Embracing the Danger of Hypocrisy

This sermon was delivered without a manuscript. What appears below is a version written from memory with notes.

Last year I was talking to a friend of mine who has been a priest for 30 years or so. I frequently like to ask folks in ministry about their spiritual journeys, their experience with religion growing up. You might guess that people who end up as priests had a great time with religion as children, but that’s not always the case. And it wasn’t the case for her, either. She ended up leaving the church for about fifteen years before slowly returning. I asked her why that was, and this is what she told me:

While she was growing up, her whole family–her father, mother, and she had five or six siblings–would pile into the car and go to church every Sunday. In church, her father was a model Christian: quiet, pious, respectful, always saying “good morning” and “peace be with you” to the other parishioners. He was always kind and respectful to the priest. But once the service ended, sooner or later–and it was always sooner–the family would edge towards the door, and head into the parking lot. Her father would start to run slightly, and rushed the kids into the car. Then he’d start the engine, throw the stick into reverse, and slam on the accelerator, whipping out of his parking spot.

You see, they went to a big church. Hundreds of people attended each of the many morning services. But the parking lot only had one exit. So if you didn’t get your car into line pretty quickly after the Dismissal, you could end up waiting ten, fifteen minutes just to get out of the parking lot. Her father hated this, couldn’t stand it. So he would rush to get out, swerving around other parishioners in the lot, cutting off other drivers, and swearing and screaming at them the whole time.

My friend, as she grew older, noticed this. She noticed the big disconnect between how her father acted in church, and how he acted out in the world–and not even that far out into the world, just in the parking lot! She came to realize that her father was being a hypocrite.

Now, we Christians are well known for hypocrisy. Just google the words “Chrsitian” and “hypocrite” together, and you will find a wealth of images, articles, and diatribes. Believe me! And of course, this reputation isn’t totally unwarranted, is it? We talk a big game about love and compassion and justice. It’s not too surprising that we end up falling short.

And we know that this Christian proclivity towards hypocrisy is nothing new, because in our passage today from the Letter of James, we hear James confronting his community. James tells his church they have a choice to make; there are two paths: they can either continue to hold onto the priorities of the past–what James calls the “wisdom from below”–or they can choose to accept God’s priorities–what he calls the “wisdom from above”. James goes on to clarify what this really means. He talks about how anger, envy, and greed lead to all kinds of violence and hatred and problems. He calls the community to abandon this way of life, and instead seek to live with gentleness and compassion.

Now, this letter was probably written in the latter part of the first century, just a few decades after Jesus’s death and the mystery of his Resurrection. Here’s a community that has gathered around Jesus’s name–in hope, in expectation, in commitment. Here’s a community that has gathered specifically to try and know God, follow God, and serve God. And yet we hear that they are full of angry and envy and malice. James himself uses the word “hypocrisy”, it’s right there at the bottom of the first paragraph.

But what is even more striking is that, today, we have not one, but two examples of early Christian hypocrisy! If we turn to our Gospel reading, we hear that even Jesus’s disciples–his top students, the people he chose to follow him and learn from him and carry on his work–even they don’t really seem to really get it.

Jesus is walking and teaching. He’s talking about the coming suffering that both he and his students will face. Things are about to get tough. Really tough. Jesus is doing to face death, and his followers will be persecuted, hunted, driven out. Following Jesus isn’t going to be easy. But the disciples don’t want to hear any of this. They ignore his teaching and they refuse to ask any questions. Instead, while Jesus is trying to teach them, they start to argue about which one of them is the greatest.

So, picture this: here is a group of students, people whose job it is to learn. They are refusing to even hear their teacher, and instead are arguing over which of them is the best student. Students refusing to learn, but thinking of themselves as the best learner! It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of bald hypocrisy. It seems that these disciples aren’t really that interested in learning from Jesus, in following him, in living the radical way of life he is proposing. Instead, it seems like they have heard about this new “kingdom” he keeps talking about, and they are intrigued. Kingdoms tend to come with power, with prestige, with grandeur, with authority. They want some of that. So they are hoping to ride his coattails into all that power and prestige.

Of course, the Kingdom that Jesus is ushering in is nothing like what they are imagining. Jesus is going to turn everything upside down. His Kingdom will be a reign, not of power, prestige, grandeur, and authority, but instead a reign of service, of humility, of compassion, and of honesty. But the disciples don’t seem ready to hear this.

But you know, hypocrisy is a funny thing. It’s easy to accuse others of hypocrisy. And it’s actually fun–delicious really–to accuse people I don’t like or don’t agree with of hypocrisy. But it’s not so easy or fun to look at myself and consider whether I’m a hypocrite. And yet, here I am, accusing the disciples of seeking authority and prestige in following Jesus, instead of really understanding his true message. I’m standing here and saying that dressed in my fancy white robe (which we have a fancy name for: alb), and my fancy scarf (which we also have a special fancy name for: stole). And I’m standing here with my fancy title. I’m standing here saying that following Jesus isn’t about prestige and grandeur and authority, but it sure seems like I’m enjoying at least some of that right now!

And that means I have a choice to make. What will this alb, this stole, my title, what will they stand for? It’d be so easy for me to fall into the very error I’m accusing the disciples of. All of this can become a symbol of someone seeking power and prestige. But if I am aware of that danger, I can instead make a different choice. I can live in such a way that all of this becomes a symbol of service, of humility, of compassion. That’s up to me. Do I really want to hear Jesus?

In short, to use a modern turn of phrase, I need to develop critical self-awareness. I need to be able to evaluate myself with the same rigor I evaluate others. Otherwise, I stand to fall into the very hypocrisy I am so ready to accuse those others of.

Of course, this isn’t just a danger for priests, preachers, and other ministers. Hypocrisy is a very human problem. We all have to be on guard against it. And I might say that that’s especially true for those of us living in this city, perhaps the most powerful city in the history of the world (at least for a little while longer…). The power, the prestige, the grandeur of the halls of government, that can all seep out into our culture in general, into our personal lives. We have to be aware of that, critically self-aware.

Now, I’ve spent the last ten minutes critiquing and warning. And these two passage of Scriptures are themselves pretty negative. It’s a tough topic. But I think we have to stop and recognize something else interesting about hypocrisy. The funny thing is, one can only be a hypocrite if that person has set a high standard for themselves. If I stood here and said, “I don’t care about anybody but myself. I want a nice car, a big house, and lots of jewelry”, well, it’s hard to see how I’m in danger of hypocrisy. I would go out and live that life, and although you might not want to celebrate me you could at least say that I was honest and consistent.

If we are in danger of hypocrisy, it is precisely because we are trying to do better, trying to be better people. We are striving for what James calls that “wisdom from above”, God’s priorities instead of our own selfish ones. And in that sense, we are really called to take the risk of hypocrisy, to strive to live more compassionate and just lives, even if we know we will fall short.

In fact, despite the overall negative tone of this passage from James, he ends with a powerful statement. James writes that if we “draw closer to God, God will draw close to us.” If we draw closer to God, God will draw close to us. In other words: it’s our choice; the ball’s in our court. We have to decide if we will hold on to the old priorities that so often shape us: greed, anger, envy, hatred–or we can accept the divine priorities of love and compassion, humility and honesty.

Another way of putting it is this: we can, if we want, choose to hold on to our old, false selves. The selves that are mired in all that selfishness. Or we can choose to strive to discover our true selves, the selves we were made to be, people of incredible compassion and wisdom. When we draw closer to God, God begins to reveal to us who we really are.

If we gather in this place–to seek God, to follow Jesus, to seek a more ethical way of life–if we gather in this place, we are in danger of hypocrisy. We are setting a standard for ourselves, the high standard of divine love. And that means we have a choice to make, whether to face that danger, take that risk, and seek God and our truest selves. I hope and pray that we have the courage to make that hard choice.