Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Occupation of Our Hearts

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 22, 2017

Year A, Proper 24: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 45: 1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

The Occupation of Our Hearts
            A couple of weeks ago there was a story in The New York Times about the decline and fall of stamp collecting.
            It seems that kids today just aren’t interested in collecting these little bits of paper and gum, these small works of art, so the average age of stamp collectors is steadily rising, and the market for all but the rarest of stamps is drying up.
            In the age of email and the Internet and all the rest of it, stamps and stamp collecting have become quaint relics of the increasingly distant past.
            This article caught my attention because as a kid I was a very avid stamp collector, spending many happy and solitary hours arranging and poring over my collection.
            I was the kid who went to the post office the first day a new stamp was issued, the nerd who pestered the clerk for a rarely used stamp in an odd denomination.
            Some of my happiest childhood experiences were when my parents would take me to Gimbel’s in Herald Square, which had a remarkable Stamp Department (Macy’s did, too, but it was nowhere near as good!).
            I would look longingly at the many cabinets filled with interesting stamps from all around the world – and, usually, my parents would let me buy a set or two so I could fill a gap in my collection.
            Good times.
            For whatever reason, I was especially interested in stamps from the many British colonies, large tracts of land in Africa and the islands dotting the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
            For the most part, in the British Empire the stamps were very similar. Often they would depict some local landmark or some example of flora and fauna, but a good bit of the stamp’s real estate was taken up with an image of the Queen, either her picture or her silhouette.
            For some of you, these are the stamps you grew up using, right?
            I didn’t think about this as a kid, but each time that somebody in one of the colonies licked one of these stamps and stuck it on an envelope, they got a little reminder that they were not in control over their own land, a reminder that they were occupied by a faraway foreign power, a power that cared more about its own wealth and prestige than the well-being of colonial peoples, a power that was represented by the monarch’s face right there on the stamp.
            And, the same was true of the coins, too.
            As we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, there’s nothing new about this strategy.
            For example, the Romans put the image of the Emperor on the coins that were used throughout their vast empire, in lands stretching from Britain itself all the way to Judea, to the land of Jesus and his fellow Jews of the first century.
            The Gospels were written by people living in the Roman Empire.
The Gospels were written by people who wanted to survive living in the Roman Empire, and wanted their new faith to survive, too. So, they tend to downplay Roman brutality (think of Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for the death of Jesus). The Gospels instead tend to turn the priests and the Pharisees into the villains of the Jesus story, unfortunately and tragically setting the stage for two thousand years of Christian hatred and violence against Jews.
            But, the truth is that the people of Israel, the people that Jesus lived among, chafed under Roman rule – they didn’t like it one bit.
            They resented the Roman occupation of the land given to them by God.
            They despised paying taxes, giving their meager resources to the faraway emperor and his government, who ruled brutally and selfishly, completely lacking in empathy for the suffering of ordinary people in their vast Empire.
            This is why the tax collectors were so bitterly despised in the time of Jesus – they were Jews working for the occupiers.
            And, the Jews hated using coins bearing the image of the Emperor, these little idols that reminded them over and over that they were an occupied people.
            From time to time the Jews rebelled against Roman rule and each time the Romans crushed these rebellions and executed those who had dared to rise up, a warning to others who might get ideas about challenging Rome.
            In first century Jerusalem, crucifixions were not uncommon at all.
            So, that’s the unspoken but very real and harsh backdrop of today’s gospel lesson.
            As usual, there’s tension between Jesus and other religious authorities. This time we’re told it’s the disciples of the Pharisees and also a group called the “Herodians,” who presumably supported Herod, Rome’s puppet king.
            They ask Jesus,
            “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
            The author of the Gospel tells us that they asked Jesus this question to trap him, and maybe so, though I always wonder if maybe they just honestly wanted to hear his opinion on this sensitive issue.
            Anyway, if they were trying to trap him they fail because Jesus holds in his hand one of the Roman coins, one of these little idols, and replies with a very Jesus-like answer:
            “Give (therefore) to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
            We’re told that his questioners were amazed by this answer and get away from him as fast as they can.
            Jesus of Nazareth was a first century Jew, so I’m sure that, like his Jewish brothers and sisters, he was unhappy with the Roman occupation.
I’m sure that he was horrified by his countrymen crying out in agony from crosses, that he was angered by the indignity of Roman troops and officials in the land of Israel.
            The Roman occupation was brutal, but, the truth is, that Jesus the Son of God is much more concerned with the occupation of our hearts.
            So, yes, send the coins to the emperor, the brutal man in the capital city who fancies himself a god and cares nothing for our suffering, send him his coins for as long as the Romans occupy our land.
            But, here’s the thing: despite the very real suffering and indignity, despite the bloody cruelty and violence, despite his image being all over the place, don’t let the emperor occupy your heart.
            Instead, give your heart – give all that really matters - to God and God alone.
            Because, someday the emperor will be gone, and someday even his whole empire will vanish, but, after all that and much more, God will continue to reign.
            What Jesus knew was that God is hard at work building a kingdom, a kingdom founded not on violence and greed, but a kingdom based on love and generosity.
            And, you and I are invited to help build that kingdom.
            We build God’s kingdom each time we open our doors and feed people who can never repay us, maybe even people we don’t like or even trust.
            We build God’s kingdom each time we pray for others, people we know and those we don’t, people we love and those we may despise, and, yes, even the person who may think he is the emperor of today.
            We build God’s kingdom each time we break down the barriers that divide us, black and white, haves and have-nots, Democrats and Republicans, lifelong Christians and those who don’t believe a word of it, …
            And, yes, Incarnation and St. Paul’s.
            We help to build God’s kingdom each time we love and take the side of the oppressed and the outcasts, the colonized people of today, the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, so many of whom are still without water and electricity, the people of color harassed day after day by those in charge, the worker whose labor isn’t respected or properly compensated, and, yes, the tiny minority of our fellow Americans who volunteer and are sometimes sent to faraway lands most of us have never heard of, to fight and die in wars most of us don’t understand.
            Yes, Jesus was well aware of the brutal Roman occupation of his homeland, but he recognized that the emperor’s power was only temporary.
            So, go ahead, pay the tax.
            But, Jesus was much more concerned with not letting the emperor occupy our hearts.
Jesus teaches us that, no matter who may seem to have the power in this moment, loving God and doing God’s work must be the occupation of our hearts.
Amen.
            

Sunday, October 15, 2017

God Risks Rejection

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 15, 2017

Year A, Proper 23: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

God Risks Rejection
            Well, another week and, sure enough, there are more disasters in the news – the continued struggles in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and elsewhere in the Caribbean to recover from the recent devastating hurricanes – the seemingly nonstop drama of our government in Washington – and, now a Category 3 hurricane is, unbelievably, about to hit… Ireland!
And, there have been the ferocious wildfires in California.
            That one has especially moved me because, as some of you may remember, Sue and I were out in the California wine country this past summer and it’s so hard to accept that such beautiful places, and the lives and livelihoods of people who live and work there, are being destroyed.
            So, it’s been a lot, right?
            There have been a few bright spots recently, though, and one of them has been the fact that the five living former presidents – from Carter to Obama – have joined together to raise funds for the places and people affected by the recent disasters.
            Maybe you’ve seen the commercial that they’ve made.
            Whatever you might have thought about their politics and their presidencies, it’s pretty moving to see these old competitors setting aside their differences, uniting to help people in need.
            It’s true that, like all of us, they had their strengths and weaknesses, certain characteristics that shaped their time in office.
            Bill Clinton was a controversial president, and certainly a very flawed person, but I think one of his more endearing traits was his obvious and extreme need to be liked. I remember reading about him that he could be in a room filled with people applauding and cheering for him and his policies but if he knew that there was even just one single person he hadn’t convinced, one person who maybe just didn’t like him, Clinton would stay for as long as it took to win over that one person.
            Despite all his success, despite his high office, he just couldn’t bear rejection.
            And, it’s true, being rejected really is one of the hardest experiences of life, isn’t it?
            I remember how much it hurt when the first girl I asked out on a date rejected me – yes, I know, hard to understand, right?
            And, later there were jobs that I wanted and was absolutely sure I’d be perfect for, but they’d choose someone else – crazy, right?
            And, even here at church, I’m always inviting people to different programs and events and, obviously, just inviting people to come to church. Some accept the offer, but many more say very clearly through their words and actions, “no thanks.”
            And, the truth is that when people come here for a while and then stop coming, although I try to not take it personally, I’ll admit that it does feel pretty much like rejection.
            The unfortunate truth is that, unless we never take a risk, unless we never stick our neck out, we all experience rejection.
            And, that very much includes God.
            Throughout the Old Testament, God risks rejection each time God invites people into a relationship, each time God invites people to the wedding banquet, each time God invites people to the big party. It’s very simple:
God wants to be their God, and wants them to be God’s people.
            And, over and over again, God is rejected.
            The people refuse to follow God’s Law and, even worse than that, sometimes the people of little and not very powerful Israel would look around at the big and powerful empires of their day and choose to worship their gods, understandably reasoning that must be the way to more success and riches.
            You know, it’s always theologically risky to talk about God experiencing pain, but I think we can be sure that God doesn’t feel good when faced with our rejection.
            Yet, despite that, God continues to invite us, continues to risk and, yes, experience, rejection.
            So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jesus faced rejection, too.
            Back in the first century, most people who encountered Jesus during his earthly lifetime rejected his radical message of repentance and love; rejected his call to love everyone, even those who hate us; rejected his insistence on welcoming everybody, even the outcasts, the tax collectors and prostitutes; rejected his demand that we give away what we have to the hungry and the naked.
            Back then, most people, most especially including the religious authorities, flatly rejected that divine invitation, condemning Jesus to die nearly alone on the cross.
            Yet, despite even that rejection, God continues to invite us, risking even more rejection.
            Today and last Sunday, we’ve heard some pretty hard parables from Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.
            And, we need to remember that this is Jesus as remembered and understood by a particular community, by Matthew’s community, probably a Jewish-Christian group living near the end of the first century, fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It seems that Matthew’s community faced a lot of pressure, a lot of tension, as people found it increasingly difficult to be both Jews and followers of Jesus.
            Some remained part of the Jesus community while others abandoned it, which to those early Christians must have felt like quite a rejection, a rejection which hurt much worse than what you and I feel when a St. Paul’s parishioner starts going to another church, or even when someone drops church from their lives altogether.
            So, the parable we heard today works on at least two different levels: the rejection of Jesus during his earthly lifetime; and the rejection of people abandoning the early Christian community.
            And, we can certainly hear the pain of those long-ago rejections, right?
We can hear the pain of rejection as the enraged king sends in the troops and kills those who rejected his wedding invitation, burning down their city in a murderous rage.
            The king then extends the invitation to others, to all different kinds of people.
            For Matthew’s community, the meaning of this parable was probably pretty clear:
            The Jewish religious leaders failed to accept God’s invitation, so now they’re excluded from the banquet and instead God extends the invitation beyond the people of Israel, to the gentiles, to all the peoples of the earth.
            But, what does this tough parable mean for us here today?
            Well, first, especially considering the centuries of horrendous Christian hatred and violence towards Jews, we must remember that God has never broken the covenant with the people of Israel – God continues to extend the invitation to our elder brothers and sisters in faith.
            Second, the good news is that, at least at this moment, you and I, we’ve accepted God’s invitation, we’re here at the banquet, and what a feast we’re enjoying as we pray and sing together and embrace one another and receive the Bread and the Wine!
            And, that’s beautiful and great, right?
            But, for me anyway, it’s the strange conclusion of today’s parable that kind of haunts me, that weird little bit about the guest without the wedding robe being cast into the outer darkness.
            Did you pick up on that? Scary, right?
            And, at least as I read it, it seems that this improperly dressed person is like someone who superficially accepts God’s invitation to the banquet, who shows up, but is not willing to even try to accept the deeper and more challenging invitations to love, and to welcome, and to share.
            And, as I watch the news and even when I talk to some people, it seems like a lot of so-called Christians, people who seem to have accepted God’s invitation to the banquet – they are giving into the old temptation to not worship God but instead to worship the gods of the Empire, the gods who seem like they will bring success and wealth, the gods who maybe even make us feel good for a little while, but, ultimately, always bring suffering and destruction.
            Maybe some of us are giving into that old temptation because, like Israel long ago, we feel so weak and powerless today.
            But, for what ever reasons, unfortunately, there are a lot of “improperly dressed” Christians who are ready and willing to choose hate over love, greed over generosity, resentment over forgiveness, suspicion over hospitality – there are a lot of “improperly dressed” Christians choosing tribe and nation over the kingdom of God – rejecting God, yet again.
            Long ago, Matthew’s community faced a lot of tension, a lot of division.
            And, today, here in America, struck by one disaster after another, we face a lot of tension, a lot of division, too.
            The very good news is that God must really love us because God continues to risk the kind of rejection that God has experienced so often.
God continues to invite us to the banquet.
            The response is up to us.
            Amen.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

"Don't Give Up!"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City
October 8, 2017

Year A, Proper 22:  The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

“Don’t Give Up!”
            Unless I’m stopped by weather or work, I’ve been trying to keep up with my early morning walks around the neighborhood, dressed down in a baseball hat, t-shirt, and shorts, usually unrecognizable to people used to seeing me in my priest outfit.
            As I’ve mentioned to you before, I have a route that I more or less follow, that takes me up and around Journal Square and then along West Side Avenue and through Lincoln Park and then down Monticello Avenue.
            My daily goal is to walk five miles. Sometimes I make it, and sometimes I fall short.
            Although it’s not always easy to get myself going so early (and now it’s so dark at 6AM that it’s like the middle of the night) I’ve found these long walks to be helpful, physically, spiritually, and mentally.
            I use the time to think and pray, and to look around and see what I can learn from the sights and sounds of our part of Jersey City as it wakes up and gets going.
            I always pay close attention to the churches and other houses of worship I pass, reading their signs, looking at their worship schedules and banners announcing some event or celebration, wondering at the elaborate and beautiful Hindu shrine on Newark Avenue, …
            And, I also always pass by the far the biggest house of worship in town: the Stanley Theater at Journal Square, where for years Jehovah’s Witnesses have worshiped and met.
            Often even early in the morning, they arrive, incredibly large numbers of diverse people, always impeccably dressed, carrying their Bibles and briefcases with other materials, ready for a full day of whatever it is they do in that vast theater – when it was built, the second largest auditorium east of the Mississippi, smaller only than Radio City.
            I don’t know much about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I know about their strong devotion to worship and meetings. I know about their persistence in standing on street corners or ringing doorbells, offering their various pamphlets.
            To an outsider, anyway, they seem to have their act together – and I’ll confess that I’ve sometimes been a little jealous of their large numbers and deep commitment.
            That’s why I was a little surprised some weeks ago when the name, or the theme, of their annual convention went up on the theater’s marquee:
            “Don’t Give Up!”
            I was surprised by that because they seem to be doing just fine, but then, in a way, I was encouraged because I thought even these people, so well-dressed and so committed to their faith, even these people face challenges and obstacles, so much so that their leadership chose such a direct, such a pointed convention theme:
            Don’t give up!
            I thought about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their surprising theme as I reflected on today’s second lesson, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
            If you know anything about Paul’s letters, you know that usually he’s writing to Christian communities that he had started, that he had taught, but then after he had moved on, these new Jesus followers often began to believe and do things contrary to what Paul had taught them.
            And, eventually, this unwelcome news got back to Paul.
            That’s why we find a good bit of anger, frustration, and rebuking in Paul’s letters. He’s usually trying to straighten out people who have gone astray.
            But, that’s not true in the case of the Philippians, the little Christian community in the important Greek city of Philippi.
            Paul has a warm and loving relationship with the Philippians, who seem to have their act together and are doing a good job of building a stronger, healthier, more loving Christian community.
            And, Paul wrote his Letter to the Philippians Paul while he was in prison, which makes me wonder about his state of mind when he wrote to this community that he loved so much.
            All I can tell you is that, more often than not, I preach sermons that I need to hear – and I suspect that, at least sometimes, Paul wrote letters that he himself needed to read or hear.
            So, maybe, as Paul sat in prison facing an uncertain and frightening future, maybe he wondered if his sacrifice, if all his hard work, was worth it. Faced with a world that was so violent and led by cruel leaders, maybe even the great and tireless apostle himself was tempted to throw in the towel, to give up and just say or do what the authorities wanted from him – to go along with the powers that be so he could regain his freedom and go off and live a more or less normal life.
            Maybe Paul was hearing that tempting voice whisper in his ear, “Just give up.”
            But, of course, the imprisoned Paul resists that temptation – and when he writes his beautiful letter to his much-loved Philippians, he uses athletic language to describe his own persistent faith:
“…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, things may not look so good right now. I may be sitting here in prison, feeling old and worn-out and not a little discouraged by the world and the church, and this might be the end of the line for me, but I’m not giving up and don’t you dare give up, either!
Don’t give up!
Well, the truth is our world and our country has been through the wringer lately. Each week there is at least one more disaster, more victims, more frightened or injured people, more dead people, more people for whom to pray – so much destruction, so much bloodshed, so much cruelty.
We may feel ourselves to be imprisoned – imprisoned in a world where the ground can suddenly open up or previously unimaginable wind and tides and can destroy so much.
We may feel ourselves imprisoned in or unhappy and exhausted country where people are so frightened and armed to the teeth and there’s nothing holding them back from opening fire on a crowd of people at a concert, just wanting to have a good time – nothing holding them back from settling a gang dispute on the avenues of Greenville or Bergen-Lafayette by casually taking a life – nothing holding tem back from shooting and killing a guy who was trying to break up a fight on Central Avenue.
We may feel ourselves imprisoned by our own personal fears, worries about our own health or the well-being of those we love, anxiety about the pile of bills, concerns about finding a job or holding on to the job we’ve got, regret about roads not taken and loves lost, the feeling that other people have their act together much more than we do, maybe even nervousness about the future of our church in a time when more people seem to be looking elsewhere to find the sacred, to discover life’s meaning.
Maybe we hear that little voice in our head, encouraging us to just throw in the towel.
And, yet, the words and work of the imprisoned Paul echo down to us here today:
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Don’t give up!
And, like an athlete who can see the finish line on the horizon, we’re given glimpses of the prize – a prize that is not just life after death, but heaven right here on earth, too.
Just recently, the wonderful opening of the “Loving Arms” exhibit, inviting us to face head-on America’s love affair with guns, gave us a glimpse of the prize.
And, last Monday night, when over 1,000 of us Jersey City residents gathered to demand affordable housing, safe streets, and decent schools, we got a glimpse of the prize.
And, if we look, each time we come here, all of us with our beautiful diversity, all of us with our histories and our scars and our fears and our hopes, when all of us gather here and extend our hands and hearts in peace and open our mouths and our souls to receive Christ, we get a glimpse of the prize.
Yes, like the imprisoned Paul, and like so many others, apparently even including the well put-together Jehovah’s Witnesses, we’re going through a tough time.
So, let’s stick close together and stick close to God.
And, most of all…
Don’t give up!
Amen.                         

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Hypocrisy and Humility

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 1, 2017

Year A, Proper 21: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Hypocrisy and Humility
            Like many other young adults before me and after, when I graduated from college I had no idea what I wanted to do.
            I applied for, and was accepted into, a graduate program in History but after giving it some thought, I decided I wasn’t ready to put in so much time and money into something I wasn’t really sure about – and that would leave me with a ton of student loan debt.
            So, finally, I decided I would teach for a year or two until I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
            That was the start of my fifteen year teaching career.
            Of course, aside from having been in classrooms nearly my whole life, I had absolutely no preparation or qualifications to teach, but when you’re young you don’t let pesky little details like that get in your way!
            It took a while to find a job, but near the end of that summer, just before the start of the school year, I interviewed for a position teaching eighth grade at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School in Bayonne.
            By then, I was getting a little desperate and I think they were getting desperate, too, so they hired me despite my total lack of credentials. I think I seemed presentable enough – and I was willing to work really cheap!
            As it happens, Mt. Carmel turned out to be a great place to learn how to teach, although the fact that I taught math (among other subjects) was one of the all-time great malpractices in the history of education!
            Mt. Carmel was a way more old-fashioned school than what I had attended.
            It was a very strict and conservative school, where whenever a teacher or the principal would walk into the classroom, all the kids would shoot up out of their seats and proclaim,
            “Praised be Jesus Christ! Good Morning (or Good Afternoon) Sister So-and-So or Miss So-and-So!”
            I remember the first time they did that for me I froze, certain there was something I was supposed to say in return but having no idea what that might be.
            Their religion classes were a throwback to another era since they spent much of the time poring over what was called the Baltimore Catechism which had long before been discarded by most Catholic schools and they learned and prayed the Rosary – nothing at all wrong with that, but not something done in most Catholic schools in the year 1989.
            And, of course, we prayed before every class, with the kids looking like angels, their hands folded, heads bowed, as they repeated words they had long since memorized.
            At the end of every day, we prayed a prayer that will be familiar to those of you who come from the Roman Catholic side of the family: the Act of Contrition.
            “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.”
            Kind of heavy for little kids, but a powerful prayer, right?
            So, each afternoon at the end of the school day, we all prayed these serious words and the kids would head off onto the streets of Bayonne.
            In my class that first year there was a boy, who I’ll call David, who was a little strange, maybe a little overprotected by his mom, and often the other kids would steer clear of him or would sometimes make fun of him.
            Well, one day after school, not long after we had all had very piously and seemingly sincerely asked God to help us avoid sin and near occasions of sin, some of these same kids who had just had their hands folded in prayer, cornered “David” in the park, mocked him and beat him up.
            Needless to say, word got back to us and there was a lot of upset in the school about this behavior.
When I tried to think of how to address this in my class, I thought back to the serious prayer we said each afternoon. And so, the next day in class I used the occasion to teach my students a new word:
            “Hypocrisy.”
            I really let them have it, pointing out the hypocrisy of standing like little angels with their hands folded as they prayed these serious words to God and then going out and attacking one of their own classmates, one who was obviously weak, and who deserved love and certainly not violence.
            Hypocrisy.
            Of course, although the violence was a little shocking, there was nothing surprising about those kids being hypocrites – saying one thing and doing something quite different, right?
            It’s an old story.
            And speaking of old stories, there’s a lot going on in today’s Gospel lesson, this tense encounter that takes place in the Jerusalem Temple between Jesus and the chief priests and elders.
            These official religious authorities feel threatened by the “unofficial” Jesus, this charismatic and mysterious rabbi from Nazareth - just as they had earlier felt threatened by the “unofficial” John the Baptist.
            Jesus slyly questions the official authorities about the source of John the Baptist’s unofficial authority and they wisely punt the question, recognizing that they couldn’t criticize the popular John, but they couldn’t admit that he was the real deal, either.
            And, Jesus uses this tense little exchange as an opportunity to tell a parable – a parable about two sons.
One son says all the right things but doesn’t do the right thing.
He’s a hypocrite – his words and actions don’t match.
And the other son doesn’t say the right thing, but eventually comes around and does the father’s will.
Pretty clear message, right?
Now, here’s the problem:
If I were preaching in front of Royal Liquors right now or to the group of addicts hanging out at the corner of Fairmount and Bergen, this would be an easy sermon.
But, I’m preaching in church filled with people who for the most part come to church all the time. We profess to be Christians, followers of Jesus Christ - Jesus, who holds us to such a very high standard, who calls us to love the unlovable, to give even when we think we have no more to give, and to forgive infinitely no matter how much we really don’t want to.
Which, I’m sorry to say, means we’re all hypocrites.
How could we not be?
The Church has a long history of hypocrisy, of course, gathering great wealth, burning heretics at the stake, holding some people to very high moral standards while conveniently overlooking the failings of others…I could go on.
But, it’s not just “the Church.”
I’m a hypocrite every time I walk down Bergen Avenue and pass the man begging in front of Wonder Bagels or Dunkin Donuts and don’t even give him one of the quarters that’s rattling around in my pocket.
I’m a hypocrite every time I pass the group of homeless people camped out on the steps of Old Bergen Church and hurry up, hoping no one will spot me and try to engage me in conversation or ask for help that I don’t think I can, or just don’t want to, give.
We usually do pretty well here in church, but let’s admit it, our hypocrisy kicks in pretty quickly after we leave here, sometimes as soon as coffee hour, which is often like a school cafeteria where we sit with our cliques and some are welcome at our tables but others not so much.
It’s all very human, right?
No, there’s nothing terribly unusual about any of that, except that each week we come here and we say and pray and sing these beautiful words but then our actions fall far short of Jesus’ very high standards.
So, what exactly should we hypocrites do?
Well, I think the answer is found in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
The cure for hypocrisy is humility.
By making our own act of contrition, we need to admit to God and to one another that, yes, we fall short of the high standards of Jesus all the time, that too often our actions don’t match our words, and that, really, we are no better than anyone else.
The good news is that God is the best and the easiest teacher in the universe, always offering us the extra help we need, always willing to give us hypocrites yet another chance, and always grading us on a very generous curve.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.