SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, SEPTEMBER 27th, 2020
You’ve got to love Steve Conroy of Kentucky. No, seriously, you do have to love him because God says we should love everyone. But you might find it hard to love Mr. Conroy when you learn why he is worth starting this sermon with. Because in 2003 Mr. Conroy was prosecuted for burglary and the fraudulent use of a credit card. He’d actually picked his way through the purses of some women while they were attending a church meeting, lifted a credit card, and then went shopping. Now, what makes his case newsworthy is where Mr. Conroy chose to use the stolen credit card. It was traced to a Christian bookshop. He bought ten copies of a Bible study resource called Making Peace With Your Past, as well as a follow-up study called Moving Beyond Your Past. When police searched Mr. Conroy’s home, they found receipts for the purchases. Stealing books about how to stop stealing.
“The church is full of hypocrites”, my friend told me. “There’s always room for one more”, I replied. It seemed like a witty way to defuse her anger and bring a smile to her face. Turns out I was just a wise guy, who failed to read the room. Because, of course, she was right. If hypocrisy is the art of saying one thing but doing something completely different, then the church is full of hypocrites. I suspect that if you compare the virtues and vices of the average church-goer with those of the average member of any other community organization, we’re no worse than anyone else – there’s just as much dishonesty, envy, racism, immorality, greed, and selfishness in other community groups; it’s just that we Christians have less excuse than those others. The whole point of the church is to live the values of Christ and to reflect them to the world. And we’re spectacularly bad at fulfilling that purpose. If we were what we are called to be, then our churches really would be full – not of hypocrites, but of people who recognize God is here and who can’t stay away.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells a story about an ‘all mouth and no action’ hypocrite. He is all talk and no walk. His dad asks him to go and work in his vineyard.
The boy’s mouth says, “yes”, but his legs say, “No”, his heart says, “Must I?”, his brain says, “I’ve got better things to do,” and his rear end, well, that just stays buried in the sofa.
He has a brother, this lad, who is the exact opposite. He does not make grandiose promises to his dad. In fact, he flatly refuses to go and pick grapes. But, what this young man lacks in talented talk and winning words he makes up for in obedience. He is the hero of the story, he changes his mind, obeys his dad, and does a hard day’s labor in the vineyard. His mouth says, “No”, but his life says, “Yes.”
Jesus tells this tale of turnarounds to show the religious leaders their hypocrisy. They are the son who just talked the talk. They are full of hot air about God and faith, they relish dictating to everyone how they should behave, but they don’t do it themselves.
Hypocrisy – the disease of the righteous, the sickness of the religious. Hypocrisy is a strange ailment because it’s not the carrier who suffers the most, but those they come into contact with. Because we all know the aggravation of having a hypocrite as an acquaintance. I was going to say as a ‘friend’, but hypocrites don’t have friends, except other hypocrites. The problem is their hearts are never content. You can’t be content if you are living by double standards. The person who judges others for their immoral behavior, while secretly doing the same things is haunted by their lack of integrity, their lack of integration. They have cut themselves up into little pieces that are in conflict with each other. There can be no peace in the heart of the person who is living a lifestyle that their own hearts condemn. And when you look at it that way, maybe the hypocrite is worthy of our pity. They are kind of pathetic because they lack the courage to be real with others and even with themselves.
The problem is especially acute for ‘professional Christians’ or public figures who profess a faith. And how the media love to point out the hypocrisy of those who on the surface are full of Christian morality and ethics, but in secret are failing to live up to their words. And if there’s one thing that will drive people, especially younger people, away from the Christian Church it’s hypocrisy. Young people seek authenticity. They are rightly sick of hypocrisy, and they can smell it from ten miles way. Never underestimate the power of an authentic life or an inauthentic one.
Now, I actually think it is a good thing that the media and young people have a powerful radar for hypocrisy. Because the Christian Church has nothing to fear from the truth. When people speak the truth they are talking the language of God. The truth is our friend, even when it is embarrassing and shows us up to be the sinners we are. The truth sets us free. It will heal, even if it hurts; it will build up even if it has to destroy falsehood and pretense first. So yes, we can feel ashamed of the pastor who preaches sexual fidelity but is secretly cheating on their spouse, the TV evangelist who preaches honesty but is secretly committing fraud against people who give them money, the priest who preaches peace and justice but who runs the parish with a rod of iron and won’t tolerate disagreement. And we can be angry and embarrassed about politicians who parade their faith to garner votes but whose private lives are incompatible with their ‘family values’, and others who boast that are motivated by public service but are undone by the financial corruption that hides beneath the disguise of righteousness. Should we condemn the media for uncovering hypocrisy? No. The Church is on the side of Truth. God invented truth and owns it. When someone speaks the truth, even if it brings shame to a famous Christian then we can’t pretend the truth is a bad thing.
Hear the Word of the Lord: Don’t be like The Queen Mary. No, not that Queen Mary – the wife of King George the Fifth. By all means be like her – if you can marry a future sovereign and live in splendid power and luxury then do it, you have my full support, and make sure you pledge 10% to the church in our upcoming stewardship campaign. No, I mean don’t be like the other Queen Mary, the ship. When she was launched in 1936 she was the largest vessel in the world. She served honorably through four decades and a World War, before retiring to the tranquil waters of Long Beach, California. She began a retirement career as a luxury hotel. Her majesty is easily recognizable by her three massive chimneys or smokestacks that had served her well for many thousands of miles. When she was being refitted for her post-retirement life, the smokestacks were removed from her to be scraped of all the rust and then repainted. But when the huge crane placed the smokestacks gently on the dockside they crumbled. Over decades of salt water, sea gales and ice storms, the 3/4-inch steel plate from which the stacks had been made, had gradually corroded and disintegrated. All that remained were thirty coats of paint that had been applied over the years.
Yes, that Queen Mary. Don‘t be like that Queen Mary. Don’t go disintegrating on the inside but pretend everything is OK on the outside. Don’t hide your decay under thirty coats of veneer. Don’t claim all is well, when behind the squeaky-clean façade, dwells a soul that is out of kilter and deep in need. When I take off my clergy robes, when I remove the plastic collar from around my neck, and step aside from my role, is there anything of real substance there, or am I just thirty coats of paint hiding an inner life that has been eroded to nothing by the pain and the comfort, the defeats and the victories of daily life? Because comfort and success will erode your spiritual substance perhaps even better than pain and defeat will.
Spiritually speaking, the only people who can’t be healed are those who don’t think they’re sick. For the rest of us, health, wellness, fullness are freely offered. They have been paid for by the death and resurrection of Christ. How foolish to only talk the talk, to deny to ourselves the true state of our lives, and then to reject the light of God from cleaning us and restoring us. Christ saves us – but he will only save the real us – the us who know we need it. He can’t save our false selves, the mask-wearing actors we often feel the urge to be. Here’s what we all know: Saints are not perfect people, we’re people who know we’re not perfect and so rely on God’s grace. The only facades in heaven are the ones on the front of the mansions that God has prepared for us.
The popular Christian author, John Ortberg, in his book ‘Everybody’s normal until you get to know them’ writes about the yearning that human beings have for intimacy. That deep longing to be truly known by someone else. There can be nothing so magnificent in life as to tell another person exactly who you are and what you are like, and to experience that person’s acceptance anyway. That sense that you don’t have to wear a mask or hide your secret sins, but that if you share them you will still be loved. Ortberg says, “To live with an unveiled face means I will try never to pretend to be more than I really am. I will give up trying to please everyone in my life; pursue the courage to express what I truly value, enjoy, and love even if I think the person I’m talking to will disagree or disapprove; and acknowledge it openly when I get something wrong, instead of giving in to the temptation to hide it, manage it, or put a positive spin on it.”
Dare we trust God enough to give him our secrets, and to live with integrity. No masks, no facades, no hypocrisy. I know we can. So may God give us the will and courage to do so.