Our access to goodness only comes through our discovery of our complicity in hypocrisy*
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Epiphany 5, February 9th, 2020
I thought that today I would talk about Climate Change, – but then I decided not to.
I wonder if just my suggesting I was going to talk about climate change resulted in any feelings arising in you. You may have felt glad I was going to address such a relevant topic. Or you may have felt deflated that you were going to be subjected to more talk about an issue which saturates our airwaves. If you knew the position I would take, and agreed with it, you would look forward to support coming your way; if you disagreed, you would probably brace yourself for opposition.
When it comes to serious issues, we tend to be either for or against a position. We assume that the view we hold to is the right one and that the view held by those who differ is the wrong view, after all, if we thought our view was wrong, we wouldn’t hold it. Following from this, we tend to view ourselves as right and those who differ as wrong, and we see ourselves as belonging to the group who are right, as opposed to the others. If we were going to phrase this in religious language, we would call ourselves the righteous and the others, sinners. The righteous are those who hold to the right values and do the right things. The sinners are those who do not.
The values we hold could be described as our own set of laws – rules if followed bring about the right action. We don’t come up with those rules all by ourselves though. As Christians, we consider laws, or commandments, given to us through scripture, especially Jesus’ love God and your neighbour, so I guess we think of God as our primary source for deciding what is right and what is wrong.
This way we come to decide what is right and what is wrong is necessary, but there’s a problem with it, which is to do with how we see those who differ from us as sinners, or ‘people who are wrong’. In the history of the church this has manifested itself in many ways, such as seeing believers as righteous and unbelievers as sinners. Married people were classed as righteous, but those who divorced as sinners. People who broke the law have been thought of as sinners, but law-abiders, or at least those who were not caught, as righteous. Heterosexual people have been seen as righteous, non-heterosexual people as sinners. These are the more explicit divisions created by judgement, but there have been other divisions which were not explicitly seen as good and bad, but superior and inferior, such as men being more suited to being in charge than women, and being better able to represent God because Jesus was male. Similarly, clergy were judged to be closer to God than the laity, and so held more power.
Once I was speaking with a man and he used a swear word. He immediately apologised, obviously thinking he’d done something bad. When people do that, I take it to be indicative of what the church has become for many people, which is a place of judgement: concerned, above all, with what’s right and what’s wrong, and so who’s right and who’s wrong. This flows from the overarching notion that our sense of what’s right and wrong is given to us by God, and seems reinforced by Jesus’ claim in today’s gospel passage, that he is the one who comes not to abolish, but to fulfil the law. That’s not what Jesus means though. By fulfilling the law, he means that he recasts it around the victim, so that the victim becomes the criteria by which the law is to be understood. The point of the law is not to catch people out and punish them, but to prevent the creation of victims or to at least lessen their suffering.
Long ago, the people of Israel, like the church, sought to live by what is good and reject what is bad, so they too created laws, based on their understanding of God’s will), but they ended up oppressing people and satisfying their own agendas. In our first reading today, we heard God roasting his people for that, through his prophet Isaiah. God said their society should provide for the needy and set e the oppressed free. The same is true for the church. It should be a safe place, where people can be themselves, rather than feel they should be something else, for only if we feel safe and accepted can we become the people God created us to be.
The way this comes about is by the church being a community which does not judge people, separating us into who is good and who is bad, sinners and righteous, so we can safely explore how to be human and how to share the earth and look after it. The trouble is, this pattern of judging and seeing ourselves as different to others is so entrenched in human society that we’re incapable of breaking away from it by ourselves. Even those who reject judgmentalism usually reject people who are judgmental.
How does Jesus save us then? How does Jesus help us deal with the issues such as climate change, which is so divisive in our present way of handling it? The answer comes in seeing that how Jesus helps us is not by providing us with laws to ‘shore up the order or structure of goodness in the world’ by calling us to join crusades in favour of this or that, but instead, he subverts our understanding of goodness (James Alison). He does this by showing us how the real sin of the world is the judgement – when we separate ourselves from others on the grounds that we’re right and they’re wrong. That always leads to crucifixion, in some form or another, whether it be exclusion or actual killing. Once we see this, we realise that seeing ourselves as righteous and others as sinners is hypocritical, because we are all sinners, we’re all caught up in and driven by judgement.
If we can see this, then instead of standing on opposite sides of the room to those who see climate change differently, or those who differ to our view of euthanasia, or abortion, or whatever, and sit together, as people who need to be freed from judgement and judgmentalism, then we’ll be on the same side and able to listen to and learn from each other, and create solutions and work out what it means to be human together.
To encourage us, I’ll finish with Jesus’ joke: no-one lights a lamp and places it under a bushel basket. You have to live in first century Palestine to get it, but as you don’t, I’ll explain. Jesus wasn’t talking about any lamp, but a special one – the Menorah, the lamp you lit for the festival of Hanukkah. The light of the lamp symbolised the loving acts of God throughout history, shining out through the windows of your home, reminding passers-by of that. More than that though, the purpose of the law, commanding you to light the Menorah for Hanukkah, was to remind you that you were meant to become a human version of that light. You were meant to live out what it represented. But there was a problem when it came to sex, which was very much encouraged during Hanukkah as a means of celebrating God’s creation. The law also required sex to occur in the dark, but you couldn’t put out the lamp, because blowing out the flame was extinguishing fire, which was work, and you couldn’t do work during Hanukkah, like on the Sabbath. So that’s where the bushel basket came in handy. If you placed it over the lamp, you’re in the dark and no work has been done. When Jesus said that no-one places a lit lamp under a bushel basket, he was making a joke, because people did. He was laughing at the hypocrisy of people lighting their Menorah with no intention of honouring what its purpose was.
We too are hypocrites, because the purpose of the law is not to oppress people, but to set them free, so they can discover how to be human together, but we make the law an instrument of oppression by using our rules to judge one another. The important thing to take away from this is that it’s okay that we are hypocrites, as long as we laugh at ourselves, like Jesus does, because then we’ve begun our
journey to not be. We start by seeing how that our judging is the real sin.
It is only when we’ve begun to stop judging and separating ourselves from one another, that we begin to do what God really wants us to do, which is care for each other and create a loving world, or in the words of Isaiah today: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked and so on. It means to respect and nurture others’ humanity, rather than make them into victims so that we feel good about ourselves.