Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on November 5, 2023.
What comes to mind when we hear the word hypocrite or hypocrisy? What are the teachings that we carry out into our lives that we live out? And why? And what are the words that we speak into the void?Read more: Unfinished Education
Today’s Scripture is part of the ongoing discussion, much like some church meeting discussions. Fortunately, I haven’t been in one this heated in this congregation in a while, and I’m appreciative of that. But I can think of some others and I won’t name their locations. And this is the continuing conversation within the temple that we have talked about over weeks now. It’s also a continuation in Jesus’ critique of the way that the scribes and the Pharisees have been conducting religion.
I think it’s worth stating that the way that the scribes and the Pharisees started out was a way of trying to be devoted to God and to show God’s power over their lives. It was in different ways for each of them. The scribes and the priests were part of the temple complex and they understood that this place, this sacred place where God was said to dwell most, this is the place where we should all turn our eyes and turn our hearts, turn our attention. And this is why the temple was so central, so sacred, not just to the history that had been built up over layers over time, the community that had been there. It was a place that you could feel the community reaching back, time out of mind in the hope, the expectation for community to extend further beyond anyone could imagine. That’s part of why it was such a heartache, such a wound to the soul for all of Judaism, when the temple was destroyed about 40 years after Jesus died.
The Pharisees understood that the temple could not continue to be the center of worship for a people that were becoming as scattered as Judaism was. They understood that for the people to actually be in all of these places to which God had called them, and for the people to be that same light and continue to worship, they would have to find a different way of worshiping. And so for them, worship was centered around the family meal, around the family table. Worship was structured not so much in hierarchy, but in delving into the scriptures day by day as much as you were able, given what your role in the community was and with the understanding that some people needed to spend more time growing grain for everyone to eat so other people then would take up some slack on studying so that everybody’s souls could be fed.
Jesus and the disciples were a whole lot more like the Pharisees than they were unlike. And they were a whole lot more like the Pharisees in their outlook and understandings than any other religious group in the area. And very much like some twins that I have known, those sibling rivalries could get into epic battles, and that’s part of what’s going on here.
Jesus calling them to account on some misunderstanding, some places that they had gotten caught up and saying, “you’ve missed the point.” Yes, sometimes we get so caught up in the trappings of what we do in the rules and regulations, as in the ways that we organize things that we forget the reason that we started organizing in the first place. Sometimes we get so caught up in the rhetoric, in the images, that we forget what the images were meant to point to. Jesus is saying, “Come back to the center.”
In this passage about hypocrisy Jesus, or at least Jesus as Matthew remembers Jesus, takes up an argument from way back within the Gospel, talking about hypocrisy as two different ways of doing. Number one, saying one thing and doing something else. And we have probably all experienced people who have had the attitude of do as I say and not as I do. Perhaps we have even been those people from time to time.
The second piece of hypocrisy for Jesus is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason. Jesus talks again about people who do the right thing, who pray prayers on behalf of people who need prayers, who contribute to worthy causes, causes that need help, who feed the hungry, who shelter the shivering cold, who reach out with help that is very much needed, but do it for their own aggrandizement, rather than recognizing the people that are being served as people themselves.
Maybe that’s part of what the problem is. Yes, it is a good thing when the poor are fed regardless of why they are fed. And yet, how much better is it for the poor to be seen as the individual children of God that they are rather than as someone’s stepping stone to a tax break?
One of the problems that I have occasionally had with the overuse of Matthew 25, the Sheep and the Goats parable, seeing Jesus in those who are overlooked and ignored; one of the problems that I have had with that is that sometimes some of the folks that I have known have only been interested in seeing Jesus in those who are overlooked and ignored. They’re only looking for the one who offers salvation rather than seeing the poor and the troubled themselves as they were created to be, their child-of-God selves.
We sometimes fall into this trap as well, of wanting to look good and not having quite the integrity that we might. Jesus offers us these words for those who are on the inside and for those who are on the outside. One of the Beatitudes that we talked about last week, when you get your inside world and your outside world connected together in the view of God, then you’ve got things figured out, then you are on the right road. When there is integrity between what you say and what you do, what you do and why you do it.
We see within this a call to continue our educations. One pastor I recall often gave the advice, “never finish your education.” And he recognized that it was perhaps a dangerous way of phrasing it because some people took it as meaning don’t bother to finish your degree, don’t bother to sign all the forms and dot all the I’s and cross the T’s in your formal education. But what was meant, rather, was seeing that whatever we have learned to whatever degrees we may have collected, whatever honorarium may be coming our way, recognize that we ain’t done yet. Recognize that there is still more to learn. And as we see in the gospel this morning, there is still more to learn, even from the people who annoy us the most, which may be a word of grace for the coming Thanksgiving holiday, depending on the family with which you share.
There is still more to learn, and we look at the words and actions that we learn, we look at the words and the actions into which we pour our energy and we see those possibilities for creation. You recall the words that started out our book of Faith: in a beginning. God spoke over the darkness. The Spirit of God hovered over what was not and spoke. Light. Peace. A place. Life. Order. What are the words that we speak over the chaos and formlessness that exists around us?
We see when rereading that Scripture that God did not banish the chaos. God did not destroy the chaos. God just said, “chaos, your place is over there.” And it seems within our lives that there are times when the chaos says, “no, I think I’d like to come back in where it’s warm. I think I’d like to come back where things are happening.” And I’ve known some people who seem to invite the chaos. I’ve known others who seem to be lightning rods for chaos.
Jesus offers us these words. If you are looking for a way to stand out, step down. The way to truly be important is to be one of the foundation stones, not one of the corner pieces. Yes, decoration is all fine and good, but if it doesn’t support the community, if it doesn’t support that which exists, then it’s something that may just get blown off in the wind. It’s something that may get torn down as trends change. It’s something that may get knocked off in an earthquake. But to be part of the foundation, to be part of the base of something greater than we are means that perhaps we will not be seen, but our presence will be known because of how solid we have made the way for someone else to walk, for how sure their steps can be. An especially important thing as we see how many of us need assistance in keeping our steps balanced and strong and sure. We have one teacher, we have one source of life. We have one authority that gives life to us all and teaching to us all, each in different ways. It is as we listen for this teaching, as we look for grace, that we find our life together forming something beautiful.