The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Trinity Episcopal Church
RCL Year A - Proper 26 - October 30, 2011
It almost comical – when people ask me how long I have been a member of the Episcopal Church, I tell them that I am a cradle Episcopalian – To some folks, this implies that I was born into the Episcopal Church and raised by parents who were members of the Episcopal Church. However, I quickly have to clarify it… I consider myself a “cradle” Episcopalian, but that doesn’t meet the purest of the definitions. I am a Cradle Episcopalian that remembers my baptism – because I was baptized when I was 4 years old.
My parents did not grow up in the Episcopal Church, and were not members of the Episcopal Church when I was born. They were members of another branch of Christianity, a denomination that is considered much more zealous as the minister gets up in the pulpit and preaches what are referred to as hellfire and brimstone sermons. Sermons that try scare people into believing this or that, trying to enforce a self-created religious purity code of uber-righteous living. A standard that no member of that church or anyone else for that matter could live into.
Well, it caught up with them… I have heard the story many times… My mom and dad were in church one Sunday and there was the preacher, beating on the pulpit, telling the folks that if they did or didn’t do this or that they were going to hell in a hand-basket… You can’t play cards, you can’t dance, you are not allowed to have a beer with your pizza, you weren’t allowed to read certain books or listen to your favorite band on the radio, because those things were laden with the devil.
What the gentleman that was spewing these things from the pulpit didn’t know is that he had been caught… caught at a local establishment in the company of a young lady that wasn’t his wife, drinking and listening to the devil’s music. Hypocrisy is a nasty thing that can destroy a community of faith.
The story goes that my mom, not wanting to ascribe to the hypocritical rules of that community anymore – in the middle of the sermon – picks up me and the diaper bag and leans over to my father and tells him that she’ll be waiting in the car… The rest is history…
The readings this morning are full of the same ideas, “They preach, but they do not practice.” “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” These are Jesus’ indictments against the scribes and the Pharisees… Hypocrites, that Jesus calls “blind guides” and a “brood of vipers” in other parts of scripture. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a self-righteous and pious group of people that had perverted the intent of the commandments of God to such a degree, they no longer were able to practice what they preached.
They wore phylacteries – little leather boxes that contained the words of the Shema and Torah strapped to their arms and to their foreheads – with little practice in their life or understanding of how to follow them or live into what they were wearing. In Jesus’ eyes, they were doing it just to look important and be seen as pious individuals, showing others how religious they were. It was common in Jesus’ time and place to accost someone in public that wasn’t practicing what they were preaching… So that is exactly what Jesus was doing.
And so here we are today… struggling together to learn what Jesus is trying to teach us. Trying not to live hypocritical lives and be seen as more important than any other… trying to be true to ourselves and help those around us the best way we know how. It’s our Christian life, and it’s a daily struggle…
And being the priest, the called leader in the Christian community, the struggle is even greater – because others constantly have differing high expectations, opinions and ideas of what you are supposed to do (or not supposed to do) and how (or how not) you are supposed to do it.
In fact, Bishop Porter Taylor warned our group of candidates as we were preparing for our ordination. He warned us to be careful and stay true to yourself and who we were or we would most assuredly lose our soul. I can attest to you that after several years of ordained ministry, he words are wise and very correct.
I have seen some folks get so tied up in who they thought they were as ordained people – that they forget “who they are” and “whose they are” as beloved children of God… I hope and pray that I have remained true to myself and continue to remain true to myself…
Those of you that have grown to know me over the past 6 months, know that I still try to remain the first to knock myself off of any pedestal that people try to put me on – and if I ever fail to do that, I can always trust my beloved wife to step in and do it for me – because we know that hypocrisy can ruin a Christian community.
But, for us Episcopalians – it’s sometimes a very hard concept for us to get our heads around – with me as your priest, standing her in a pulpit wearing a long colored robe, bowing to the cross as I take my place of prominence in the liturgy, facing the altar to pray on behalf of the community, and empowered to break bread and bless wine so that they become for us the presence of Christ in our communion.
We have obvious pious practices that help us engage the divine and worship God with gestures and bodily motions. So, it’s difficult to hear readings that seem to tell us not to be pious and not to call others father, rabbi, teacher, or even instructor… when in fact, the Christian church has called the leaders of the community father since it’s foundation – mostly as a symbol of relationship of the community to the one who nurtures the community and sometimes needs to exercise discipline and make tough decisions. Paul even refers to himself as one who relates to the community at Thessalonica as a father, urging and encouraging and pleading with his children.
Jesus’ warning here in Matthew is to the Pharisees, a group of people who thought themselves more important than others, more righteous - deserving of God’s favor… it was an attempt to knock them off of their pedestal and have them come to their senses about who they really are and what they were really doing. Jesus knew that the Pharisees had empty practices that didn’t do anything for them – they just wanted to be seen by others. They flaunted their piety in order to win human approval – not approval from God.
In the life of the hypocrite, the light of self-promotion is always on and narcissism always prevails. And in this lesson, Jesus uses the term hypocrites as a broad term when he speaks to the crowds and his disciples and focuses the attention of the crowd on those who seek human approval and praise, rather than approval from God.
And then, without us realizing it, Jesus gives us a remedy to this hypocrisy – pure divine grace. God’s love and favor for us doesn’t need human approval… if we accept God’s love for us and believe and intend to live a life worthy of God… Jesus keeps on loving us and loving us, despite all of our human failings and blemishes.
Neither the problem nor the solution lies in the clothing we wear or the terms that designate our place in the community… The point of today’s reading is clear and it is found repeatedly in the teachings of Jesus…
Jesus is telling us again that God always comes first! Nothing else deserves first place or preference… Nothing else gets to be placed on the pedestal, if you are truly to be called a servant of God.