Sunday, October 30th: All Saint's Day

There is a lot of groaning going on today. Throughout the Christian church, preachers who follow the lectionary scriptures are inwardly groaning at the charge of proclaiming this gospel passage. The theme of the texts and the topic of the day is hypocrisy. And nothing humbles a preacher more than being reminded that we are supposed to practice what we preach. Reading this first of seven woes proclaimed by Jesus to the teachers of the law is a recipe for feeling convicted. As I meditate on this passage, I cannot help but wonder how often in my sermons I have bound up a heavy burden to deposit on your shoulders even as I refuse to bear the exact same burden. How often have I been like a Pharisee, preaching one message and living another? How can a preacher preach about hypocrisy without facing her own hypocritical nature?

In the months since I’ve been preaching regularly, I’ve realized how much more easily I feel convicted. It’s one thing to read scriptures about the dire importance of loving God and neighbor and failing to do so; its another thing to passionately encourage your congregation to love God and neighbor and turn around and treat one of God’s children unlovingly.

My friend Stacey, who is a pastor in the Reformed Christian Church, recently wrote about her struggles with aligning her walk with her talk. After delivering a fervent message on forgiveness, she found herself in a situation that tested her own ability to forgive. She wrote, “I don't want to be forgiving. I don't want to care about reconciliation. What I want is to… at the very least, bid someone a fond "Don't let the door hit you on the way out." I want to get all righteously indignant and engage in some good old fashioned smiting. I want to lay out point by point exactly what was done wrong, in the least gracious way possible, and call it "church discipline."

Yes, I have a bit of a temper.
Sigh. Remember sermon. "Forgiveness is a better way, God's way." What was I thinking? Why do I emphasize the compassionate, loving aspects of God? If I had talked about judgment, at least I'd have an excuse...

It sounded so nice when I was saying it to someone else. I don't really even want to try to work toward forgivenss right now. But here comes that nasty, sneaky, little poking feeling of God saying, "You know, if you're going to get into a pulpit and tell people this is the best way, perhaps you ought to at least make a good faith effort yourself."

Rev. Stacey ended her recap of her internal argument by declaring that she has got to start preaching about smiting.

I can relate to Rev. Stacey’s struggle. One of the issues I struggle with is the dissonance between my ideals and my actions regarding consumerism. I could preach a fiery message about the spiritual vacuum of overconsumption. I could sound like a good old fashioned hellfire and damnation preacher, pounding on the pulpit as I condemn the culture of buying much more than we need, of allowing material goods to eat up large portions of our incomes, of failing to give generously on account of enormous credit card debt. And then I’d go home to the Sunday paper and make a beeline for the Target advertisement, forgetting my high-minded values as soon as I see the new designer series. Consumerism may break my heart, but it continues to break my pocketbook.

I may have new appreciation for the issue of hypocrisy, but Jesus’ teachings on the importance of practicing what we preach is relevant for all Christians. Clearly, Jesus was not happy with the Pharisee’s failure to coordinate their teachings with their actions. His central accusation is that they are prideful and blind to their own brokenness. He says, 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others... 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” They love the prestige of being religious leaders, but they are not transformed by the religious teachings they proclaim. The Pharisees put themselves before God; they wear their piety like a badge, using it to procure privileges.

Hypocrisy is a potent catalyst for mistrust. When you see that someone has behaved hypocritically, you feel betrayed. You no longer trust what the hypocrite says. And religious people have an enormous reputation for hypocrisy. Many non-Christians have strongly negative opinions about Christians, and the reason is that they perceive many Christians are hypocritical. Whether or not it is fair, non-Christians judge Christians when their actions fail to live up to biblical standards. No matter that no one is perfect; when a Christian acts in a manner that is unchristlike, people notice.

When words and deeds do not match up, a chasm forms. And that chasm is more dangerous than we might imagine. Faith can fall into that chasm of mistrust and disillusionment, and be lost. Many people have become so disgusted by the actions of Christians that they have rejected the church altogether. I have heard so many people claim that they like Jesus just fine—they just don’t like his followers. There are certainly lots of Christians who would send me running in the other direction if I wasn’t securely rooted in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Sometimes I wonder if people who claim to be Christians are any less likely to lie, cheat, steal, abuse, and judge.

Again, no one is perfect. We are all human and given to human failures; as we all know, being in relationship with God doesn’t prevent us from sinning. But this problem of hypocrisy among the Body of Christ is truly a crisis. Too many Christian people are acting like the corrupted Pharisees—and that is precisely what the gospel advises against.

The crisis of hypocrisy is causing many Christians to struggle with their identity as Christian people. We live in a culture that increasingly mistrusts Christianity; how, then, are we supposed to go about our way sharing the gospel of Christ from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth? This issue came up often during the eight weeks of our Talking Faith discussion group. We are people who have chosen to follow the way of Jesus; how do we communicate that to our neighbors in the shadow of so-called Christians who proclaim not the way of Jesus but the way of judgment, hatred, and deception?

We’ve got to get back to the basics, and recommit ourselves to not simply believing in the gospel, but living in a way that is fully informed by the good news of Jesus Christ. When we wake up each morning, we need to begin our days with a humble prayer, asking God to help us embody the love, grace, and forgiveness of the gospel. We can’t waste too much time fretting about the Christians who continue to practice hypocrisy; after all, judge not, or you shall be judged. We’ve just got to take a deep breath of the Holy Spirit and let that Spirit recreate us again and again according to the will of God.

There is a wonderful quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi— “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.” I might use words in the pulpit as the one called to be pastor of this community. But we are all called to be ministers of the Gospel when we are baptized in the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. And part of the ministry all believers are called to is the ministry of preaching. Perhaps not often with words. But always with actions. We must preach the gospel with every inch of our lives. That is not to say that we will not make mistakes. We will continue to fall short. But when we falter, we can model a way of humble repentance.

We can ask for forgiveness and do what is right to restore relationships when our actions hurt our neighbors.

During this season each time of year, the Church Universal celebrates All Saint’s Day. This is a time in the life of the congregation to remember those who have passed away, and to celebrate the lives of the whole communion of Saints. I know that this congregation has lost some extraordinary members in recent years, true Saints of the Church who lived graciously. These people were not perfect, but their integrity and humility make the connection between their walk and their talk seamless. Remembering and honoring this communion of Saints is part of our work as Christian people. As we endeavor to rid our lives of hypocrisy and become more Christlike, we need the examples of men and women who have traveled this same path.

We might groan under the burden of loosening ourselves from the grip of hypocrisy. I meant it when I said this scripture makes me groan as a preacher; I am humbled by my many failures to live up to the words I pronounce. But God’s grace transforms our groaning into songs of praise. God’s love turns our expressions of repentance into illustrations of forgiveness. Thanks be to God.

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