“My ancestors responded to the slave experience by expressing their feelings and faith in song,” said the Rev. Cynthia Hale during her sermon, “Have You Got Good Religion?” at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Tuesday. “Spirituals were the soul of a people in a dark, dehumanizing place with a cold, cruel master. Their faith is evidenced in song, and at the end of the day they would steal away to Jesus and preach their souls happy.”
Hale’s Scripture text was James 1:27-2:8.
“They [slaves] turned darkness into light and could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” she said. “They knew they were created in the image of God, and they set the record straight in song that they could be all God expected them to be.”
She sang: “‘Have you got good religion/certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord.’ The question is not have you got good religion but is your religion any good.”
In the Book of James in the New Testament, James says that it is God who determines what good religion is.
According to Hale, it means, in part, to look after the widows and orphans and to live a holy life.
“Religion means worship,” she said. “It is ritual and liturgy. James is saying that the finest liturgy is not just on Sunday but what we do when we leave this place. The question is not ‘Have you been baptized?’ but ‘What do you do now that you are baptized?’ It [worship] must be accompanied by loving ministry and a holy life.
“Our character must be spotless. We have to keep from being stained and polluted by the world,” Hale continued. “We are in the world and we have to interact with people and situations that can tempt and seduce us. [A spotless life] is not about feeling good. It is about doing good. It is about sacrifice and discipline. Clean living before God is not hard — just do it. Just submit to the word. James said to keep a tight reign on your tongue. Sometimes, it is not what you say but how you say it. Good character leads to good conduct.”
The phrase, “widows and orphans,” means those who are the most open to exploitation, the most vulnerable, Hale said. God defends, takes cares and provides for the poor, those in prison, those who need sanctuary.
“The God of good religion looks after folks who can’t look after themselves,” she said. “God expects us to handle God’s business in the world. He said, ‘Handle it until I get back.’ What do you think we are here for?”
Hale said that there are 49 million people in the United States who are food insecure and “they look like you and me. Children who go to school hungry can’t think, have higher degrees of absenteeism and can’t compete for the best jobs. The U.S. Department of State projects that 244,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation. Their average age is 14.
“If you are poor, you choose between eating and having a roof over your head,” she continued. “If you are poor, you choose between eating and getting medicine. When you are poor, you choose between eating and buying gas to get to work — your two or three jobs that still won’t keep your head above water.”
Hale cited that in President Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, the executive-to-be observed that people’s hopes were very modest.
“They want a living wage, for their children to go to college, clean air, a local grocery store with fresh vegetables and canned goods that are not past their expiration date, health care so if they get sick they will not lose everything,” Hale said. “People want to provide for themselves and they need a little help from somebody who cares.”
Can we accept the poor without prejudice, Hale asked. Can we not show favoritism to the wealthy or powerful? In his letter, James was addressing a natural response to honor those we think are important. But, Hale said, we are dismissing those who don’t live like us.
“God shows no partiality and neither should we,” she said. “God chose the poor to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom. They are our brothers and sisters. When we hurt one, we are all hurting. You have to keep the royal law — to love your neighbor as you love God. Loving God is to love our brothers and sisters without limits and conditions.
“We have to compassionately provide assistance,” Hale continued. “That is what Chautauqua is all about — I saw it on a billboard. Love. Compassion. Mercy. Good religion works. What good is it if you greet me and pass by and not check to see if I have what I need. Here [Chautauqua], you stop and look each other in the eye and give one another attention.”
As an illustration, Hale said that on Sunday an older gentleman gave her a kiss like her grandfather used to kiss her.
“I am single, and I don’t often get a kiss,” she said to conclude. “Good religion talks the talk and walks the walk. Jesus preached and then went out and healed the sick; he set people free. Jesus had good religion. Do you?”
The Rev. Ed. McCarthy presided. Rebecca Cole-Turner, hospitality coordinator at the United Church of Christ Headquarters, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir sang “Love” with text by Christopher Wordsworth and music by Gerald Near. The Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.