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« Advent 4 (Dec 22, 2013) | Main | The Grace of Invitation, Oct 9, 2011 »

Taking Off the Mask (Sermon, Oct 30)

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St Luke's Episcopal Church - Sermons at St Luke's Ewing - Sermons at St Luke's Ewing


Jesus said, “For you have one teacher, and your all students.”  (Matthew 23:8)

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We should remember from our Sunday School classes that “student” is the translation of “disciple” and that to be a disciple is to be a student, which means to learn and to grow with our knowledge. 

This is a confronting gospel, and it seems that over these last few weeks all we’ve heard are confronting Gospels.  Jesus has had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and he is now spending the last few days teaching leading up to the last meal with his disciples.  Believe it or not, all of these Gospel passages we’ve heard come from just one day, what we would call Monday of Holy Week.  Now it’s near the end of what was a very busy day for Jesus, filled with much argumentation and conflict. 

We can see how Jesus’s patience is starting to wear thin as he points out to his students, his disciples, how the scribes and the Pharisees in the Temple making a great show of themselves to be seen by eithers teaching the content of the faith from Moses’ seat.  That’s what it means to sit in Moses’ seat – to hand on the tradition of the 613 laws and commandments given by God through Moses and that make up the Torah.  Yet, they themselves don’t even follow what they teach, so Jesus warns his disciples to listen to their teaching but not to follow their example.  We can see why Jesus said there is truly only one teacher, and we are all students!

In essence what Jesus is doing is calling the Pharisees and Scribes hypocrites.  We have to remember who the Pharisees were.  They were a group within Judaism who wanted to “get it all right,” to make sure that they followed all 613 rules flawlessly.  As usually happens with those who are perfectionists, they begin to look around and see just how imperfect everybody else is.  “I know what I’m doing.  I’m following the rules.  I’m getting it right.  That person slipped up.  I’m better than them!”  That’s how the Pharisees were behaving.  Even more, the Pharisees were confusing customs handed on from years past with the Torah, so that they were expecting others to keep even more than Moses had taught.

So, Jesus says, “Listen to them.  Do as they say, not as they do.  They’ve missed the point.”  We call them hypocrites.  It’s an interesting word – a Greek work, which, if taken apart, means “under judgment.”  We can get a sense of how judgmental the Pharisees were.  “I’m perfect. You’re not.  I’m better than you!”  But what I find equally interesting is that in Greek, one word for actor is also hypocrite.  If you think back to your high school English days and the study of Greek drama, this makes sense.  Remember how actors in Greek drama all wear masks representing the personas they are playing.  They are one person hiding under a mask pretending to be someone else.

Now, for an actor, we expect that.  We know that James Earl Jones is not Darth Vader.  But what does it mean when the rest of us start to live our lives under the mask?  When we try to project a persona out there of someone who perhaps we want to be but we really aren’t underneath? It becomes particularly troubling if we try to project a persona of being a perfect person before God when underneath we’re actually just like everyone else.

So, what I want to look at, and what I think today’s Gospel is calling us to do as students, as disciples, is to explore what it means to be an authentic person of faith, to not have a mask, to let the person we are be the person we are called by God to be.  That’s what it means to not be a hypocrite:  to be who you are and to strive to become who God is calling you to be, because there is only one who is perfect, and that is God.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Yet, we strive, and strive, and strive again.  And that’s the wonderful thing of what it means to be a student.  Of course you’re going to miss some questions on the test!  Of course you’re going to need to seek out a tutor on occasion.  Of course you’re going to have questions for the teacher.  That’s what it means to be a student.  You have more to learn.  You are in process, and that’s what the Christian journey is about – accepting that we are not perfect but that we are on a journeying towards being made perfect in Christ.  Whatever perfection we have is not from something we do, but from the way God chooses to see us as God’s own creatures made in God’s own image.

So, I think part of what we can learn from the Gospel is that the journey of being a good student, the journey towards authenticity, is to indeed listen to our elders, listen to the wisdom of the past, to listen to the voices of others, to receive the traditions gratefully and joyfully that are handed down to us from those that have gone before us.  But we don’t stop there, because we don’t live in the last decade, or the last century, or the last millennium.  Our task is not to figure out how to be an authentic person of faith in the year 900, but how to be an authentic person of faith in the 21st century with all of its challenges and all of its opportunities.

So the next step toward becoming a good student, after we’ve received the traditions of the past, is to figure out how God is calling us to be faithful to those traditions in the world today – not laying down onerous burdens that made sense two hundred years ago, but looking towards what it means to be faithful in the hear and now.

I was struck this morning in the reading for Morning Prayer from Nehemiah 6.  Nehemiah was the governor of Jerusalem after the Jews were freed from the Babylonian captivity and able to return home from exile.  It was his job to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem.  In today’s passage, Nehemiah notices how all of the wealthy – even in the midst of crisis and trial, some managed to be wealthy – were preserving their wealth on the backs of the poor.  So, it was Nehemiah’s responsibility as a good governor in the name of God to remind the Jews of their tradition of social justice that prevented the exploitation of the poor.

That struck me because of what has happened in the last couple of weeks in two prominent Anglican churches in response to the Occupy Movement.  As we’ve read, the Occupy Movement is taking place in many cities, but it’s heart is in Zucotti Park in New York City, which just happens to be nearly on the steps of Trinity Church, Wall Street.  It makes sense that Occupy set up near Wall Street because they are seeking to call attention to the need for the corporations and banks to be held accountable for their role in our modern financial system that seems to encourage a widening gap in income distribution – hence they’re claim to represent “the other 99%.”

There’s a similar encampment in London called Occupy London Stock Exchange, and similarly, it’s set up on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London – another famous church at the heart of world-wide Anglicanism.

This is an interesting opportunity for any church.  One of the most prominent Episcopal churches in this country has on its doorstep people who are complaining about the need for social and economic justice.  And the people in London are on the steps of one of the central churches in their country call attention to the same problems among the companies that make up the London Stock Exchange. 

What’s different is how each church chose to respond to the Occupy Movement.  Trinity Wall Street sent out representatives to meet with the Occupy Movement.  They said, “Our parish hall is right here, come inside.  We provide food each day to the homeless, come join us.  Get warm, have coffee, chat with us.  Talk to us about your goal.  Let our clergy come to you, to pray with you and share with you where God may be in all of this.”

This is a witness to hospitality that is at the core of the Anglican tradition.  So much of our spirituality is shaped by the Benedictine tradition, and it was St. Benedict himself who wrote in his monastic rule that we are to receive the stranger as if we are receiving Christ.  Benedict, whose rule begins with the word “Listen” also wrote that decisions are not be taken until the newest members and the youngest members of the community have had their say because God often speaks through the least of us.  What a wonderful witness for a church placed at the nexus of great wealth and protest.

In contrast, St. Paul’s, London first welcomed the protestors until they noticed their coffers were drying up from decreased visitation.  They supposed people weren’t interested in walking past a group of unattractive Occupiers in order to enter the Cathedral.  So the Cathedral chose to close its doors, something not done since the days of the London Blitz.  Now the Cathedral is poised to call on the police to remove the protestors from its steps.  As a result, one Cathedral canon has resigned, another is publicly considering it, and the Church of England is held up to public ridicule for its response to the Movement. 

One congregation chooses to be open and welcoming.  One congregation chooses to protect itself from perceived fear.  Which one was wearing the mask?  Which one was pretending to be one thing, and yet in reality was another? 

The danger of viewing the church as an institution instead of as a community is that we start to turn inward.  Our primary concern becomes not how wide we can open these doors to let others in, but “My gosh, look at the crowds, we better close these doors to keep them out.”  When the church starts to see itself as an institution rather than as a community, the voices of the youngest, the weakest, and the least among us get lost and blocked altogether. 

It is the nature of an institution to seek its own preservation of its position, prestige, and privilege.  Yet, the minute our position, prestige, and privilege become our number one goals, we lose them.  They’re taken from our hands because we cease to be relevant; we cease to become signposts for the Kingdom of God.  That is our ultimate responsibility as God’s people – not to preserve our position, but to be willing to even lose our position if doing so can point the way to the Kingdom.  Jesus did this by being willing to go even to the Cross – talk about a loss of position for the Son of God! 

Trinity, Wall Street is taking off its mask and pointing to the Kingdom by being willing to open its doors, to welcome the stranger, to exercise hospitality, to ask questions, to be curious, to listen.  It’s the ministry of the church not to attract everyone who thinks the same, but to find a way to bring in people who might be the most different from one another and somehow put them in the same pew, to explore the same Gospel together.

You might think that Trinity Church, Wall Street should be the church that would protect its position.  After all, Alexander Hamilton, whose face you see everyday on the Ten Dollar Bill and who designed our modern banking system, is buried in Trinity’s churchyard.  No, Trinity sees its mission as a mission of bringing opposites together, as a mission of welcoming the stranger, as a mission of speaking to the wealthy as well as the poor. Even more, as a mission of getting the wealthy and the poor to speak with each other rather than to each other. 

It was interesting to me when I began my sabbatical two years ago by going to the Ash Wednesday service at Trinity, Wall Street.  I wanted good music, a mid-day service, and a place where I could be incognito.  What struck me was how that noonday service, in the heart of America’s financial power, was packed.  You could tell from the clothing that it was packed with stockbrokers and street people alike.  In one pew you could see a financial executive, a nurse, a city worker, and a homeless person.  Yet each came forward to hear those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as they received ashes in the sign of a cross on their foreheads. 

That is the purpose of the church – to look like that.  To foster conversation, to build community out of people who are different from one another, that’s what it means to receive the traditions of the past in a way that they can be heard in the world today. 

Yet, it’s not enough that we just interpret the traditions of the past in the modern age.  We are also charged with handing them on to the generations to come.   The only way to do that is to take off our masks – to not be concerned with our own positions, our own status, and how others might see is, but to be concerned with one thing, and one thing only:  How can we fling these doors open so that we can take the kingdom to the world and the world can bring the kingdom to us. Amen. 

Taking Off Our Masks