Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 30, 2011
The story is told of a preacher who was having a conversation with his wife after a morning when he delivered what he thought was a magnificent and masterful sermon, “Tell me, dear, how many truly great preachers do you think there are today?” “I don’t know,” she replied, “but I am quite sure there is one less then you think there are.”
Webster defines hypocrisy as a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion. The Gospel passage today reveals the tension that continues to build between Jesus and the religious authorities. He has a particular revulsion for their hypocrisy and he warns his disciples not to follow their example.
The Pharisees were scholars of Hebrew law and interpreted the commandments in the scriptures to see how they should be applied in everyday life. If the scriptures say that the Sabbath should be kept holy, the Pharisees would interpret exactly what this meant and what is prohibited on the Sabbath. Recall their taking Jesus to task when he healed someone on the Sabbath.
Jesus accuses them of not practicing what they preach, of laying burdens on others that were hard to bear, without offering to “lift a finger” to help ease the load. They imposed obligations on others and disregarded them for themselves. Jesus accuses them of making their faith a performance, a display for the benefit of others.
The Pharisees were heirs of a long history and their story is often grim reading. They were cruel, often callous, and dressed and acted in such a way as to draw attention to themselves. They were meticulous in keeping those parts of the Law which served to bring them into prominence such as making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. Phylacteries were boxes that were tied to the arm and forehead that contained words of scripture in them, and fringes were part of a garment worn by Jewish men as a mark of their devotion. The Pharisees, as an exhibition of their attachment to their pride in their piety, wore long and broad tassels, carrying this practice to the extreme to impress others. And they were obsessed with their titles and positions and with taking the place of honor wherever they went.
Jesus is not questioning the Pharisees’ adherence to the religious law but their arrogance and their love for positions of prominence. But he is not merely addressing problems with the leaders of the synagogue; he is building right into community, right from the first, a suspicion of titles, pride of place and position, and special clothing. The leaders who lead in Jesus’ name are to lead in humility. Ouch!
Now titles and special clothing and positions are not necessarily bad things and Jesus is not attacking them per se. Our judges in America wear special clothing as do our physicians and we address them as “Your Honor” and “Doctor.” Most of our clergy wear some identifiable dress and have some distinct title depending on their denomination. What disturbs Jesus—and gives the Church or any other institution, civil or religious—a bad rap is the abuse of power that comes with the human flaw of hypocrisy from those in leadership positions.
We who are in those positions have the ability to “tie up heavy burdens on others” like the Pharisees and demanding requirements for faithful living that make it impossible for others to live up to its standards. Religious institutions run the risk of being overly proud of themselves, and its religious leaders are sometimes pompous and arrogant, convinced that they are doing a great job, when they are actually creating obstacles for people who need the care and compassion that Jesus wants the church to offer. Jesus holds us to the same standards that he held the Pharisees.
I want to make it very clear that no denomination, no church, no local faith community is immune from this pitfall—including the Episcopal Church. All of us need to be on our guard not to let religion do more harm than good by fostering a closed-minded belief system and restrictive ways of belonging. Religion has the sublime potential to be like a love affair when it opens up the world and extends the boundaries of belonging and believing. The best of religion is a quest for meaning and community where we find life and energy that heals rather than wounds, loves rather than hates, embraces differences rather than seeks to eradicate them.
I hope that you have found that here. It is my sense that this is why you have continued to return and worship in this community. It is not a perfect church. It is not without its defects. It is, I believe, a unique and rather amazing place and I think that are few and far between. This is not to boast nor is it a pompous, arrogant or condescending expression of pride. It is a humble recognition that, by the grace of God, we have to the best of our ability, tried to do what Jesus asked us to do when he founded this thing we know as “the church.”
Here we welcome diversity as the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We don’t concern ourselves that everyone in the pews believes exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time but want to be sure that no one is left out of our pews because of what they believe. who they are, or where they came from. We don’t worry whether or not the world sees us as powerful–just that when they see us that we are engaged in practicing justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly with one another and with the God who loves us all equally and unconditionally.
“In Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost said that ‘home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.’ I believe that we all ache for a community that will take us in, with all our warts and quirks and petty meannesses –and yet they still celebrate when they see us coming! I hope with all of my heart that you have found home here—and in gratitude for that grace will empower this place to continue to offer that blessing for others. It is not only important and meaningful work. It is sacred and life-giving.