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Sermon – August 22, 2010: Hypocrites

Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Hypocrites

Psalm 71: 1-6; Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Luke 13: 10 – 17

Forty years ago a woman in a small town went to see the pastor of her church. She

was flustered. Her twenty-year-old daughter was expecting a baby. The girl and her

boyfriend wanted to get married, and the mother hoped to have the wedding take place as

soon as possible. She was bothered, all the same, about what people would say.

“They’ll count the months” she said. The idea that people would talk really bothered her.

The pastor told her, “They’ve gone together a long time and they love each other,

and they’re going to get married. Forget about what people will say. Hold your head up–

you’re going to be a grandmother.”

After that, the couple of times that someone in the extended family or the

neighborhood approached the question of the timing of the whole thing, she’d say–“My

pastor told me to hold my head up, I’m going to be a grandmother.” That was that.

In the gospels, when Jesus recognizes Peter as the chief of his disciples, he tells

Peter that the church will be built on the foundation of Peter, and that whatever Peter binds

on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever Peter looses on earth will be loosed in

heaven. St. Peter is depicted in Rome as having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and

is still depicted in cartoons as the gatekeeper to the afterlife.

More often than not the power to influence the spiritual destiny of persons seems to

result more in denials and punishments than absolutions and encouragement. The old

hierarchical churches have excommunicated and denied burial in holy ground, and the newer

Protestant fellowships have, in an effort to be disciplined churches, literally pilloried people

back in Puritan days and figuratively ever since. When you speak about an authoritarian

church, you aren’t talking about a church which cherishes its authority for the power it

provides to overlook human weakness and embrace embarrassed sinners.

There’s a Baptist church not far from here which refused to marry a young couple

who have worshiped there. The bride’s mom is a member, and the girl has grown up in

that church. She and her fiancé, however, have a little girl, and they’re hoping to get married.

From the church’s perspective the wedding is going to be about two and half years too late,

and the church doesn’t want any part of it.

Well, that’s the kind of church it is. It preaches, and it expects people to practice, and

perhaps it is a community of saints in which everyone else always is meeting the mark set

by scripture. Or, if there’s a member there who practices a little tax evasion, or exceeds the

speed limit, or indulges in gluttony or holds a grudge, maybe anyone having to own up to

any of those sins likewise is disciplined. Maybe they aren’t allowed to take communion, or

perhaps they’re barred from being in the adult Sunday School class until they reform.

I suspect, however, that the church isn’t as consistent in its principles as that. It is hard

to be consistent in your principles when you’re going to insist that a church be a fellowship

only of people who don’t do anything wrong. It’s especially hard if you’re going to define

misbehavior by any and all requirements mentioned in scripture. I know of at least one

Baptist pastor who began by being pleased with himself for beginning to root out sinners

from the other believers with whom he had to be associated, who soon read his Bible so

closely and took so seriously what he believed were his responsibilities to pastor a

community of saints that he eventually despaired and quit the ministry altogether.

I do want to point out, however, that what we’re talking about is not just acting like

whatever anybody does is okay. What we’re talking about is upholding the holiness and

righteousness of God without exhibiting the hypocrisy of holding other people to higher

standards than the ones we have accepted ourselves.

This is what is going on in the gospel lesson. Jesus has a reputation as a healer. He

also is a believer in public worship, so he’s in the synagogue every week. It’s a place

where people know they can find him. People show up who need healing, and Jesus

heals them.

This violates the letter of the law. The sabbath is the day for synagogue worship,

and it’s a day when people are not supposed to engage in their trade. The ruler of the

synagogue is perhaps a little scandalized that a healer is working in the midst of the day of

rest, but maybe the big thing is that he wants to spare Jesus the problem of having to

choose between helping people and keeping the Sabbath scrupulously, so he tells

people “There are six days in the week when it’s proper to get work done, so bring your

sick to Jesus on those days.”

Jesus doesn’t get right into a debate about what keeping the Sabbath means. He

respects the Sabbath. What he knows is that even on the Sabbath people permit

themselves little necessary and humane tasks that really are a variety of work, because life

requires them. He uses that argument. He tells those who don’t approve of his having

healed a woman hobbled by a bent back that they set their animals free from their bonds

in order they can be fed on the Sabbath, and why shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham be

set free from what has confined her? The people who want to be scrupulous about religion

are shamed into silence by this, and most of those there, who want to believe that God is

about healing people and helping people, think it’s great.

Jesus refers to the woman as a daughter of Abraham. What he means by that is that

she’s part of the people of God. He suggests that a way for God to be honored on the

Sabbath at the synagogue is for a member of God’s household to be given a new life. It is

a different way to conceive the dynamics of a relationship between a God who is the parent

of the people than the way that Jesus’ opponents look at it. They think of God as a father

who demands respect and must be shown humility and obedience by God’s children–

that’s us–doing everything that we’ve been told.

Well, I’m a dad, and I must admit I’m glad when my children choose to do things

which show they accept my authority and want to please me by behaving the way I have

told them I want them to behave. There’s certainly a lot of sense in the idea that an

important part of religious life is demonstrating the humility and gratitude of being creatures

who require and respect the guidance offered by God.

That’s not the whole story of family relationships, however. When people love each

other, there’s a certain amount of give and take. It’s not only a matter of the little and less

strong doing their best to avoid annoying the more powerful. Parents submit themselves

to their children, too, stooping to tie shoes when they’re little and working around school

schedules and other activities as they grow older. Having one’s origins with another creates

all kinds of reciprocal obligations and expectations.

That’s the logic of Jesus’ defense of his action. The woman who came into the

synagogue with a medical problem on the day the healer was there wasn’t just some

opportunist who couldn’t care less about the sanctity of the Sabbath. She was a daughter

of Abraham, someone who had a claim on the compassion of her religious tradition. She

was owed whatever kind of latitude could be shown by the faith in which she had been

raised, and Jesus pointed out that even the most religious did give themselves permission

to finesse Sabbath requirements for certain purposes. Why not treat those Sabbath

scruples with a similar liberty when it came to showing mercy to a daughter of Abraham?

Having one’s origins with God is also the basis for the writer of the psalm’s pleas for

help. God, I need help, the psalmist says, and the psalmist feels it is reasonable to

importune the Almighty because it was God, after all, who gave the petitioner life. All of his

life–from his very birth–the person who is praying to God for help has lived as God’s child,

and after all this time, through this faithful life, it surely isn’t too much for God to hear the

outpouring of his heart and do something for him.

Similarly, when God calls Jeremiah to bring God’s word to his contemporaries, God

meets Jeremiah’s objection of youth and low status by reminding Jeremiah that God gave

Jeremiah life and God has had this purpose for Jeremiah from the beginning. Further, God

will follow up on what God has begun by supporting and strengthening Jeremiah for the

task before him. You’re not just the stripling you think you are, not just the unformed youth

your neighbors expect you to be. You are a child of mine, the Almighty tells Jeremiah, and

so your life is going to be much larger than you can imagine.

Every church wants to uphold the holiness of God, and the dignity of a life lived as

conscientiously as possible. The gospels especially remind us that it is at least equally

necessary, and probably always more important, to consider not only human frailty, but

each human’s heritage as a child of God. Our big consideration must be, “who does a

person think he or she is?”, which leads to indignation. It should be, “who do we think a

person is?”, which leads to showing, as best we can, the love that God has for those whom

God has brought into the world.

 

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