By now you can see the progression in this series. The yeast that emerged in the forerunner John the Baptist has spread throughout the loaf now and the biggest story of our lives enlarges right before us. Today I’d like to share a bit of my story to illuminate the challenge before us.
There is a reason I’m an online pastor and it’s not rebellion, it’s mercy. Don’t get me wrong, I tried climbing. How many twelve year olds do you know who have a life goal of serving as a pastor? That was me. Something big happened in my heart and I wanted to do something big. I wanted to save the world through religion. I’ve given everything to this pursuit. I have a BA, MA, and PhD that prove my skin in the game. Like you on your journey, my path was also that of assimilation and rejection.
I entered Bible college at age eighteen. Within months I realized I was already being marginalized. When it came to rock music, Stryper was allowed, but Metallica was not. I was fined countless times for integrity to good music, but told that I lacked purity. It’s insane that a tangential issues became central to my college’s character assassination. I figured it was the college, so I left and went to another.
My twenty-five year career pastoring in countless capacities was the same process of assimilation and rejection. Every church wanted to grow, none wanted real change. My jet ski could not tow the ocean liner. My pithy influence meant that our points of disagreement became the fuel to resist change. It wasn’t a matter of denomination, theology, church structure, or any external thing. In each case, leaders were fearful that change would cut off their economic engine.
And what change was i seeking?
Jesus told his religious authorities to “Go and learn what this means… ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” (Matthew 9:13).
I was simply pressing this truth into the system. We needed less structure, less control, less external measuring. We needed inclusivity, and an open handed posture. We needed to rewrite our bylaws, make theology tangible, make worship meaningful. Mercy to the poor, mercy to the gay, mercy to the divorced, mercy to immoral, impure, drunk, hateful, or proud.
When Jesus met the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11) and the religious people were going to stone her, his correction was to address those who would condemn. When faced with their own need for mercy, they dropped their stones and walked away. Mercy led the way. Mercy sent the woman on her way. Mercy didn’t send her to church. Mercy instructed her to start life all over again with better choices. Mercy didn’t leave her dead under a pile of rocks.
Mercy subverts religion.
Religion must be subverted because it cannot be overpowered. Jesus never established an alternative religion, his teachings and life chart the path of subversion and freedom. Freedom is not the absence of institutional involvement. The goal is not commitment-phobia. It’s freedom from institutional identification–unto–identification in God. Freedom isn’t having no captors, it’s choosing your captor.
Mercy liberates, sacrifice burdens. Mercy compels us, sacrifice obligates us. What seems so obvious becomes muted among rising egos within institutional power. On the inside, those who wield the scripture are those endowed to induce the most ethical violence on others. I know because in my last post I had exchanged mercy for doctrinal precision as if God desired mental attestation to theology instead of mercy. When I left, I forfeited my entire career and vowed to relearn what mercy means.
Perhaps the greatest irony in life is that Religions that promise a path to God or heaven actually reject the idea that anyone can find God without them. All the great figures of our worlds religions were all able to find God without religion. Then those coming behind the founding fathers entombed us all within an institutional framework.
What does an institutional framework based on mercy look like? Is it even possible?
Religion runs deep. It’s a tabu topic at dinner parties because it breeds contention and insides division as we compete to prove our cinnamon roll recipe is the only one that counts. Religion is so long standing and steeped in tradition, that very few will ever break free from its grasp. Our scientific world is increasingly rejecting historical religion without realizing that science is but another version to replace it. “Meet the new boss–same as the old boss.” -The Who
Even if we were to build a religion based in mercy, there are too many can’t or won’t compete in the marketplace that see institutionalized religion as their ticket to full-time vocation. Ministry of mercy compels us to serve. Ministry as vocation puffs us up and creates distinctions.
Religion is so steeped into our human experience, it’s power cannot be understated. We will create a religion out of everything. Imagine running a sports team based on mercy and not sacrifice. The hallmark of religion gone bad is competition. If it threatens you, or convinces you there is another team for you to hate, then you are in deep. Religion based in sacrifice will try and reabsorb you through works, but if it can’t then it has the power and the ethos to kill you. If religion can’t kill you physically, it will kill you socially, racially, and economically.
Embracing the identity of Religion is precisely Jesus’ definition of losing our true self and dying in ones sin (John 8:24). Unless we see beyond the light show, we will die imprisoned with a pseudonym instead of our true name.
I know it sounds like I’m suggesting that we all leave our religions or stop going to church. I’m NOT. I am asking you to evaluate whether your religion is a framework of mercy or a tradition of sacrifice. You might be in an organization for the good of humanity or you might be imprisoned in an egoic power structure that is plundering your life.
Does your religion sees insiders as better than others? Then it’s puffed up and not following love (1 Corinthians 13:4). Are your leaders sitting at the top or serving at the bottom? If you can’t access them, then it’s not love (Mark 10:43). Does your religion creates distinctions between insiders and outsiders? Then it is not mercy (Romans 10:12).
Mercy doesn’t wear religious clothes. Mercy doesn’t wield power over others, it subverts the powers over others. Mercy sees oneself in all others. Mercy doesn’t keep score. Mercy doesn’t judge your behavior. Go and learn what Mercy means…
Why would you spend another day being defined by such an organization? Mercy frees you. Perhaps the best test of all is to just walk away. Take six months off. During that time, your organization will reveal itself to you. Mercy frees you into your life, sacrifice will coerce you to stay. Stay only where you are compelled by love, not obligated by duty.
See how mercy is subversive? If enough people follow mercy, then institutions of sacrifice will crumble and fall. This was always the goal of Jesus. He offers a replacement that is based in love and free to all comers. Perhaps one day, only that type of religious organization will exist. Until then, mercy will continue subverting institutional evil.
No wonder religion wanted Jesus dead. Religion leveraged its power on Jesus, now its our turn to leverage his.