Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 8, 2009 (Proper 27, Year B)

“I’m spiritual but not religious.” I meet a lot of people who, on seeing my clerical collar, take great pride in telling me this. I’m not exactly sure what it means. But I think they revel in the freedom to pick and choose spiritual practices as they see fit. Along with the freedom to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

And it’s a tempting path. Because when the spiritual life becomes a sort of Sam’s Club where you can throw different bits and pieces into your cart it gives you a lot of control. You can accept the things that feed or nurture your soul and avoid the things that don’t. Like difficult readings from Scripture, fellow parishioners who drive you nuts, and the collection plate. Not a bad deal.

And it would have been a pretty easy path for the widow in this morning’s gospel passage. On the surface of things she wasn’t getting a whole lot of benefit from the institution. The Temple hierarchy wasn’t doing anything about her crippling poverty. In the first part of this gospel passage we hear about the institution at its absolute worst. The leaders of the Temple, in this case the scribes, are accused of hypocrisy – saying long prayers to look good in public – while those who desperately need their help – the widows – are left in utter destitution.

So we see the scribes walking around the Temple in fancy robes one moment and then we see the poor widow putting her two small coins into the Temple treasury. Mark purposefully juxtaposes these two scenes and Jesus points out the institutional scandal in this.

While this woman is often held up as a model of sacrificial giving, part of me wants to yell out “Stop! Save your money!” Because in one sense she’s giving to an institution that isn’t doing a thing to help her. She would be much better off attending to her spiritual life as she saw fit while turning a blind eye to the institution. She would be much better off being spiritual but not religious.

There’s always been a tenuous relationship between institutions like the church or other non-profits and the potential good they can do. Some of you may remember the United Way scandal in the early 1990’s. For years the United Way has been synonymous with charitable works. They’ve raised over $3 billion for causes like education and global health. Giving to the United Way always made you feel good and there was great confidence that the vast amount of money you gave was going directly to help the needy. But then this scandal broke and it caused all of us to look harder at the institutions to which we donate our money. In this case the long-time CEO was accused of living a lavish lifestyle funded by money donated to combat poverty. There was outrage over his luxury condo, the use of a limousine, and frequent trips on the Concorde. Not to mention his nearly half a million dollar annual salary. Eventually he was found guilty of 25 felony charges including conspiracy to defraud the United Way and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The positive result of this was that people now often demand to know the percentage of contributed money that goes directly to charitable services. Which has led to a non-profit culture of keeping overhead as low as possible. The higher the percentage that goes directly to services, the better the non-profit looks and the more money it’s typically able to raise.

The Temple leadership didn’t get this. And when this happens with religious institutions the hypocrisy is stunning. Which is why I’ve always wanted to tell the poor widow in this story to ask to see the audit before handing over her life savings.

But still institutions, and specifically religious institutions, play an important role in our lives. At their best they offer accountability and serve as guardians of the faith; as keepers of the accumulated wisdom and doctrine. They may be slower to change and adapt than individuals but often that’s a virtue not a detriment. The problem with the so-called spiritual but not religious approach is that, at its worst, it rejects any sort of accountability in the life of faith. The wisdom of tradition is culled communally over generations. Which is why I never allow couples to write their own wedding vows. The church’s wedding rite has been tested through years and years of engagement with the institution of marriage. It communicates everything that needs to be said in a poetic and spiritually rich and theologically appropriate manner. And chances are none of us starting from scratch could do any better.

There’s also a certain amount of hubris in the statement about being spiritual but not religious. “I don’t need anyone else to tell me when and how to worship.” Perhaps not. But it can also be the easy way out; to stick with things that feed you. Every once in a while I’ll hear someone say about a particular worship service “I just didn’t get anything out of it.” Well, what did you put into it? We’re asked to bring “our selves, our souls and bodies” when we worship God. If you don’t commit yourself entirely to the experience of worship, of course you’re not going to get anything out of it. And it’s hard work. There are certainly days when the distractions of our lives keep us from fully participating. That happens. But the important thing is that we keep on showing up; that we maintain the discipline to keep returning to the altar of the Lord. Without accountability to God and one another we’re only going to scratch the very surface of our relationship with the living Christ. And that would be a shame.

So I think this is what the widow in today’s gospel teaches us. Despite the imperfections of institutional religion, it remains vital to our own spiritual lives. The church is about the gathered community. And we need the connection to one another – we can’t fully live out our faith in isolation. We can’t be spiritual without being religious if we want to live an authentic life of faith. It simply can’t be done. The spiritual life has never been an individual enterprise and it never will be. There’s a reason Jesus called disciples together into community. We need the love and support of one another to live generous and fulfilling lives.

I don’t doubt that God can be found by talking a walk at World’s End; or by listening to a Mozart symphony; or by strolling through the MFA. But it is only in the context of community that we can experience the fullness of God.

Like the widow, I bid you to be both spiritual and religious. Only then will you be fully able to tap into the deep well of the abundant life of the spirit.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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