Friday, August 31, 2012

Isn't It Ironic? (September 2, 2012)

Homily:  Yr B Proper 22, Sept 2 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps 125; James 1:17-27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Isn’t it ironic?

I am struck by the irony of today’s readings.  Jesus in today’s gospel condemns the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.  Hypocrisy is one of the few things that Jesus condemns in such forceful terms in the gospels.  He refuses to condemn the woman caught in adultery.  He doesn’t condemn tax-collectors.  He won’t condemn the various people considered as impure and sinners by his society, the foreigners, those who don’t wash their hands, the lepers, and so on.  But he does in today’s gospel condemn the hypocrites, those who honour God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from him.

Flash forward a couple of thousand years.  A recent poll of young adults conducted by the Barna Group in the United States asked them what they thought of present day Christianity.  Of those who didn’t consider themselves Christians, 85% thought that present-day Christianity is hypocritical.  Among young adults who were Christians, 50% agreed. Are you surprised?  The one thing that Jesus was willing to condemn is the very characteristic that people, even our own people, use to describe us.  Isn’t it ironic?

Yeah but – I can hear the objections now.  Yeah but that poll was an American poll, not a Canadian poll.  (We don’t really have the same problem here in Canada.) Yeah but when they talk about Christians being hypocritical, they’re really talking about – and now fill in your own blank.  They’re talking about fundamentalists.  They’re talking about rich Christians.  They’re talking about Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, go ahead fill in the blank, let’s move that accusation of hypocrisy to where it really belongs.

We even do the same thing when we read the scriptures.  We become like cheerleaders, cheering Jesus on as he rips into the scribes and Pharisees.  You go, Jesus, you tell them.  We’re on your side, we hate hypocrites too.  Except that Jesus doesn’t see the scribes and Pharisees as the source of the problem.  Sure, they’re an example of the problem.  But the source of the problem, the root cause of hypocrisy and other sinfulness, the source of evil intentions according to Jesus, is the human heart.  And last time I checked, everyone here at church this morning had a human heart.  

Now, just to clarify a bit, the heart here doesn’t symbolize feelings and sentiment as it might on a Hallmark greeting card.  No, in Jesus’ culture, the heart was understood as the seat of rationality and willfulness in the human being.  There is a universal human problem, Jesus is telling us, and it is this:  that evil intentions arise out of the reasoned and willful choices and actions of human beings.  Isn’t it ironic that the more we try to shift the blame to others, the more we implicate ourselves as part of the problem. 

I find more irony in our reading from the letter of James this morning.  James would have thrived in the age of Twitter, because most of his best phrases come through in less than 140 characters.  And one of the best is the one that we heard this morning: 

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”  Now, did anyone catch the irony in this one?  We live in an age where the primary expression of what it means to be a practicing Christian is to go to church.  And what do we do at church?  Well for the most part, we sit.  And we listen.  And we hear the word.  Isn’t it ironic?

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”  What James is telling us is that going to church is one of the least important things we do as Christians.  Sunday is not the most important day of the Christian week.  In fact, if this one hour that we spend in church on Sundays doesn’t impact what we do the other 167 hours of the week, then we’re deceiving ourselves by being here.  Some might say, we’re hypocrites.

I think that there’s some resonance around this idea, I think we’re starting to get it.  Not too long ago, we put up a photo on our Facebook page that said “Don’t go to church; be the church”.  It quickly had the most hits of anything we put up as people shared it with each other.  I think that’s because we’re starting to get it.  There’s no point going to church one hour a week if that doesn’t help us to be the church 24/7, in our homes, in our families, in our schools and in our workplaces.  On our web site we say the following:

“Our community is made up of imperfect people seeking ways of being the church in a world that has every right to question the value of going to church.”

You see, our vocation, our work, our doing of the word, 99% of that is going to take place outside the doors of this building.  It’s not that coming here on a Sunday morning has no value, it does.  But the main value of what we do on a Sunday morning is that it shapes, serves and supports what we do as followers of Jesus during the rest of the week.  We want to move from being hearers who forget what we hear on Sundays to doers who act all week in accordance with what they hear on Sundays.  We want to move from being what Jesus describes as “people who honour God with their lips but their hearts are far from him” to being the sort of people that James describes, people who’s 'religion is this:  to care for those who are vulnerable and in need.'

And, by the way, don’t you think that this would be a good way to respond to both Jesus’ and our society’s concern about hypocrisy?

We have to re-think church. And as part of this re-thinking, church on a Sunday morning becomes more like a vocational counseling and training centre, getting us ready to go out and do our work.  We come here and we gather together, we support one another, we encounter God, we share our stories, we are forgiven, we are blessed, we are called, we are nourished and we are sent out to do our work.  That work doesn’t have to be heroic.  Maybe somebody here will save the world; most of us will do our jobs with integrity, treat people with dignity, serve those whom we encounter, give out smiles and hugs and kind words.  

That’s how we do our work; that’s also how God does God’s work.  Because as James says in another of his tweets, “every generous act of giving is from above”. Whenever we act in generosity, God is with us, acting through us to build God’s kingdom in the world. 

I’m going to stop talking.  You’ve heard enough.  Go and do something.


1 comment:

  1. Powerful message Mark ! I am always impressed by the depth of thought behind artist's they writers,dancers,musicians or visual artists . It's easy to think they are 'just talented' and get out bed and slap something together which is wonderful.

    I think this is what you are describing....actions are the summation of a broader philosophical underpinning. It is not sufficient to talk about it, in fact many people don't care,about that philosophy, but do see, and appreciate, our actions through the week, in our everyday lives.