practice a religion that centers on the command to love, then that religion has to move beyond words and ideas and into action… practical, everyday actions. But… we also need to be mindful of whose word is being put into action. Listen as God continues speaking to you today.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God”… that phrase hit me this week… because it rightly assumes that there is religion that is unpure and defiled before God. These last few days watching Afghanistan fall back so quickly under the rule of the Taliban… I’ve again been mentally obsessed with the scourge of fundamentalism… and how fundamentalism crosses into different religions with so many of the same effects… how it acts almost like a flash flood picking up all these cultural and theological absolutes in its destructive path. As we’ve witnessed again this week, there’s differences between Islamic fundamentalist factions that don’t stop them from attacking one another. So the Isis-K brand will fight against the Taliban brand because the Taliban brand of Islamic fundamentalism doesn’t meet the standards of the Isis-K brand of Islamic fundamentalism. Fundamentalist religious factions are by their very definition against anything and everything that doesn’t align with the absolute definition of their own particular form of fundamentalism. Standing against is the core stance of any fundamentalist identity. Even if a fundamentalist group is able to say what they are for… what they are for… at its root… is characterized by what they are against. I mean… what makes up Islamic fundamentalism is different than Christian fundamentalism… on the surface, at least… but there are many similarities because the nature of fundamentalism is all about being in opposition to… in standing against a theological or cultural change… in holding some line so that we will go no further. Ongoing fruitless battles of reaching some imagined state of religious purity… not just for themselves… but forcing those around them to also comply and submit.
There is a spirit that comes with fundamentalism that perverts and skews every religion it touches… a spirit that seems to fling open the door to all manner of evil and sin. The Pharisees in the gospels act as proto-fundamentalists… putting their emphasis and energy on maintaining ritual purity… the washing of hands becomes more important than the feeding of people. The Pharisees, as they are portrayed, always look like the heartless fundamentalist who can’t see the bigger picture. In the gospel stories, they put their focus on human precepts… their hearts far away from God as they determine what is most important for the believer to observe. Washed hands. Proper Sabbath observances. Making sure the outside is proper and in line with their special brand of precepts… while inside their heart is the lack of empathy… the inability to see how their actions are not equipping their neighbor in God’s love. In Mark’s gospel Jesus feeds the five thousand… but the Pharisees don’t even acknowledge what has happened… they are completely blind to the good that has happened… their focus instead is on whether or not hands are being washed and whether or not the traditions of the elders are being maintained as they… the Pharisees… say is proper. Or there are the gospel stories of Jesus healing a person… beset and diminished for years by some crippling disease… and far from praising God for the good that has been done… the concern is about when the healing took place. Breaking sabbath rules negates any other good that might have happened. It’s the good Afghan doctor who has cared for and helped hundreds of patients… who was bringing good into the world… but is now relieved of her position and forced into some other role more fitting a woman as defined by one particular brand Islamic fundamentalism. So the human precept is maintained but God’s world is now made worse because a beneficial gift from God has been removed.
Christian Fundamentalism… I’m always sad to say… began in the Presbyterian church at the turn of the 20th century. New ways of learning and seeing the world were emerging. The study of scripture was entering into new thought territories… moving away from simple literalism. There was change in the air from Darwin’s theory of evolution to the growth of new technologies and the change they brought to society. And so a group decided upon five fundamentals that each Christian believer had to adhere to… and could not move away from. These five fundamentals defined for them Christian ritual purity. And those five fundamentals are…
1. The inspiration and the inerrancy of the Bible
2. The virgin birth of Christ
3. The substitutionary atonement of Christ
4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
5. The historicity of the Biblical miracles
Every single one of those is a reactionary response to what was happening at the time… or better stated… every single fundamental listed is a fearful reaction to what was going on and an attempt to stop change. So over the decades is it really a surprise that… because this is the core inspiration… is it really much of a surprise that Christian fundamentalism has become more and more anti-intellectual not just on a theological front, but on every front. Knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is something to be contained and controlled. Change is to be opposed be it theological change or social change. Maintaining an absolute… no matter how untenable that absolute becomes… is the greatest good and must be achieved at all costs, because any movement away from a certain static point loses the war. Christian fundamentalists are more prone to conspiracy theories because a conspiracy theory plays well to the mind that is set to believe that not only are they right in all things, but that it is their sacred duty to oppose all those that seek to change their mind. That is a work of evil against them and a validation of their own importance in maintaining the truth. A Christian fundamentalist is more apt to take up arms and justify violence as a legitimate response to those who are outside their faction. So again, is it really a big surprise that most Christian Nationalists with their military gear and weapon stockpiles are fundamentalist in nature… desiring the power to enforce their human precepts on others with the core ethic that the ends justify the means.
James is adamant that we must be doers of the word. But Saints, we need to make sure we know just what that word is. Because one manner of the word can lead to good… and another manner of the word can lead to evil.
The five pillars of Islam are the Profession of Faith, the daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. It saddens me that these five pillars are… in practice… not the first and foremost emphasis of these different Islamic fundamentalist groups. As a Christian I can respect the faith of the five pillars. I can find commonality of purpose and overlap in God’s goodness in the five pillars. We can be pure and undefiled in both our faiths as we together give alms… caring for the orphans and widows in their distress. But we are not praising God by creating orphans and widows. There was a time when Islam was the light in the world beset by the dark ages of Christendom. But fundamentalism now keeps so much of Islam in the dark.
The five fundamentals… if you were to follow and believe them to the “T”… the five fundamentals do nothing to uphold or forge your Christian character. They reinforce the hearers, but make no difference on the doers. Imagine if we were to go to a soup kitchen and look at the lineup of those serving with tongues bridled… three men and three women serving. And if we knew that in this line up there were two pure fundamentalists, two liberal Christians and two Muslims obeying and observing the pillar of almsgiving… all with their aprons on and their hair nets… serving spoons in hand… what do you think James would have to say about what mattered most about the religion of these six? What would James say was the most important Word from God to follow and to do? Which of these six are pure in their religion?
Let’s do a thought experiment… one you can take with you and talk and think about this afternoon. If you had to come up with Five Fundamentals for the Christian faith what would they be? Would you insist on points of doctrine? Would you add certain social constructs like the enforcement of strict and absolute gender roles? Maybe… maybe you would come up with five virtues or principles that would define what a Christian does in the world. Words and phrases like we’ve heard these last Sundays from Ephesians. Fundamentalist doers of God’s good. What would that look like?
On that thought… I’m going to say Amen and turn things over to Elder Linda Childers who is going to talk about a new Mission initiative here at Parkway.