Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Doing as We Say

Mt. 23:1-12[1]

Religion has always been connected with words. If you look at the history of religion throughout the ages and collected all the words associated with them, you would find volumes upon volumes of Scriptures of all kinds, explanations of those Scriptures, Prayers, Hymns, Chants, and Mantras. Even religions that are supposedly “wordless,” like the Tao or Zen Buddhism, have their own collections of words. We Christians may be some of the wordiest religious people in the history of the human family! If you gathered together the written deposit of all the preachers and teachers and bishops and popes throughout the centuries, it would fill a sizable library.[2] And we Presbyterians with our official books and declarations are no exception. I think it’s safe to say that where ever you find religion you’re going to find lots of words.[3]

I think, however, that words are a big part of the image problem with religion in our day and time. I’m afraid that all those religious words come across to many people as so much slick marketing. The words we religious people use make people think that this is just another way of getting money out of them or getting them to do something they really don’t want to do! We Christians say all kinds of things that sound profound and perhaps even beautiful, but at the end of the day I think many people see it all as just hollow words. After all is said and done, do all those words really make a difference in the way we live?

When you look at our gospel lesson for today, it’s far too easy to come away from it with the idea that those Jewish Scribes and Pharisees were the ultimate hypocrites. They didn’t even practice what they preached! But to do that would be to miss the fact that one of the most dangerous temptations for all of us is to use religious words to make ourselves think that we have it all down, when in reality our lives don’t come any where near to matching what we say. It’s the temptation of talking the talk without walking the walk.

If you doubt that we still face that temptation today, think about some of the Christian leaders who have been guilty of talking the talk without walking the walk. For some, what difference did all those religious words make when it came down to taking money from the millions of dollars good people contributed to the work of God? What difference did the words make when it came to abusing children who were placed in their trust? What difference did the words make when it came to using parishioners to indulge their sexual desires? And, of course, these temptations apply to all of us. It seems that one of the biggest image problems we have is that we say a lot of good things, but we don’t really do any of them.

When you look at all the ways Jesus criticized some of the Jewish leaders of his day, it seems to me that the common thread may be one of ego.[4] In all the ways that he pointed out their hypocrisy, it seems to me that where they went astray was that they used their religion to massage their own egos, to get “strokes” to make themselves feel important. The truth of the matter is that, whether we know it or not, whether we are even aware of it or not, religion has always been incredibly susceptible to being corrupted into just another way for us to feed the unhealthy pride that lurks in the corners of our insecurities. You know, that pride that tempts us to try to make ourselves look more important or more moral or simply better than others. It’s the other side of the temptation to brand others as “sinners” so that we can be “righteous.”

But when we indulge that temptation to “exalt ourselves” at the expense of others, we’re really only reinforcing our own insecurities.[5] If my sense of self depends on being better than you, then I always have to find ways of reassuring myself that I am indeed better than you. And I do mean always. And so it becomes a vicious circle—insecurity, pride, ego. It becomes something of an obsession. Or perhaps even an addiction.

The solution to that kind of obsessive religious egotism that shows itself in the unhealthy need to “exalt ourselves” over others is surprisingly simple. You just let it go. You simply stop feeding those insecurities. And the way to let it go is to embrace the central truth of the strange kingdom Jesus believed in: that God loves and accepts us—all of us.[6]

But like any unhealthy behavior, if you don’t replace it with something else, it’s incredibly difficult to break the cycle. And so the alternative is that instead of viewing others from our insecurities as the “competition,” we learn to view them from the perspective of compassion. Genuine compassion that cares whether they have everything they need today to be happy and well. Heartfelt compassion that really hopes and prays for them that they may be surrounded by God’s steadfast love that endures forever. When you look at others that way, instead of trying to “exalt yourself” above others, you can care about them enough to serve them.

That’s what true religion has always been about—whatever its name or origin or locale. All the religious words throughout the ages that have ever meant anything boil down to embracing God’s love and sharing it with others.[7] The same thing is true of the strange kingdom Jesus proclaimed: “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11). It’s right and good that we use words like that to express and experience this profound aspect of human life. But at the end of the day, what it’s all about is doing the profound and beautiful things we say—putting them into action in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/30/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] And in this day and time, you can access most of it online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org), at Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org), or at the Vatican web site (vatican.va), among others. I would think this serves as ample evidence of Paul Knitter’s comment that we Christians “talk too much”! Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 56-57. He also mentions (ibid., 66) Thomas Aquinas’ caution that “He knows God best who acknowledges that whatever he thinks or says falls short of what God really is” (Aquinas, De Carnis 6).

[3] This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. In a Buddhist context, our words can be like fingers pointing to the moon; the challenge is not to confuse the finger with the moon. Knitter, Without Buddha, 61, says, “Fingers serve to point us in the direction of that mystery, which can be as real in our experience as it is beyond our words and understanding.”

[4] It’s important for us to heed Douglas Hare’s caution when he says that no one would deny that there were pious frauds in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, but to insist that all the Jewish leaders were pious frauds is “manifestly unjust.” Cf. Douglas A. Hare, Matthew, 263.

[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 186-87. He says, “it is never possible to substantiate oneself without depreciating the other.”

[6] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible 8:433. He says that Jesus points to an “alternative world” and an “alternative family” where “the approval of God removes the heavy yoke of self-justification.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, where he observes that the compulsion to justify oneself at the expense of others can only be overcome when this “primal fear” is replaced by the “primal trust” that “Human life has eternal value because it is loved and accepted by God.” Cf. similarly, Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 136.

[7] Cf. Knitter, Without Buddha, 71, where he says that our religious symbols “are meant to change our lives, not fill our heads.” Cf. also John Caputo, On Religion, 115, 139, where he discusses the importance of “doing the truth” we believe, and “enacting” the “meaning of God.”

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