Lent 5 – Year C

In the parable of the tenants of the vineyard, it appears Jesus is talking about organized religion, in a rather unflattering light. The scribes and the priests were unpleased with Jesus’ proclamation.

What is our true religion? …

I was buying concert tickets at a record store in Carytown the other day, and I saw this Jesus Action Figure on display next to the register.

Is this what we Christians are all about – this Plastic White Jesus?

Hmmm. I don’t know how much action this Jesus will actually see, but Plastic White Jesus sure says a lot. And so does the package.

The people who sell it claim its good for kids.

The package claims that children who play with Plastic White Jesus while their parents read the Gospels to them will grow up to have faith.

The package claims that Plastic White Jesus is the manufacturer’s way of glorifying God.

Let’s see what else it says. It says, “Made in China.” Well thank God for that. The toy company is really bringing the Lord to the Chinese.

How bitterly ironic. Plastic White Jesus is made in a nation where just this month, more than 40 kids died when their school exploded in a ball of flame, because, as it turns out, the teachers and principal had enslaved the students, forcing them to manufacture fireworks.

I wonder if Plastic White Jesus was manufactured by enslaved school children, or just by imprisoned Christians?

The only truth on this package, it seems to me, is the big warning on the front which says, “Caution: Choking Hazard.” …….

I asked the store keeper why they sold Plastic White Jesus at a secular record store. I asked him if the owner was a Christian. He said, “no.” I said, “do you have a lot of overtly Christian customers.” He said, “no.” He said, “we sell them because there’s a big profit margin on them.” He said, “the people who buy them buy them not because they love Jesus, or have kids – they buy them because it makes them laugh…”

I was ashamed that someone claiming to be a Christian would make something like this.

I also laughed because it was so stupid and ironic. But what embarrassed me was that someone thought they were glorifying God, and yet everyone else thought they were making a big, sick joke. This supposedly Christian toy, turns out be a sacrilege.

I wish I were exaggerating, or even taking this too personally. But I’m afraid that I am not. However, I believe the Plastic White Jesus does profit us a little, by offering us all, for only $5.99+plus tax, a prophetic critique of the place the Christian religion has in modern human society.

It shows a Christian religion which for many is a vain thing, built around the misguided and shallow piety of yearning people, who are easily taken advantage of by con-artists (those Money Changers in the Temple), and who are laughed to scorn by a secularized society for whom God is nothing more than the foolish myth of a deluded people who buy things like the Plastic White Jesus so that their children might have “faith.”

Plastic White Jesus is for two kinds of people – those who think it glorifies God to sell “Christian toys,” and those who think that Plastic White Jesus is the funniest thing they ever saw in their entire life.

So again, I ask you, what is our true religion?

The desire for religious freedom inspired so many who founded this nation, because many of them shared the belief that the religion of their homeland was oppressive, corrupt and without any truth in it.

For example, Puritans and Quakers left England seeking religious freedom — to escape the persecution of an established religion tied from cross to crown with worldly power. To escape from having to support a religion which they believed had the holiness squeezed right out.

In those colonial days, our forebears in the Anglican tradition were loyal to an established Church whose Georgian Caesars assumed the work of the bishops, and whose bishops assumed the work of the Caesars. But for many English Christian nonconformists, they shared at least one good idea, “that Christ came to die on a cross, and that the only suitable place for his apostles and their descendants was not on the thrones and lists of imperial power, but in the stables and fields of common life as humble men and women.”

How sad it would become then, that those who sought a purity of Christian faith would in the end create that hypocritical theocratic monster which ran the Massachussetts Bay Colony for a hundred years – a Religious Government which history remembers not for its compelling witness to the love of a Crucified and Risen Lord, but for its witch-hunts and scarlet letters.

How sad it would become then, that the Society of Friends who sought to separate from a hypocritical Church of power and pomp, and who strove to establish a divine fellowship of friends of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit — would become increasingly less relevant in every generation, such that today few people even know what a Quaker is.

How sad it is that time and again the Lord sends us the message of his only Son, that we might not look to our own unruly wills and affections, but that we might heed God’s loving command, and find our place in an eternal now of promise and true joy.

How sad it is that we dwell as tenants in the Lord’s vineyard, and yet most of the time we send him little in return, and begrudge whatever we do, all the while hoping that one day the Lord will stay away altogether and we will keep the vineyard for ourselves.

How sad that even when we have dwelt in the real presence of Jesus in thought, word or deed –

we still make idols of what we want God to be, so that bit by bit, itch by itch, desire by desire, we put ourselves in the place of God. And we suit ourselves.

I believe Lent is the time when we must ask ourselves, “what is my true religion?”

Is it the trappings of a religious life? The music, the building, the clergy, the particular edition of the Prayer Book or the Hymnal? Is it the translation of Scripture that reminds us of our early days? Is it the first three bars of the offertory hymn? Is it the way the light shines through the windows?

“What is my true religion?”

Is it being tossed and turned in the challenge and excitement of a swift and variously changing world? Is it all the things about my life that I am given to enjoy? Is it my family members? My property? My dreams? My importance? My insignificance?

“What is my true religion?”

Paul writes that “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

He says, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

I don’t know what your true religion is, but I do believe that the essence of the Christian religion is this faith which Paul describes right here in Philippians. He says the essence of his life is not in the religion of laws and rules and trappings – but in the righteousness which comes from the gift of a living, spiritual faith in God, and in his desire to become like Christ in his death, sharing in his sufferings, in his resurrection, and in his infinite calling to live as one of God’s children, beginning right here in this life, and starting right now today – with no looking back!

You and I know pretty well that Plastic White Jesus is not what we put our faith in. Indeed, our Jesus Christ is so totally different than the values and message implicit in the Plastic White Jesus for $5.99 that I think we might both call it an abomination.

But yet you and I both know too, that while we may never offer a Plastic White Jesus for sale in our world, we have to ask ourselves – “What Jesus Do We Offer to those in the World Around Us?”

More importantly, “How do we share in the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering in the world we have been called to live in – every moment of every day?”

My brothers and sisters, I believe that if we take it upon ourselves that this is our true religion, “to take on the power of Christ’s resurrection by sharing in his suffering on the cross for all mankind,” then when we live the Gospels with our children – they will grow up to have faith. And not only our children, but the people around us too.

Amen.

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