September 19, 2010
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Hypocrisy! And so we begin the second in my little series regarding why people do not go to church and my rebuttles to the thoughts. Of course, I haven’t the faintest idea why anyone would want to miss my sermons. Maybe we should interrupt regular programming and show them on television …. During the Super Bowl!
Anyway, back to hypocrisy…..
It’s perhaps the single biggest reason people say they don’t go to church. In fact, according to UnChristian, a book based on surveys done by the Barna Research Group, among people with no religious affiliation in the 16- to 29-year-old bracket, 85 percent say one reason they don’t go to church is because Christians are hypocritical. And it’s such an easy dodge. One word: hypocrisy. When asked, folks simply respond, “Everybody there is a hypocrite and always judging me.”
Now, who is judging who here, is what I ask? They apparently have not come to our church; we are just full of self-confessed imperfects!
If you’re looking for a group of people who always live up to their highest values and who never say one thing and do another, you’ll need to look elsewhere — though we doubt you’ll find a group of any sort totally free of inconsistency anywhere on this planet.
But although it can be a healthy thing to acknowledge the contradictions between our profession of faith and our daily actions, it’s also useful to qualify our confession a bit. In the New Testament, the only time Jesus hurled the charge of hypocrisy was when people were doing something deliberately to appear outwardly different from what they were inwardly. For example, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, he spoke about people who gave to charity “so that they may be praised by others”. Likewise, he spoke against those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others”. He also chided the scribes and Pharisees for putting on appearances, saying, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”. Jesus called all of those people hypocrites, and the Greek word that’s translated “hypocrite” actually means “actor” or “stage player.”
How many church attendees do you suppose get up on Sunday morning and think, “I’m going to go to church so I can pretend to be righteous and appear to be holy”? No, when we church people admit to being hypocrites, we aren’t usually confessing to playacting. More often, we mean that we failed to follow through on our good intentions or that we can still see the gap between the people we feel called to be and the people we actually are. But we aren’t trying to deceive anybody; we’re seeing where we still need to work to bring our behavior up to the level of what we really believe. To get some perspective on this, there was a poll conducted by Homiletics magazine of its readers, all of whom are involved in ministry in one way or another, to ask when they’d heard the complaint that Christians are hypocritical. The results were revealing. While they’d all heard the hypocrisy charge from people outside the church, they had almost never heard anybody who was leaving a congregation say they were doing so because of hypocrites. More often, those folks explained their decision to depart in terms of what they perceived as somebody’s failing: The congregation was too insensitive or didn’t have enough activities for kids, the theology was different from their own, the sermons were boring, they didn’t like the new pastor (or his/her sexual orientation) or they had a small issue that was never addressed, which, after a lengthy period of festering, had become an irreparable riff. Some of these actually sound very familiar. One colleague told of losing a member because he was disappointed that the pastor hadn’t attended a family member’s wake. The pastor also had someone leave because of not feeling “fed” by the sermons, but hadn’t had even one person say he or she was leaving because of hypocrisy in the church. Another team member said he’d heard the hypocrisy charge a couple of times from spouses of active members, “probably to try to scare me off. My response is, ‘Always room for one more.’ The topic usually changes to weather or sports.” After everyone had responded, one team member wrote, “The perception of the nonaffiliated [about hypocrisy in the church] makes me think that it may fall mainly into the category of ecclesial myth, which is not to say it isn’t a real perception but that perceptions aren’t necessarily the same as realities.”
It appears, then, that when somebody is outside the church and has no intention of coming in, it’s easy for him or her to say it’s because of hypocrisy in the church. And because there are some gaps between our best intentions and our follow-through, the person can no doubt find an example of inconsistency in the behavior of a Christian. But church insiders are more likely to see those gaps differently. In other words, if you really get involved with members of a congregation, you are less likely to see problems in the church in terms of hypocrisy and more in terms of human failure. And when you’re talking about human failure, it’s easier to include yourself in that category. In fact, many people stay in the church because, though they recognize imperfections among both fellow attendees and themselves, they also see it’s a place where we’re called higher. And if you pay attention in church, you’ll often see people who are working very hard to follow Jesus faithfully.
Thus, one good reason to come to church is because it puts us in company with other people who also see that gap between their profession and practice, and care enough to want to narrow it. In church, we find people who aren’t that different from ourselves and who are on faith journeys similar to ours.
Of course, the church has its share of wing nuts and disordered personalities here and there and even real hypocrites. But those terms don’t describe the general population of those who go to church. For most of the people we meet there, a description Jesus gave in our reading is more on point.
That text includes Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager, a guy who’s such an outright rascal that we would never point to him as a model churchgoer. We can’t call him a hypocrite because he isn’t playacting at anything, and he doesn’t appear worried that he isn’t living up to a call from God. He’s simply looking out for his own hide, and he’s quite straightforward about it. Still, his employer, whom the manager is cheating out of expected income, can’t help but be impressed by the manager’s resourcefulness. We can imagine the employer speaking to a friend about the incident, saying, “That guy cost me a bundle, but you’ve got to hand it to him for his shrewdness. If only he’d put that kind of effort into the work I hired him for.” Yes, we can admire his cleverness, but we don’t go to church hoping to find people like him as Christian models. As Jesus draws out the implications of that parable, he says, “[W]hoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Clear enough. That fits the manager in the parable, so part of the point is “Don’t be like him.” But Jesus also states the application positively: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” and in those words is the description of most of the people we actually meet in church — people who are working hard at being consistent in their approach to both minor and major matters. Sure, even the most sincere Christians don’t always hit that mark. Nonetheless, it is good for our souls to be among people who keep striving to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
• It is good for our souls to be among people who accept responsibilities in the church — sometimes thankless and difficult ones — and show up week after week to fulfill them. • It is good for our souls to be among people who quietly go about their business on the days between church services and do their best to be faithful, honest and caring, whatever their duties are. • It is good for our souls to be among people who respond with unwarranted kindness to someone in need who unexpectedly happens across their path. Here’s an example. It’s a true story, but we’ll allow the pastor who tells it to remain unnamed: “I stopped at the local library one day to pick up a book I wanted. Afterward, as I was driving out of the parking lot, a filthy, scraggly man in ragged clothes pushing a shopping cart filled with what looked to be nothing but junk shambled across the lot exit. As I waited for him to complete his passage, the front wheels of his cart caught on a crack in the pavement and tipped over. I heard some glass shatter as the contents spilled out. This mishap occurred right in the middle of the exit, so there was no way I could get out of the lot until the man picked up his stuff and moved on. But clearly, that wasn’t going to happen quickly because he seemed to be in a kind of daze and was moving as if he didn’t quite know what to do. So I sat there in my car, drumming my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, getting more annoyed by the second. “Just then, however, the young woman who was in a car behind me got out and walked past my car to where the man was. In sharp contrast to him, she was nicely dressed, well groomed and appeared to be in full command of her faculties. I wasn’t close enough to tell, but I was pretty certain she smelled a whole lot better than he did, too. “As I watched, she bent down and began helping this poor man put his items back into his cart, and she continued until everything was loaded. She then helped him get his cart past the crack in the pavement, and he resumed his shuffle down the street. “I have to tell you that never in my life have I felt more like the Levite and the priest who passed by on the other side while the good Samaritan, in the form of this young woman, helped the downtrodden guy at the roadside. And here’s the irony: The book I had come to the library to get was one I wanted to consult for a sermon I was working on. But in that parking lot, I saw a much better sermon played out in front of me.”
We don’t know if that young woman was a church person. But anyone seeing her being “faithful in a very little” could reasonably conclude she’s someone who can be trusted to be “faithful also in much.” That example is more dramatic than most, but coming to church puts us in the company of some people who are working at being as faithful in little things as they are being faithful in big ones. And that can inspire us to continue working at that as well. If being faithful in a little thing can have that kind of effect, consider what effect being faithful in a big thing can have. Consider the grandfather of one of the five Amish girls shot to death in their Pennsylvania schoolhouse in 2006 by a gunman, who also seriously wounded five other girls. Standing next to the body of one of the victims, this grieving Christian turned to some Amish boys and said, “We must not think evil of this man.” There’s not a much bigger thing to be faithful about than forgiving the murderer of a loved one, so don’t you think that man can be trusted in little things, too? In fact, in his application of the parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus gave us a good description of what the Christian life should be: working at being faithful in little things so we can also be faithful in big things. Back in 1889, John Hunter, a Scottish Congregational pastor, penned a few lines about the gap between the Christian profession and practice, which he later published as a hymn. What’s encouraging about his treatment of the subject, however, is that it isn’t about a guilt trip but about continuing to follow the light of Jesus. His hymn is “Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See”: Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
all that I would, but fail to be, let thy clear light forever shine, to shame and guide this life of mine. Though what I dream and what I do in all my weak days are always two, help me, oppressed by things undone, O thou whose deeds and dreams were one!
That’s what Jesus does for us, and we come to church to keep our eyes on that light. But in church, we also find people much like ourselves, in whom we see glimmers of that light as we work together at being faithful in things both small and great. Sometimes the light of Jesus shows so strongly through their actions that it both shames and guides us.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.