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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Religion at Christmas

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This Christmas Eve there will be candles burning. Lots and lots of candles burning. Our church turns off the lights at the end of the service and we light our candles and sing Silent Night. The more traditional churches like the Roman Catholic Church probably have enough burning candles in them to outshine New York City on New Year’s Eve. Some contemporary churches will have their congregants holding battery powered electric candles. Safer, but not very cool. All throughout the world this week there will be praises, prayers, singing and burning candles. This is how we Christians worship during the Christmas season. However, this is not religion.
That last statement has probably gotten some of you to shake your heads or wrinkle your noses. If our celebration of Christmas is not religion then what is? It depends on how you define the term, as opposed to how I define the term. Most people define it in a very broad sense. If a person is worshipping something whether it is God in Heaven or a dandelion, then that person is practicing religion. I do not define religion in this way. In my definition it is not enough to worship God or whatever it is you believe in. It is not enough to light a candle and sing a song. It is not enough to believe in something. These aspects are all a part of how we express our religious belief, desires and feelings. However, they are only a very small part of what religion is.
When asked “which is the greatest commandment”, Jesus responded; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). Notice that neither of these are in the 10 Commandments. Instead Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. The Deuteronomy passage is part of the Shema, the foundation of the Law of Moses: “Here O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is One”. The worship practices cited above would fall under this commandment. Religious people are to worship God with everything they have and everything they are. And so those of us who have faith in God do just that, at church services, synagogue services, etc… For Jesus, this commandment is not enough.
His second command is to love your neighbor. This comes from Leviticus and is surrounded by a host of laws some of which we wouldn’t consider too important today. “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Lev. 19:19). I think I’m in trouble with The Lord because of my cotton/polyester blend sweater. And yet, Jesus lifts up loving your neighbor as the second most important law besides loving God. And though I have said that these two commandments are not in the 10 Commandments, they are the foundation of the 10. The first 5 commandments are all concerned with loving and honoring God. The second 5, are concerned with loving and honoring people. I hope that you can see, being a religious person is more than being a devote worshiper. It is also about treating each other with dignity, love and respect.
Whether you agree with me or not, my definition of religion is; Loving God and Loving People. It’s as simple as that. A so called religious person is not religious if he/she do not place both of these concepts at the foundation of their life. All of the candles, all of the prayers and praises, all of the religious practices in all of the world do not amount to a hill of beans if the people involved do not love their neighbors. You can pray to a dandelion all you want, and it can make you feel good, but if you treat the people around you like garbage, your prayers and your good feelings will disappear like your godlike weed when the winter sets in.
So when you light your candles and sing your songs this Christmas, just remember as you step outside into the cold. Love God and Love People, religion hangs on these two commandments.
God bless you and Happy Christmas,
Pastor Bill

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