Sheepscott Community Church August 15, 2010
Hebrews 11: 29- 12: 2
Luke 12: 49-56
Hypocrites! You hypocrites! How does that make you feel? Not good, if you take it in. Being accused and challenged that way can make us defensive, as in, “I’m not a hypocrite. Do you know what I do for the church?” And there we might begin to recite a litany similar to the parabled litany the pharisee recited in the temple: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men––robbers, evildoers, adulterers––or even like this tax collector,” referring to the publican at the back of the room. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get,” he continued, while the publican or tax collector didn’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” One the picture of smugness, the other of true humility.
What did Jesus say about this pair from the parable? “This man,” referring to the tax collector, “rather than the other, went home justified before God.” God knows the hearts of men––and women, and children. Only God knows the heart.
Hypocrites! Jesus is not what we would consider now a “nice guy,” is he? A compassionate man who alleviated suffering whenever and wherever he saw it, yes, but not a nice guy. By that I mean one who tries to make others feel better ultimately for his or her own gain or purposes, and not for God’s purposes.
You hypocrites! Jesus said to his listeners on the occasion of this morning’s gospel that while they were able to interpret the signs in the sky as predictors of the weather––Red skies at morning, sailors take warning; red skies at night, sailors delight––they could not interpret the sign of God, whom they had in their midst––himself. They could not interpret the meaning of the present time.
No less than the people of Israel had the sign of God in their midst through the presence of Jesus, do we have that same sign in our midst, available in the word of God, and in and through each other insofar as we are available to the Spirit of God. The more we are surrendered, as in, Okay God, I give up. Do your thing. I can’t do it anymore. Insofar as we surrender increasingly in that way, just that far can the the will and purposes of God be realized in and through us in the world, most immediately in the world of our own neighborhoods. We can change history by being fully our selves when those selves are surrendered to God. That is no exaggeration.
Think of Mother Teresa, who was not a particularly “nice” person, the way we think of nice now. She had an edge. She alleviated suffering of the dying on the streets of Calcutta, giving them the dignity of a clean and peaceful death in an enclosure instead of on the streets. She alleviated suffering when she saw it––like Jesus––but had little patience with hypocrisy or a sentimental view of what she was doing.
The people of Jesus’s time occasionally did acclaim him as a prophet in their midst. And I remind you of what a prophet is, i.e., not necessarily one who predicts the future but one who speaks for God. Many times Jesus said, in one way or another, when you hear me, when you see me, you hear and see God. These are the words of a prophet who is entirely surrendered to God. That prophet does not tickle his or her hearers’ ears: he or she tells the truth. Hypocrites! You can tell the meaning of the weather signs, but you cannot interpret the meaning of God in your midst. Is that addressed to us?
Jesus was a complete contrast to the false prophets, about whom it was written in Jeremiah 23, “They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says. “You will have peace,” and to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts, they say, “No harm will come to you.”’” By contrast, Jesus said, “I have not come for peace but division,” and then the particular divisions within families were itemized in this morning’s gospel. Some of us may have experienced those divisions ourselves, whether for religious or other reasons, and those divisions can be painful and have long-lasting reverberations.
In this context it’s significant to remember some scriptural references to Jesus’s family, when he often seemed to slight them, as in, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers,” he said, pointing to his disciples. “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Harsh. Perhaps. But it’s coming from the same place as, “Hypocrites!” from the life and mouth of a surrendered soul, an entirely surrendered soul who came to teach us how to live. Consequently we would do well to pay attention to what he is saying. Jesus didn’t come to make nice. He came to tell the truth, and that truth might mean divisions in families. And finally he was killed because he told the truth.
I don’t know about you, but “Who needs it?” is my first response. It doesn’t take much more reflection than listening to the evening news to have a second response: We need it. We all need it. “It” being the compassionate teachings, the model of the life of Jesus. How else can we make meaning out of our lives and continue to strive after the good in the face of acknowledged evil, in the face of what we do to one another, which we hear and read about almost every day in the news and which we experience in our own lives? How can we make meaning out of our place in the world and choose to act and not be overcome by anguish, despair, and consequent inertia?
We can fully accept membership in another family, with Jesus as brother and God as Father and Mother. If we surrender all other credentials of constructed connection for redefinition on God’s terms, we can truly become agents of change, prophets in our own lives, which is to say, bearers of God’s news, which is truly good news. Something to think about anyway.
Yeah, okay, but what about that part about what happens to prophets, as in Jesus’s life? What about it? If you are ready to surrender your life to God, you take your chances. I don’t doubt that your internal response to that is, yeah, right, or, as mine was, who needs it. If you still don’t buy into what I have said, viz., that we all need to house the Living Word of God, who is Jesus, if we are to be able to continue to bear living and serving in this world, and not be overcome by inertia, then let’s talk a little more about what happens to God’s prophets.
One of my favorite artists is Meinrad Craighead, whom I believe I have mentioned before. She had been a cloistered Carmelite in Glastonbury, England, for 15 years when, following her mother’s death, she felt called back out into the world, to America her home, to continue as a developing artist. For the past 30 years she has lived and painted in the desert of New Mexico, where she maintains her studio which has multiple altars honoring the feminine aspects of God. She also prays sometimes in a kiva, which is a hole dug in the ground. This is a common practice among some Native American tribes, and she herself is Native American through her grandmother.
It was her praying in a kiva that brought her to mind in this context of the lifestyle of the prophets that is laid out in a detailed way in the reading from Hebrews, which C.J. read this morning. “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated––the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in desert and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” The kiva. Meinrad Craighead.
What she who has listened to the Spirit of God and that One revealing that One’s self in her life has led to is an art that has lifted the minds and hearts of how many people to God. To seeing God in a new way. To allowing God to be more than our little creeds and practices can imagine or hope for. That seems like a worthwhile goal, a reason to put up with, a reason to take a chance on. The rewards are built into the surrendered life, and the only way we can find out what those rewards translated into our individual lives are is to surrender to God––entirely. Take a chance. What do we have to lose besides lives that we have constructed, which are little better than stage sets compared to the real thing.
One more note about Meinrad Craighead: One of her work practices over the many years of her painting had been to briskly rub the painting to achieve a certain surface that was one of the recognizable features of her work. After decades of that rubbing, she had to have surgery in the ‘90s on her shoulder, which was simply worn out. She no longer had the strength or the cartilage to do what she had done for so long. Did she give up? Go down into the kiva to lick her wounds? Heck no. She worked out a new technique which is startlingly bare and much more colorful and undetailed than her earlier works. The new work is almost frightening, but in these days, that is what she is seeing, and perhaps that’s the prophet’s brush held in the other hand.
I think of this wonderful line in Jeremiah 23: “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Where are you feeling that hammer? What is the hard place in you, the rock that needs to be smashed into submission? remember what I began with: Jesus is not a nice guy. Jesus will do what is necessary to bring about the fullest realization of the purposes of God in our lives, as he did in his own life. And what is it to be baptized into Christ if not to fully share his life? If you don’t want to be part of that, if you say, “Hey, I was an infant, a toddler, when I was baptized. My parents made that decision for me.” Okay. Tell God that. That you want out. That you never really made that decision yourself. I expect God would honor that, as God honors every person’s free will. However, if you as a reasonable and reasoning adult do want to decide for God, you can as well do that. But for Pete’s sake, get off the fence. Fall one way or the other, but fall.
If you fall for God, i.e., jump off the precipice into the abyss, you will be caught. I can promise you that. But you don’t know me, really, so that promise is meaningless. Nope, you have to go on your own faith. That’s your problem, your journey, your risk-taking adventure, not mine. I’ve got my own to work out. But y’ know? We can work this out together. In this community that can become increasingly a prophetic community in the sense of embodying God, we can help each other to try to live the life we are all called to. What do you say? Can we take a chance on each other?
The OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines a hypocrite as one who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to be better or other than he is, hence a dissembler , a pretender. The word is from the Greek meaning an actor or pretender. Is that what we are? Persons pretending to be God’s people? Do we feel accused when Jesus exclaims, “Hypocrites!” If so, let us go down into our own kivas and meet the living God, that hungry lover of souls who pursues and pursues, but always at a distance that denies and defies certainty to make way for the faith that is the ground of decision. Amen.