Hypocrisy

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the world to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise designed for cadets at the Starfleet Academy. In the simulation, a disabled civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, is stranded near the Klingon neutral zone (Klingons are the bad guys in Star Trek). The cadet has to decide whether to rescue the ship and risk a confrontation with the Klingon Empire or respect the fragile peace between the Klingons and the Federation and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish in deep space. Now, for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the only really important thing to know is that the Kobayashi Maru is explicitly designed to be a no-win scenario; it’s meant to assess a cadet’s discipline and character when facing an impossible situation. There is, however, one cadet who successfully completed the Kobayashi Maru scenario. If you know anything about Star Trek, you won’t be surprised to discover that it was James T. Kirk, the maverick captain of the starship Enterprise and protagonist of the original series. He reprogrammed the computer so it would be possible to beat the simulation. Though he technically cheated, Kirk defended himself by claiming he didn’t believe in no-win situations.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also refuses to accept a no-win situation. The passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel has a deceptively straightforward quality, but there is great subtlety and depth in this interaction between Jesus and Pharisees. To begin with, the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor was far from a frivolous concern. In fact, this issue cut to the very heart of the religious and political assumptions of first-century Judaism. The religious authorities noted that paying taxes to the emperor violated at least two of the ten commandments: it not only required taxpayers to make use of a graven image, it also forced them to give homage to the emperor, who considered himself a god. Under the Law of Moses, in other words, paying taxes was tantamount to idolatry. Moreover, the Roman Empire was hated by the Jewish populace. Paying taxes was seen by some revolutionary zealots as a tacit endorsement of a brutal occupying power. At the same time, the only thing that prevented the Romans from bringing ruin down upon Jerusalem and the rest of Judea was the fact that the people paid the tribute required of them. The question that is brought to Jesus, in other words, was the Kobayashi Maru of first century Judaism: paying taxes represented a complicated ethical dilemma, one that could stymie even the sharpest intellect.

In response to this Gordian knot of religious and political nuance, Jesus does not offer a carefully worded opinion. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the question. He does this by saying that the Pharisees and their allies are hypocrites. This is not terribly surprising. Jesus calls people hypocrites a lot in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the word more than any of the other New Testament writers combined. Calling someone a hypocrite is a powerful indictment, in part because it entails minimal risk. Accusing someone of hypocrisy doesn’t require us to share their moral vision or even to have a particular moral vision. All it needs is a vague belief that people ought to act in accordance with their own stated moral principles. We can remove ourselves from the equation and claim that we are blameless, even as we accuse others of failing to live up to the values they champion.

Jesus turns the definition of hypocrisy on its head. For Jesus, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to our own moral standards; true hypocrisy is allowing ourselves to be defined by human standards in the first place. The reason that Jesus does not provide a carefully worded answer to the question of the religious authorities is that he completely rejects the terms of the debate. For him, asking if paying taxes to the emperor violated the Jewish Law ascribed to the emperor authority that properly belonged to God. Indeed, Jesus could have put his position in this way: “Caesar isn’t God; why are you treating him like he is? Why are you giving him power over you that he does not have?” The instruction to give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is actually a way of dismissing the emperor’s power altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, the emperor has mistakenly chosen to honor his own flawed humanity and earthly power. Jesus challenges us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. For Jesus, we are hypocrites when we forget who we are; when we fail to remember that, despite our flawed humanity, we bear the image of God, something no human being or earthly power can take away from us.

Last Sunday, the actress Alyssa Milano posted the following on social media: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Millions of people took this suggestion. It felt like every woman I knew posted #MeToo. Some shared wrenching stories of abuse, while others left the two words as a concise testament to the ways they had been made to feel worthless. The more #MeToos I read, the more I began to consider the ways I had been complicit in these stories of harassment and assault. To be honest, my initial, visceral reaction was to wonder how many of these were overreactions or misunderstandings. This response, however, represents the same hypocrisy displayed by the religious authorities in their interaction with Jesus: the hypocrisy of ascribing transcendent value to human standards: standards like “everybody does it” or “that’s just so and so being so and so.” Indeed, the whole #MeToo movement exposed our hypocritical failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Our faith calls us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor those who bear the image of God by acknowledging their pain and refusing to make excuses for those who have taken advantage of them. At the same time, honoring the image of God requires us to hope for the possibility of redemption: to acknowledge that through Jesus Christ, God has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. Our faith invites us to recognize that even when our sin or the sin of others prevents us from remembering it, we continue to bear the image of God. The ultimate message of the gospel is this: even when confronted with abusive forces that try to convince us that we are worthless, we must not forget who we are and whose we are.

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Who We are Meant to Be

Sermon on Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

As many of you know, my wife and I are cat people.  We have two adorable kitties that give us an incredible amount of joy, even though they can frustrate us at times.  Neither of us grew up with animals in the house; our foray into pet guardianship began when my wife somewhat arbitrarily decided to adopt a cat from the animal shelter in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  Gradually, we became so enamored of Winnie (who is named for Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire) that we decided she needed a feline companion.  This led us to adopt Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) from a parishioner’s backyard.  We are, to put it mildly, smitten.

imagesNow, when some people find out that we are cat people, they are inclined to explain that cats aren’t nearly as cute and cuddly and innocent as we think they are, that they are, in fact, “evil.”  Now, I’m not particularly disposed to use the word “evil” for human beings, let alone animals that presumably have a limited understanding of morality.  Nevertheless these feline detractors will enumerate the reasons that, in their mind, cats are selfish, duplicitous, and unworthy of our affection.  For instance, they will explain that when cats nuzzle you, they aren’t showing affection, but are actually claiming you as their property.  Being a devoted cat guardian, I am familiar with this behavior and I’m fine with it.  Cats are territorial; they mark the things they want in their lives, whether they are scratching posts, food bowls, doorframes, or their human guardians.  But what really bugs me is what the anti-cat party thinks is the most damning evidence against cats.  They explain that unlike dogs, cats do not do anything useful.  Now, I love dogs, but dogs are bred to do useful things like retrieve and point and follow scents.  Cats weren’t bred to do any of these things.  As a civilization, we decided to keep cats around because they hunted and killed disease-carrying pests.  We developed a symbiotic relationship with these animals, benefiting from their natural instincts.  The anti-cat folks, in other words, tend not to like cats because they are not enough like dogs, and I don’t think that’s fair.  They need to be reminded that cats are not dogs, and that that’s okay.  We can’t fault these creatures for doing what they have evolved to do; we should celebrate cats and dogs and other animals for being what they are meant to be.

imgresToday is Trinity Sunday.  In the words of our Collect, it is the day we are called “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of God’s divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”  Put another way, it is the day we are reminded that as Christians, we have a truly unique understanding of monotheism.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that though God is one and there is but one God, God is made known to us as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Now, if this sounds wacky to you, you are not alone.  Adherents of other monotheistic traditions like Judaism or Islam smile to themselves whenever they hear us talk about the Trinity and claim to be monotheists.  Skeptics roll their eyes when Christians talk about the Trinity, thinking that we simply cannot count.  Even some traditions that claim Jesus Christ have eschewed the doctrine of the Trinity: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was adopted as God’s son and is not part of the Godhead, while Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct godlike figures.  Since its inception, in other words, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the more challenging elements of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons the Trinity is so difficult for us to understand is that we have to deal with a substantial language barrier.  The Church fathers who first articulated Trinitarian doctrine used the Latin word personae to describe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  While “persons” is an accurate translation of this word, personae refers less to individual people and more to the ways that we experience people, kind of like the English derivative “persona.”  In fact, another way to translate personae is “masks.”  The early Church, in other words, was saying that we experience God in three very particular ways: as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.  Now, we are currently bordering on heresy; the Early Church would never say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mere masks of God.  Then again, when you talk about the Trinity for any length of time, you are almost always bordering on heresy.  In any case, this leads us to wonder: what was it that led the Early Church to affirm that we experience God in these very particular ways?  Why didn’t they simply say that God manifests God’s self in a variety of different fashions and leave it at that?  After all, the word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture and the references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are few and far between.  What was it that made the Church fathers reconsider the very nature of monotheism?

Part of the rationale is for this change is made clear in our gospel reading for today.  Matthew tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus gathered his disciples on the mountaintop, where he gives them the Great Commission.  Of course, he tells his followers to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but this is not the most important Trinitarian moment in this passage.  That comes two verses before, when the evangelist tells us that the disciples worshiped Jesus.  To our ears, this does not sound weird; Christians have been worshiping Jesus for almost two thousand years.  For devout first-century Jews, however, this was an astonishing statement.  One of the foundational confessions of the Jewish faith is the Shema, the affirmation that God is one and is the only one worthy of worship.  But for these disciples of Jesus, something had happened to persuade them that Jesus Christ was also worthy of worship, that Jesus Christ manifested the presence of God.  The Early Church saw this trend among the earliest followers of Jesus, saw that they recognized the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and began to wonder how exactly this was possible.  They began to wonder if Jesus Christ was somehow also God.

imgresBut perhaps the most compelling rationale for the doctrine of the Trinity is illustrated in the creation account from Genesis.  We are intimately familiar with this story: God speaks into the empty void and calls creation into existence.  The author of Genesis tells us that a wind from God swept over the waters of chaos prior to God saying “Let there be light.”  In Hebrew, the word for “wind” is ruah, same as the word for “Sprit.”  In other words, even before creation began, the Spirit was present in the chaos.  But this is not the reason the creation account points to the Trinity.  That comes later, six days later according to Genesis, when God looks around and says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Theologians have wrestled with what it means to be made in the image of God for generations.  Does this statement in the creation account mean that God looks like a human being or does it mean something else?  Artists throughout history have interpreted this statement somewhat literally: God is depicted in many great works of art as a bearded man (just think of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel).  To my mind, however, when the Genesis account tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” there is something deeper at play, something that I believe the Early Church recognized.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of Adam.  But in the first chapter, God creates woman and man at the same time.  God creates a micro-community of human beings, as if to say, “Human beings are meant to be in relationship with one another.”  I suspect that the Early Church looked at this story and said, “That must be what the image of God is.  If God created human beings to be in community, then community must exist at the very heart of God.”

Ultimately, this is why we take a Sunday every year to remember the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s not so we can brush up on our fourth century theology.  Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to remember the divine community that grounds our very being, to remember that relationship exists at the very heart of God.  We celebrate the Trinity every year to remember that we are created in the image of that God, to remember that we are meant to be in relationship with one another.  The Trinity, in other words, reminds us who we are meant to be.  And just as cat detractors need to be reminded that it’s okay for cats to be cats, we need to be reminded that we are created in the image of God, because it is so easy to forget.  We live in an age when abusing strangers anonymously behind the keys of a message board has become commonplace.  We live in an age when selfishness seems to be the order of the day.  We live in an age when we are too scared to admit we are vulnerable and so we wallow in loneliness, uncertainty, and despair.  The Trinity is a reminder that we are not meant to go through this life alone.  The divine community is a reminder that we are called to share what we have with others who have been created in God’s image.  The relationship at the heart of God is a reminder that we are called to see ourselves, to see God in those who are different from us.  As we gather in community this Trinity Sunday, I pray that we will reach out to those in our midst and those outside of these walls as we celebrate who we have been created to be.