Why I Am Religious

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 30, 2015

Luke 4:42-44 ESV

Jesus “departed and went into a desolate place . . . And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” ~Luke 4:42, 44

If you consider yourself to be religious, why are you religious?  Such is a question we may not have ever seriously considered, unless we have been prodded to do so.

While doing some theological brainstorming a few weeks ago, Suzanne asked me that very question: Why are you religious?  And so, I ended up taking some time to respond, jotting down some notes on a piece of paper.  But after I reflected upon that conversation, I decided the topic might be sermon worthy and worth sharing with you.

From an early age, I was drawn to the Bible and religion.  And being a minister in organized religion—the church—provided me with a wonderful avenue to study in-depth the Bible, theology, and church history.  It was never enough for me to just read the Bible and take every word literally at face value.  But I soon felt the importance of understanding every book of the Bible—its historical context, the original worldview and purpose of the different writers, and so on—so as to really understand the messages of the Bible as they were originally intended to be understood.

And I also found fascinating the blending and intertwining of different Christian movements and denominations, and how different Christian groups united, separated, merged or almost merged, worked together or worked against one another, and so on.  So one factor that led to my religious interests was curiosity about the true messages of the Bible and fascination with American church history and theology.  But wait, there are more reasons that I consider myself to be religious.

For instance, religion speaks to the human spirit about the ultimate issues of life.  Or to phrase it another way, religion gives us a lens through which to view life in its totality.  Religion provides us with a way to view the world and to live in the world.  It truly is, as Rabbi Harold Kushner contends, “Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing . . . It has to teach our eyes how to see the world.”

A.Powell Davies said it in a similar way: “Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life.  It is life—life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose. . . .  Religion claims the whole of life as its province, and business is a part of life. . . .  Religion . . . should go into all parts of life.”

Religion, in speaking to the human spirit about the ultimate issues of life, has something to say about birth and death, and everything in between—sickness and trouble, love and marriage, the way to true happiness and dealing with extreme loss, our place in this vast universe, and hope for some existence in the great beyond.

For too many people, religion is a one day a week affair, something totally separate from the rest of life and the other six days of the week.  And so, one day a week is considered a religious day—a holy affair—and during the rest of the week religion has no bearing whatsoever.  But that is not the way true religion works.  True religion is a seven-day-a-week outlook and way of life.  As philosopher William James succinctly put it in his classic, Varieties of Religious Experience, “Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.”

There is another reason for my being religious: In many ways, I resonate with the spiritual insights I find in the church’s literature, liturgy, and hymns.  There are ways that my spirit is fed through religious worship and life in the church.  There are many places in the scriptures where I find comfort and strength.  There are many hymns in our hymnals that are uplifting to my soul.  There are times when, in preparing and giving a sermon, it speaks to my soul, perhaps, more than to any other.  This is especially true when I can prepare and give a sermon on a topic that is of deep interest to me personally.

John Burroughs, a famous early 20th century naturalist whose ideas evolved into what might be termed spiritual naturalism, stated in one of his more philosophical works, Accepting the Universe, “I am convinced that no man’s life is complete without some kind of an emotional experience that may be called religious. . . .  Religion, as I use the term,” he says, “is a spiritual flowering, and the man who has it not is like a plant that never blooms.”4   Religion gives me opportunity to both exercise and expand my own spirituality.

Yet another reason I chose to be religious is because I believe in the institution of the church as a positive influence and possible change agent in the world.  I addressed this topic a few weeks ago in my sermon titled “Purposes, Possibilities, and Problems with Preaching.”  So I don’t want to rehash everything I said then.  But I continue to believe in the American Church and American Pulpit as the most positive force in our nation to address social injustices; begin, promote and support humanitarian causes; bring comfort, hope and help to the suffering; give guidance on major issues of the day; and so on.

A final, but certainly not least, reason I will share as to why I am religious is I appreciate the sense of community the church offers and makes possible.  I am of the opinion that one of the primary reasons many people become active and remain active in a church is because of the sense of community the church provides.  For some people, the church is the only avenue of community they have, and for them Sunday is the highlight of their week.  A good religious community is one that affirms us, supports us, encourages, and helps us.  It is the place that rejoices with us when we rejoice and weeps with us when we weep.  In this regard, Ana-Maria Rizzuto notes, “Religion is . . . the most important and enduring institution providing a sense of identity and belonging in the majority of societies existing in the world today.”

There is a common expression these days, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  Perhaps you have heard someone say it or have even said it yourself.  Some people think, it seems, that the terms are mutually exclusive; that you have to be one or the other—spiritual or religious—but you can’t be both.  But I disagree.  I think one can be both religious and spiritual.  Jesus was.  Sometimes we are tempted to forget that Jesus was a very religious Jew who celebrated the Jewish religious festivals and regularly attended services in synagogues, as pointed out in today’s scripture reading.  Jesus was religious in that he observed the Jewish Sabbath and publicly read and studied the Jewish scriptures.

One definition of “religious” is faithful adherence to an “integrated system of expression.”  That Jesus was.  I believe Jesus realized the great potential for good inherent in religion.  But he also realized that the religious system of his own day could stand much improvement.

On the other hand, one could also say that Jesus was spiritual, in that he also leaned toward the mystical and often sought out lonely, natural places for periods of prayer and meditation and communion with the Divine.  He also drew spiritual wisdom and inspiration from the world of nature and based much of his teaching upon it.  So Jesus was both religious and spiritual.  We can be also.  That certainly is the way it is with me.  I find benefits in being religious through the institution of the church, but I also find benefits in being spiritual, especially in the context of the natural world.

So, I have shared some of the major reasons that I have been and continue to be religious.  Maybe some of those reasons resonate with some of you.  But I am sure that some of you could bear witness to other reasons of your own.

It is not always so, as we too often see in the news where religious zeal goes awry, resulting in prejudice, oppression, violence and murder.  But religion properly expressed is a good thing; a very good thing.  And we can be both religious and spiritual. We don’t have to choose one or the other. Amen.

 

1Harold Kushner, Who Needs God.  New York: Pocket Books, 1989, Pp. 27, 30.

2George N. Marshall, A. Powell Davies and His Times.  Boston: Skinner House Books, 1990, Pp. 3-4, 15, 225.

3William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 39.

4John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe, pp. 107, 115.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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