Sermon for Pentecost 25 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My wife was on the board of the local community theater group back when we were in Arkansas, and it occurred to me how shocking it would have been for a priest’s spouse to be involved in such a venture only a few hundred years ago. The theater was considered borderline unacceptable by many church people, and actors were considered the worst of the worst. There is a famous church in New York, the church of the Transfiguration, which made quite a splash by permitting theater-folk into the church. Actors were reckoned a lowly bunch, and the bad rap didn’t start with John Wilkes Booth or even the bawdy seventeenth century plays that the puritans had banned before the Restoration. In fact, the idea that acting was a most disreputable profession can be traced back at least to the ancient Greeks, who coined an interesting word for play-actors: hupokrites. Hypocrites.

I don’t share this little lesson in etymology to deplore the theater, which I quite enjoy, but to help flesh out what we’re up against with the sin Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel. “Beware of the scribes,” he said, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

You see, hypocrisy is like malicious play-acting, putting on a performance whose audience doesn’t know is a show, for an undetermined but usually high cost of admission. And when the subject matter of said performance is religious, the deception is dangerous indeed.

And, what’s worse, the actors in the charade that is religious hypocrisy can be very good, so good that their tactics are only seen once tremendous damage has already been done. Religious hypocrites have gone from devouring widows’ houses to committing horrible acts of violence, physical and spiritual, against the weakest among us. And it’s not only the so-called “crazies”, the David Koreshes and Jim Joneses of the world, but ministers, priests, and rabbis from the American religious mainline. “Beware the scribes,” indeed!

But let us change the focus from these, turn around the camera which captures their shows, because nothing is easier than pointing out hypocrisy in others. Such radical forms of hypocrisy can serve as an easy distraction, because we can always say, “well, I’m not as much a hypocrite as him.” The difficult task, the hard work which we all need to do, is to search our own hearts for what apparently minor hypocrisies any of us is prone to commit.
I’m in an especially dangerous position, because, though a sinful person like anyone, my profession means that I walk around in long robes, and I do have the best seat in the synagogue (except when the bishop comes and displaces me from it). It is a short step from doing my job and exercising my authority appropriately to clericalism, and it’s an even shorter step from clericalism to outright hypocrisy.

But I am not alone in these dangerous waters, you see, for every single Christian can fall into it because of pride or simply negligence. A good model for all of us, however, is found in the second half of this morning’s Gospel.
“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.'”

Now, the point is neither that rich people and their contributions are bad nor that penury is a laudable choice. If all you have in the world is “two small copper coins”, I’m not advising that you put it in the offering plate this morning, because I don’t want to be accused of devouring widows’ houses. The point is quite different from this.

In both Mark and Luke, the story of the widow’s mite, as it’s come to be called, immediately follows the denunciation of the scribes, and biblical scholars will tell you that this is intentional. Both episodes are meant to be understood as meditations on the same theme, the dichotomy between authenticity and hypocrisy. This is why, though neither Mark nor Luke says it explicitly, it is believed that those putting great sums into the treasury were actually doing it with great pomp and ceremony, ostentatiously drawing attention to their generosity. In other words, they were play-acting, just like the scribes. They wanted to be seen as surpassing “holy”. Giving generously wasn’t the problem, it was giving simply to be seen giving that was. The widow did not make a great deal of her offering. She just gave it.

Money is an obvious example, because it’s so tangible. It can be both a great source of good and potentially harmful to the soul, and we can often see the effects either way, comparing those who give selflessly and those who either become miserly or who give for self-aggrandizement. I challenge you to consider this as we wrap up our annual pledge drive next week. But money is just the most tangible example of this dichotomy of hypocrisy and authenticity. In reality, all that we do and say has implications in this regard. When we follow the widow to the treasury, the treasury of merit as the medievals called it, we deposit all our good works. Whether what we do is authentic or hypocritical, God can no doubt use it to His own ends, but it is only a true offering and a sacrifice if it’s done for the love of God, and his people, and his Church rather than for the love of attention.

In some ways, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, because, as I’ve said from this pulpit before, there is a great deal of selfless work done around this place and in our community by many of you. Even so, we all, myself especially, need an occasional reminder along these lines. Thank God that we have such good examples. If you look hard enough, you’ll see the little acts of loving-kindness you catch your friends furtively doing, not blowing a trumpet but toiling in the dark. You can find examples in the stories of saints long gone on to their reward who took their master’s call to heart by giving of their energy or of their wealth or of their very lives. If nothing else, you can find a very good example in the poor, nameless widow from Jerusalem who all those generations ago gave her two mites, and was, no doubt, richly rewarded by her Father in heaven.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.