Sunday, June 18, 2017
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There is a story of a man who went to a hotel and after one night complained about the presence of bugs.  He wrote a letter to the Manager, complained to the Front Desk and also let the Corporate Office know that he was not satisfied to have a hotel room with bugs in it.  He received a response a few days later. He was deeply touched by what it said: “We are humiliated that a man of your integrity, a man of your reputation, a man of your importance in the community as a whole should have had this experience in one of our hotels.” He was moved and felt pretty important, until he turned the page over and saw the note stuck on the back that said, “Send this guy the bug letter.”  

I think when Jesus talked about integrity, about words and deeds having some semblance of appropriateness, he wasn’t thinking of this letter.  Indeed, this letter shows what happens when we lose the alignment between words and deeds, between sentiments and real experiences and meanings.

Jesus put it this way in the King James Version of Matthew’s Gospel:  “It is not he who sayeth ‘Lord, Lord’, but he that doeth the Father’s will.”  In other words, Jesus was arguing for an alignment to take place between our words and our actions, between what we say and what we actually mean, and that in matters of faith we do not just ascribe to a particular creed, but that we live that particular creed in our everyday existence.  I think it is fair to say that getting that alignment right is one of the great challenges that people of faith face.  Every one of us, at some point, has wondered deep down if the sincerity of our hearts corresponds with what we are actually doing, or that what we know to be right corresponds with what we are doing.  We struggle with that.  It becomes a matter of obedience.  It also becomes, as I am going to suggest this morning, part of personal integrity.  It goes right to the heart of following Christ and being authentic in the way that we follow Christ.

The passage that was read from Matthew’s Gospel is what I would like to call a booster shot to get us to get our lives to line up properly.  It is not that there isn’t already within us a sense of right and wrong, but rather it is whether we have the power and the courage to do it.  Matthew 25 is a booster shot to help the Spirit that is within us bring us closer into alignment with the will of God.  It is all from what is known famously as The Sermon on the Mount, which we find in Matthew, Chapters 5, 6 and 7.  The Sermon on the Mount, as we know, are probably the most famous words of Jesus, for in these three chapters he is giving the disciples a sense of right and wrong, of how to live the life of someone who follows him.  The very beginnings of it were directed towards them as they surrounded him on that mountaintop. He wants all of those below to hear how he understands the Christian faith.  It is a brilliant and it is a magnificent sermon!

Right here, in today’s passage, is the closure almost of The Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is dealing not only with general principles, he is dealing with a particular problem that he has observed. Namely, that there are false teachers, probably the Zealots and possibly even the Pharisees, going around doing some strange things.  One of the thing they are doing is performing healings and miracles.  Now, Jesus is not against the healings and the miracles per se.  In the ancient world there were many people who were miracle workers; there were many people who had the sense of being able to help people change their lives, for so much of what seemed to cause medical problems was borne out of a psychological illness, a stress, a confusion, and a fear of sources beyond themselves.  Many of the religious leaders and faith healers were trying to get people not to be frightened of the elements around them, to not take it personally when there was a clap of thunder, as if somehow the gods were out to get them, and to deal with the stresses and strains that the ancient world, where many people lived in constant fear of the elements around them.  Jesus knew this happened.  Even in the first century, the Christian writer Origen said, “There is nothing either good or bad about these ways in which people are healed and restored, the problem is when people are ascribing them to the wrong source.”  Jesus saw that there were charlatans using his name to elevate themselves without following him at all.  This is why Jesus says, “You know, you are not to call me ‘Lord, Lord’.  All those who call me ‘Lord, Lord’, but do not do the Father’s will, they are not legitimate.”  It is not a case of saying “Lord, Lord”, but there is a case for obedience.  Some of the charlatans were piggy-backing on the backs of the disciples and the reputation of Jesus.  This is a strong warning from Jesus.
What is it essentially about?  Well, counterfeit religion.  Counterfeit religion is something that drove Jesus bonkers!  It really did!  That illegitimate sense that you can ascribe to a creed, but not have to abide by it, that you can espouse its virtues, but never live according to it.  Jesus saw this all around him.  He is harsh with those who practice this counterfeit faith.  He even says that on Judgement Day he will say, “I don’t know you” if you practice a counterfeit faith.  In other words, if you have ascribed to a creed, but you haven’t lived the life, Jesus will say “I don’t know you.”  Those are harsh words.  Jesus is not always lovey-dovey!  Sometimes, Jesus is very firm:  “If you ascribe to a creed, but you don’t live by that creed, I don’t know you.”

The challenge was that Jesus saw what was going on around him and he didn’t want the disciples to fall into that trap.  It wasn’t just a word of nasty judgement; Jesus wasn’t nasty.  He wanted his disciples to live an authentic life, but he knew that he had to be firm in his declaration that obedience was part of the life of following Him.  I love what one of my great heroes in the Christian faith, Ray Steadman said, “I want you to think of all of this to be like a bank note that is counterfeit.  It might have the appearance initially of being worth something and doing something good.  The bill might be used to buy gasoline and keep a car going.  It would then be re-circulated and maybe spent to buy drugs at a drug store to help someone who is ill.  It might even then recycle to become a gift to a charity and to help someone who is in need.  But in the end, when it comes back to the bank and it is taken out of circulation, its value is seen for what it is.”  In other words, just like the charlatans and the false teachers of Jesus’ day, it might appear to do all manner of good, but if it is not sincere, genuine and true, then it ceases to have worth.
I think we see this at work in the Church these day.  We see it in what I call “grace-ism”.  By “grace-ism” I mean that belief that when everything is of grace, the grace of Christ and the love of God – the things I talked about last week – then it would appear that Christ has done it all and we don’t need to do anything. (This is not the same as the political term ‘gracism’ that refers to inclusion). In fact, it was John Wesley in the eighteenth century who saw that there was this commitment to the grace of Christ, but people were not living their lives in accordance with Christ.  They were not living lives of sincerity and justice, righteousness, holiness and truth. Wesley talks about the problems of an excessive sense of grace.  Even the Apostle Paul recognizes it in the Book of Romans.  He knows that we will not just be judged by grace, but by the things we do.  That is what Jesus is getting at.  When we get so caught up in grace that we think there is no command or obedience, then we have lost sight of the true faith.

There must be an alignment between our creed and our actions, otherwise we have hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy neither does the hypocrite nor the one on whose behalf they are speaking any good at all.  In the end, it is exposed as the counterfeit bill it is.  It is often hard for us as human beings to fully understand the nature of our own hypocrisy, for there is not one of us who in some way has not and is not hypocritical.  I love the distinction that Milton makes in the book Paradise Lost.  He wrote of hypocrisy this way:  “For neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks alone invisible, except to God alone.”

You respond to this by saying, “If only God alone knows if I am being hypocritical does anything still rest with me?”  Of course it does!  God has not given us a life without his Word.  He has not given us a life without his Spirit.  God has not given us life without a community of believers.  There are many ways we can test whether we are counterfeits or the real thing.  I think if we are honest, one of the things that particularly millennials look to the Church for, is that sense of not being counterfeit, to let the creed align with the Word, our behaviour and our lives.  If we do that, we can do no more.

Jesus is also interested in a principled life, a genuine life.  He goes on and talks in the parable about a man who built a house and had two options: one was to build on a solid foundation; the other one was to build on sand.  For Jesus, if you built on sand then it could not withstand the challenges and rigours of life – I preached an entire sermon on that a few years ago – if you build on solid ground, then you have something that no matter what comes along, it will be there for you.  Jesus is concerned primarily with the solid ground.  He knows the sand is there and it gets wobbly but solid ground is in his Word and in Christ himself.  This is what he dwells on.  He wants an authentic life from his disciples.  He wants a life where people live in accordance with the grace of God.

In a conversation I had at an interfaith event not long ago, I spoke to one of my rabbi friends. We were trying to figure out points of commonality, where the person and the teachings of Jesus coincide with his own convictions as a rabbi.  We got talking about The Sermon on the Mount, and how there were moments in it that really go to the heart.  One of them was what Jesus was teaching in The Sermon on the Mount was what the Jews call “Shalom”.  Shalom really means an authentic life.  You say it as a “Hello” and a “Goodbye”.  By the way, I never knew this until he told me, the word “goodbye” comes from the term “God be with you.”  So, when you say goodbye, you are actually using a theological term.  Isn’t that amazing?!  He said, “Shalom is “God be with you”, but it is also more than that.  It is about living in the truest sense in the grace of God.  When you wish someone Shalom, you wish them the fullness of the grace of God.  You wish them a full life, a joyful, complete and fulfilled life.”  He continued, “When I read The Sermon on the Mount, I see Jesus talking about Shalom, the complete life, the life that holds together, the life that has meaning and purpose around it; not the hypocritical life, not the life that does one thing and says another.”

I was watching not long ago the original Godfather movie.  I don’t know why.  I wasn’t chained to a chair or anything, but I couldn’t stop watching it when I saw it on, because I thought, “I guess at the time I was too young to be able to appreciate it.”  There is this incredible moment, and you realize a moral story in it all, because at the end of it Michael Corleone, who is taking over the role of Godfather is having his godson baptized, and I thought, “For a Father’s Day story this is brilliant!”  Michael Corleone stands with the father and he is asked by the priest, “Do you renounce evil?”

Corleone says, “I do.”

The priest says, “Do you ascribe to the Holy Trinity – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

Corleone says, “I do.”

What you don’t realize is that at that very moment he is saying those words he has arranged for the assassination of all the other Mafia dons who compete with him.  It gives you the shivers!  But it shows the relationship between that activity and Jesus’ words about authenticity and shalom.  “It is not he who said, ‘Lord, Lord’, but it is he that doeth the Father’s will.”  That is the hypocrisy of the Corleone story; Jesus is the booster shot to put it right.  That is shalom, an authentic, peaceful way of looking at the world.

I was trying to think “Who do I know, who have I read, who do I admire that I feel has lived that aligned life, that shalom that Christ extols?  I thought of a very great legal scholar, William Stringfellow.  He wrote mainly in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.  Stringfellow was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, to a very humble family.  His father was a knitter at a stocking factory.  He grew up poor, but he was so clever that at the age of fifteen he got a scholarship to Bates College in Maine, a very good college.  After he graduated from Bates, he went to the London School of Economics and graduated with distinction from LSE.  Then came World War II and he enlisted. He saw many violent and terrible things, where people did things that they shouldn’t do after saying something that they didn’t believe.  He became concerned about the authenticity of the Christian life.  Once the war was over, he immediately was admitted to Harvard Law School, where he graduated with distinction. It appeared that he had his whole life before him to climb to the highest echelons of law.  But Stringfellow was first and foremost a Christian.  He was a lay theologian of the very highest kind and applied his mind to the Christian faith.  He read the great scholarships of Karl Barth and John Calvin.  He knew the Christian faith and followed the Word very closely.  He decided he would practice his law in Harlem and be an advocate for those who were living in rental accommodation and being abused by their landlords.  He took it upon himself to spend his life living in the neighborhood where he worked and serving the poorest people who were in need.  He was someone who believed that no matter what part of the world you were in – and he was effective in The World Council of Churches and spoke to the United Nations – there had to be an authenticity created and moulded by the biblical Word.  The great Jim Wallace of Sojourners, a social justice magazine, wrote this about him, and I have never forgotten these words: “Stringfellow kept the Word of God so close to him and in such wise that its keeping became its own word. In his vocation and actions he opened up to others the Word of God.”

There is the power of a life that is aligned!  There is the power of genuine faith!  It reaches out to others as well.  It reaches out to the world.  It is not just a matter of saying, “Lord, Lord”; it is a matter of doing the Father’s will.  May we seek that authentic life of shalom! Amen.