Grateful to Be Done with Religion


Hebrews 10:11-25 NRSV

I am done. I give up. I have nothing left. I just can’t do this anymore. It’s over. No matter how hard I try, nor how much I put into it, I can never get it right.

And I know that I am not the only one. In fact, do you know what the fastest growing “religious” group in America is called?  They are called “the Dones.” At one time, they tried religion. But now they are done.

But here’s the good news—here’s what may be the best reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving: The wonderful truth about the Christian faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what anyone may tell you, the church is not a religious organization.

While I was pastoring a church right out of seminary back in 1993, a deacon in our church asked me where I saw myself in twenty-five years. Although I didn’t mention Arkansas, I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”   I asked.

“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere. I don’t think you are going to be a pastor.”

“Why do you say that?”

He said, “For one thing, pastors are generally religious people. And you, my friend, are not very religious!”

What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not a religious organization. And the last thing a Christian pastor should be is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  It comes from the late Episcopal Priest Robert Capon: “Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.”

Now, for some people religion has absolutely nothing to do with God.

For example, some say that I run religiously. I have heard my wife tell me that I read Runner’s World magazine like the Bible. I read it religiously to reach beyond myself, to run faster, achieve good health so I can enjoy the good life!

We’ve observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the stock-market religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows a low-carb diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

We work out, eat right, study, go to work, follow a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some, religion is all about God. There are those who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. The main reason they go to church is to work on their relationship with God. They believe if they say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then they can be right with God and God will bless them. If they can conduct their lives in a certain way, they can place themselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

The bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion.  No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right.

We can read all about running and how to run fast, but we will probably get injured.

We can study the Wall-Street Journal religiously and still make a bad investment.

We can religiously follow a diet and still gain weight.

We can place all of our time and energy into our careers, going to work early and leaving work late, and still be unappreciated and miserable.

And when we finally arrive at the place where we think you we have it right with God. When we finally believe we’ve got it right in the religion department, guess what? It only leads to pride and arrogance. A church member once told me, “I am the most humble person in our church!”

Sure you are.

In his wonderful book Unafraid: Moving Beyond a Fear-Based Faith, Benjamin Corey writes about a strange encounter with someone who was religious.

Upon meeting the gentleman, he wondered whether he could ask me a few questions to determine what kind of Christian I was. For some reason, I agreed—and ended up quickly regretting my decision, because the two questions out of his mouth were: “Do you spank your kids? And “Do you think gays are going to hell?”

I was like, “Wait…what kind of survey is this?” I should have known that this True Christian Surveywasn’t going anywhere, but in that moment I was foolish enough to answer his questions.

When I answered “no” on both counts, and answered another question to indicate that I did not believe in the rapture, the gentlemen told me that the reason why I was an adoptive father instead of a biological father was because God was refusing to bless me with children.

The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to such nonsense, to put an end to religion.

Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Well, of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies.

And I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.

No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my shortcoming as a fragmented human being are not going to disappear. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and offers again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

Now contrast the posture of the priest to Jesus. Notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting down. “When Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. And through this great gift of God’s self, God revealed to the world that we should be done with religion.  Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right beliefs, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God.

We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ.

This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing in this set of principles or that set of ideals, in that biblical interpretation or in this style of worship. It is about trusting and following Jesus.

That is why we call it the gospel. That is why we call it good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged.

This Thanksgiving, I thank God that through Jesus Christ this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God that the church is not a religious organization!  If it hadn’t, as irreligious as I am, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, working hard, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. Religion is finished. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us. Our relationship with God has been made right through him.

So, instead of spending holy moments working on our relationship with God, we can spend some sacred time working on our relationships with others, loving others as we love ourselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We don’t need religion, but we still need church. However, we don’t need church to get right with God. We need church to discover ways we can get right with our neighbor. Because what this world needs is not more people who say they love God, but more people who love their neighbor with the unconditional, unreserved love of Jesus. We are free. We are free from fear. And we are free to love.

I know that there are some who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. They have never stepped out to follow Christ, to share the love of Christ with others, because they are waiting until they somehow get it right themselves. They are busy trotting back and forth to the altars of right beliefs, right thinking and right praying.

But this morning I am inviting all to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invite all to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

Thanks be to God.

Invitation to the Table

Each one is now invited to be served the bread and the wine of this table representing the broken body, and outpoured life of God.

There is absolutely nothing you can do to earn a rightful this table. There are no right words, right actions, or right beliefs. The good news is that when we could not make things right with God, God, through the sacrifice of Christ, revealed to the world that things have been made right. May we reflect on the sacrifice of God as we remain seated and sing together.



[i]Inspired from a sermon written by William Willimon.

Thanksgiving Day Collusion


Like many of us, after a big Thanksgiving meal, the only thing I want to do is take a nap. It is like I am in some drug-induced coma!

Several years ago, we were told that the culprit behind our Thanksgiving afternoon slumber and subsequent Advent hangover was too much Tryptophan!

Although scientists are now telling us that the amount of Tryptophan found in turkeys is no greater than the amount found in chicken, there still seems to be something about Turkey that makes it difficult to keep one’s eyes open watching the Dallas Cowboys Thursday afternoon.

Do you know what I think?

[warning: satire ahead]

I think there might be some type of criminal collusion afoot here, some type of evil conspiracy to make Christians sleep through the next four weeks that we call Advent! In addition to the Tryptophan, perhaps our turkeys have been inserted with some drug to make Christians miss the real reason for this most wonderful of seasons!

We essentially sleep through Advent and Christmas each year and miss the good news that the God who created the heavens and earth loves all of us so much that God humbled God’s self and became one of us, suffering for us even to the point of death, even death on the cross.

How else can one explain the number of Christians who believe God calls some people “abominations” simply because of the way they were born? How else can one explain the number of Christians who defend men who brag about molesting women or prey on fourteen-year old girls? How else can one explain how many Christians believe that God is behind hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires? How else can one explain Christians who dehumanize and scapegoat others for living a different faith, speaking a different language, or having a different skin tone? What else explains the apathy of so many Christians towards the poor and the marginalized? What explains the failure of so many Christians to love their neighbors?

Maybe Christians have eaten so much turkey at Thanksgiving that they’ve slept through countless Christmases!

Christians go through the whole month of December with their head in a fog, their souls numb to the good news that God is with us all and for us all, always working all things together in our world for the good. Every year, wearing turkey goggles, we somehow fail to see the good news of Christmas.

Now, I know I am not going to convince you to skip the turkey this year. Therefore, I urge all of you to plan to detox your souls by participating in our Advent Services of Worship leading up to Christmas Eve. Fight the terrible turkey withdrawals! Stay awake! And see the good news that God is Emmanuel, God with us!

Grateful for My Injuries

Running the OBX Marathon in Bo’s Memory

Last November, I was registered to run the Richmond Marathon. Then, I injured my hip. I notified the Richmond Marathon of my injury, and they graciously allowed me to defer my registration to this November. Then, I injured my knee.

Many people have told me that they are praying that I am able to run the marathon next November.

I began running marathons in 2007 with a group from the Oakmont Baptist Church of Greenville, North Carolina who proudly call themselves: “Oakmont Runners for Bo.” Bo was the only son of Rev. Beth and Tommy Thompson. Bo, a high school track star, was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after I took up running. I ran my first marathon with the group wearing a shirt bearing Bo’s name.

Running in Bo’s memory has helped me to keep life in perspective. It has also influenced my prayer life. Having been given the gift of nearly thirty years on this earth longer than Bo, thirty undeserved years, it is very difficult for me to pray for a pain-free hip or for comfortable knees.

Instead, I pray thanking God that I had the health and the ability to run and to risk injury. I pray thanking God that I have lived long enough to run almost 20 marathons. Instead of praying that I may be able to run another race, I pray thanking God that I was ever able to run any race.

I am afraid that too much of our prayer life is about asking God for more things, instead of about thanking God for the things we have. More often than not, we pray for God to keep us safe and secure from all alarms, instead of praising God for the inexplicable gift of life where risk and injury are inherent.

This Thanksgiving Season, may we truly count our blessings and name them one by one: life; breath; mobility; sunrises and sunsets; cups of coffee with a friend; sitting on the porch watching the rain; a warm embrace; love; and the list goes on and on and on.

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

eeyoreThe Apostle Paul admonishes us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

When life is good to us, it is easy to be thankful. We are thankful for the beauty of each day. We give thanks for the splendor of autumn and for the crispness in the air. We are thankful for cold mornings, the warmth of the sun at noon and for the brightness of the moon at night. We are even thankful for the more simple things in life: the excitement of football games, for warm cookies and cold milk and sweet potato pie, for movie theaters, for popcorn, for restaurants, for the pleasure received from Christmas shopping and for the brilliance of Christmas lights. When life is good, when life is happy, it is very easy to give thanks.

However, when life is cruel, and when life is miserable, thankfulness is something that comes hard. Autumn appears drab. The air seems stifling. Cold mornings only symbolize the frigid callousness of living. The sun is an annoying glare. The moon is irrelevant. Football and basketball games become pointless. Cookies and milk and pie are petty.

When your child is in the hospital, when your mother has just been buried, when your spouse is undergoing surgery, when you hear words from the doctor like cancer and Alzheimer’s— restaurants become mundane, movie theaters and popcorn are trivial. When you are laid off from work, when you are behind on your mortgage, when you are struggling to just buy groceries—Christmas shopping becomes oppressive and Christmas lights appear dismal.

So, how in the world are we ever to do the will of God by rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances?

In Philippians 1, we read how Paul himself did it during his imprisonment. Alone in a dark, dank prison cell, with being beheaded as his apparent destiny, Paul rejoiced. But, notice that Paul did not rejoice or give thanks for being restrained in a prison. Paul did not give thanks for the morning or the air. Paul did not thank God for the sun, moon or stars. He did not rejoice for flowers or trees or cookies or milk or pie. Paul gave thanks and rejoiced in the only thing that he had left in that dark, clammy jail cell. Paul gave thanks and rejoiced for hope. Paul hoped that the gospel would be spread with even greater boldness because of his imprisonment. Paul hoped that through prayers, the Spirit of Jesus Christ would work out all things for the good. Paul hoped that God would wring whatever good could be wrung out of this, his most difficult hour.

Hope was the only thing that Paul had left. And hope was enough. Hope was all that Paul needed to give thanks and to rejoice in his miserable circumstance. The good news is: for persons with faith in Jesus Christ, who offers us a living hope, who promises to always be with us for our deliverance, whatever our circumstances may be, who promises us a new life even when our old lives end— thankfulness can be something that comes easy.

We may not be experiencing happiness. We may not be able to develop an extensive list of things in which we are thankful. But, on the list of every believer, even if there is only one thing, there is hope. Life can take away much and destroy much in our lives. But, there is no thing and no one that can take away our hope. And, hope is always enough. So, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen.

Grace of Froot Loops

Froot Loops

Excerpt from Check Your Oil for The Farmville Enterprise.

How many times have you heard “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”? You don’t know what you’ve got until a relationship ends, a moment is lost, or a freedom is taken away.

A woman suffering with cancer, who lost her ability to perform even the most mundane tasks, once told me: “It is amazing how much we take for granted every day. Oh, how I would give anything in the world to be able to get up out of this bed, walk into my kitchen and just pour me a bowl of Froot Loops.” She went on, “When I was healthy, when I could get out of bed and walk to the kitchen, when I could feed myself, when I could chew and swallow my food, I don’t believe I ever thanked God for something as boring as a bowl of Froot Loops.”

Who in the world even thinks about the awesome gift of being able to do something as mundane and as boring as pouring a bowl of Froot Loops? Someone who can longer pour a bowl of Froot Loops thinks about it.

Who in the world thinks about the miraculous gift of being able to walk? Someone who has lost the ability to walk.

Who in the world thinks about the gift of healthy lungs? Someone living with COPD.

Who in the world thinks about their kidneys or their liver? Someone on the way to a dialysis thinks about their kidneys. Someone living or dying with cirrhosis thinks about their liver.

And who in the world the world truly thinks about the miracle that is their life, the miracle that is this creation? People diagnosed with a terminal illness do. Those who have recently lost a loved one to death do.

In one of his parables, Jesus said that some foolish bridesmaids missed the whole dance, because they forgot to fill their lamps with oil and did not see the bridegroom when he showed up. Jesus ended the parable with the admonishment: “keep awake” (Matthew 25).

Keep awake. Check your oil. Keep your lamp burning. Don’t miss the dance. Keep watching and keep looking, recognizing that we are never promised tomorrow. Take nothing for granted. Don’t wait until it’s gone to know what you’ve got. Treasure your lungs, your kidneys, and your liver. Cherish the ability to walk into the kitchen and pour something as mundane and boring as a bowl of Froot Loops. Relish every taste in creation. Revere every sight and every touch in this world. For in life, nothing is ever mundane. It is never boring. It is all miracle. It is all gift. It is all grace.