Religious zeal is not what you think it is. I place a title on each of the sermons I write. The title for this sermon is Religious Zeal and as soon as I wrote those words, I knew that it would not be understood. We have a very powerful Gospel from Matthew. In it Jesus says,
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
Well, that bothered me. You see I want to be a good Christian, but I am not sure I want the consequences of following Jesus. I want to do what good Christians want to do. I want to learn about the Bible. I want to be kind to others and do Bible studies and read and say enough prayers to be a good Christian. But, if those are really my hopes for my faith then I probably will get them and no more. If I do what good Christians do, I probably would be able to say “ look how much I have done”, but I would have no relationship with God. The God who has sought a relationship with me from the beginning.
I have been blessed in my life in many ways. One way is I have enjoyed the great example of my father, who has taught me and been present with me. My father has been and is an example of a man of faith who lives it out daily and is seen in what he does and not just in the words he says. I have seen it throughout my life. My father acts out his faith. There are moments in life that define us - not by what we believe, but instead by who we are and how we live out who we are. When I was 7 or 8 years old, we had a Chihuahua named Fi-Fi. Fi-fi was a small dog. She never got over five pounds. One of the things that my parents told me not to do, and they said it many times, was not to throw the ball in the house. “Chuck, don’t throw the ball in the house”. It was a Saturday morning and the rest of the family was doing other things. I was alone and I was throwing the baseball into my glove, over and over. Now, Fi-fi was asleep on the couch. On one throw, I missed the pocket and the ball skimmed over the top of my glove and hit Fi-fi in the head and Fi-fi died.
I had just killed Fi-fi. She didn’t move. I used both hands to pick her up and she was limp, her tail hanging on one side and her head off the other. I took her into my parent’s room where dad was working on something. Not wanting him to know that I was throwing the ball, I said “something is wrong with Fi-fi”. My father looked down at this little creature and took her from me. He laid her on the bed and knelt down beside her realizing she wasn’t breathing. He opened his mouth and put it over her head and breathed. After a moment, she began to stir; she sat up. I remember that moment so well as a child - watching this grown man care - watching him have compassion for this little animal.
After my father was ordained a priest, we moved to a small southern town. Dad was the priest in charge of two small churches. It was in the early seventies and there was still anger over segregation. Indeed, the small town was still segregated and racism was still strong. In the middle of town there was a hardware store, a drug store and not much else. Like Clinton, there were railroad tracks running through town. One fall afternoon, an old black man was crossing the railroad tracks in his car when he was struck by a train. The violence of the wreck threw him from his car head first against the brick wall of the hardware store where he lay dying. School was letting out and people gathered at the scene. Business men and women, children and ministers from the other churches in town stood at a safe distance and watched, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. When my dad arrived, he saw that group of people in the middle of town, watching this old black man die. My father went and knelt beside him, held his hand and prayed with him as he died. The sad part of this is that if he had stood and watched with everyone else, no one would have thought less of him. Indeed, the opposite was true. He was criticized for what he did.
I want to be a good Christian. I want to learn and do good things. I want all the trappings of faith, but do I really want God to change me? Do I really want my life to be different because I know God and God knows me? Do I really want the people I know to be changed because of my relationship with God? In our world, too often religion and faith are not connected. Too often it is easy to learn everything about religion and not have a relationship with God. Matthew’s Gospel is about how to live out our faith. Faith and the proclamation of faith is not about knowing the right things or even doing the right things. Faith is about a relationship which is transforming.
What a glorious building we’re in. We have everything we need here. You can study God’s word. You can come and hear God’s word. You can worship God in this place. Your priest is all dressed up in fine robes and there is beautiful music to hear and gorgeous stained glass to see. But if this is where your faith resides, then you only have religion. If you come here on Sundays and think you have done what you need to do to be a good Christian, then you have missed it. You see, all of this - all that we are, the Eucharist we share, the music, the stained glass, this building, the programs offered is meant to point to one thing. All of this is meant to aim you at a relationship with God that changes who you are and propels you into the world to proclaim the risen Lord to those who do not know him. All of this is meant to enable you to act out your faith.
That is what I witnessed as my father knelt next to a dying man to pray. How are you going to act out your faith today?