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Sermon – February 21, 2010: Lips and Heart

 

Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Lips and Heart

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Romans 10: 8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13

Classical Greek theater employed masks. The hero would come out with a heroic

face mask worn over the actor’s own face, and the comedy relief actor would wear a mask

with an appropriately humorous look. This was such a well-known feature of life that the

word for someone wearing a mask to represent a character became a synonym for anyone

who was “two-faced”, or who gave the world one appearance while being someone else

entirely. The word was “hypocrite”, and it’s a word that Jesus used more than once in

warning his religious opponents about false religion.

We need to distinguish hypocrisy from lying and both from providing false

information. A person can give inaccurate information due to being misinformed or due to a

misunderstanding. That can have bad consequences but it is done in good faith.

Lying is deliberately conveying something untrue. There’s a moral cost to the

person who lies, and there’s the social cost of communication becoming unreliable.

However, there are times when a lie may be the lesser of two evils, and at least in those

instances the act of lying doesn’t harm a person’s soul. The familiar example of misleading

a homicidal madman away from his intended victim by pointing in the direction opposite the

one by which his quarry has fled is an example of a deliberate untruth which would do the

soul more good than scrupulous truthfulness would.

Hypocrisy involves deception but it is more than a variety of lying. The conscious

concealment of a person’s genuine nature behind a false front compromises one’s own

integrity more completely than merely misinforming does. A lie may be occasional or

opportunistic, but hypocrisy is continual. A lie may violate the need for truth between

persons, but hypocrisy violates the need to be true to oneself.

There is a spiritual issue here that the ancient world understood which has gotten

obscured though the centuries. People have to be who they say they are, and that need

for congruity, which is what psychologists call it because psychologists have rediscovered

this fact–that need for congruity is so strong that either people will remain outwardly kind

and inwardly selfish and have psychological symptoms from the stress, or they’ll resolve it

either by becoming more kind in their soul or by failing to maintain the appearance of

kindness on the outside. It’s simply too much of a strain to be one person and present

oneself as another. Integrity, reliably being the person one has established oneself as

being, has more than social importance. It is vital to individuals to feel that they are in

possession of their integrity, which has to do with being one reasonably reliable person,

and not a divided soul.

 

All of this morning’s scriptures relate to the identity between a person and what a

 

 

 

person says. They understand individuality as a narrative, as congruity between the story a

person knows and forms about himself or herself, and who they are. When Jesus accuses

his religious opponents of being mask-wearing play-actors, he is doing more than

exposing their insincerity. He is recognizing as a spiritual malaise their failure to be the

persons of God they pose as being. He is not just expressing indignation, he is making a

diagnosis.

Baptists have scrupled about saying what you really believe more than most

Christians. We don’t make the repeating of creeds part of our worship because we want to

avoid putting words in someone else’s mouth that might be at odds with what they really

believe on the inside. We take it for granted that recitations of religious beliefs must reflect

the inner person.

That works two ways. For Baptists, who are an independent and individualistic

crowd, we usually think of it as making sure we don’t say things we don’t believe. We don’t

want to suffer the disjunction between our true selves and our outward selves which Jesus

criticized in the Pharisees who challenged him. One way the identity between person and

what the person says about himself or herself works is that the words have to conform to

the heart, to the soul.

The other thing that happens is that the soul conforms to the words. We teach little

ones to say their prayers, to recite The Twenty-Third Psalm, and things like that, with no fear

of imposing on their souls. Instead we are deliberately shaping their souls to the stories of

the faith. That’s the logic of the offering of “first fruits” from the Book of Deuteronomy. The

member of the Chosen People who comes to be part of the ritual isn’t only asked to bring

the best produce from the farm as a gesture of thanks to God. More importantly, he is

asked to recite a story about who the Chosen People are and how God delivered them to

this sustaining land, and to claim that story as his own. “I was a wandering Aramaean…” he

says and identifies with every stage of his people’s history down to the present day. It’s

not “his ancestors” or his “predecessors” who crossed the Red Sea or who accepted the

law at Sinai–it’s him. He conforms himself, his essential, inner self, to the story of how God

has rescued, how God has set free and blessed.

When Paul is writing to the church at Rome he is defending his acceptance of non

Jews as fellow Christians in every way. How the Jewish Messiah became the Savior of

the whole world is still being worked out in Paul’s lifetime, and Paul’s approach, which is

trusting and generous, eventually prevails. In the part of the letter from which we read this

morning Paul is contrasting finding life with God by obeying the law with finding life with God

by faith in what God has done. He quotes the Old Testament, the passage about where

God’s requirements really reside, from when Moses challenges Israel to agree to the

covenant. God’s requirements really reside in you, in your heart and in your mouth. This,

again, is the old assumption of the identity of what one says and who one is.

 

This emphasis on the individual claiming for himself or herself–just as the person in

 

 

 

the first-fruits offering claimed an identity for himself or herself–suits Paul’s purpose.

Whoever owns the story of Jesus Christ as Lord can say so. That’s the authentic identity

that person possesses. It’s not a matter of birth or any outward mark. It’s a matter of who

they are inside, and that is discovered by their say-so.

We still take it for granted that we get to the reality of a person by asking. In a court

of law a shrewd attorney can manipulate what a person gets to say from the witness stand,

and a reporter can pick and choose and shape comments in a story, so sometimes it’s not

accurate. But those are exceptions, and those often are intentional distortions. People are

examined face-to-face to establish their worthiness to teach, their fitness to preach, their right

to practice. It may not be prudent business but it still is an ideal that a man’s word is his

bond, and that’s because a man’s word, we expect, is who he is.

The power of what is said, the importance of the words a person speaks from his or

her own mouth, is shown in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The question

of Jesus’ integrity, of whether or not he wholeheartedly and completely will be God’s

person, is a dialogue. Jesus’ being true to himself is revealed in his responses to

temptations. He is defining himself by everything he says, because that’s the power of

language. He has a self-understanding that rests on the religious traditions of his ancestors

and on the sense of calling he has, and that’s the story which is opposed to the alternate

scenarios offered as temptations.

Notice that the first two temptations are rebuffed by Jesus’ quoting scripture. That

makes it appear as though quoting scripture is what answers every question. So then the

tempter couches the next alternative in scriptures. It goes from Jesus quoting scripture,

from saying “I won’t do it because it is written…” to Satan saying “you can have it this way

because it is written….” This third time, Jesus responds by saying, “It is said…” and he says

what is said. It may not be scripture but those are the words which answer for who Jesus is

and who Jesus will be, and that’s that. What a person chooses to say for himself is who he

really is, and who he really is determines what he will say. There is no play-acting here,

there is only being true.

What have you got to say for yourself? What words do you choose to have in your

mouth about who you are, about what you believe down deep? How are you conformed

to the Christian person God has called you to be? What examples, what parables, what

teachings inform your story of yourself?

It was in the context of seeking to be true to God that David wrote Psalm 19 and

extolled the wonderful gift of God’s revelation of the law, which permits a person to strive to

be Godly. David knew, however, that even with that he could go wrong. David knew that

even conscientious adherence to religious principles weren’t enough. That’s why David

concluded the psalm with this prayer, which we ought always to pray as persons whose

souls will reflect the things we will say, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of

my heart be acceptable in thy sight, my rock and my redeemer.”

 

 

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