Sermon preached on December 4, 2014 at morning Eucharist service at The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York, NY.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
"Being Right vs. Being Righteous"
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you Oh LORD, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.
It's sometimes uncomfortable to preach on one of Jesus's big Hypocrite-hating verses. We often find that the Gospel on these days strikes a bit closer to home. Especially in a gathering of preachers and soon-to-be-preachers, myself very much included.
Because in case we need reminding, man oh man does Jesus hate hypocrites.
We sometimes like to paint a picture of Jesus that is all love all the time. And of course Jesus is all about loving people, generally. But hypocrites? Hmm.... with hypocrites Jesus really doesn't mince words. They aren't just lazy or slack, a quick fall off the wagon and ready to dust up and climb back on. No.
In this text you can just see Jesus cringe and recoil from them, "Get away from me, you evildoers" he says.
In this case, the hypocrites are those who are crying out, "Lord! Lord!" but neglect to do God's will. They are the hypocrites who make a big show of their religion - using God's name repeatedly, prophesying in God's name, casting out demons, and doing many deeds of power.
But it isn't just that they make a big show. All the those works he lists in the hypocrites excuses? Prophesying, exorcism, and deeds of power - those are all acts that one does OVER and TO another person. What Jesus has no time or tolerance for here is people who want to run around healing everyone else before healing themselves. People who get a power trip out of religious life rather than walking the way of the cross into powerlessness. People who keep God in their pocket, ready to use Him for their own will rather than giving themselves to God for God's purpose and will.
This Gospel message struck home for me in recent days. First I watched as our nation erupted last week with emotion at the news that Michael Brown’s shooter would not be going to trial in Ferguson. And last night I took to the streets with thousands of other protesters here in New York to express our anger that the same decision to not indict gave Eric Garner’s killer a free pass with no trial.
Personally, I was horrified although sadly not surprised by the news. Police officers are rarely indicted by Grand Juries, even though they almost always indict everyone else - and I had little faith in the justice system at work in Missouri - or Staten Island - to see them bucking that trend.
Last night we kept our protest peaceful. We chanted “No Justice. No peace” and “Black Lives Matter” as we marched from Times Square to the West Side Highway. Blocking traffic, I was surprised by how many of the cars honked and cheered for us as we marched all the way up to 79th street and then Down Broadway to Lincoln Center.
That is not to say there weren’t some close calls. When we first got on the West Side Highway the cops had their batons out and there were a few physical altercations that luckily we were able to de-escalate. Despite these tense and fearful moments, we maintained ourselves as a protest movement and not as a riot.
But as you know, that hasn’t always been the story over the past week. There have been nights when some people, most often in Ferguson, there have been nights when some few people, a small band of folks when you consider the size of our nation, they took to the streets with guns, and molotov cocktails, and a burning passion to baptize that city by fire.
And it was that which created the opportunity for all those who had kept silent on the injustice of the moment to take to their personal pulpits on Facebook and Twitter and begin crying, "Lord! Lord! In the name of Jesus we need peace. Lord! Lord! Violence is not the answer. Lord! Lord! You are defaming the memory of Michael Brown. Lord! Lord! Do the Christian thing. Lord! Lord! Exorcise yourselves of your anger and love your neighbor as yourself." Many of the folks saying this were Christian priests and pastors.
Were they wrong to say this?
Did Jesus think it was wrong to prophesy, or cast out demons, or do deeds of power and healing in God's name? Of course not. He was a big advocate of all those things, which he did himself time and time again.
The point is not that calling for peace is wrong. It isn't. The path of peace is the right path. The point is that the Gospel demands that we not only do the right thing, but that we do the right thing at the right time, in the right order. We have to get on the side of justice before we can demand that others follow us in the walk of love. We have to get up and follow God's path ourselves before we demand that others do the same. Hypocrites are those who say nothing or do nothing about the injustice of Michael Brown's death and then start giving self-righteous advice to those who are in the throes of lamentation and resistance to injustice.
"I never knew you," Jesus says to them. Not "you never knew me," but rather "I never knew you." I never saw you show up. You may have talked a good game, but it was always from the privileged position of your armchair. I never saw you show up to practice. Never saw you break a sweat.
It was disturbing how many Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about peace got made into memes and trotted out across the Facebook pages and Twitterverse of those who had otherwise been silent on the issues of injustice. Perhaps they should have dug a bit deeper into King's legacy to know the truth about what Dr. King actually said about riots.
Here are his words:
"And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."
There it is. The Gospel. It is unquestionably pro-peace but also nuanced enough to demand that we not condemn riots without understanding their cause. We don't get to jump up on our high horses to exorcise the demons of violence without first walking the walk of justice and truth ourselves. We don't get to prophesy simplistic visions of peace until we listen to the prophetic tongues of fire already speaking from the voices of the oppressed. We don't get to do deeds of power in God's name until we have followed the path of the one who emptied himself on the cross. First things are first. Timing matters in the Kingdom of God.
This may seem like a fine line to walk. It is. But Jesus never said that following him would be simple. Christianity has never been simplistic. Just a few lines before this passage Matthew gives us Jesus' teaching about the narrow gate. "Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Matt 7:13-14).
Finding that nuanced, narrow path is hard. Being a Christian requires us to walk that very fine line between being right and being righteous. Jesus tells us that being right is like building a house on sand. Like a foolish man you work hard to get that house together. He followed all the directions. He measured each plank twice. Tightened each screw. But when life began blowing at the man’s perfect little house, the foundation gave way and it collapsed. The wise man builds that same house, identical in every way to the work of the fool, except that he builds it on solid rock. He gets first things first, realizing that real estate in the Kingdom of God is no different than today – it’s all about location, location, location. Time and place. First things first. Context matters. Get righteous before you worry about being right.
This lesson about being right, but only at the right time and place, is not only something that pops up in the public sphere. We don’t just run into it in Ferguson or when we’re engaged in social justice.
I was in high school when the T.V. show Dr. Phil came out. And I don’t know about you but I came from a pretty reserved and not very introspective New England family. We kept our homes at just around 20 degrees-below-comfortable all winter -- and there were times when our interpersonal relations were not much warmer.
So when I started catching Dr. Phil’s T.V. show after I come home from school, it was like this whole world of psychology and emotional narrative was opened up to me. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, I thought at each segment. That’s why that is. Just another narcissistic-Mother-who-never-got-enough-love-as-a-child-and-now-seeks-her-self-esteem-in-the-arms-of-other-men…. Nailed it again Dr. Phil. Another one bites the dust.
Man, it was so inspiring to see someone up there on TV, being so right all the time. Helping all those people see through all that B.S. in 20 minutes or less, including commercial breaks. I was hooked.
Pretty soon, I started creating emotional narratives everywhere. How could I not? Hello! The world was full of all these broken people and I had enough Dr. Phil under my belt to really starting putting things together. My family would tease me when I would really get going. They’d say, “Watch out, Anna’s having another Dr. Phil moment.”
Over time, I grew up and life stopped looking so simple. My Dr. Phil moments became less clear. I realized the limits to my knowledge, both of myself and especially other people.
But if I am being honest with myself, I have to admit that the attraction to having a real explanation – a truth to be delivered that would make sense of all our issues and problems in life – that was still deeply attractive to me. I realized that I wasn’t the one to deliver it, but gosh wouldn’t it be nice to have nonetheless. Cut through the crap, deliver the harsh verdict, come to terms with reality, Get. It. Right. For others.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker spiritual guide, calls this at best: advice giving – and at worst: pop psychologizing. Both, he argues are about as futile and dangerous that man, building his house on sand just before the big storm comes.
Palmer tells the story of this one man who used to come to one of his small groups. He was an older man - a Vo Tech teacher - and the group was a long-running small group of fellow teachers. And each time this man comes, he always shares about how he is fighting with his boss because he refuses to get job training on the new technologies he is supposed to be teaching. He is just not keeping up with the times and his boss is hounding him.
Now, Parker Palmer admits that anyone with a shred of psychological training – perhaps even a few episodes of Dr. Phil under their belt – anyone could have told this man. “You are afraid. You are afraid that you won’t be able to keep up with times and you won’t be able to understand the new technology.” I mean, it was so obvious.
But here is the beautiful thing. Parker Palmer had built a group of folks who weren’t allowed to act like hypocrites. They couldn’t give advice. They couldn’t pop-psychologize. It was against the rules to tell this guy the truth he “really needed to hear.” And instead they kept that up a quiet, coaxing silence for years. And years.
Can you imagine the patience that would take?
But eventually, after years of listening to this guy complain about new fangled technology, eventually this man came to the Circle and shared a deep and powerful revelation. He told the group that… wait for it… he was afraid of the future. Talk about stating the obvious.
But did they spell it out for him back at a time where he may have resisted the label? Did they demand he shape up before he was ready to chart a new path with dignity? Did they work on their own time and ignore the time and place where the Kingdom of God is found? Did they sacrifice a path of living righteously with this man just to be right about him? No.
Instead, they avoided all the houses they could have build for this man on the sand of their collective, shifting, opinions. And instead the allowed him to build a house on the rock of God’s will for him. The rock of God working on God’s time.
And so I ask you, today, are you willing to forego being right in order to be righteous? Are you willing to abandon the tools of power, the exorcisms of others’ demons, the prophesying out of turn? And instead are you willing to get yourself right with God, standing tall upon that rock of deepest truth, and help create the spaces for others to do the same?