The heart of religion

14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Deut. 4:1-9; Ps. 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

Linda Espenshade and Silas Crews, a writer-photographer team from the MCC U.S. communications office, visited Jordan this week to document stories of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and the MCC Jordan partners who work with these uprooted communities.

An Iraqi student from the “Higher Education at the Margins” program visits with Linda Espenshade

On Monday, we visited an education center operated by Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of Amman.  Originally opened to offer services to Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the center now also serves Palestinian, Somali, Sudanese and Syrian refugees.  We were present for the first day of a new online Liberal Studies Diploma program, “Higher Education at the Margins,” designed for urban refugees in Amman, Jordan.

Colin Gilbert, JRS Jordan director, talks with Linda Espenshade outside the JRS center in Ashrafiyeh

JRS is increasingly seeking to address the Syrian refugee crisis.  Some 15 Syrian women from Homs showed up for the first day of fall activities at the Ashrafiyeh center, and described the kinds of training they hope to receive from JRS.

Silas Crews photographs two Syrian boys at the Caritas center in Mafraq

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we accompanied Caritas Jordan on visits with Syrian refugee families in Mafraq and Zarqa.  With support from MCC and other agencies, Caritas Jordan has mounted a major response to Syrian refugees, offering food items and other material resources such as relief kits, blankets and health kits. The majority of refugees we visited blamed the Assad government for the violence in Syria, but one family placed the blame on the rebel groups, who they described as “terrorists.”

Entrance to the Za’atari refugee camp near Mafraq

We were able to drive by (but not enter) the Za’atari refugee camp, now home to some 25,000 refugees — and site of several riots during the past week.  The camp is in the middle of the desert where temperatures rise above 100 degrees and dust storms are frequent.

A Syrian woman at Za’atari camp carries her baby while doing the laundry (AP photo)

Officials are struggling to create infrastructure to serve an average of 1,500 refugees arriving daily. This two-minute UNHCR video offers a view of the enormous challenges faced by the refugees and the agencies seeking to work with them. Jordan is now hosting 177,000 Syrian refugees, at an expected cost of $150 million by the end of 2012.

Dust storms are only one challenge for Za’atari camp residents (photo by Linda Espenshade)

On Thursday, we accompanied MCC partner YWCA Jordan on a visit to the Baqa’a refugee camp where YWCA offers a human rights training program for Palestinian women in Jordan.

MCC Jordan program coordinator Nada Zabaneh engages a Syrian boy at Caritas Jordan’s center in Mafraq

We also hosted Mark Brown, Jerusalem director for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), who was in Amman to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization, outlining LWF response to the escalating Syrian refugee crisis.

The Common Lectionary readings this week focus on the heart of religion – genuine religion vs. phony religion.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses warns God’s people to give heed to (Deut. 4:1), keep (v.2), hold fast to (v.4) and observe (vv.5, 6) God’s commands. In so doing, the people will model to the surrounding nations God’s nearness and justice (vv.7, 8).

Taking a break from a hard week of work, Linda rides a camel at the Dead Sea

The psalmist says that true religion is expressed by dwelling with God and treating others justly and with respect.  Practicing true religion is to: walk blamelessly (Ps. 15:2a), do what is right (v.2b), speak the truth (v.2c), not harm neighbors through word or deed (v.3), hate evil and honor those who fear God (v.4a), keep promises even when it’s difficult (v.4b), and not charge interest or take bribes (v.5)

In the Epistle reading James writes,  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God  . . . is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). It means to be doers of God’s word, not simply hearers (vv. 22-25).

Silas exchanges his camera for a chance to float in the Dead Sea

In the Gospel reading, the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for failing to observe religious rituals such as properly washing their hands and eating utensils (Mark 7:1-5).  Jesus condemns the Pharisees for rejecting God’s commandments in order to keep their human traditions aimed at keeping up appearances.  Jesus says that true religion is not about outward rituals but is a matter of the heart. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (v.22)

Sunset over Amman, as viewed from the JRS center in Ashrafiyeh

Sadly, religion too often earns a bad name.  It is used as badge to advance claims of being superior to others.  Or as a sword to strike down those who are different.  Indeed, inter-religious conflict has been a prominent component of wars across the centuries.  Other times religion has been used as a club to impose strict rules.

The Common Lectionary readings helpfully remind us that true religion is concerned with justice, with right relationships and with matters of the heart.  Such religion is not about badges and swords and clubs.  Rather, it is winsome to the nations, reminding others that God is near and God is just.

Our granddaughter Sydney is crawling and does her best to talk to us on Skype (photo by Holden Byler)

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