All We Have to Live On
by Louise Westfall
The story is told of two brothers who were well known around town for their crooked business practices and shady dealings. They were as mean and ruthless as you could imagine. Eventually, one of the brothers died, and the surviving brother wanted to give him a funeral fit for a king. He called a popular clergyman and promised, “I’ll give your church $100,000 if in your eulogy you call my brother a saint.”
The minister immediately agreed, much to the disdain of his congregation. What a sell-out! The whole town turned out for the funeral, and the minister began: “The man you see in the coffin was a vile and depraved individual. He was a liar, a thief, a deceiver, a manipulator, and a reprobate. He destroyed the fortunes, careers, and lives of countless people in this city. But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”
Well, yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about hypocrisy this week after visiting theologian Jake Mulder told us of extensive research about the spirituality of millennials. Thousands of hours of interviews have revealed that the primary reason many don’t come to church is because of perceived hypocrisy. Selling out our highest values. Majoring in the minors. Claiming moral superiority, while judging others critically.
Today’s text seems to suggest they’re absolutely correct. Jesus is preaching in the temple and seems to go off-script when he observes the conduct of some highly religious people. A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the 12th chapter at the 38th verse. Listen for God’s word … to the good, the bad, the hypocrites and holy ones … and even to millennials. [MARK 12:38-44]
Oh, boy! What a great text for stewardship season, when we encourage your generosity in making financial commitments to Central’s mission. Give it all, people, just as the Bible says! But to reduce Jesus’ message here to a rule about church offerings is to miss a deeper, and more life-giving point.
And curiously, I think it’s one that many millennials often “get” before some of the rest of us. It’s about living authentically rather than hypocritically; matching your actions with your deepest convictions, rather than to someone else’s expectations or for the sake of appearance.
Hypocrisy takes many forms. With the religious people of Jesus’ day, it was putting their righteousness on display while ignoring the needs of people around them. For us contemporary church people—particularly of the progressive persuasion— it’s almost the opposite: we hold our faith so privately, that hardly anyone could tell what difference—if any! —it makes in our lives. A recent survey by the Barna Group, a leading research organization investigating the intersection of faith and culture, shows that among church-going American Christians, more than 60% report never or rarely having a spiritual conversation with anyone.
I resonate with the reticence, in these days when religion has had a polarizing and chilling effect in our national life. But if we are mute about our particular understanding of God’s inclusive love and call to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” before the voices getting all the press, then why would we expect anything else but to be lumped into the whole and dismissed as “hypocritical?”
In the text Jesus didn’t criticize the people who gave a lot of money because it wasn’t all their money. Jesus was calling them out because their actions didn’t match their words. There were poor widows right in plain view, who had next to nothing to live on. The sharp rebuke to the leaders wasn’t simply about their big show of piety, but rather their hard-hearts and lack of mercy toward vulnerable neighbors. They “devoured” the homes in which the impoverished lived when they couldn’t keep up with the payments. Somewhere else Jesus cuts to the heart of their hypocrisy by saying they were so intent on rule-keeping and religious practices that they had missed the main point of it all. To do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God.
This is what we do. We remind people that the good life cannot be lived alone, but in relationship with other people and (sometimes in spite of us) in relationship with God.
Friends, Jesus calls us to a life of integrity, where words and actions jibe. Words. Actions. And I believe the very best place to learn how to do that is here in the house of hypocrites. Shocking I know, but stay with me.
Recently the New York Times published a special section in the daily newspaper. It was a six page spread intended to offer guidance for young people just entering the work force. It was titled “Life After College Is Weird … We’re Here to Help.” The section had very useful articles about reducing student debt, preparing a resume, tips for successful interviews. There were profiles of three young people who had figured out different kinds of housing options, relationship advice and reviews of online dating sites, and even recipes for three healthy one-pot meals. I read it through twice, and the omission was startling: Not one word about connecting your individual life to a larger community. Nothing about joining a civic organization, let alone a faith community. Nothing about volunteering or getting involved with your neighborhood.
For a major newspaper to miss this critical dimension of life in a time when the experience of social isolation is at an all-time high in every age category, including young adults, is negligent to say the least. But society’s omission cries out for the church’s attention. And here’s the thing. This is what we do. We remind people that the good life cannot be lived alone, but in relationship with other people and (sometimes in spite of us) in relationship with God. We proclaim a gospel of love and acceptance … for all people. We are “organized” (okay sometimes disorganized) as a community of people who—despite our differences— we regard as brothers and sisters. The heart of our mission is to serve the needs of our neighbors, especially ones who are vulnerable and overlooked. We follow Jesus, who told us to love our enemies, forgive the wrongs done to us, and invited us to join him in bringing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. No wonder we fail so often! I plead guilty to hypocrisy, because I know my actions don’t always stack up to these impossibly high ideals. But I know I do better because my little life is joined with yours and together we’re joined to a larger reality than any of us can imagine.
And that may be what some millennials miss. Humans are always going to be hypocrites to some extent, if our vision is wider and deeper than our personal fortunes and fate. We’re going to miss the mark often, but in community with others (yes, who are hypocrites too), we find forgiveness and courage and mutual support to try again. The widow with her penny shows us the way because she gave all she had to live on. It’s not about the money, but about the trust to give yourself wholly, 100%, to this big, big enterprise called Christian faith. When you think about it, what else would you expect from a movement that began when its leader gave everything he had to live on for the life of the whole world? On the cross, Jesus was simply demonstrating what he had experienced of a God who gave God’s whole self, the unconditional, limitless, transforming love that is Divine essence.
I wonder if this is worth a word or two to the people with whom we share life: the millennial living in our basement; a young co-worker who’s just moved to town; the neighbor who invites us to brunch on Sunday morning. One of your fellow congregants struck up a conversation with his waiter at a water hole over drinks with another friend. He didn’t try to “convert” her—he simply opened a door for listening to her life and concerns. A friend told me a great conversation starter is to ask someone about their tattoos. Often these hold great significance for their wearer. As they describe memorable moments of their lives, your attention just might shatter the stereotype of the judgy Christian who happens not to wear his heartbreak on his sleeve.
Friends, could you and I break the dismal silence of the church about the One who can heal that heartbreak? Could we put our two cents in, offering an invitation to join God’s work in the world, alongside others who testify in unison: You are not alone? You are not alone. Thanks be to God.